The precarious state of the world right now is nothing new to us. Yet, about six weeks ago, the College was still here to welcome a select few of us with open arms. For the most part, the transition has been awkward but smooth. While it has been filled with the expected minor hiccups and inconveniences to our daily lives, more importantly, there has been a general spirit of cooperation and perseverance as we adjust—and continue to adjust—to school in a pandemic. We are still (somehow) holding up.
Meanwhile, the community around us has not escaped COVID’s grips unscathed. In recent months, five restaurants in town have, unfortunately, been forced to close: they are Oberlin Kitchen, Black River Cafe, Agave Burrito Bar and Tequileria, Quick and Delicious, and The Corner Joint. Each of these establishments undoubtedly offered the community a unique atmosphere and dining experience and will all be sorely missed.
Why do we miss these places so much? Sure, there is the obvious, superficial answer: they provided quick, cheap, accessible food, a place to hang out with our friends, somewhere to take uncertain out-of-towners, etc., etc. But there is also something much, much deeper than the tangible offerings these restaurants provided. These places are not just parts of our community—they are our community.
“I’m from a small town comparable to Oberlin in size, that got hit particularly hard by the recession in 2008,” says second-year JJ Wroblewski, “and the closing of small businesses can feel like the destruction of a small town culture. When all the unique little diners, cafes, and stores close, you’re left with a cultural wasteland…I’d really hate to see Oberlin become like my hometown where the most exciting place to spend a night out is the local Walmart.” Fellow second-year Malcolm Bamba agrees: “Many of these establishments were places I’d go to on the weekends with friends or eat at after a long day of rehearsals and classes…Each closure is another reminder of the devastating impact of COVID on small towns.”
These restaurants served as our haven from cultural emaciation—not just in terms of the food they served, but who served, curated, and managed it, as well. For example, Quick and Delicious was the only Black-owned business in the entire town. Its closing represents a shift away from the spirit of cultural vibrancy and inclusion that Oberlin strives to uphold. Thankfully, this spirit hasn’t yet been lost, with the development of new businesses in our midst. The Arb at Tappan is now the newest Black-owned business to open its doors to our community.
Just as these restaurants, which once served as our saviors from Walmart, have begun to fade, so have their owners. The former owner of Black River Cafe and Oberlin Kitchen, Michael Joseph, hasn’t been returning anyone’s phone calls, according to Janet Haar, director of the Oberlin Business Partnership. This is just after Joseph had spent the past summer tirelessly laboring to keep his businesses afloat by working 12-hour days and receiving aid from the COVID-19 Emergency Working Capital Loan Program. Brad Pickens, who co-owned The Corner Joint with Dana Juliano, has also left the state (although some speculate this is due to the couple’s recent divorce). Juliano herself has remained extremely difficult to reach. As places abandon the town, people are inevitably soon to follow. And what is a town without its people?
Meanwhile, other businesses in the area continue to thrive—but not without a keen, ever-present awareness of how the times have shifted. How being able to simply remain open now connotes a certain sense of luck. Jason Adelman, co-owner of The Feve, which has been now operating for almost thirty years, called the effect of COVID on the Oberlin community “very disheartening”, and that “it makes us that much more grateful for all the support we do get in these uncertain times.”
Besides The Feve, restaurants like ThiNi Thai (also co-owned by the Adelmans), remains up and running, as do Lorenzo’s, Aladdin’s Eatery, and Bingo Chinese Restaurant. The town’s revered cafes, Slow Train and The Local, are open for business, as well. Yet, even for them, the pressure does not seem to fade—while these establishments used to be jam-packed on nice afternoons, nowadays, one is more than likely to find them empty, at any given time.
Of course, the onslaught of COVID and its effect on our town remains well beyond any single individual’s control. However, if there’s anything we should learn from this senseless era and its tour of catastrophe, it’s that our community needs us as much as we need it.
Because we all know how we felt when we went home. Those life-quaking cities, those places that were once the hearts and souls of America, felt empty and forsaken, even as they opened their floodgates to weary returners. Perhaps, the places that had practically raised us had become foreign abstractions to us. Who’s to say that Oberlin doesn’t feel like an abstraction to us right now, when this “home” that we are returning to consists of so many empty storefronts and lackluster days?
There might be something of our Oberlin home that COVID has taken from us forever. This can be the nook and cranny of our former favorite store, the smile of that beloved old townsperson, or the larger, ever-burgeoning sense of community alike. The point of the matter being that we are all united along that same front of missing something, even if we are not quite sure what that thing is.
In such a time, we must protect the things that we have not yet been forced to miss. They’re all we’ve got.