With careful planning, a tour of Mansfield could be arranged that would bypass its hard times. Begin a half-hour's drive south at Mohican State Forest, with its picturesque sandstone bluffs. Proceed along winding roads to Malabar Farm, the estate of novelist Louis Bromfield, where Humphrey Bogart wed Lauren Bacall in 1945. Continue north to the upscale suburb of Lexington, past the multimillion-dollar YMCA fitness center, to Woodland, a historic Mansfield neighborhood with grand brick manor houses. Tend west to the art center, pause on Marion Avenue to see the boyhood home of Senator Sherrod Brown, head out to the placid Clear Fork Reservoir, and wend your way north by way of suburban Ontario's affluent subdivisions to the Ohio State University's wooded regional campus and the Westbrook Country Club. This verdant amble provides a sense of why Mansfield was the pastoral idyll of John Chapman, the mythic Johnny Appleseed, when he lived here from 1820 to 1840.
Very different conclusions suggest themselves, however, if you begin on the east side, amid the modest homes of Madison township, a working-class suburb. Head into Mansfield, past the junkyard and water treatment plant. Follow the railway tracks north, and towering over it all you will see the abandoned seven-story Westinghouse factory, the city's largest employer between the 1920s and 1970s. Once 8,500 employees worked here in sixteen buildings on forty-two acres, turning out stoves and refrigerators. During World War II the plant made aircraft radio transmitters, wings and bomb parts. Now the factory is barren, its windows pockmarked by thrown stones, the immense W on its water tower faded. From Westinghouse in all directions, particularly out to the largely black North End, stretch "the flats," lowlands crowded with skinny houses planted a few feet apart. Once erected in a booming factory town, they are now dilapidated eyesores, attracting slumlords who never bother with repairs, their porches bowed, their siding weatherbeaten, their paint peeling. Many are boarded over.
Mansfield's median household income, $30,176, is far below the national median of $41,994. In the city schools, the poverty rate among children--defined by the Census Bureau as a four-person household with income under $22,025--is a staggering 28.8 percent. In part, this is the old story of racial disparity in America; Mansfield is almost 20 percent black. It is also the familiar story of the deterioration of urban schools with the flight of upper-middle-class whites, with their tax dollars, to the suburbs, since Richland County as a whole is nearly 10 percent black. But every school district in the county has seen its poverty rate rise in the past ten years, and a number have double-digit rates, including Madison (16.4 percent), Crestview (17.1 percent) and Plymouth-Shiloh (23.2 percent).
Foreclosures in Richland County are at an all-time high and will likely number about 1,000 for 2009, estimates Mansfield's fair housing director, Don Mitchell. Initially brought on by predatory lending, foreclosures now reflect generalized economic distress. "We're seeing a lot more people who have good loans, good interest rates," says foreclosure prevention advocate Tracy Bond of Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP). "They've lost their job and can't sell their house."
At First Call, an assistance referral hot line, Terry Carter reports "an unprecedented level of need," including many who have "never, ever had to go through the system before." Meanwhile, United Way fundraising has fallen, social service budgets are being cut, alcohol abuse is rising among unemployed middle-age men, calls to suicide hot lines have increased and heroin use is exploding. Richland County's heroin dealers, says the spokesperson for a ten-county law enforcement drug task force, Lt. Dino Sgambellone, sometimes travel to Columbus twice daily to replenish their wares: "It doesn't take them long to sell out."
Mansfield's initial factory closings in the 1970s and '80s were partially counterbalanced by the expanding GM plant, but as GM leaves, few other employers offer a comparable living. Out near the regional airport and state prison, newer industrial parks exist in auto parts and other forms of manufacturing, but the firms are nonunion. Rumors abound that the cavernous GM plant will be bought up by Hyundai or some other company, but given the industry's overcapacity, there are few takers for the many such facilities on the market. Even should the plant be sold, its new occupier will almost surely be nonunion.
Jay Goyal, scion of a local metal manufacturing family, is a young Democratic state legislator who represents Richland County, usually a Republican district. He holds innovation and education to be key to the area's revival, looking to a wind farm rising near Shelby and prospects for bioproducts (plant-derived plastic equivalents). The question is whether such industries, if they do materialize, will yield high-paying jobs. Tim Bowersock, Mansfield's economic development director, points to StarTek as a success story. A firm that handles outsourced customer care and technical support, StarTek opened a call center in Mansfield in 2008 that now employs more than 900 workers. But StarTek's customer service representatives start at $9 an hour, many of them part time.