Rust Wire has previously featured the work of Lorain, Ohio, native Nick Kowalczyk, a writer who is working on a book about his hometown.
Kowalczyk, an assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, will be returning to the city to do some research this summer and is looking to speak to Lorainites. (Click on the above link for his contact information.)
He graciously took some time to answer a few questions for Rust Wire via e-mail about growing up in Lorain, leaving the city, and how it informs his work:
RW: Tell me about growing up in Lorain. Where did you live and tell me a little bit about your family?
NK: “In my writing I call the area where I lived as a young child “Regal Street” in order to protect my family’s privacy. It’s a neighborhood near Broadway Avenue and South Lorain. It’s close to St. Stanislaus Church and not far from the house where Toni Morrison lived, actually. My family has lived around “Regal Street” since about 1900. My great-great grandfather migrated from Poland to New Jersey, married my great-great grandmother, and came to Lorain to work in a foundry near the steel mill. He had a house with chickens in the backyard and a garden to grow green onions that he sold to various grocers. One of his daughters, my great-grandmother, married a Polish immigrant she met at St. Stanislaus Church and the newlyweds bought a grocery store in this same neighborhood. And when my maternal grandparents got married, they bought a house on the same street. My father grew up in this neighborhood, too, on the other side of the block from my mother. My parents’ childhood houses were so close you just had to jump a fence to cross into the different backyards. It was a classic blue-collar Lorain neighborhood. When I was four years old, though, because the neighborhood was declining, my parents moved my brother Ben and me away from “Regal Street” to a house in the country, near Vermilion.
So the truth is that “I lived in the country but I grew up in Lorain” because I still went to school in the city (Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Peter grade school, and Lorain Catholic, respectively) and I went to church in the city and I always—always—went to my maternal grandparents’ house. My grandparents babysat my brother and me while my parents worked, Mom as a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital and Dad as a foreman at a chemical plant in Cleveland. From age two to sixteen I probably saw my grandparents 260 days of a year, sometimes all day. They became my parents just as much as my real parents, and I consider their house on “Regal Street” just as much my home as my parents’ house in the country.”
RW: When did you decide to leave and why?
NK: “Well, Lorain always felt a little small to me. And my parents encouraged me from an early age to decide what I wanted my life to become. They supported me emotionally, financially, and intellectually. They never denied me a book or a trip to the public library. They indebted themselves so I could earn an education. They allowed me to journey in directions that they themselves had not traveled, and they embraced and encouraged my successes in amazing, beautiful ways—including their encouragement that I leave the nest. I know so many people afraid to leave their homes or hometowns because they’re afraid they won’t succeed elsewhere. My parents taught me to be brave, and I’m lucky for that. Their love is selfless. So I left because I believed that I could leave. That’s a major step in becoming an adult who is no longer a child: believing that you can pursue your interests wherever they take you because you are wise and adaptable enough to handle it. There wasn’t an exact moment in which I said to myself, “I’ve got to get out of here.” That emotion bubbled up for quite some time and became more pronounced once I went to college at Ohio University.”
RW: I know for myself personally growing up in Erie, Pa, I began to feel more pride and respect for the city after I had moved away and lived other places. Did your feelings about Lorain change after you left?
NK: “My feelings did change, actually. Right before leaving home for college I began working as a freelance writer for The Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio. Part of my responsibilities eventually involved reading the Lorain police reports and covering the city hall. I cannot think of a more disillusioning experience for a hometown boy. I encountered the violence of the city, the sleaziness and ineptitude of its politics, and I became aware of the city’s despair—especially its violence toward women. One reporter even had a joke: “It’s fine to be friends with a guy from Lorain, but never date one.” It was sad. And I was a reporter: I was charged with the job of looking at my hometown with clear, objective eyes. (Or at least eyes as objective as possible…). I was depressed and appalled by what I saw.
In more recent years, though, I have developed a great deal more empathy toward Lorain. Since starting my book project, I have journeyed through old angry feelings about being a misfit, made-fun-of kid in the city. I have journeyed through my sadness over the fate of a place where my family has lived for more than a century. I have achieved a complicated form of love that is critical, frustrated, and genuine.”
RW: How did you get the idea to write about “conversations” between yourself and the city?
NK: “It was an amalgamation of things. I was reading books like Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters; Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren; Here Is Where We Meet by John Berger; The Meadow by James Galvin; the poetry of James Wright and Kenneth Koch, especially Koch’s book of apostrophe poems called New Addresses; and Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. So suddenly I realized I was fascinated by the idea of representing place and writing in an analytical way about the past.
I also was interviewing certain Lorain people who inspired the voice, and I was reading old newspaper articles about the founding of the steel mill that were written in a voice of unchecked arrogance. These things generated the idea, too.
But the moment that “the voice” of Lorain arrived in my head actually occurred in the parking lot of the Lorain Public Library. It was winter, it was gray, and I looked at the crummy sidewalks and the sad cityscape and I asked Lorain what it would say if it could talk. It was an oddly emotional moment. I felt myself literally tearing up. So I knew I had discovered something. In my imagination, I heard the city start talking back.”
RW: How have you been doing research to find out what you think the city would “say”?
NK: “It’s a weird and obsessive process: I look through archival information at the Lorain Public Library and the Black River Historical Society, I dig into microfiche and examine old newspapers, I read books about assorted issues that relate to Lorain either directly or indirectly, I conduct interviews that I tape record and sometimes transcribe, and I look at some of the academic scholarship that has been done about Lorain (there isn’t much). I try to organize and harness this information as best I can until I can improvise while I’m writing. For me, the voice of the city matters most. It’s my goal to make the city seem three-dimensional, literally human, so it matters that I try to capture the city’s pride, bluster, and bravado, as well as its moments of heartbreaking self-awareness.
So I don’t do the research for research’s sake. I’m concerned about accuracy, sure, but writing a book that includes a talking city certainly gives me some fictional leeway. It allows me to create my own vision of the city that I come from and to write about in highly personal, subjective ways. The book ultimately will be about me just as much as it’s about Lorain. And I never would have been interested in writing a ‘straight’ civic history—that stuff frankly bores me. It’s the marriage of fact and imagination and fictional interpretation that enlivens this project for me as a nonfiction writer.”
RW: What’s right and what’s wrong about Lorain?
NK: “This is something I’m still trying to figure out as I write. I have my theories, but I’d prefer to let my work speak for itself…if and when it ever sees the light of day, published and bound in bookstores and blessed with an ISBN number.”
RW: Do you ever see yourself going back there to live? Or even to Cleveland?
NK: “Had you asked me this four years ago I would have said, “No way would I consider returning back to the Cleveland area! I’ve gone too far to travel back like a boomerang!” But there is something about the landscape that intrigues me: it haunts me, really. While driving around Cleveland some years ago I passed an old factory with the walls missing. You could literally look inside this destroyed building, floor to ceiling, and imagine what once occurred there. I imagined a scenario in which a man made his best friends on that shop floor and met and married his wife, who was a secretary, there. And I began imagining all of the stories erased by America’s march toward ‘progress’—the people and places left forgotten when they outlived their usefulness to American capitalism. So yes, I see Cleveland as a great place for stories of fiction and nonfiction, and I’d consider returning under the right circumstances. But I’m also very happy here in Ithaca, NY. I’ve been here almost a year now and it’s starting to feel like home. For right now I’m engaged by my students at Ithaca College, I’m well supported by the institution, and I get to share my knowledge and passions with my students. For me to relocate at this point in my career, the circumstances would need to be a perfect storm.”
RW: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t discussed?
NK: “Just that I’m grateful and humbled that you found my Dear Lorain essay and liked it enough to promote it on your website. The Rust Belt is a region of trauma and grace, in need of redemption as well as representation—and I thank you for what you are doing.”