It’s Important to Know Where America’s Shortest Street Is | Post 19 | Ohio

Using a computer mouse to click slowly across the middle of America gives me time to ponder what it takes to feel connected or unconnected to a place.

As my previous post explained, I readily see Trump’s America in rural Ohio, places and people that George Packer’s recent New Yorker article calls “The Unconnected,” a reference to the “abandoned” white working class for whom the “institutions of a healthy democracy. . . feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them.”

Earlier, while traversing Pennsylvania, I noted

a sense of isolation pervaded Street View. I felt removed. From what? The action of America? I don’t blame the rural landscape, which could be all-American scenic. Rather, it was the outright lack of people, the boarded-up buildings, and the dying property. At one point I jumped briefly onto I-80 — and connectedness returned. The many large cars and the chain restaurants assured me that I was somewhere that other people were, not alone in what might be a ghost landscape.

Now, as I move along the state routes of western Ohio, where, like Packer in Appalachia, I “sometimes felt that I’d travelled farther from New York than if I’d gone to West Africa or the Middle East,” a stop in Bellefontaine has helped me figure out a key ingredient of “connectedness.”

By most measures, Bellefontaine should be foreign to me. It’s the seat of Logan County, a 75-percent Trump stronghold, and surrounded by decayed, rural Rust Belt farm towns:

I’ve spent many years in the Midwest, but as a native urban East Coaster, this terrain is mostly unfamiliar. I don’t recognize what I’ve decided to call The Vast Lawn, easily the predominant landscape design form I’ve encountered in rural parts westward of New England:

And while pick-ups or trailers parked on lawns is not alien to me, 18-wheelers are:

Don’t get me wrong: This America is still attractive. Across Ohio I’ve seen grand old brick farmhouses, elegant homes in town centers, and what looks like a cool Beverage Barn down by the tracks:

Still, I’m not from here. And so I grope for connectedness, for something familiar, and as I do, I’ve discovered this: We find “connectedness” in what is familiar to us personally, but also in what is familiar in the world. In Street View, for me, whether I feel connected to a place depends not on whether I have a connection, but on whether the place connects itself to the world broadly. And Bellefontaine does this three times.

The shortest road in the world is in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Well, Wikipedia says there’s a sign making that claim at McKinley Street . . . and that Ebenezer Place in Wick, Scotland, is actually the Guinness World Records titleholder. But, at roughly 20 feet, McKinley Street is probably — apparently — America’s shortest. Street View coverage doesn’t quite reach the street, but you can see what’s going on below. Just before the railroad crossing, a road breaks off West Columbus Avenue to the right; immediately after the tracks, just behind a traffic island, that’s McKinley connecting Columbus again to the branching road.

Regardless of the Bellefontaine versus Wick controversy, Bellefontaine in my view is no longer just an unfamiliar rural Ohio town. Now, it means something to me. I don’t have a penchant for road length or Guinness records, but my interest will always be drawn to something that stakes a claim in the context of the world.

Or the country. Here’s the second example: America’s first concrete street, Court Avenue, is in downtown Bellefontaine. In 1891, George Bartholomew mixed local limestone and clay and won city council permission to pave the streets around the Logan County courthouse with his new cement. At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Bartholomew’s technique won him “First Place for Engineering Technology Advancement in Paving Materials.” In its first fifty years, Court Avenue needed only $1400 in maintenance. That’s a statue of Bartholomew at the head of Court:

Once more, I may have no special connection to concrete per se, but Bellefontaine starts to feel familiar via its connection to the story of America’s industrial development.

Finally, the highest point in all of Ohio is in Bellefontaine. Campbell Hill scrapes the 1,550-foot mark.

The move to connectedness here is that “highest point in Ohio” slings one’s thoughts around the state. The greatest elevation is not a distant ripple of Pennsylvania or West Virginia Appalachia in eastern Ohio, or a ridge or berm cut and raised by great waterways like Lake Erie or the Miami or Ohio Rivers. No, forget the parts of Ohio that you’ve heard of; think of Bellefontaine.

The shortest; the first; the highest. Connectedness — familiarity — can derive from rank-in-context. Sure, connectedness comes from direct familiarity too. I felt a rush of relief, of “ah, ok, I get this place,” when I saw a Subway fast-food restaurant at the end of this cold, hurting block of Richwood.

Yet Bellefontaine lost its foreign veil not because of any national retail chain, but when I connected it to the world I knew. Until I did so, it was an unconnected place.

Unconnected is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. As an American living in Africa, I’ve become sensitive to how Western media covers the continent. The typical newspaper story will, amazingly, quote Western aid workers and diplomats, not Africans, when reporting from this grossly unfamiliar place. Economic development, societal structures, and politics are conveyed in Western-centric terms against Western-centric values, not via African knowledge, experience, and norms.

By the same token, by virtue of my background, my experience and search for connectedness in middle America — shall we say Trump’s America? — is quite clearly (and oxymoronically) coastal centric. One man’s unfamiliar is another’s familiar. Indeed, The New York Times sent its Cairo bureau chief to cover Trump supporters “from the perspective of a foreign correspondent.” I may be traveling virtually, but at least I am here.

Ground covered since last post:

Trip to date:

Blog post sources:

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Nobody Explains America Better Than George Packer | Post 18 | Ohio