Friday, March 14, 2003

Fear, caution, patriotism watchwords in Middletown

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Korean War veteran Kenneth Young, 75, stands near a replica of the Statue of Liberty in the lounge at the American Legion Post in downtown Middletown.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
MIDDLETOWN - Its name hints at its central nature - Middletown.

Halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton this city that straddles the Butler-Warren county line also represents in many ways the heartland of America. A former "All-American City," judged so during the boom years in the 1950s when steel and paper factories stoked the industrial economy, the city embodied the nation's post-World War II version of the American Dream, with hard-working, home-owning families and champion basketball teams.

Middletown's mood still often reflects Middle America's and that temperament these days is shaped by looming war with Iraq, the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism, support for American troops, and concerns about the stubbornly sluggish economy. There are many American flags flying, banners hung from homes or miniatures flapping furiously on cars, but there are mixed feelings about President Bush's push for military action in Iraq.

On the edge of the city's historic downtown is American Legion Post 218, where Kenneth Young, a 75-year-old Korean War veteran, sipped a beer this week and said he's worried about the Iraq situation and the economy. "It's the unknown war with biological weapons. And when it's all done my grandkids will still be paying for it,'' he explained. He said many here share his feelings, in a word: "Fearful."

Of Middletown's 51,605 residents, 87.5 percent are white, compared to 85 percent in Ohio, and 10.6 percent are African-American, compared to 11.5 percent in the state. Hispanics and Asians largely comprise the remaining 2.4 percent of the population.

The median household income in Middletown is $36,215 compared to $40,956 in Ohio.

U.S. 2000 census

Down the street is Middletown's historic Sorg Opera House, created and named after the family that built the defunct Sorg Paper Mill, which closed in 2000. Nicki Finkelman-Gividen, who works as an administrative assistant, said: "I think everyone is quietly concerned about the war. And when it comes to the economy everyone is basically pretty cautious."

South on Main Street is the Ohio Army National Guard Armory, where the preparation for war, and its emotional toll, recently inspired Middletown native Kelli Rowe to act.

The tearful goodbyes of service men and women departing last month from the armory for overseas deployment prompted her and two other women to create "Stampin' For Soldiers," a charitable aid effort that takes donated small goods - including cards, snacks, sunglasses, videos, pens, books, toiletries and playing cards - and ships them out in care packages to American troops overseas.

"It just tore my heart straight out," Rowe said, recalling the farewells of soldiers leaving Middletown for the Middle East. The enthusiastic local response to her charity, (Web site), has renewed her faith in the ever-present strong patriotism among residents.

"We don't even have to ask. Everything has been coming to us. There is a generosity of spirit here because we are a close-knit community," she said.

While keeping an eye on President Bush's efforts to win increased international backing to the U.S. position, Middletonians are watching increasingly heated political conflicts on their city council, led by a war of words between Mayor David Schiavone and councilwoman Laura Williams.

David Daugherty, president of the Mid-Miami Valley Chamber of Commerce, said: "It's gone beyond political exchanges and it really does concern a lot of people... I hear a lot of people talking about it. It needs to get out of the personal attack mode." He hopes the council's mood improves and better reflects that of the general city, otherwise "it makes it harder to sell the community."

But Middletown still has its appeal as a proud community that, Daugherty says, "really does represent America." It's usually a key campaign stop in major elections, such as the visit two months before the 2000 presidential election by Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman. They had a pep rally-style visit to Middletown High School.

"It's an older city with a racially diverse population,'' Daughtery said. "It was a heavy industrial town at one time but it's changing. It has a small university campus in the Middletown branch of Miami University and a strong sports tradition. In many ways we are a microcosm of the country."


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