In which our intrepid hero explores the empty streets of East Liverpool…
I was 21 in 1988 when I learned I would be moving to Ohio (to go to graduate school). I knew nothing about Ohio. The mental image I had was a jumble of snow storms and rubber factories, all with healthy sprinkling of “Rust Belt.” I discovered, of course, that Ohio is a wonderful and varied place—this blog itself is sort of an ode to the state. But it is certainly true that there is a Rust Belt and certainly true that Ohio is one of the states at its center. Ohio cities like Akron, Youngstown, Toledo, Dayton, and others were thriving industrial cities. Ohio boasted steel mills, automobile factories, all sorts of heavy industry. Much of that is gone now and although new technologies and new businesses have replaced much of the heavy industry that went to Japan or Korea or China, Ohio has still not recovered from this transformation and probably never will. Many of the people who had steady factor jobs will simply never make the leap to an information-based economy. Few assembly line workers can become computer programmers. Ohio will always have this hole in it, I think.
[Remember that you can click on each image below to see a larger, better image]
I ended my 14th excursion by discovering the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, located along the Ohio River where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all meet. East Liverpool (population 11,195, salute!) is indeed one of Ohio’s Rust Belt towns and it looks it. The town is one of the older settlements in Ohio, thanks to its position on the Ohio River. It grew rapidly in the late 1800s, reaching a population of 20,000 by 1910. However, its rate of growth slowed after that—by 1950, East Liverpool had reached only 24,217 inhabitants. That was to be its highwater mark, as East Liverpool began a population slide that has lasted more than 60 years now. Its current population—still declining—is less than half of what it once was. It is a poor town, too, with a per capita income of not much more than $12,000 and almost 30% of its population below the poverty line.
East Liverpool is not your typical Rust Belt town, though, in that the industry it was famous for was not rubber or steel or cars, but rather ceramics. East Liverpool was one of a number of eastern Ohio communities that depended largely on ceramics for its economy throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Though not the largest such community, East Liverpool may have had the most connection of all with the pottery industry. It was not for nothing that it dubbed itself the “Pottery Capital of the World.” Amazingly, at one point more than 300 pottery companies did business in East Liverpool. In 1900, some 90% of East Liverpool’s workers were employed in the pottery industry.
The decline of East Liverpool predated the general Rust Belt decline. In a prelude to what many “free trade” agreements would later do to other American industries, lower tariffs in the early 20th century hurt the American pottery industry. The Great Depression subsequently drove many of the manufacturers out of business. In the 70s, the other industries that had risen in East Liverpool during the 20th century were crippled by the same factors that created the rest of the Rust Belt. East Liverpool was just another Rust Belt town now.
I drove into downtown East Liverpool late in the day on Saturday, July 13, 2013. East Liverpool’s downtown was somewhat ripped apart a few decades back by building an expressway through it, which demolished significant sections of the old downtown. I suspect that what is left of downtown East Liverpool is tremendously active even on weekdays but certainly on a weekend it was almost deserted. One thing that struck me about downtown East Liverpool was how much of it was overgrown with vines and foliage. Here we see vines creeping all the way to the top of the back of multi-story buildings.
The combination of deserted streets and extreme foliage growth gives downtown East Liverpool a bit of a post-apocalyptic air. At any moment, zombies are going to start shuffling out of this abandoned building.
I could just as easily have called this blog entry “the back of East Liverpool,” because I photographed the sides and backs of more buildings than I photographed the fronts of. In this picture, the wooded hill in the background is Pennsylvania, across the Ohio River.
Here we are looking down towards the river again, with a fading mural reminding us of the Ohio river in a bygone era.
This close-up of the mural, depicting a steamboat leaving a river dock, lets you see a number of details, including the girl waving gaily on the dock. It is a shame that no one has bothered to keep this mural looking nice.
For some reason, a moose stands as a lonely sentinel along the river, guarding East Liverpool from whatever evils might seek to infiltrate the town from Pennsylvania.
Some more of the back of East Liverpool. That’s amazing wear on the bricks in this 1930s era garage. Brick ages in so many fascinating ways, which is one reason why might have noticed that I photograph a lot of brick buildings.
This large structure is the East Liverpool Masonic Temple, clearly in better health than many of the buildings of fraternal organizations in Ohio. Most of the mural shows various elements in East Liverpool’s history, including stone kilns that exemplify the birth of Ohio’s pottery industry (in a future blog entry, I will show you an actual photograph of a surviving kiln from this era), steamboats and barges travelling down the Ohio River, and the coming of the railroad. It also depicts places such as the Carnegie Public Library, the Alumni Clock Tower, and more. The top of the mural is dotted with Masonic logos. This is a new mural that is less than two years old.
Here is a scene from downtown East Liverpool’s “shop” district, seemingly the liveliest part of this section of the town. The old brick buildings nevertheless still make it seem ancient. If you want to know what is down that street, why just scroll down.
Note the “The Potter’s Bank & Trust Company” building, built in 1901 and remodeled in 1924. Most recently it was a PNC bank. Only in East Liverpool would the Potter’s Bank be a reference to actual potters, as opposed to someone named Potter. It seems to be for sale right now. I have seen two prices mentioned: $250,000 and $199,000. I suspect that many if not most readers of this blog have family homes that cost them more than this quite large bank building would cost.
Here is one part of East Liverpool that seemed to be doing business this day: a biker bar.
Like most towns and villages along the Ohio River (at least on the Ohio side), East Liverpool is in a significant river valley, with the “downtown” adjacent to the river and neighborhoods stretching away from downtown in various directions, including up the steep slopes of the valley. The steepest higher-up areas tend to have lower-income neighborhoods. Here is a shot from one of the heights looking down towards the town center and the Ohio River (with Pennsylvania along the horizon).
Some of the streets going up these heights are scary steep, steep enough to trigger my inherent fear of heights. I took a photograph of one such street but came across a problem I have come across before: when you take a photograph of a relatively straight slope, looking down that slope, you can’t tell that it is quite steep. This was steep enough that my foot was compulsively driving itself down on the brake pedal, but you don’t get that from this image. I haven’t figured out yet how to take photographs of this sort of situation.
Here is a relatively level shot of a lower income neighborhood street. It was not a bad block. The street was also fairly wide, too—a number of the streets up on the heights were so narrow as to be almost claustrophobic. There were some interesting dilapidated buildings that I would have liked to have taken photographs of, but they were inhabited, and in the summer, people in such buildings tend to be out on the front porch, usually because they have no air conditioner. I wasn’t interested in trying to take pictures of the people—which also certainly would have attracted unwanted attention—so I had to pass on those houses.
This photograph gives you a sense of how steep some of these occupied heights were. Imagine several levels of parallel streets below this one and you may get an idea.
In this, the height of summer, the abandoned houses—the ones that were not really sellable and had no upkeep—tended to get quite overgrown. The median list price for a home in East Liverpool is well under half of the price for a home in the middle-class suburb of Columbus where I live. That’s what happens with homes during or just after a recession in a depressed area that has been suffering significant population loss. There is just nobody to buy them.