It’s the type of midwestern city Ray Bradbury wrote about in his classic, The Halloween Tree (seriously, get this book for your kids/grandchildren). Even though it’s rated as Reader’s Digest Nicest Place in America, the leaders of the city are upset the city is too white… [‘Anywhere you go, you’re accepted’: NE Ohio city named ‘Nicest Place in America’, Cleveland.com, October 21, 2019]:
More than 1,000 nominations were filed with Reader’s Digest for the Nicest Place in America designation. The magazine narrowed the field to one community in each state. Residents then voted on their communities. Reader’s Digest considered the votes when it chose the winner, Columbiana.
Amid the country’s deep political divide, Columbiana runs against the prevailing anger and angst spewed so often on airwaves and social media. Earlier this month, Reader’s Digest announced that it had selected Columbiana the Nicest Place in America, noting how the city of 6,400 lifts its young and old, its thriving and its struggling.
The magazine chose the city from more than 1,000 nominations and unveiled the award Oct. 10, in front of a packed theater, where Offenburg’s cast was holding a dress rehearsal.
Reader’s Digest sought cities where people treat others well, where respect and community pride
are seen in daily life.
It says it found something special in Columbiana, a city where a resident has donated $1.5 million to fix up a park, where the young and old stress inclusiveness, and where new ideas are welcomed, not challenged.
“Columbiana embraces everyone,’’ said Jackie Mercer, as she sipped coffee at Generations Café, off the city’s circle. “It accepts the farmers and the hipsters. There’s something about it that makes you feel like you’re home here.’’
Across from Mercer sat her friend, Kathy Bennett. She rattled off the community days and the special events that shut down streets and draw large crowds. And then she voiced what makes her town so special.
“Anywhere you go, you’re accepted,’’ Bennett said.
‘You’re never excluded here’
Mary Wilson nominated the city for the award when she wrote to Reader’s Digest last spring. At 91, she became fascinated with it after watching her grandson, Clayton Kerrigan, perform for Offenburg’s Crown Theater Productions in special-needs plays.
“I saw how [Offenburg] affects the actors’ lives, how he sees the person, how he makes a point to reach that person,’’ she said. “I was so impressed.’’
But Wilson sees that from more people than Offenburg and from more places than just inside the theater. She said it is evident in the simplest forms of everyday life.
She said a trip to the grocery store takes so much longer in Columbiana because so many people stop and talk. Some hug, some laugh. But no one leaves without a long conversation.
Nicole Ice agreed. She moved to Columbiana from Aurora about 6 years ago to be closer to her boyfriend, who lives in Pittsburgh, which is 40 minutes away.
“It was a bit of a culture shock for me, but in a good way,’’ she said. “Things are more relaxed here. The downtown is charming, don’t get me wrong. But it really is the people. I was a foreigner, and they accepted me.’’
She gets a view of that at her business, Sundog Cellars Winery and Cidery. There, people who arrive on Harleys sit next to young parents who drive minivans and established professionals who pull up in luxury sedans.
“It’s a neat synergy to see people sit down together,’’ she said.
Sarah Grenga said she has felt that way since her family moved back from Baltimore recently.
“You’re never excluded here,’’ Grenga said. “You can feel differently about things, but you are still a part of the community.’’
In some ways, Columbiana is typical of a lot of small cities in Ohio. It has a downtown in which nearly every storefront is owned and operated by local businesses. The only exception is a Subway sandwich shop, and that is owned by a city resident.
A diversified manufacturing base makes up a good deal of the city’s workforce. Columbiana has several small to midsized businesses, including R&L trucking, which has about 300 employees. Vari-Wall, a tubing specialist, has about 100 workers.
Its population, according to the U.S. Census, is more than 98 percent white. City leaders are seeking ways to attract diversity.
“Diversity, like variety, is the spice of life,’’ Ice said.
Lance Willard, the city manager, agreed. He said the city continues to push for more events in its downtown that draw people from beyond the region.
“If you have a welcoming downtown, you will create a culture that attracts everyone,’’ Willard said.
Columbiana’s unemployment rate hovers at 4 percent, which is lower than the rest of the region, which is about 6 percent.
It leans conservative, a contrast to 40 years ago when the region’s steel and autoworkers backed Democrats. In 2016, Columbiana County, as a whole, gave Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of its vote.
The crime rate is low, even in the shadows of Youngstown, a city north of Columbiana. In the 2000s, The Plain Dealer reported Youngstown was the murder capital of the country, on a per capita basis.
Columbiana is about 20 miles from Youngstown, and a world away from its problems.
Columbiana is 98 percent white and rated as the nicest place in America (despite the lack of vibrancy in the town). A city like Baltimore (70 percent black), Detroit (83 percent black), or Birmingham (75 percent black) are some of the most dangerous places in America to live, completely devoid of social capital, yet no one ever argues those cities need more white people to make them better places to live. Of course, white people are actually blamed for the state of those aforementioned cities because of white privilege, redlining, systemic inequality, and discrimination, never mind elected black people running the local governments…
However, Columbiana is too white and is in need of immediate racial diversification, even though the current racial dynamics of the city were required to create the conditions for Reader’s Digest to bestow the said honorific on the 98 percent white city…
Columbiana is the nicest place in America because of the individual contributions of the white people who collectively reside there, just as Baltimore is one of America’s most dangerous city’s because of the individual contributions of the blacks (representing 70% of the city’s population) who reside there.
Yet another reminder why America is irredeemable.