Mount Vernon Culture Changes Urbanite’s Perspective
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
I grew up in New York City, and I don’t know the statistics, but I do know that many of you spend your summers in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston or some other large, liberal urban setting. I remember visiting Kenyon when I was still in high school and feeling like I was at summer camp (it was a beautiful spring day, so the campus was in full splendor). That feeling of being tucked away in a community of bookworms and high-minded academics was why I chose to shake off the cowl of urban life and embrace the comfort of small-town living. For about the first two months, I was still under its spell. The weather was perfect, and everybody was excited about the new school year — full of resolutions and knowledge to be had.
It came as a shock to me when, after the glistening sheen of change and possibilities had worn off, I began to find lots of things to resent. I questioned my decision to leave my giant multi-cultural city, I started feeling trapped in the Gambier bubble and I began to reminisce about street corner delis and neighborhood bars open until 4:00 a.m. Mount Vernon, the closest thing I had to an urban setting, began to seem like a small-minded hicksville with an abundance of soulless commercial property. I hated going to Walmart, the multiple McDonalds made me long for a high-class New York City restaurant and the obvious conservative nature of the town began to anger me. I was too good and too worldly for this backwater redneck town.
To my surprise, it was a Kenyon photography class I took in my junior year that made me realize I was behaving like an ignorant, elitist city slicker. I resented Mount Vernon for having no cultural significance before I even looked farther than the strip malls off Route 305. The class, “Documentary Photography,” required me to take pictures off campus, most likely because the teacher was sick of seeing photos of neo-gothic architecture and “Kenyon in Autumn.” My job was to find out what made Mount Vernon interesting and to discover the cultural secrets within. Needless to say, I was skeptical. One year later, I had become friends with multiple tattoo artists in town and had seen some incredible examples of American history.
Throughout the semester, I discovered that Mount Vernon has a rich cultural heritage. Within its borders lies the Woodward Opera House, the oldest standing 19th-century opera theater in the United States. I was given the privilege of photographing the interior and found that it has some of the most beautiful carpentry work I have ever seen, as well as two magnificent oil paintings on either side of the stage. In that moment I realized that if this extraordinary example of historical American culture had been here this whole time, then there must be much more to Mount Vernon than meets the eye.
I continued to explore the historical relics of Mount Vernon, happening upon the newly renovated B&O Railroad Depot. It is no longer active, but it stands as a snapshot of a different time, when trains used to carry passengers to and from Mount Vernon every day. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a cultural renaissance in the body art scene that is still growing rampantly in Mount Vernon. As somebody who considered tattoos an urban phenomenon, I was excited to explore the world of Mount Vernon tattoo parlors, and I now wear the evidence of my investigation on my chest. Mount Vernon now boasts six different shops with several rivalries (the older artists do not like the new shops poaching their clients). I was overwhelmed by the immense amount of cultural knowledge to be found in Mount Vernon, the same town that, only a year before, I had considered to be an economically depressed, socially backward dot on the map.
My point is, Kenyon, it’s easy to peg Mount Vernon as just another rural wasteland in the Midwest, especially when you’re standing in line behind an overweight shirtless man buying chewing tobacco at Walmart. But the fact is, we are guests here, and I now consider it my responsibility to understand and respect this place that is our home for four years. I regret making ignorant judgments about a place that others call home — a place that, if you look beneath the surface, has a lot more to offer than Chipotle burritos and Keystone 30-racks from Kroger. I’ve only just scratched the surface, and I don’t think that these four short years will be long enough for me to fully appreciate the complex and surprising character of Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Simon Szybist ’14 is a philosophy major. He has done several photo shoots around Mount Vernon and Knox County. His email address is email@example.com.