Posted by: sponyak | April 22, 2008

Conversations in Ellwood City, PA

The following is a description of my experience canvassing for Barack Obama last weekend. While I can’t say that the sequence of events is exact, the descriptions of the people and places and the words they said to me are.

To be fair to Ellwood, the whole city is not in such a poor condition. I arrive early morning at our staging area, a picturesque home in a quaint, clean, and quiet neighborhood. A few hundred feet down the road at the local park, a city Earth Day festival is unfolding. The house I walk into is owned by a lovely woman, the wife of a local pastor, who has volunteered her home for the weekend and taken time out of her busy day caring for her young children to help the Obama campaign. But a short trip across the bridge to the West reveals a completely different world. It is a world mentioned in the news and in political speeches, but quickly forgotten by city folk. It is a world often passed by on a long drive, but never entered. It is a world where American dreams go to die.

As the early morning chill gives way to the warmth of the sun, the smell of burning trash is in the air. I have a list of Democratic households to visit, and my goal is to get a feel for Obama’s support in the area. I set out to meet the people of West Elwood City. The roads are unkempt, many of the houses in disrepair, and the lawns littered with debris. The stickers and signs on the homes reveal a love for Jesus and country that is rivaled only by a love for Pittsburgh Steeler football. My morning optimism quickly fades as a man stops me on the road. He is middle aged and shoddily dressed with gray hair, a thick mustache, and a half smoked cigarette hanging from his mouth. He asks me what I’m doing. “I’m volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign, ” I reply. He says condescendingly, “What do you want to work for him for? He’s not going to do anything but raise your taxes.” I briefly explain Obama’s plan to lower taxes for the middle class, to which he simply replies, “I don’t believe you.” It is clear he has already made up his mind, even without knowing the facts. I move on to the homes on my list.

After knocking on the doors of a few vacant houses, I walk up to a small home with a large “This home is protected by Jesus” sticker on door. I knock. A tall woman with messy hair and a dirty white t-shirt answers the door with a hint of a smile on her face. “Can I help you?” she says. I tell her I am volunteer from the Obama campaign and her semblance of a smile quickly disappears. “I’m a Hillary supporter, ” she snaps. “I would never vote for him. I would even for McCain before I’d vote for him.” She slams the door in my face. I trudge on, trying not to be discouraged.

A few streets over I approach a dilapidated bungalow that sits below street level. There are no stairs. I hop down to reach the front door and knock. A large, well built man answers the door wearing a bright red union t-shirt. He carries a toddler in his right arm and a large wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. I ask him who he is supporting in the upcoming election. The man tells me that he likes Obama, but that he has to vote with his union, and they have yet to endorse a candidate. I thank him for his time and move on.

After a few hours with little success, I step onto the porch of the left side of small duplex and ring the bell. A young African American man answers. When I tell him I am working for Obama, a large smile inches across his face. He tells me he is undecided but would like to talk. We sit on the porch and talk for about five minutes. He says he is a local pastor, and that he is surprised to see me in his area. While he does not say it outright, he hints at a strong sentiment of racism in his town and I tell him that I’ve noticed. As we conclude he admits he is leaning toward Obama and gives me a wink. I leave the house with a lifted spirit.

Down the street I creep up to a tattered home where the door is open and country music is blaring. I knock on the side. A hairy, heavy set white man in a dirty wifebeater walks up the hallway. “Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Barack Obam–.” He quickly interrupts me by moving his hand in a shooing motion as he barks, “No, no! You get out of here!”. As I scuttle away, he shouts from the door, ” And tell your friends not to come back neither!”

Dejected, I walk up a long steep hillside to reach the final houses on my list. The summit provides a view over the whole side of town – the worn houses, the crumbling infrastructure, the failing commercial area, and the decrepit factories in the distance – the remnants of a once booming steel town. I come upon the last home on my list. It’s no bigger than a trailer, and set a distance from the road. On the front lawn an oil drum filled with trash is burning. Two girls in their early twenties sit on lawn chairs smoking while six or seven children and a small dog chase each other excitedly around the house. One of the girls gets up to greet me and I ask for the name on my list. “She doesn’t live here anymore, ” replies the young girl. I thank her and ask who she might be supporting. She blows a plume of smoke and smiles as she says, “Oh, I don’t really pay attention to that stuff.” As I head back down the hill toward my car, a pickup truck passes by with a confederate flag in place of a front license plate.

Back at my staging area, I report my grim numbers to the woman in charge. “I’m not surprised, ” she says, “at least we have more information now.” I notice a pile of Obama lawn signs that were dropped off while I was out, and I ask here why she has not put one up. She sighs as she tells me that it wouldn’t be appropriate due to her husband’s position as pastor. I sigh in return, and thank her for being such a gracious host.

My heart is heavy on the PA Turnpike as the tiny town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania fades in the distance. In my head I hear the words of Obama himself, words that have been replayed time and time again on the news, words about the bitterness in small town America, words that have been turned against him to paint him as “disconnected” and “elitist”. But I see now that he is only honest. The bitterness is real, and those who ignore it are disconnected. There is little hope for a better America in the people of West Ellwood City.



  1. I understood why people didn’t like Obama’s comment. But people are bitter, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The part about religion and guns wasn’t to smooth, I guess.

    Your post is very John Steinbeck.

    Of all the people you talked to, the one who scared me the most was the young woman who said she didn’t pay any attention to that stuff.

    I guess we’ll see what happens very soon.

  2. “Where American dreams go to die”… that is striking.

    Excellent post, Josh.

  3. Thank you for such an evocative post about your campaign work. One of my former college roommates came from tiny Ellwood City. She and her husband are English teachers there. I visited once, when she had a baby, but we’ve been out of touch for many years. The last I heard, that baby is a teacher now, too.

  4. Clouberry-

    I’m sure it was a much different place back then. It doesn’t take long for a small industrial town to turn into a ghost town. When the industry goes, everything else goes with it. I saw some figures that the population has dropped by more than 1/3 in the last 30 years or so…

  5. The daughter was looking for a job here in Ohio, not Ellwood City. The thing I remember the most, being a native of Pittsburgh, is that my friend had given me directions to turn right after going over the bridge. I drove around and around trying to find that bridge–not realizing that it was no more than what I’d call an overpass. I didn’t even see it. It just didn’t register. I’d become accustomed to suspension bridges, and even today, nothing else quite measures up.

  6. The comment that struck me the most was the one by the union shirt wearing guy. The Democratic party has a long way to go when their base constituents need to wait for the union leading “thugs” to tell their mindless members how to vote. Maybe without the unions, there would still be a vibrant steel mill in that town.

  7. sorry, wanted to leave my ID rather than anonomous.

    I really enjoyed the post about my former (home) town.

  8. Josh, thanks for this post. It is rather disheartening to know that there is still so much racism and lack of learning or teaching, and that these people are stuck in a different time, not knowing what we’re up against, and that the fight is long and hard.

    There are very good things to come out of this, and you’re doing your part to help, and for that I commend you. It’s not easy to “cold call” – knocking on doors of people whom you don’t know. It’s a sad state of affairs – this town that once had so much, but now barely hangs on. And still a lot of these people would never vote for change because they’ve become so jaded.

  9. Josh, Thanks for trashing my hometown. It is apparent to me that you are bent on displaying us in a negative manner. I would have like to of seen positive comments you recieved from our town. I am sure you had plenty.
    Yes, there are those who are close minded as in any town or city in the whole country but you painted our whole town with the same brush. And I find that offensive and unfair.
    There are alot of people here that are looking for change. Why else would we have elected a twenty-something year old representative over the older more experienced incumbent. Oh and for the record both are natives of our town.

  10. anonymous,

    I do not believe that it was Josh’s intent to display Ellwood City in a negative manner… I think he is simply relating his experiences here.

  11. I cannot believe how terrible you made my little hometown seem. Someone who is supposed to be on some quest to discuss and encourage support for some unknown, and hopefully better path for our country. For our country, all of us. If you want to boast your support for progress, I suggest you start with support for your very own neighbors. Youve painted a very ugly picture of people and a town. And I believe most of it is made up. It is such an extremely stereotypical picture of white trash, that it cant even possibly be real. You have provided absolutely nothing benificial, hopeful or positive. What is your message? There are still dirty people out there with closed minds? You are as bad as the people you describe. Your input is trash that should be burned. And for the record, I am a successful, intelligent, 25 year old woman Obama supporter.

  12. I am a resident of Ellwood City and like all small towns you will run into people like those you wrote about in your article. What my question is, are those the only people you spoke with? Where are the stories of the friendly, generous, hard working Ellwoodians like myself? Just curious.

  13. There is no doubt you are an excellent writer, but your views of my hometown are very biased. I am certain that you came here looking for the bad aspects of this town. I am a registered democrat and voted for Obama in the election. I live in an apartment above the local business that I work for. Many, many days during the election season, I would come home from work to find an Obama sign or flyer hanging on my doorknob. If you were all volunteering during the day when most people are at work, of course the people that you find at home are going to be unemployed, lower-class folks like those you described in your post. I’m sure you would find exactly the same scenario in your own hometown. Perhaps you should point your high-powered perception towards a place you know a little bit better rather than focusing this well-written garbage on a place you only visited for only a short time and that happens to be my hometown.

  14. I come from Pittsburgh, moved to Ellwood City 15-1/2 years ago and it is such a waste to read something so degrading as you did in this commentary. Have you never been in Pittsburgh. Before you degrade small towns such as Ellwood City, meet the people. To me (not an obama supporter) you are nothing but a pompous ass.

  15. I’ve lived in Ellwood all my life. I’m raising my kids here, I have a college degree and work as a teacher in Sharon (not because I don’t want to work here, there were just no openings). This town is not perfect, but I don’t think that it’s any worse than anywhere else. I don’t think that you should judge a whole town based on short conversations with a few people! I also agree that you are a pompous ass!

  16. I sat here with my mouth open in stunned disbelief. I am originally from Ellwood City. I grew up there, I have family there, and all my childhood friends. I can’t believe the picture you painted of this small, family oriented town.

    You made the people out to be something out of the movie Deliverance. I know a lot of things have changed in Ellwood over the years, but not to the extent that you are painting it.

    It’s also not called Western Ellwood…it’s West End. Always was, always will be. You may have met some people who were not willing to embrace you, but honestly, this sounds like a fictitious account with fictional characters. A Rebel Flag? Uh huh. All people from Ellwood fly them or tack them to their trucks…because…yeah, this is definitely a symbol of the North and a small melting pot of a town.

    Do you even realize that immigrant families were the backbone of Ellwood City and worked hard for their children so
    their children could get an education and go to college and better themselves?

    What a way to trash a town rich in diversity, and rich in family values.

    You, my friend, are an idiot. Next time you want to fictionalize a town…do it somewhere else. Maybe somewhere in OHIO!

  17. Josh. As an Ellwood City native, I find your post insulting, elitist and, most troubling, misinformed. This past November, in every ward – including “west Ellwood” – Obama easily defeated McCain. I suspect, however, that Obama’s victory in our town was a product of the racist, rednecks getting lost on their way to the polls . . .or simply proof that you’re not really that good at self-righteousness. But for communities like Ellwood City, with its admitted (and proud) devotion to both Jesus Christ and the Steelers, folks like would not have the platform to say the stupid, untrue things you do. Do your homework next time. R.Long

  18. Josh, you are clearly a product of the campaign for which you worked. As your boss has already demonstrated in his short time in office, Obama and his supporters are advocates of making uneducated, uninformed, “knee-jerk reaction” decisions, and they are creating a world where “American dreams will die.”

    My husband and I purchased a home in Ellwood three years ago. We specifically selected this town based on the beliefs and values of those who live there. As with any town in America, there are varying populations and socio-economic sections throughout. The “West End” as some like to call it does not accurately represent the entire town of Ellwood City. You either did not visit other areas in Ellwood, or did not mention them in your article, because they did not support your rant.

    Maybe you should have visited the Ewing Park neighborhood, Pittsburgh Circle, or my neighborhood commonly known as “Walnut Ridge.” Maybe then you would have taken time to speak to those of us with who are well-educated, well-informed, hard-working members of the community. I am certain that many of my neighbors voted for Obama. My husband and I did NOT vote for Obama, not because we are racist, but because he does not support our values or political beliefs.

    It sounds to me like you did not perform well in your job, and instead of being a man and taking responsibility for your own short-comings, you chose to place the blame on the town of Ellwood City. I sincerely hope that those who read your post are intelligent enough to see through your ruse and are embarrassed for you as I am, and as you also should be. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors; you are going to need it.

  19. Why is it when someone simply did not want to vote for Obama, they were automatically dubbed as a racist? This racist word is getting old! Your article is in no way shape or form an accurate view of Ellwood City. I think everyone here would like to see you come back and spend some time in other neighborhoods before you cast your judgement on our town. Maybe your just a bitter Brown’s fan????

  20. Josh, my husband and I moved to Ellwood 5 years ago and we see what you saw. We commented to a neighbor that we never see people of color in town and they told us that a local Realtor pretty much kept “them” out. (shudder) I wish the locals could escape this bubble but it’s doubtful. I am sorry you didn’t come to our home, you could have placed another Obama sign next to the one we already had up in our yard.

  21. I live in the west end of Ellwood City and I did not see you knock on my door. Please do not judge my town based upon a handful of houses that were visited. My husband and I are both employed, keep a very nice house and yard and are proud of it. It makes me upset to read a post written about Ellwood City that is untrue and unfair. Please stop back when you are in the area, stop at the places that look decent and then you shall find decent people…it does not take a rocket scientist to figure that out!

  22. PS:
    The picture that you are displaying on your blog to portray Ellwood City, well, it is probaby one of the crummiest streets in Ellwood. Go figure! Any “author” can find the slums of a town and paint a picture, next time though, paint the whole picture!


  23. Face it! Ellwood City is a dirty old town with backward people. Even someone from a hole like Cleveland notices the weaknesses of this town and it’s closed minded people.
    What a powerful article. Still getting comments nearly a year later.

  24. I have lived in Ellwood City my whole life and I really do not appreciate the way you portrayed us as a whole.

    Yeah, there are some people that really need to get a grip but there is no reason for you to be so smug because you do not have any clue what anybody that lives in West End has been through in their lives. Many of the people come from families that were torn apart by addiction and really have no choice but to live in a less than acceptable house or living arrangement. Just having food on the table everyday is a challenge for some when you live in a town that has basically been cut in half since the steel mills closed down, and you expect people around here to be happy go lucky.

    Considering what is going on everyday in this world, Ellwood City is doing just fine. I dont have to drive with my windows up and doors locked like you have to in cities with real problems(Cleveland being one of them).

    If you ever decide to come back to Ellwood, give me a call and i’ll be sure to show you what kind of people really live here.

    Colton Kennedy
    Lincoln High School ’07

  25. west ellwood city doesnt exist, ellwood city is way too small to be split up into regions, and its called west end come on now know the area you are covering before you trash it in an article. as an ellwood resident i am truly offended and if i were to ever meet you i would definitely give you a piece of my mind, possibly even a foot in your smug ass

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