Courtesy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer • March 9, 2004
Shopping is a trip in this college town
Laura DeMarco, Plain Dealer Pop Music Editor
Oberlin isn’t the only city where you can see an interracial lesbian couple holding hands as they pass an elderly man walking his dog down the street near a nuclear family of three. Or Renaissance masterworks in a rural town of 8,000. Or an army-navy store that carries anti-male bumper stickers.
But it’s probably the only one in Ohio.
Located just 37 miles southwest of Cleveland – though it feels worlds away – *Oberlin* is a liberal, artistic Midwestern oasis centered around *Oberlin* College, one of the nation’s top-ranked liberal arts schools.
Both city and college were founded in 1833, and it’s obvious before you even leave your car that they’re intricately linked. Heading west into town, a driver’s first sight after the Oberlin corporation limit is a historical marker commemorating Oberlin as the first college in the nation to welcome male and female students of all races.
The city of Oberlin proved just as open-armed as the school founded by Christian Congregationalist missionaries. It was a key stop on the Underground Railroad and a hotbed of abolitionism.
Three Oberliners died during the Harper’s Ferry raid, and Oberlin even earned the designation “The Town That Started the Civil War” in a 1990 book by Nat Brandt. The city’s missionaries and activists didn’t limit their goals to the United States; the memorial arch on Tappan Square in the center of town honors 19 Oberlin missionaries who died in China’s Boxer Rebellion.
Today, the spirit of social activism still lingers in Oberlin, along with the smells of incense and patchouli. Demonstrations from anti-war to pro-gay rights can be seen on Tappan Square, which is also the site of the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration marking the end of slavery and where you’ll find crowds of students reading in fairer weather. On the surrounding streets of the small, quaint downtown, the usual college town artsy-craftsy galleries, bead shops, incense stores and cafes mix with Oberlin institutions such as Gibson’s candy-and-conveniences store and Dave’s Army/Navy.
But it’s the No. 1 Oberlin institution, the college itself, that remains the town’s real draw. Drawn by its progressive politics, stellar academic reputation and world-class Conservatory of Music and Allen Memorial Art Museum, students of all aesthetic persuasions, scholarly interests, races and sexual preferences make their way to the school. The only area where there’s not much diversity is political preference. At Oberlin – a college that sponsors an annual drag ball – young Republicans are the minority.
Alumni run the gamut from three Nobel Prize winners to a former Amnesty International executive director to performance artist-actor Eric Bogosian, pop star Liz Phair, author Tracy Chevalier and members of hot indie-rock acts the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and French Kicks.
Oberlin is one of only 11 small liberal arts colleges to receive exceptional ratings from both U.S. News and World Report and the Fiske Guide to Colleges. The conservatory, founded in 1865, is among the top music schools in the country, preparing students for careers in symphonies, opera houses, jazz ensembles, film composition and other music fields. Equally impressive is the Allen Memorial Art Museum, founded in 1917 and ranked as one of the finest college collections in the country, featuring more than 11,000 works.
Not bad for a small Ohio town of 8,000.