A Placemaking Journal

Oberlin, Ohio, and the Promise of Place: A Love Letter

What is it about a place that engages one so fully that years after moving away, a return trip feels as if you’ve never left? As if you never want to leave? It’s the elusive immersive environment we urban design types are always aiming to achieve.

Beware. A personal reverie is heading your way, to help answer that question.

Oberlin, Ohio: Main Street in bloom.

This week, I went back to Oberlin, a town I moved away from five years ago this month, and was again revived and delighted. The reasons are countless. Great friends, family, real places, good streets, big ideas, inclusive people, beautiful buildings, expansive parks. But the reasons are also layered and nuanced. Oberlin’s sense of freedom and inclusion runs deep. The town was the last stop on the underground railway, and Oberlin College was the first to grant bachelors degrees to women in a co-ed setting, and to admit people of color.

The subsequent level of creativity is extraordinary. Oberlin College Conservatory is world renown and puts on 500 concerts per year. Most of them are free and walkable or bikable to the majority of local housing stock. The Allen Memorial Art Museum is one of the top five college art museums in the US. The liberal arts college itself needs no introductions.

Countless jazz, classical, and historical concerts comfort me with memories, along with Oberlin readings by Billy Collins, great modern dance, and thought-provoking theatre. Progressive dinners in the homes of good friends were made easy by the small blocks, fine-grained streets, and the walkability created by garages out back. I’ve lost count of how many dinners on our front porch were happily interrupted by the addition of friends. Kids were free range after a certain age, since the narrow lane widths kept cars from going fast, and eyes on the street increased safety.

Our century home had its garage out back, eyes on the street, and frequent dinners on the porch.

I realize I’m connected to Oberlin for my own personal reasons – I fell in love with Tappan Square (Olmstead, 1914) as well as in Tappan Square, and was married at Fairchild Chapel, one of five local Cass Gilbert buildings. These were the beginnings of the Gilbert / Olmsted master plan for Oberlin, which was derailed by the Great Depression. Much of the plan was realized, including a tightly gridded street network radiating from the 13-acre square, with many similarities to Olmsted’s plan for Stanford. The plan is in the archives of the Allen Art Museum, which is where my husband was the curator when our son was born, and brought home to an Oberlin century home.

Tappan Square here on Commencement, May 2005, is a gathering place year round.

Originally a streetcar suburb 35 miles from Cleveland, Oberlin is 40 minutes from the West Side Market, 45 minutes to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Orchestra, and 20 minutes to the airport. Oberlin’s population of 8,000, or 11,000 including students, is clearly well connected to some interesting street life, although as with most North American cities and towns, it’s a tragedy that the connection is no longer via streetcar.

Housing variety lets students live in apartments and lofts close to single-family detached. This Oberlin student, Gideon, was my son's favorite nanny, and an alternative fuels guru.

When I lived in Oberlin, I rarely drove, except for once-a-week sort of requirements. Walking and bikes were the primary modes of transportation for daily needs, and the gathering places were plentiful and engaging. It was a 5-minute walk from most residences to either civic amenities or the retail of Main and College Streets. The variety of housing types was wide enough to allow a bevy of college students to assist with our childcare from a close proximity. On the commercial corridors, vertical mixed use allows for an integration of services, and recent new developments encourage aging in place and some town-gown reconnection.

Walkable, mixed-used College Street, on Tappan Square.

So how could this town get better, anyway? The Oberlin Project. It intends to make Oberlin into a post-fossil-fuel based economy. I’m not surprised to see something so holistic, organic, and essential being born in Oberlin.

A joint Clinton Climate Initiative / US Green Building Council effort, “The vision of the project joins the many strands of sustainability – urban revitalization, green development, advanced energy technology, sustainable agriculture, green jobs, and education – into an integrated response to the burgeoning crisis of climate destabilization, environmental deterioration, and economic turmoil.” Plans are underway to find a Managing Director.

I never intended to live in a small town, moving in from German Village in Columbus, but Oberlin was nothing but delight. The music, art, theatre, friends, family, and general thought leaders were abundant. That was the software of our system. But what allowed it to function so well was the quality of the hardware: good college town urbanism that contributes to walkable environments, gathering places, and accessibility.

Here’s to making it work for generations to come. Here. There. Everywhere.

–Hazel Borys

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