Five miles south of the Ohio Turnpike and seven miles east of Interstate 75, in the midst of the lush cornfields of northwest Ohio, sits the village of Luckey. Anyone who wishes to experience a modern sequel to Sherwood Anderson’s idyllic Winesburg, Ohio should come to this peaceful village whose urban fabric has changed little in the last century. Houses with generous porches overlook a tree-lined Main Street and children can still ride their bikes to the library on a summer afternoon. Come here to study how citizens live in harmony with each other in a small town setting.
The way a town is lived in is as important as the architecture that defines its streetscapes. The streets of Luckey are activated by citizens who enjoy their town. This can happen here because vehicular traffic is primarily only local in nature. No major highways run through Luckey. Main Street is actually a dead end street!
With a population of about 1000 souls, Luckey is compact. Most residents live less than a 10-minute walk to the village center. Luckey may not have significant architectural monuments lining its streets, but people matter more than buildings. And the spaces between the buildings are as important as the buildings themselves. Luckey is a place in which children, in particular, can thrive. Sidewalks, parks, and streets with calm traffic contribute to this safe and peaceful setting.
In 1881 the site for a town was surveyed and named Luckey after James Luckey, the owner of the land. The village’s Main Street was once the home of many businesses and the town once had rail and interurban service which contributed greatly to its initial growth and prosperity. Though several of the older commercial buildings are not now occupied, there is still a nice selection of shops and services: post office, town hall, police station, bank, restaurant, library and other small businesses. And though you need a car to go anywhere outside of Luckey, Luckey itself still has the walkability and strong sense of community it had one hundred years ago.
The Luckey Historical Society has an extensive photograph collection of early 20th century images of the town. These beautiful photographs show citizens enjoying each others’ company on Main Street and on the front porches of the town. It appears there was a strong tradition of community here and this tradition appears to still be in place. As you study these images it is important to NOT see them as nostalgic but rather as documents of a way of life that is still alive in Luckey today. Friendship and fellowship thrive in places like Luckey.
The day we visited Luckey we saw a sign in the window of a building on Main Street: “Let there be peace on earth.” As we walked through town we experienced a sense of peace and a sense of place that is rare to find in any town in the United States today. Luckey is a special off-the-beaten-track kind of village. Our advice to Luckey: Don’t change a thing. Well, we would love to see a small local grocery store on Main Street. That seems to be the only thing missing in this delightful, walkable village.
As we approach the tiny hamlet of Venedocia, Ohio we see a vulture eating some road kill. The highway is quiet, so we park the car in the middle of the road and film the happy creature devouring his lunch. For five minutes or so we stand there with our cameras. No traffic, no sound, no wind. It is an overcast morning with ambient gray light filling the flat landscape. Finally, we hear a large tractor trailer barreling down on us from a mile or so away. As it approaches, we move the car to the side of the road and watch. The vulture stays with his feast until the truck is just a few yards away, then it jumps onto the side of the road while the truck completely flattens the road kill. The enchanting silence of the moment has ended so we drive into downtown Venedocia, and the vulture returns to his meal.
In an attempt to attract visitors some small towns have begun to promote themselves as “cute” or “cool” or “hip.” Towns that cater to tourists are defined by advertising campaigns that homogenize everything they touch. Small towns like Venedocia are are not promoted as tourist destinations which is one reason why we find them so valuable to visit. No lamppost banners or clever wayfinding graphics here!
When we compare Venedocia today to an 1874 map of the town there is virtually no change in the size or layout of the town. There are no gift shops or cute boutiques here. In fact, the only venue that appears to be even vaguely commercial is the post office that has a for sale sign out front. There are only about two dozen houses here, but an impressive Methodist church anchors the southern end of town, a reminder of better times past. There are some buildings that may have been shops in days gone by but they are now occupied as residences.
We had never been to Venedocia. However, Pookie, a beloved family member — now deceased — grew up here. He told us many stories, and we once saw a snapshot taken of him in the yard of his childhood home in the early 1900s. One picture showed him dressed as a cowboy at about age six holding a revolver aimed at the photographer. So we went to Venedocia like pilgrims visiting a shrine. Might we even identify Pookie’s old homestead?
As we arrive in town, one particular house draws our attention. It is abandoned but it appears to be the house we remember from the cowboy picture of Pookie. We stand on the side porch. We are standing on the spot where he stood over a century ago with his gun posing for his picture and threatening to kill the photographer.
Do we take pictures to document the places we visit or to make art? When we visited Venedocia, Ohio (as with everywhere we go) we documented our sojourn with film and print photography so we could share it with others and to be able to reflect on our experience in the comfort of our studio. For us this kind of exercise is autobiographical. Though we bring a lifetime of biases and sensitivities to each Main Street, our goal is to assess each place as accurately and respectfully as possible. If this is photojournalism, you do not want to bias your reportage with prejudice. You want to depict a place as accurately as possible. Since we have roots in Ohio we see ourselves as somehow still belonging in here, even though our careers took us away from Ohio many years ago.
Our pictures and films are viewed internationally on the Internet and elsewhere. What does our audience see in these images? Hopefully, they are not seen merely as art. We search for valuable places and when we find them we want to depict them accurately. We are fascinated with the way buildings are sited and the layers of change that have been made to the streets and the buildings with architectural modifications and signs, as well as improvements or deterioration. Our photographs document the layers of history that we see. As one very wise professor once said: You have a crossroads with a barn on one corner and a house on another corner. How do you know that some day this will not be Chicago?
When we visit places like Venedocia we may be in town for only an hour or two but we do not see ourselves as outsiders gawking at something exotic but rather as fellow citizens sharing life in a real street. We are not creating pretty art to decorate museum walls. Art is some personal abstraction of the truth. Art tends to be artificial. We see our job as capturing reality and showcasing it. Photographs of real places that are occupied by real people deserve accurate documentation, though some would argue that all art, including journalistic photography, is abstraction, and that an image of something can never embody the whole truth about a subject.
If you look at our images of Main Streets across Ohio you may begin to think that America went off the track at some point, that like obsolete machinery our small Ohio towns corroded and became devoid of the usefullness they once enjoyed. We want to show places as they really are today. If we were to see our photographs primarily as art they would become less truthful.
If you choose to distance yourself from a real place you can call a picture of this place art. Perhaps the harder you try to depict something accurately, the more you personalize the experience and in so doing you may put your deepest imprint on the image. A conductor whose intention is to play a symphony as a composer meant it to be performed tries to enter the soul of the composer and in doing so produces the most personal statement possible. The composer is an artist but isn’t the conductor also an artist? Perhaps s/he is more likely an interpreter of the art of the composer.
If we see one of our photographs of Venedocia as more than a document or a work of art, might we consider it instead to be a prayer of some sort, a petition we make in the solitude of an abandoned Main Street? Prayer consist of four parts: praise, confession, gratitude and supplication. Our photographs praise the beauty of the place, reveal its sins, and acknowledge our gratitude for our being there. Finally, a photograph might suggest possibilities for what the streetscape could still become. Hopefully our work on the street will be edifying to the subject, the photographer, and to the audience for whom we create this work.
Out of respect for the subject matter we have felt that if we were to continue visiting Ohio Main streets we needed to acquire a residence in a small Ohio town in order to see the streetscapes of Ohio as insiders. In order to get deeper into the context maybe need to be rooted there in a more committed way. We half-jokingly chat about buying this abandoned house of Pookie and restoring it. Perhaps this is the next step in our Ohio safari.
Laid out in 1808, Delaware is the county seat of one of the fastest growing counties in the state. As suburban Columbus encroaches on this historic city, we are concerned that Delaware will become a collection of cute gift shops for the residents of suburban developments who shop by car for their necessities in strip malls but drive downtown merely for entertainment. Delaware is not a new development. It is a significant place that has historic fabric and traditions worth honoring. One of the lifestyles this town still supports is a high walkability quotient for citizens who live in traditional neighborhoods and shop without a car.
The quality of the commercial and residential architecture of Delaware is evidence that this has been prosperous since the 19th century. Adjacent to the commercial core of Delaware is the 1770-acre Historic Northwest District neighborhood. The beautiful campus of Ohio Wesleyan University is also adjacent to downtown. So there is a strong body of residents and students who can easily walk to the main shopping thoroughfares of Sandusky and Winter streets.
More businesses that serve the everyday needs of these citizens will preserve Delaware as a truly walkable town. In addition, there is potential for upgraded housing over the shops. There is a growing demand for high-quality condos and apartments in downtown Delaware.
Why Delaware is so Appealing to Us
Many architecturally significant houses in the Historic Northwest District and other areas surrounding the downtown shopping district.
The historic campus of Ohio Wesleyan University is contiguous with downtown Delaware.
The historic Strand Theatre has been restored and shows first-run movies.
The commercial blocks of Delaware comprise one the most cohesive historic Main Streets shopping districts in Ohio.
Very few vacant commercial buildings.
An unusually high number of historic wall-mounted overhanging signs.
An unusually high number of well-designed new business signs.
A beautiful and sophisticated city-sponsored way-finding system of signs has recently been installed. [Delaware’s integration of historic signs and high quality new signs are an important character-enhancing feature of the city. However, the city needs to provide incentives to preserve the historic on-site signs.]
Civic buildings are lined up all around downtown Delaware: city hall, county courthouse, public library, post office.
Minimal tractor trailer traffic owing to the Route 23 bypass.
Ohio Wesleyan’s art museum is located along the main commercial corridor.
Many thriving offices, restaurants and other businesses.
There is still a peacefulness in the much of the countryside surrounding Delaware. Located in the rolling hills of the beautiful Olentangy River Valley, Delaware was the site of an early health resort in the 1830s. For over 200 years this city has prospered and served its citizens. Before the momentum of too much more development occurs between Delaware and Columbus we might pause to reflect in the qualities for which Delaware became known.
Carrollton was established as Centreville in 1815 at the intersection of roads to Cambridge, Canton, Steubenville and Lisbon. When the village became the county seat of Carroll County in 1833 its name was changed to Carrollton. Since the 19th century Carroll County has been heavily drilled for oil and gas. Multiple boom and bust periods have characterized this industry’s presence in the county and throughout eastern Ohio. We are currently witnessing a new period of revival in drilling: as of December 2016, with 430 producing wells the county leads the state.
Main Street runs along the northern edge of the town square. It is here that we find a rare surviving example of a working 5&10 store: Ashton’s Ben Franklin. Several other locally owned businesses are here as well. The shop owners of Carrollton are exceptionally friendly and helpful.
Picnic tables and benches in the town square make it Carrollton’s open air living room. This relaxing seating area allows local citizens and visitors to sit and enjoy the pleasures of a classic nineteenth-century town square which include the magnificent 1885 Carroll County Courthouse, a row of commercial buildings opposite the courthouse, and the elegant Federal-style McCook house at the top of the square.
Within one block of this beautiful commercial and civic core Carrollton has several streets lined with attractive and well-maintained historic houses. Also within a block or two of Main Street and the town square are the public library, post office, and high school. It is easy to live in Carrollton and walk to a fully functional commercial center.
On the east side of the public square we noted several vacant storefronts. This precious real estate would be a choice location for future busineses that will contribute to the vibrancy of downtown Carrollton.
Significant tractor trailer traffic which passes through Main Street and the town square impacts the safety and enjoyment of downtown Carrollton pedestrians. Fortunately, the sharp turns and the topography limit the speed at which the trucks can travel. However, the noise and the overpowering presence of these trucks intrude on the experience of the downtown visitor.
With new promises for insfrastucture renewal in the US, approvals for pipeline permits and transportation improvements will likely result in even more aggressive drilling in Carroll County. Recent increases of truck traffic on the public square and throughout downtown Carrollton bear witness to the revivals of oil and gas production. Don’t sell out, Carrollton. Your Main Street is precious and has huge value as a community center. If you do not get a grip on the truck traffic, your downtown will become dangerous and unpleasant. This will only enhance the attraction of the outlying strip highway commercial sites forcing the people of Carrollton to drive everywhere for their daily needs.
Like many towns across the country, in the 1970s Carrollton began demolishing historic commercial buildings to accommodate parking lots. Though this makes parking easier it makes for a less appealing experience for the pedestrian.
As you arrive in Wooster, you get the impression of being in a perfect town. It has great commercial architecture, it is impeccably clean, and there are many quality retail businesses lining the two main streets (Liberty and Market). Most of these businesses serve the locals, though a tourist is most welcome: book stores, coffee shops, clothing stores, restaurants, grocery stores, a news shop, a butcher shop, a jewelry store, a running store, a bike shop, and more. This old city is refreshingly alive and vibrant.
The plan of Wooster was derived from the iconic 1683 plan for Philadelphia in which a grid of streets is modified at its center to form an open public space to accommodate a courthouse, city hall or market. Towering over Wooster’s town square is the magnificent Second Empire style county court house, recently restored. The newly renovated St. Paul Hotel overlooks the south end of the square. This beautiful open square lined with important commercial and civic buildings marks the epicenter of the town. The public square in Wooster is a pleasant place to sit on a bench and admire a classic, thriving American town center.
One long stretch of West Liberty Street was re-developed in 2012: a new commercial block was constructed following the same architectural profiles as the rest of the commercial core — new condos upstairs and retail at street level. An ambitious and urbanistically successful project. At the west end of Liberty Street sits the new public library. It is evident that many visionary people are working hard to make Wooster a great place. Many new businesses continue to open up.
First settled in 1808, Wooster is the county seat of Wayne County. Far enough from the growing metropolis of Northeastern Ohio, Wooster is a relatively self-sufficient micropolitan town. There is little suburban sprawl in this county. A bucolic agricultural landscape surrounds Wooster. The beautiful campus of the College of Wooster is at the northern edge of the city, albeit a bit too far from the city center to allow for a dynamic relationship between the town and the school.
One other shortcoming of Wooster is that most of the residential neighborhoods are beyond the comfortable quarter-mile walk from the commercial core. So if you work downtown and you want to walk to work, you will have quite a hike. There are many parking lots between the residential district and downtown so perhaps this enlightened city will some day support some residential infill on these sites which somewhat isolate downtown in a sea of parking lots. At least there is no shortage of parking.
Spiritual, economic, and cultural revivals are happening all over Ohio. Wooster seems to be in the forefront of this movement. What is missing in many of the revitalized historic Main Streets across the Unites States is authenticity. They no longer serve the citizens of the town but rather have become merely entertainment destinations for outsiders. Wooster is a delightful place to live and work and visit.
Few towns in Ohio are as intriguing as Mansfield where for two centuries patrons of civic art and architecture have embraced with gusto the styles and urban planning movements that were the rage of the day. Many good (and some bad) results of this are seen throughout downtown Mansfield which is a showcase for a variety of architectural styles and planning trends.
Prosperity from a variety of manufacturing interests came to Mansfield in the 19th century city. Nearby were rich beds of coal and iron ore which supplied a burgeoning steel industry. Between 1846 and 1863 four railroad lines converged on Mansfield enabling raw materials to be delivered and finished products to be exported.
Many factors contribute to the delights of Mansfield. It is a hill town overlooking the foothills of the Allegheny Plateau. Surveyed and platted in 1808, the center of the original plan was a large public square. In the mid-20th century this public square was bisected by an extension of Park Avenue thereby making it more attractive for tractor trailers and other fast-moving traffic to barrel through town on what is now known as State Route 430.
The original site for the courthouse was within the public square. In 1872 a new site overlooking the square was chosen for a larger courthouse and the old one was demolished. In 1968 a unique Neo-Italiante courthouse was built to replace the 1872 structure. Overlooking another corner of the square sits the monolithic Municipal Building (1975) a classic Brutalist style building with its own barren plaza in front. Despite their cold appearances both of these major buildings contribute to the overall architectural eclecticism of the city and provide textbook examples of 1970s style.
One other peculiar project was introduced to downtown Mansfield in the late 20th century. A large block of historic structures was demolished for a carrousel to be placed and housed in a building that is totally at odds with its urban setting and looks more like a very large suburban carwash. This appears to be an attempt to draw tourists downtown but it really disrupts what otherwise could have been a pedestrian-friendly Main Street.
Mansfield is a place worthy of a new generation of visionaries to preserve what is great here and to heal some of the problems. A brief walk around downtown Mansfield reveals that there is no lack of new clever and sophisticated entrepreneurship. Lots of vintage signs and historic public sculpture, amazing commercial blocks, warehouses and factories, and significant churches contribute to the rich urban fabric. Beautiful historic houses are within walking distance to Central Park, though overall the housing stock is begging to be restored and urban infill is needed in huge gaps where today a sea of parking lots makes downtown Mansfield an island in an asphalt ocean.
Come to Mansfield on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Walk around the town and sit in Central Park. With very little imagination you can begin to appreciate the huge potential here as well as the richness of what is here already.