My children and I traveled to the Center of the World this afternoon.
I’m not joking. We got in our car and drove to a place in Northeast Ohio marked “Center of the World.” The name of the area hearkens back to a time when this part of the world really did feel like something special. The Gilded Age of America. So many of the Political Powerhouses and great Titans of Industry hailed from places like Youngstown, Cleveland, Canton, and Akron. They believed they were unstoppable, indefatigable, industrious enough to propel Northeast Ohio (and, by extension, the United States of America) to the top of the world. Center of the World. And that’s nearly what happened… for a time.
Today, the Center of the World area is run down. Motels and ice cream shops are boarded up and abandoned. A pawn shop and a Dollar General remain. The flags on top of the city signs are tattered and torn.
There’s an old-fashioned diner called the Short Stop on the east end of town. Orange vinyl benches and bar stools crowd around Formica tables and counters. Coffee mugs the color of burnt umber pair beautifully with a matching stripe around the edge of the paper place-mats. The walls are decked with American bunting and televisions playing Fox News.
The Short Stop menu features a broad range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. I’m especially intrigued by the “Center of the World Dog,” which is described as a foot-long hot dog, wrapped in cheese, wrapped in bacon, battered, and deep-fried. Unfortunately, I only came with the stomach for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. So when our waitress comes by, I ask her for a recommendation. She suggests the peanut butter pie, so I order the peanut butter pie. Elliot orders a breakfast plate. Olivia orders a grilled cheese sandwich. And Cor orders a cheeseburger.
Our food is good. And cheap. A quintessential American diner experience.
After finishing our food at the Short Stop, we drive another twenty minutes to Niles, Ohio, to visit the Birthplace of President William McKinley. He was in power during the Gilded Age, and his Memorial shows it. Massive marble columns surround a large statue of McKinley. Behind the columns, under a marble awning, a host of faces gaze out towards McKinley. These large, beautifully-rendered bronze busts feature men with large sideburns and mustaches. Theodore Roosevelt… William Howard Taft… Andrew Carnegie… Henry Clay Frick… Warren Harding… We later discover the unifying characteristic of the figures represented in this pantheon of power: Money. They were the ones who donated to the construction of the grand memorial.
It’s another reminder of the considerable Power and Money flowing through Northeast Ohio back in the late-1800s and early-1900s. When Ohio felt like the Center of the World. But it wasn’t long after we pulled out of the parking lot at the McKinley Monument before we started seeing blight again. Vacant industrial parks and darkened factories crowded the road. A garish casino tries to project an image of glamour and prosperity to its dilapidated, concrete neighbors. Within a minute of getting on the Interstate highway back towards Kent, all signs of civilization are gone. A seemingly-endless forest spreads out before us, bare branches reaching to the gray sky.
I smile when we pass the area where I know that Center of the World sits, just to the north, off to our right. Some might say that Center of the World, Ohio is sad. But I think it’s actually beautiful in its own way. It provides a true picture of another “America” that’s often obscured. Our idealism has been rusted over and boarded up. But we still have a pulse. We still appreciate a good cup of coffee and slice of pie with friends and / or family. We still have hope for our children to find a way that’s neither destitution nor opulence. That’s way that’s Centered.