Reading along one of my twitter streams a few days ago I came across a link to a story by Tom Geller in beltmag.com describing his happiness in choosing to move to Oberlin even as the people he was leaving in California and the people he was joining in Northeast Ohio questioned his reasoning.
(Though he might not remember it, I met Tom roughly a year ago at a town meeting for the Oberlin Project, one of a handful of neighborhood meetings run by that town-and-gown nonentity as it hoped to gain traction with Oberlin residents. I thought even then Tom would be an interesting guy to talk to over coffee some time. Tom?)
For the record, I don’t think the dynamic is quite the same if you are returning to Oberlin as the place where you grew up. Leaving and coming back is validation for a lot of people.
Whatever the case, as a native Oberlinian, I returned with my family to see if the town’s je ne sais quoi had some quoi to offer again one generation later.
The pieces I thought I saw falling into place included a vision for environmental and economic development offered by the Oberlin Project, strength in the schools with the International Baccalaureate curriculum as well as seemingly great cooperation with the college, and Oberlin’s proximity to an amazing number of educational and business opportunities beyond Oberlin College itself.
Those were the growth possibilities I saw which might synergize and make clear the “unique” Oberlin atmosphere; more so, anyway, than just my riding my bike through campus as a kid, or walking Plum Creek (in the creek) from one end of town to the other.
“Aside from the college’s imperial expansions,” Geller wrote, “these initiatives generally end with a kind of shoulder-shrugging that reflects a confirmation of ourselves as plain, obscure, and inward-facing.”
I’ve asked myself countless times, “What makes Oberlin sustainable?” Following that, I’m stuck asking myself, “What is ‘sustainable?'” Thirty-five years ago as a kid riding my bike downtown to Ben Franklin for baseball cards, sustainable meant a downtown that supported my habit in an environment that let me ride my bike by myself to get there.
There are so many changes at work in the economy (so many of which revolve around the Internet) that Oberlin’s downtown is surely grinding on how to reinvent itself or thinking about how to stay relevant.
I still enjoy going downtown, even to the point of inventing reasons, several of which would have to revolve around carryout or going in to pay my cable bill. But The Oberlin Project and its related initiative to redevelop the block north of the Apollo Theater give me hope that “sustainable” is being reinvented in Oberlin terms. Something is still at work here even as I grow impatient about seeing what it looks like.
To myself, I think the slow machinations at work center on a coming to terms happening between the College and the Town about what it takes to occupy the same geography. (For the record, I think the last thing for which this town needs to trade its innocence is higher property values. What’s deserving of a look is how much property is controlled by the college and the financial relationship between it and the city.)
“The problem we townies face, I think,” wrote Geller, “is one confronting every parent. We want our children to grow, succeed, and eventually best us in every regard–or so we tell the world, and ourselves. But we also know those changes will destroy some of what makes our relationship precious, and will make us smaller in our beloved’s eyes. Walking down Oberlin’s Main Street, I’m guaranteed to see two or three people who know me well enough for a friendly wave. That won’t be true if the town fills with day-trippers and such. Is the loss of that a fair exchange for increased property values–or whatever the hell we’d get from being ‘important’? Ask Ohio City. Or Tremont. Or The Flats.”
Ask those from Oberlin, “How do you know you’re from Oberlin?” There is a Facebook group with plenty of answers. I think Oberlin succeeds if it continues as a viable incubator for people, giving them a reason to enjoy the experience of a small town atmosphere. It succeeds if it continues as a place in which a few of the amazing students who cycle through decide to stay. Many already invest themselves along the way.
Neither of those things mean transforming ourselves into Ohio City.
“How can those who love Oberlin protect it from the predation of success?” Geller asks.
Perhaps, I would offer, by making sure we have the healthiest definition for success.