April 20, 2014

Elyria
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Revisiting ‘This Land’: New York Times reporter returns to Elyria

ELYRIA — Through the pages of the New York Times and the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dan Barry, America learned a lot about Elyria.

It learned how divorcee Donna Dove’s passion for cooking was all she had to use to keep her small diner in the middle of town afloat. How the small eatery was the meeting place for both current and past movers-and-shakers who lamented the city’s circumstances over coffee, eggs and pancakes. How the trajectory of a one-time sports legend’s life has now made him the man people sometimes cross the street to avoid when they see him.

For five days, America learned all about Elyria’s Mayor Holly Brinda, its white gazebo in the middle of Ely Square and how Lorain County Community College continues to churn out graduates in a post-manufacturing town.

Tuesday was Elyria’s chance to be out of the fish bowl and instead be on the receiving end of some information. Barry, who spent so much time in Elyria that he can now rattle off names like a neighbor and places like a native, returned to the county seat, and instead of interviewing, he told a roomful of people at Wesleyan Village a few things that he did not include in his article — mainly who he was and why he chose Elyria as the focus of his “This Land” series published last year.

So many people have since asked Barry why he chose Elyria, a town of 54,000 that can only be described as minuscule to someone from a bustling metropolis like New York City.

“And, my answer is always the same,” he said standing behind a podium with a microphone clutched in his hand and dozens of ears trained to hear his every word. “Why not Elyria?

“This is America,” he said.

After spending so many months in Elyria, digging deep into the city’s history at the Washington Avenue branch of the Elyria Public Library, getting the nickel tour from city Finance Director Ted Pileski and bombarding resident after resident with every question from ‘how life is in Elyria’ to ‘how much do you weigh’ and ‘how much money do you make,’ many may wonder why Barry would return to Elyria. The story he wrote has long been published, but to Bill McFadden, Elyria Public Library Foundation vice president, Barry — an undisputed lover of words, stories and books — was the perfect person to serve as the keynote speaker for the foundation’s fundraising dinner.

“Yes, most of us didn’t know him until he did us a favor by putting Elyria on the map in his ‘This Land’ column,” McFadden said.

But once the name was placed into the collective consciousness of Elyrians, so many people clamored to find more of his writings that not asking him to return seemed rather silly.

McFadden said that first call to Barry was a nervous one, but he made it nonetheless.

Surprisingly, it was Barry who was a little anxious about the idea and wondered how he would be received.

“I wondered if I would be stopped at the Lorain County border,” he joked.

But the writer who has traveled to every state and written about bombings, hurricanes and presidential elections said he remembered one thing about Elyria that stuck with him. It was what ultimately led him back.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Elyria was go to the library,” he said. “Whenever I visit a place for the first time, I always go to its library.”

In the process of explaining why he chose Elyria, Barry also told listeners to choose the Elyria Public Library.

“Support the Elyria Public Library,” he said. “You never know when a New York Times writer will stop by.”

That only left one question — who is Dan Barry?

“I’m a storyteller,” he said, calling his chosen profession “pure Irish destiny.” What else could the son of a natural storyteller — his mother was the kind of woman who could weave an intricate tale about buying milk at the local grocery — and a man who made it through the Great Depression only to emerge angry and known to rail against government power do?

His career has not always been about the people and faces of America. He is also a skilled investigative reporter and dogged watchdog of government.

But it’s the people in the articles he writes like Elyria’s own Howard Foxman, Speedy Amos, Jim Dall and even Ike Maxwell who allow him to really do what he loves — bear witness to the American spirit.

“We were looking for a place to see America, so why not a diner, a place where people are coming in and out?” he said. “There was something about Donna’s humanity and candor and willingness to express what was happening to her as a small businesswoman that spoke to me.

“Donna represents the resilience of the American spirit,” Barry added. “You have to keep going, keep going.”

That could be why McFadden spontaneously decided to challenge the crowd to have breakfast at the Middle Avenue diner Friday morning cash-mob-style to give the struggling business owner a boost.

So just as Elyria has been branded onto the hearts of so many Americans — Brinda and many others can attest to the phone calls, letters and inquiries from places all over the world after the series ran — Elyria has been branded onto the heart of Barry. And Elyria likely feels the same way.

“Hey Mayor, do we have a key to the city to give to this man?” yelled a voice from the back of the room as Barry finished his speech to a standing ovation.

Barry just laughed at the idea of a key to the city but did say there is something else he would love to see.

“You know, you have a great Transportation Center, but Amtrak doesn’t stop there,” he said shaking his head. “No, it bypasses this beautiful building and goes a couple of hundred feet down the rail to a mobile home. I just don’t understand it.”

It’s funny how little things stick in your mind after spending months taking notes of the American experience in one town, he said.

Brinda assured him that his obsession was also her own, a sign Elyria is continuing to look for ways to reinvent itself.
“We’re working on it,” she said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.