Thinking about the United States, most travelers will have images of skyscrapers in big cities, steep red mountains in endless desert plains, wonderful sunny beaches or lush national parks with deep canyons and luxurious mountain resorts. However, 80% of the United States consists of small towns, away from the big cities, totally off the tourist track. People live a simple, slow paced life, relatively secluded from the rest of the world, in tight-knit communities. These communities are often based around a particular industry or agriculture. Please follow me on a virtual trip to Smalltown USA:
This summer I had the pleasure to live and work in a small college town in Appalachia, a relatively poor region in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This region roughly stretches from the Carolinas and Kentucky in the south, to West Virginia and Ohio in the north. This area was rich in mining resources from the early 1800’s, but the decline in coal mining from the 1970’s has made this sparsely populated and unpopular area one of the poorest in the USA. Ohio is a very conservative state, with a long-time Republican government. People carry guns, drive pick-up trucks, shop at Walmart, listen to country music, go to church and distrust the state government that sits far away in Columbus. They rely on each other and organize their own activities.
The town of Athens, Ohio is a college town in southeast Ohio. The nearest ‘big’ city is Columbus, Ohio, which is over 1.5 hours drive. Cleveland is almost 4 hours away. Apart from a 3-times a day coach service, there is no public transport connecting the area to the rest of the state. Athens was one of the first towns in the Northwest Territory, as the region was known when the first settlers arrived around 1800. Only a year after the state of Ohio joined the Union in 1803, the first university in the new west was founded in Athens. From 1804 Ohio University has grown into a well-known institute with campuses in several places in Ohio, hosting almost 40,000 students in total. Over 20,000 of them spend their college years in Athens.
Athens is a typical Midwestern college town, of which many exist in the United States. Half of the town is occupied by the university campus, while most of the other half exists to support it. Having a university also means that unemployment is much lower than in the surrounding area and that there is a lively culture and sports scene. However, it really is an island of activity in a large area of relative poverty. As an example to this: the only escalator in a 60-mile radius is in one of the Ohio University buildings. Interestingly, Athens is a very active beer brewing town, with several microbreweries in and around town, some with nation-wide reputation.
For me, staying in Athens for a few months was a great way to experience this ‘other’ America. Working at the university and being part of the local community I experienced the real American life as only few visitors get to experience it. During the independence day weekend I did a little instawalk around Ohio University and Athens town, to capture some of the features of the place. So here are Ohio University and the city of Athens in 16 pictures, starting at Adams Hall, our residence for the program. All pictures previously posted on Instagram, and cross-posted on the International Space University Space Studies Program 2015 blog.
My job for the 2015 Space Studies Program was hosted at beautiful Ohio University, where different activities are held in different buildings. The Baker University Center, surrounded by a park landscape, is the heart of campus.
During my stay at Ohio University I lived in Adams Hall, a typical American student dorm building.
Athens is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain range, which extends to the east. Located in the valley of the Hocking River it is also very bicycle friendly. The Athens Adena Hockhocking Bike Path is popular among recreational and competitive bicyclists alike. It also provides a very smooth ride to the East State Street commercial area.
The western side of campus is reserved for the Space Studies Program academic facilities, like Stocker Center and the Academic and Research Center (ARC). The International Space University banner proudly dominated this part of campus the entire summer.
Walking or bicycling to the edge of campus, which in Athens means going up the hill towards town center – aptly referred to as uptown – brings you into a more artistic corner of Ohio University. A few weeks later this mural was painted over into another artistic picture.
Almost the first place you encounter in uptown Athens is Jackie O’s, the favorite SSP15 hangout. This brewery and pub is responsible for the Space Studies Program 2015 brew ‘Rye of Jupiter’, brewed especially for the occasion of the International Space University being in town. The brewery owner is a big space and astronomy fan!
The center of the universe in Athens is Court Street, named after the 1880-built Washington Court House. It still acts as the county court house today, on the corner of Court St. and Washington St.
Not long after Ohio was declared a new state in 1803, Ohio University was founded. It was formally established on February 18, 1804, when its charter instrument was approved by the Ohio General Assembly. The first three students enrolled in 1808. Ohio University graduated two students with bachelor’s degrees in 1815. The oldest buildings on College Green nowadays date from 1816.
College Green is the unofficial town center, with the first university buildings, a lovely green park with nice walkways and the disarmed Civil War monument, right opposite Court Street.
One of the most beautiful buildings on College Green must be Galbreath Memorial Chapel. Built in 1957, the Modern Colonial Revival chapel has an unusual shape that was imposed by its location on the green. The spire, topped with a brass weather vane, is modeled after that of the portico of Nash’s All Souls Church in London. The chapel has a rather romantic history: It is a gift of alumnus John Galbreath, in memory of his first wife, whom he met while they were students at the university. Campus legend holds that it marks the spot where the two first kissed.
One of the most beautiful lanes in Athens must be Park Place. Here you will find the massive Alden Library, but also the more classic Walter International Education Center. This building was the Sigma Chi fraternity house from 1949 to 2003. It was renovated and converted to its present use in 2009.
The classic Alpha-Delta-Pi sorority house on Court Street is home to 34 girls that form a sisterhood. To foreign visitors the two or three Greek character fraternities always seem sort of a mystery, but there is a lot of social engagement and philantropy involved, as well as a lot of partying…
Some people say that no report of Athens is complete without mentioning the most famous of all Athens food trucks: the Burrito Buggy. Stationed at the corner of Court St. and Union St., or very close to that, it is the place to go for Athens Mexican food.
More street art, this time referring to the coal mining history of South-East Ohio. In fact, the coal mining companies arrived in Ohio before it was declared a state in 1803. Coal mining remained one of the most important industries in the region all the way into the 1990’s, when large shale oil and gas repositories were discovered. Nowadays most coal mines have closed, leaving a trace of poverty in the region, as large scale fracking operations have been unable to solve the unemployment issue after the mine closures.
The campus is very close to nature. We frequently spot squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks and even deer. The famous Ohio bobcats are only spotted on flags, stickers, T-shirts, mugs and football players though.
Beautiful Athens certainly does not necessarily refer to the weather. Locals insist that the 2015 summer rainfall was not standard for Ohio, but in our memory Ohio will always remain a very wet state. The daily thunderstorms provide awesome backgrounds for photography though. When it is not pooring down that is…
Most of these pictures were taken on July 4th, 2015: Independence Day. This national holiday is celebrated all over the US with big fireworks displays. In Athens County the biggest fireworks are at the “Thunder in the Valley” event in nearby Nelsonville. Thousands of people gather at Hocking College to party in true smalltown America style, including funnel cakes, corn dogs and lots of light sabres. With about 25 Space Studies Program 2015 participants and staff we finished the day at this marvelous display of lights.