A Tale of Two Cities

Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

We rented a cute little house for the week in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison. We knew very little about Sun Prairie, except that it is in quite close proximity to East Madison, where our son lives, and it was where artist Georgia O’Keefe grew up in the late 1800s. It is a quiet, manicured town with a small historic downtown and well-preserved village square. A little research revealed that the population of 34,661, is growing fast with a 17% increase since 2010. (U.S. Census 2019 estimate). It is the second-most populous city in Dane County after Madison. It seems like a nice place to live with clean, well maintained streets and parks and a new high school being built- something almost unheard of these days. It Is mostly white, so it might not be welcoming for all, although it has some racial diversity. Seventy-five percent of the population is white (non-hispanic), 8% is Black, 6.7% is Asian and 5.3% are Latino. The top of the City of Sun Prairie website announces “Sun Prairie is seeking the development of a city-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program. We need assistance to identify blind spots and processes that perpetuate systemic injustice, and identify current successes, areas for improvement.”

Sun Prairie was recognized as one of the “Best Places to Live in America” for 2020 by Money Magazine. It is not cheap to live here, but it is not as unaffordable as many other places. The average owner occupied house in 2021 costs $261,700 and average rent for a 2 bedroom home is $1,100 (bestplaces.net). It gets an A rating on Niche- the school are excellent and the crime rate is low compared to the national averages. It scores 9 out of 110 for Most Diverse Suburbs in Wisconsin:” (NIche), which may not be saying alot cause it is Wisconsin. Overall, it seems that Sun Prairie is thriving and a nice place to live.

Ashtabula, Ohio

We stopped in Ashtabula, Ohio on our way home. It’s history as a prominent stop on the underground railroad and as one of the major Lake Erie coal ports back in the day, was intriguing. The city’s harbor has been important as a large ore and coal port since the end of the 19th century, and integral to the steel manufacturing that was developed around the Great Lakes.What a shock when we arrived. We were greeted by an abandoned ice cream shop when we turned off the Ohio Turnpike and things did not improve when we reached downtown Ashtabula.

Ashtabula downtown was for the most part boarded up. “Decline” is a word that comes to mind- the population of 19,597 in 2020, is in decline(-6.29% since 2010 according to the U.S Census) along with the harbor, roads, and buildings.

So why did one city, Sun Prairie, continue to thrive when Ashtabula declined? It is interesting to note that both cities have a similar racial make-up. According to the most recent U.S Census, the racial composition of Ashtabula is 79.6% white (non-hispanic), 8.8% Latino, 8.51% Black, and 4.2% multi-racial. Both cities were founded in the mid 1800’s by European settlers, although Ashtabula was not incorporated until 1891. One explanation for Ashtabula’s decline, is that it is part of the Ohio “rust belt” which suffered the loss of the steel industry. As steel mills were moved offshore, ore shipments via Great Lake freighters dwindled. And Sun Prairie is essentially a bedroom community for Madison, only a 15 minute commute away. Ashtabula is an hour from any large city with jobs such as Cleveland or Erie.

In 1983 the once bustling harbor was placed on the national priorities list as a “superfund” site due to unregulated discharges of hazardous substances contaminating sediments, fish and wildlife. Toxic sludge built up from the discharge from the chemical plants on the Ashtabula River. According to Frank Lichtkoppler, a retired professor at Ohio State University who worked with the Ohio Sea Grant program, the sediment build up hampered coal and ore shipments as they could not ship full loads, which affected the livelihoods of many Ashtabula residents. Local residents got fed up and took action. They formed the Ashtabula River Partnership, a group of 50 organizations, including the federal and Ohio EPAs, an alphabet soup of other agencies, citizens and businesses, all led by the local port authority. Now the several feeder streams and the harbor are for the most part cleaned up, with Ashtabula River being one of the cleanest rivers feeding into Lake Erie. Economic recovery is just beginning.

We saw signs of community revitalization on Bridge Street, near the harbor with new little coffee shops, restaurants and gift shops attracting tourists. The sidewalks were rebuilt and a row of condos was being built nearby. The reality might not be as thriving as the Bridge Street link above announces, but it is a start.

Another positive economic turn for Ashtabula is the construction of a new nodular pig iron plant in Ashtabula harbor. The plant, to be completed next year will be the only pig iron facility in the U.S. Pig iron is used to build high value metal components like engine blocks and landing gear. The plant is expected to create 100 permanent jobs.

While Ashtabula has a long way to go to until it is once again a thriving town, there is are glimmers of hope. Median home value is $54,200 (bestplaces.com)and average rent is $646/month. So for someone who is looking for a place to start out with affordable housing to be part of the change, it might be a good place to be.

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