Trumbull County was a Democratic stronghold before it flipped for Trump, amid America's opioid epidemic and industrial decline.
I. Welcome to Warren
On a midsummer’s evening in Warren, Ohio, as day quickly fades into night, Officer David Weber turns north onto York Avenue. There is still enough twilight for the 50-year-old cop to match the man on the mountain bike coming toward him to the BOLO (police speak for “be on the lookout”) coming over the radio: black male / blue T-shirt / white ball cap / black backpack. Weber brings his black-and-white SUV police cruiser to an abrupt halt and hops out onto the red brick road.
“He went that way, he went that way!” yells the man on the bike, frantically waving his left arm to the east in an attempt at misdirection.
Weber squares his sturdy shoulders to the man, who was last seen punching a woman in the face after he stole a tip jar from the Subway sandwich shop on Route 422, the road that once connected Warren’s bounty of steel to the port of Cleveland some 55 miles to the northwest and, from there, to the rest of the world. Before Weber can close the gap between them, the man turns his bike west into a vacant lot, one of many in this shrinking town, down to a population of 38,382 from a peak of 63,494 in 1970, before the steel industry collapsed in the Mahoning Valley and Weber’s dad lost his job at the WCI mill, and before the General Motors plant in neighboring Lordstown began its downward slide and finally fell idle in March of 2019.
CLACK!, ticka-ticka-ticka, goes Weber’s Taser, as the officer pursues the man between two maple trees. The electrified prongs hit the man’s backpack, rendering the device useless. Out comes the expandable baton. THWACK!, against the back tire. The man falls to the bicycle’s crossbar but manages to keep pedaling as the freshly mowed lot beneath him comes up against a neighboring ghost property not yet taken over by the Trumbull County Land Bank. The abrupt shift in terrain from cut lawn to overgrown quackgrass and Queen Anne’s lace redirects the chase back to the red bricks of York Avenue, where the man on the bike manages to pull away.
To see the city of Warren, Ohio, from the shotgun seat of this cruiser in hot pursuit is a sensory overture of a Rust Belt town writhing in Late American decline. Weber—aging but still strong, capable, and determined—is sweating through his black nylon uniform and Kevlar vest as he guns the hot engine past the clapboard homes (many of them boarded up, if not disappeared) toward the industrial street of McMyler on a quest for a small-time crook in the throes of addiction. Weber’s breathing—each exhale heavy like an anvil and longer than a 1-Mississippi—combines with the high-revving V6 to create a din that is only pierced by the radio:
“Bleet. Last seen heading down Iowa.”
Weber breathlessly grabs the CB: “I lost him in the area.”
The cruiser races down McMyler, whizzing by empty one-story warehouses and the southeast edge of the Thomas Steel Strip Corporation—still operational but threatened by Donald Trump’s steel tariffs, according to Congressman Tim Ryan, who, a month later, will groan upon hearing of the foundry’s 12 layoffs.
A young black man on the corner of Iowa stares hard as a ruddy-cheeked Weber rounds the corner. “He ain’t gonna help us,” says the veteran officer.
After circling the block, Weber comes upon a young woman in flip-flops with blonde hair and buck teeth.
“Did you see a guy on a bicycle?” asks Weber. “Black male? Blue shirt?”
“He made a right here,” says the young woman dutifully, pointing northeast up McMyler.
Weber’s cruiser circles the block again before starting to carve a large donut in the parking lot of Buckeye Storage and Shredding. Strolling calmly through Weber’s rotary-in-the-making of kicked-up dust and burnt rubber is a black woman with wavy hair and a pleasant sundress. As Weber intersects the woman’s path, the two come face-to-face for a brief moment in time. Without breaking stride, she cocks her head—illuminated by the sun falling beyond Thomas Steel—and offers a tranquil smile to the policeman. Without letting up on the gas pedal, Weber arches his eyebrows and offers the woman a wave and a friendly smile.
Earlier in the day, shortly after the start of his 2pm-to-midnight shift, Weber speaks to a deeper mission behind the Tasers and batons and hot pursuits. On the city’s southwest side, Warren’s poorest quadrant, in the peace before the man on the bike and the aggravated robbery, the officer stops his cruiser in the middle of Pershing Avenue, a quiet country road without curbs or sidewalks—just woods and brush on either side. He gestures out the passenger window to a metal traffic guardrail and stop sign inexplicably planted amongst the brush. With squinted eyes one can make out that a road once ran beyond the stop sign, which is poetically amended with the words ‘Dead End.’ In fact, the overgrown path is still designated as Pawnee Street on Google Maps, the accompanying street view dated June 2011 showing asphalt still visible amongst the weeds. According to Weber, who’s been on the job since 1996, this piece of Pawnee has been decommissioned as long as he’s been patrolling Warren, a vanishing city having neither the population nor the tax base to justify the road staying open. For Weber, it’s a deeply solemn piece of land: the site where the body of his step-niece—overdosed on heroin and dumped here naked—was found some years ago.
“Why was she naked?” I ask.
“The theory is that it was the ghetto treatment,” says Weber. “Throw an OD into a bathtub with ice. You know, shock ’em awake. But we don’t know.
“So it’s affected me and my family personally. It’s why I have compassion toward some of these addicts.”
It’s a story that I will hear Weber repeat to other guests sitting in the passenger seat of his police cruiser—a core part of a personal biography that forms a Venn diagram for the challenges faced today by Warren and many towns like it throughout the deindustrialized Midwest: son of a steel worker displaced by an ever-diminishing steel industry, and step-uncle to an opioid user discarded on a street long abandoned by the municipality as workers migrated elsewhere in search of economic opportunity.
As Weber’s cruiser rolls north on Nevada Avenue and crosses Union Street, the physical loss is astonishing to the eye. To the northwest are some 10 acres of empty land, scarred by the removal of scores of homes and even a high school—nothing remaining but telephone poles and stop signs that stand uselessly, serving no one. Zoom out and up to a bird’s eye view and one can see acres of young forest covering the overgrown streets and crumbled sidewalks of neighborhoods lost to depopulation.
It’s a cold and hard landscape, even in the lush of summer—the indifference of nature to civilization found and lost. But humanity remains. I see it south of Burton Street, in the city’s southeast quadrant, when a shirtless young chainsmoker with green shorts hanging low and a black do-rag above sunken blue eyes and a red beard testifies to Weber’s compassion.
“Ohio, a great bellwether of presidential elections going back to 1964, was comfortably leaning red going into Election Day, but that fact hardly dulled the impact when the historically decisive state was called for Donald Trump.”
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asks the officer, after being cleared as a suspect for drug activity in the area called in by a resident. It turns out he’s not one of the three men that were seen sharing a needle on the bike trail.
“Weber,” says the officer.
The man’s blue eyes widen in recognition. “You were the one who gave me the talk,” he says. “Now I’ve got 173 days clean. Thank you.”
As the cruiser makes its way toward Niles Road, the two salute each other, and then Weber explains that he locked the man up for heroin back in the winter. But before handing him off to County, Weber told the man about his step-niece being dumped on Pawnee Street.
“And then I told him, you know, ‘Every day is another bump in the road, nobody’s perfect, you fall off that ladder and get back on it’—that kind of talk,” recalls Weber. “And he remembered.”
Bleet, goes the radio, before offering an update on the drug activity in the area. “We got one of ’em. He just used. He’s out of it.”
And the Narcan van is on its way.
II. Why Warren
I first became interested in Trumbull County after the presidential election of 2016, the outcome of which was largely blamed on, or credited to, depending on your political persuasion, the Rust Belt electorate. The narrative of the broken ‘Blue Wall’ of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin permeated post-mortem coverage. Ohio, a great bellwether of presidential elections going back to 1964, was comfortably leaning red going into Election Day, but that fact hardly dulled the impact when the historically decisive state was called for Donald Trump.
In the proceeding weeks, national reporters parachuted in to places like Racine and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin, and Macomb County in Michigan, to ask Obama voters why they flipped for Trump. As varied as the reasons may have been, the media pounded a steady drumbeat of white working-class resentment—fueled by stagnant wages and diminishing prospects—toward establishment Washington. Of course, the answer is more complicated than that, and such notions are easily debunked by exit polls showing the median household income of Trump voters far exceeded the national average of $56,000. In fact, one in five white Trump voters without a college degree had a median household income of more than $100,000.
In early 2018, during my tenure covering Rust Belt politics and policy concerns as the editor of a nonprofit newsroom, I thought I found at least one answer when I published an essay by the historian, Steven Conn, in which he argued that the Democratic Party was misinterpreting the motivations of those gettable voters who went for Trump.
“Many Trump voters who themselves are not hurting economically live in a landscape of loss—of people, of schools and other institutions, of local businesses and more—and that loss surrounds them every day,” Professor Conn wrote. “They care about these places, they identify with these places, and they want them to survive.”
In essence, Professor Conn argued, these voters were not motivated by any actual or perceived injury against their economic interests, let alone against their gender or racial or religious identities; they were motivated by what greeted them every morning when they walked outside their doors: small cities and towns pockmarked by the remnants of better days and vanishing before their eyes.
At the same time, in my daily efforts as a Cleveland-based editor story-mining across the region, Trumbull County—just a little more than an hour’s drive away—continued to come across my radar: there were news reports of the Lordstown GM plant’s precipitous downturn. The day after Trump was elected—in large part on the promise of bringing factory jobs back to places like Trumbull County—the massive GM complex cut its third shift. For further poetics, those 1,200-plus auto workers would clock out for the last time on the same day that Trump was inaugurated. In June of 2018, the second shift was eliminated—another 1,500 workers expelled from the plant. The last Chevy Cruze would roll off the production floor in March of 2019, and with it, Lordstown GM’s remaining 1,500 workers, not to mention the decimation of a local supply chain that existed solely to serve GM.
“Officer Weber, it turns out, was one of these Obama-Trump voters, crediting his vote to the attention the outsider candidate paid to the region and its problems. But Trumbull County’s political identity remained at a crossroads.”
As the jobs disappeared, so did much of the population of Trumbull County, which had been bleeding out since the collapse of the steel industry some 40 years ago. The month after GM went dormant in Lordstown, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the county’s population had dipped below the 200,000 mark for the first time since 1950. Since 1980, when Trumbull hit its population peak of more than 241,000, the county had experienced a net loss of more than 43,000 people—enough souls to fill Youngstown State University’s football stadium twice over, and still have a couple thousand left tailgating in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, the opioid crisis was raging in Trumbull County at a rate three times the national average. There were reports of the epidemic overwhelming the county’s criminal justice and foster care systems, and sparking a boom in its addiction treatment industry. It seemed the only other sector on the upswing in Trumbull County was the home-demolition industry, which was still being fueled by the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis.
As I continued to see Trumbull County appear at the top of many worst-of lists —for job loss, depopulation, blight, opioid overdose, and other indicators of social decline—it dawned on me that this was a kind of epicenter for what Professor Conn had described. Trumbull County, I found, was indeed one of those 217 Obama counties that flipped for Trump—and it flipped hard with a 30-point swing from the 2012 election. In fact, the last time the county went red was 1972, when Richard Nixon landslided George McGovern, a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted Democratic reign going back to 1932, when FDR, champion of the worker, turned the region deep-blue for more than three-quarters of a century. Officer Weber, it turns out, was one of these Obama-Trump voters, crediting his vote to the attention the outsider candidate paid to the region and its problems. But Trumbull County’s political identity remained at a crossroads. Tim Ryan, the region’s long-serving Democratic congressman, did more than hold on to his seat in 2016, capturing 68 percent of the vote. Despite the GM plant’s demise, the United Auto Workers remained an outsize presence. I corresponded with the land bank director there, who railed against a corrupt financial system leaving the region choked with thousands of dilapidating homes. And I heard tell of bleeding-heart cops and judges taking a health-crisis approach to the opioid epidemic.
It was for these reasons that I found myself in Warren, sitting in its courtrooms, shadowing its politicians, accompanying salvage crews into the city’s vacant homes, and white-knuckling the door handle of Officer Weber’s police cruiser as we raced through Warren’s deteriorating city streets.
III. A Tale of Two Warrens
Late July, 10:43am, the southwest side of Warren, in the dilapidated detached garage of 1815 Baker. The property—which includes a derelict shotgun house littered with tomato soup cans, empty pill bottles of Seroquel (aka “baby heroin”), and other evidence of squatters—is a recent acquisition of the Trumbull County Land Bank, a quasi-governmental nonprofit organization working closely with the county treasurer to reclaim and tear down or, whenever possible (about a third of the time), rehabilitate the roughly 1,500 vacant homes blighting Warren.
Gary Honeywood and Rachel Miller, part of a team of young men and women who do most of the hands-on work of the land bank—deconstruction, renovation, landscaping vacant lots—are rifling through the abandoned possessions of the family that was forced to vacate in the winter following the 2016 election. There’s a Clinton-Kaine lawn sign, damp and wrinkled with rusty lawn spikes, laying atop a moldy carpet, two crumpled kiddie pools, a pile of plastic children’s toys, and an ordered row of blue plastic bins with neatly packed items that somehow didn’t make the move.
“They must have had to get out of here quick,” says Honeywood, in jeans and a muscle shirt revealing dark brown arms covered in black-ink tattoos. He’s kicking through the items like one would in a junkyard, the assumption being that most everything here is worthless, because, more often than not, most everything is in a house that’s been vacant for this long. When Honeywood kicks over a brown plastic box roughly the size of a football, he lifts up his work boot to kick it once more.
“Hold on!” says Miller, a bespectacled blonde woman in sweatpants. With a side hustle called Ray’s Remade Salvage, Miller is more adept than Honeywood at appraising refuse. Sensing something precious, she places the rectangular box right-side-up and opens the lid.
“Whoa!” Honeywood and Miller exclaim in unison at the contents inside: a clear plastic bag filled with ashes submerged in milky rainwater that leaked in from the tattered roof above. Zip-tied to the bag is a laminated tag reading:
Robert C. Triplett
05/17/23 – 03/06/13
F.D. Mason Funeral Home
It will be nearly a month until Honeywood connects the name to his own family tree, an ancestry complicated by a number of half-siblings.
“I knew my sister’s brother lived here at one point, because I found his ID in the house,” Honeywood says when the familial connection to Triplett is relayed to him. “But I didn’t know it was my sister’s uncle in that box!”
How Triplett and Honeywood managed to meet for the first time in a broken down leaky garage is a fascinating confluence of otherwise parallel black American lives.
Triplett, born in 1923, is a product of the Great Migration, in which black Americans from the South migrated north in the middle decades of the 20th century in search of economic opportunity and respite from Jim Crow oppression. Triplett was born in Ackerman, Mississippi, and with nothing but a fourth-grade education managed to settle in Youngstown with a loving wife and a good job at Commercial Shearing, a foundry that made metal castings until its closing in 2013, the same year as Triplett’s death at the age of 89.
Honeywood, born some 70 years after Triplett, came of age during the Obama Era, in which African Americans saw one of their own in the White House but on the whole suffered from growing income inequality exacerbated by a financial crisis brought on by a housing bubble—the aftermath of which continues to impact Warren. Honeywood graduated high school to an entirely different job market than the one his sister’s uncle discovered when he landed in the Mahoning Valley, where if you lost your job at a foundry you could walk across the street and get another job at a steel mill, or drive up the road for a gig working in an auto plant. Honeywood bounced from one service job to another, at fast food joints and gas stations, before landing a dead-end gig behind the counter of an auto parts chain. Without the foundation his sister’s uncle had—the brotherhood of the steelworkers, job security, benefits, and a pension —Honeywood’s restless heart led him to, in his words, “hanging out with some criminal cats.”
“It’s plain to see that Honeywood is not a criminal; just someone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, on both a micro level (caught with a loaded gun following a bar fight) and a macro one (born poor in Trumbull County at the dusk of America’s Industrial Age).”
Things came to a head for the young man in December 2017, at the Savo Bar & Grille on South Avenue in Youngstown, a popular late-night spot for revelry and soul food on the city’s south side. Honeywood’s friend started a fight. Police were called. And before he knew what was going on, Honeywood was in the passenger seat of his friend’s car, his friend chasing the guy he had beef with.
“When we get him off this main road I’m blowin’ this motherfucker’s head off,” Honeywood’s friend declared, then pulled a .45 caliber handgun—loaded and ready to fire—from beneath his seat.
They didn’t make it far. Honeywood and his friend were pulled over by a Youngstown cop at the corner of Hillman and Cleveland streets, right by the New Bethel Baptist Church, just two miles from Savo’s.
“He handed me the gun,” recalls Honeywood. “I panicked and put it down on the floor. That’s when the cops are on us and I end up getting charged for aggravated menacing.”
Honeywood spent eight days in jail. When he emerged, he had lost his job and his car. “But the whole experience opened my eyes and put me on a different path,” he says. He left his old friends behind. He recommitted himself to his then–five-year-old son, gaining custody in a hard-fought court battle. And after months of going on job interviews and being turned away after the inevitable background check revealing the gun charge, he landed a plum job at the Trumbull County Land Bank.
“He laid it all on the table—the gun charge, the probation, everything—and we hired him on the spot,” says Matt Martin, the executive director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, a community development corporation that operates the Trumbull County Land Bank.
It’s plain to see that Honeywood is not a criminal; just someone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, on both a micro level (caught with a loaded gun following a bar fight) and a macro one (born poor in Trumbull County at the dusk of America’s Industrial Age). Martin, for one, creeping into his mid 40s with a sandy-brown beard speckled with bits of white, can see this—it’s part of why he hired Honeywood … that and Honeywood’s affable personality, great work ethic, and an aptitude for the job. And besides, says Martin, the real criminals in Trumbull County are the banks.
IV. In Judge Gysegem’s courtroom, an alternative to prosecuting opioid offenders
Early August, 1:43pm, Judge Thomas Gysegem’s municipal courtroom on the second floor of 141 South Street in downtown Warren. The woman, 35 and aging fast, sits in the second row of the gallery in a black blouse and faded black nail polish as she stares in the direction of the empty jury box, past the painting on the wall of the stately Trumbull County Courthouse (the centerpiece of town just a couple blocks north, where Trumbull native Clarence Darrow once plied his trade), and past the closed window leaching in the sound of a police siren in the distance. She’s staring at nothing, consumed with regret for submitting to the onsite urine test, the results of which will arrive in a few minutes. The tears welling up in the woman’s eyes threaten to run her heavy black eyeliner over her freckled cheeks and down past her thin lips, which are forming the shape of a lower-case n.
The episode that landed the woman in Gysegem’s courtroom took place a month prior, when she was driving with a friend southeast on Niles Road past the fruit market where Niles Police Officer Keith Peterson was parked and surveilling the late-night traffic. The woman’s lack of a working tail light was all the cop needed to make a traffic stop at the intersection of Barder Avenue, across the road from the Warren Screw Machine metal shop.
“Any weapons or illegal drugs inside the car?” Peterson asked as he peeked in through the passenger side window.
The woman and the man in the passenger seat looked at each other for a few seconds before the man replied, “Nope. There shouldn’t be.”
While Peterson performed a background check, the passenger told his friend repeatedly, “Calm down, everything is going to be alright.”
But the man’s consolations were no match for the woman’s growing sense of dread, not to mention the smell of marijuana emanating from the car.
Peterson asked the woman to join him at the rear of the vehicle, where he informed her that he could smell the pot and again asked if there was anything in the car.
She nervously shifted her weight from foot to foot, avoided eye contact, and replied with a shaky voice, “There is nothing there. You can check if you want.”
Inside the driver’s side door, Peterson quickly spotted a small plastic bag with the corner torn off and another one containing a white powdery residue. Visibly upset, the woman said the bags belonged to a friend named Kay.
“I don’t know what’s in there but I know she does drugs.”
As Peterson rifled through the trunk of the car, the woman protested, “All the stuff on the right side of the trunk is Kay’s. I don’t know what’s in there.”
Peterson found an orange butane lighter, two blue straws burned at the ends and caked with residue, and a glass pipe. The car was impounded, the woman handcuffed and shortly thereafter released in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on North Main Street with a summons to appear in court on a charge of possessing drug paraphernalia.
Now, sitting in the gallery of Gysegem’s courtroom, the woman appears distraught, trying her best to hide her emotions from the officers of the court. “I shouldn’t have taken that drug test,” she thinks of her gamble that she just might pass and be able to cut a deal with the prosecutor, avoiding a drug charge and the accompanying probation. Of course it’s only now, as she scratches her forearms, that she’s able to mentally catalog her drug use over the last number of weeks: the cocaine and methamphetamine, the morphine and marijuana … all of which show up on the drug test.
“When you see someone itching, that’s a tell-tale sign,” says Gil Blair, the prosecutor who sets the woman up in a pre-trial treatment program and resets her court date for October.
According to Gysegem, Blair—who would later become a member of the Ohio House of Representatives—isn’t too concerned with the misdemeanor, but he takes the opportunity to drug test the woman to see if she’s involved in something that might bring her back later on a felony charge, like possession of cocaine or heroin.
“We take ownership of the people in front of us,” says the judge, a burly man nearing 60 with a white goatee and a horseshoe of white hair ringing a cannon-ball dome. “It’s only a matter of time when someone with drug paraphernalia is brought back in on possession. If we can address it now and get her treatment, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
It seems that most people who work in Warren’s criminal justice system have a story about a sympathetic woman whose habit begins small like this. In his office downstairs from Gysegem’s courtroom, Police Chief Eric Merkel shows me a high school graduation photo on his smartphone of a pleasant-looking young woman with styled hair and tastefully done makeup looking thoughtfully straight to camera. He swipes left to reveal the bloated face of a corpse, blue and ashen. “She went from that to this,” he says. “Dead at 35 on somebody’s porch.” In the interim, according to a criminal records search, the woman’s life took a wayward turn in 2011 and was followed by eight more appearances in municipal court before she died on August 1 of 2018. The chief then brings up on his desktop the obituary of a woman who passed away earlier that summer at age 31, a lawyer and a former cheerleader at Warren’s John F. Kennedy High School who once competed for the Ms. Olympia title. “You got somebody gorgeous like that and then dies of heroin?” He shakes his head.
“It escapes no one here that a double standard is at work, in which the prevalence of white female victims plays a role in the opioid epidemic being treated as a public health issue, as opposed to the crack epidemic a generation before, which largely impacted Warren’s African-American community (accounting for 29 percent of the city’s population) and was exclusively seen as a crime problem.”
Traci Timko Sabah, a prosecutor with the city for nearly 20 years, recalls the early days of the opioid crisis, at the dawn of the decade.
“I remember when it first started happening because there was an entirely different look to the addiction from the crack epidemic,” says Sabah, a chunky heart pendant dangling from her neck. “You realized it was affecting everybody everywhere. You can’t blame it on poor parenting or poor moral compass. It’s young, old, rich, poor.”
Mostly, though, it’s white. Out of Trumbull County’s 135 overdose deaths in 2017—the height of the epidemic—only 13 were African American. It escapes no one here that a double standard is at work, in which the prevalence of white female victims plays a role in the opioid epidemic being treated as a public health issue, as opposed to the crack epidemic a generation before, which largely impacted Warren’s African-American community (accounting for 29 percent of the city’s population) and was exclusively seen as a crime problem. Even many of Merkel’s police will invoke the racial injustice between the crack and the opioid eras, though they often do so in protest of the expectation that they Narcan people who don’t appear to want treatment, or who they don’t deem worthy of it. Since May 2015—when Warren PD started carrying Narcan (the wonder drug that reverses the effects of opioids, thereby acting as the antidote to an overdose)—the police here have revived roughly 500 people. They have stories of reviving ODs who wake up livid that their highs have been taken from them, of parents who OD with their young children in the back of the car, and of users who OD while driving, their vehicles turning into land missiles indiscriminately plowing into parked cars and porches.
Nevertheless, Gysegem remains a big proponent of steering non-violent drug offenders to treatment programs in lieu of prison, and recently added to his team a probation officer who leads a medical assistance treatment program through his court. The program makes addiction-suppressing medications a part of a drug offender’s probation. A similar program run out of Cleveland has seen a 60-percent success rate in opioid abusers staying in recovery, compared with a national average of 30 percent.
“It gets very depressing when certain people miss their court dates and they’ll never be back,” says Gysegem. “And a lot of these people were not career criminals; they were people who ran into pain medication that was prescribed by a physician. Perception of the public is, ‘These people get what they deserve.’ Well, the people who hold that perception are badly misinformed. 52 percent of our overdose deaths in 2017 didn’t have a criminal record. Nothing. And 80 percent of your opioid addicts start with a script pad. I don’t say that to excuse any crime that’s occurring. It’s just a fact.”
V. ‘We were never interested in selling houses; we were interested in selling money.’
To spend time with Matt Martin as the Trumbull County Land Bank’s official vehicle (a white Chevy Impala, circa 2001, with the organization’s name spelled out on the doors in red and black letters) wends its way through some of Warren’s more blighted streets is to be treated to a disquisition on how this town has been, and continues to be, devastated by the housing crisis.
“I was sitting down with a guy from Chase Bank a couple years ago,” says Martin, of a meeting in which the community activist was willing to explore how the lender might help out the land bank. “We were talking about the housing bubble, and this guy told me, ‘We were never interested in selling houses; all we were interested in was selling money.’”
It’s a simple statement that not only goes a long way toward explaining the subprime mortgage crisis itself, but toward explaining the ensuing blight that, a decade later, continues to drag down Warren.
“Of the 1,500 vacant houses in Warren,” says Martin, “the lion’s share are zombie foreclosures. I’d put the number somewhere around 90 percent.”
A zombie foreclosure, as Martin explains, occurs when a lender sends a foreclosure notice to a homeowner. The foreclosure notice informs the homeowner that they are in default and that the lender intends to take possession of the home. At the height of the housing crisis in Warren, where homeowners were holding $60,000 mortgages on houses that were suddenly worth next to nothing—and in many cases were looking at abandoned homes to the left and right of them—the decision to abort was easy. The “zombie” part of the equation results after the homeowner vacates the house, believing it is no longer in their possession, and the lender stops short of taking responsibility for the home, leaving the property in the name of the person who’s ostensibly been foreclosed on. The lender, just like the lendee, calculates that owning the home is not in their financial interest. And so the property joins the ranks of the walking dead.
“In a sense, the banks were bluffing when they threatened to foreclose on everyone,” says Martin, adding that his source at Chase Bank confirmed it, telling him, “‘Once the crisis hit, we had no interest in owning all these houses.’”
For Martin and the Land Bank—which takes possession of vacant homes through tax foreclosures conducted by the county treasurer, and aims to put said homes in the hands of moderate-to-low income people who wish to have a stake in their community—it makes a very difficult job even harder. Martin speaks of tracking down homeowners who believe they lost their property a decade prior, and of lenders who deny responsibility, or lenders who offer to sell the land bank a home for $15,000, only to turn around years later and offer them money to take the property off their hands. It’s a situation that stalls the land bank process, resulting in a majority of these homes sitting vacant for longer than they should—effectively turning a rehab into a tear-down, not to mention the damage done to an already depressed community by the prolonged existence of blight.
“We’ve torn down 800 vacants and saved about 350,” says Martin. “If things were different, and the banks were more proactive, we could reverse that ratio.”
Sadly, says Martin, a number of Warren properties that didn’t sit vacant after the housing crisis were snatched up by cash investors who saw easy money in predatory land contracts: private agreements in which a seller offers a prospective buyer what appears to be a lease-to-own deal. The buyer, unable to get traditional financing, hands over a down payment, moves into the property, and begins paying monthly installments, with the end goal of owning the home outright. Meanwhile, the so-called seller is operating like an absentee landlord with no obligation to adhere to landlord-tenant law and the buyer responsible for maintenance and repairs. Buried into such contracts are balloon payment schedules and termination clauses that can go into effect should a buyer be a day late on a payment. When a contract is terminated, the buyer must walk away empty handed, and the seller turns around and finds the next would-be homeowner. According to Trumbull County Recorder Tod Latell, 540 land contracts were recorded in Warren between January 2013 and September 5, 2018, with only 20 percent successfully completed.
“It’s criminal,” says Martin, who avoids selling land bank homes to ill-intentioned investors by making it mandatory they be owner-occupied for a minimum of three years. “Add these predatory land contracts to everything from the steel industry to the payday lender at the end of my block and all the negatives of late capitalism are crashing here in Warren.”
In what is otherwise supposed to be a zero-sum economic system, with the issue of blight there remain only losers: whether it’s a lendee losing home, wealth, and credit standing; a lender losing an asset; or a city losing not only tax revenue but the presence of society itself. At 1815 Baker, at the corner of Nevada, where Robert C. Triplett was found, you can see this last part quite clearly. Just like Pawnee Street, where Officer Weber’s step-niece was discovered dead and naked, Baker Avenue is being ceded back to nature. It is encroaching from the west, where Baker appears to dead-end into a wall of Queen Anne’s lace, brush and, ultimately, full-grown woods, beyond which are the remnants of homes long ago abandoned, and from the north, where the former through-street of Nevada Avenue now stops at a tree-covered crossroads.
“This is definitely a tear-down,” says Martin of 1815 Baker, when he meets the home’s former owner, Rhonda Robinson, on the property’s gravel driveway. The 53-year-old woman in house slippers and a loose-fitting ankle-length skirt has come to reclaim her uncle, Mr. Triplett, and any other items worth saving from the house.
“It’s sad,” says Robinson, shaking her head at the realization that her former home will soon be enveloped by brush. “There used to be houses all up and down this block, and back in them woods. I raised eight kids here. We had families over there, families over here. And now nature took over, and is taking over.”
Robinson’s friend emerges from the house with a handful of framed portraits of friends and family.
“Awww, look at little Wilson,” Robinson coos at a photo of a young boy in a white-collared shirt and a red vest. There is also a funeral card from August 2016 for a Peggy Lee Hadden, a friend who grew up one of 19 children around the corner in a house that no longer exists.
“And what about your uncle, Mr. Triplett?” I ask. “What will you do with him?”
“He’s goin’ right back in the glass china closet in my dining room, right where he was in this house,” says Robinson, who now lives in a brick home in northeast Warren, an historically white section of the city that, as population continues to drop, becomes more and more accommodating to integration.
VI. Congressman Ryan goes on a police ride-along
A Tuesday in September, 11:19pm, just a few blocks north of Courthouse Square in Warren. Congressman Tim Ryan is riding shotgun in Officer Weber’s police cruiser as the wheels crunch the asphalt at the intersection of Belmont Street and Mercer Avenue, part of a handful of blocks known for sex workers and street heroin dubbed Area 51 both for the drug-addled sights to be seen here and the badge number of an officer known for aggressive patrol. It’s a ride-along I originally portray in a November 2018 profile of Ryan for Medium, which I felt was worth revisiting for this wider portrait of Trumbull County, and its place in American politics.
Ryan, a former quarterback for Warren’s Kennedy High School Eagles who’s now in his mid-40s, is gearing up for a presidential run, which he will announce sitting between the likes of Joy Behar and Meghan McCain in a network television studio just two blocks west of the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. He never did seem comfortable on ABC’s The View; never did seem comfortable on the Democratic debate stage, getting yelled at by Bernie Sanders and lectured to by Tulsi Gabbard before being expelled from the race. But here in Weber’s police cruiser, he’s in his element wearing jeans and a long-sleeve Cleveland Browns shirt and sipping on a paper cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Ryan is here to learn about the opioid crisis. “To understand and appreciate what these guys are doin’ every night,” he says. “You can’t get that by reading about it.”
But for the most part it’s a quiet night. The sex and drug deals usually negotiated through idling cars are nowhere to be seen. And thus far the night is mostly consumed by conversation in between routine traffic stops that yield nothing.
“Looks like they’re starting to take down some of these homes,” says the congressman, who’s been marveling at some of the slate roofs and wrap-around porches that have fallen into disrepair as we drive through Area 51. “It’s a shame because you can see some of the integrity in these older homes.”
“It all started when owners started cuttin’ ’em up, making them into apartments,” says Weber, echoing a complaint by Martin of the land bank, who includes this practice of converting single homes into SROs on his list of housing-related grievances in Warren.
“You can see where that was a beautiful fuckin’ home right there,” says Ryan, getting emotional while he cranes his neck at a crumbling Victorian mansion. “Now that’s a fuckin’ shame. That pisses me off. Look at that fuckin’ porch. All that hard wood in there? It’s heartbreaking, it really is.
“What we need,” says the congressman, pivoting to policy, “is a national three-year plan where we take all this shit down in the country in all these towns and hit the reset button, you know what I mean?”
“Like a Marshall Plan?” I ask.
“A Marshall Plan for America,” says Ryan. “All these deteriorating commercial buildings in all these old towns, clean them up. You’re gonna bring up the housing prices for everybody else that’s left. Just start cleaning up these towns.”
Meanwhile, over on Burton Street on the southeast side of Warren, Steve Shaw is picking up Michael Farnsworth (their names have been changed at their request) from a house Farnsworth says belongs to a friend of his. Farnsworth, a rail-thin 30-year-old with friendly blue eyes, a bushy brown beard and close-cropped brown hair on the sides and back of his head, has a heroin problem. Inside the house, he purchased a small bag of heroin and snorted it right there before coming outside and getting into the passenger seat of Shaw’s pickup truck. Shaw is not aware of what transpired inside the house. He’s a hardworking young man with a wife and three-year-old daughter at home, and certainly no need for trouble. What he knows of Farnsworth is that he’s going through a rough patch, something that Shaw has empathy for.
“I’ve been down before,” Shaw will tell me later, “where I have no job, no vehicle. I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve been there.”
For the last few weeks, Shaw has been trying to help Farnsworth out by giving him a job scrapping cars.
“People call me, I buy their vehicles, I take them home and take what’s valuable and crush the rest of it at the scrapyard,” says Shaw. “If I can share some of that work with a guy who’s down on his luck, I’m happy to do that.”
Earlier in the day, Shaw picked up Farnsworth at the Mayfair Laundromat on Elm Road, and they spent the next six or seven hours scrapping cars together. 17 of them, according to Shaw. As they worked, they talked about Farnsworth’s young teenage son, the product of a relationship that ended a decade ago. When Farnsworth gets to spend time with his son, they like to draw together. Mostly flames and cars. Farnsworth also spoke of getting his life back on track. As his mother will tell me later, there’s a girlfriend in Farnsworth’s life. They met in recovery, and she’s pregnant with Farnsworth’s child. His plan is to be in a position to provide once the baby is born. But tonight, after a hard day’s work, Farnsworth felt he’d earned a high, so he asked Shaw if he would drop him off on Burton, where he said he wanted to visit a friend and clean up.
As he steps back into Shaw’s truck, Farnsworth does appear refreshed. He’s wearing a clean red T-shirt and is no longer limping on the foot he injured a week ago when, unbeknownst to Shaw, he jumped off the roof of the Burger King on Elm Road, about a mile north of the Mayfair Laundromat, during a drug-induced psychosis in which he thought he was being pursued by snipers. Shaw drives the truck the mile and a half back to his house, on an alley in the shadow of the Trumbull Regional Medical Center, where if Farnsworth wants to he can continue to help Shaw scrap cars through the night, or just pick up his duffel and be on his way.
“When it comes to the microeconomics of Warren’s black market for street drugs, the introduction of a pharmaceutical opioid-blocker appears to have created a game of Whack-a-Mole: Hammer down on heroin, and cocaine and meth pop up in its place.”
“Can I have a cigarette?” Farnsworth asks Shaw, who obliges the request before ducking into the house to check on his wife and daughter. When Shaw returns, he finds Farnsworth slumped over in the pickup’s passenger seat, his cigarette burning a hole in the upholstery.
“Michael, wake up!” Shaw yells, and then gives Farnsworth a hard punch on the arm. For a moment, Farnsworth wakes up, looks at Shaw and says, “I love my son,” before passing back out again.
Shaw dials 911, reports the overdose, and then calls Farnsworth’s mother.
“Ma’am,” Shaw says into the phone, as he paces in front of his pickup. “Your son is dead.”
“Are you kidding me?” she replies.
“I’m not kidding you,” says Shaw. “He overdosed on heroin or fentanyl and died in my truck.”
VII. Report to 911: There’s been an overdose
“Sixty-one, go ahead,” Weber says into the CB radio as his police cruiser races down West Market Street with the congressman sitting in the passenger seat.
“I have an OD off of East Market Street,” the dispatcher reports back, following with an exact address.
“I’ll head over there,” says Weber.
“Do you have Narcan?” asks the congressman.
“Yeah,” says Weber, before adding, “I can hear the siren of the ambulance. I can hear them in route.”
East Market is quiet and desolate as Weber’s cruiser hangs a right past Schwebel’s Bakery, the peace of the night soon disrupted by the flashing red and blue lights of the ambulance in front of Shaw’s home. As Weber and the congressman get out of the cruiser and approach Shaw’s pickup, an EMT is positioning Farnsworth’s lifeless body so that his head stretches back over the passenger-seat headrest.
“What state is he in?” the congressman asks in hushed tones, mindful of the work of the first responders and the solemnity of the scene.
“Comatose—the guy’s lips are all blue and his skin is all grayish,” says Weber, narrating the scene for Ryan as the EMT prepares a dose of Narcan. “He’s near death.”
Ryan, his congressional powers useless at ground level, remains a bystander with his arms crossed and just watches from outside the driver’s side door of the pickup as the EMT goes about bringing Michael Farnsworth back to life. He inserts the syringe with the rubber nozzle into Farnsworth’s right nostril, depresses the plunger halfway, and then finishes off the dose in the left nostril.
“Mike,” the EMT says loudly while pinching Farnsworth’s nose and rubbing his sternum. “Mah-ike. Wakey, Wakey.”
It’s the tone of a parent gently rousing a sleeping child.
Farnsworth starts to breathe. The breaths are long and labored, like a drowning man who’s just reached the water’s surface. The lips return to red and the gray skin turns peach as Ryan, mesmerized, hangs his arms over the driver’s side door.
As Farnsworth is transferred onto a gurney, he begins to come to.
“Rise and shine,” says the EMT, still with that cheery tone.
“Welcome back,” says Weber, who’s now helping the EMT secure Farnsworth to the gurney.
“What happened?” Farnsworth manages to ask, his words uttered in a slurry.
“You died,” says Weber. “You overdosed. You weren’t breathing. You were dead, believe me.”
“I am breathing,” says Farnsworth, bleary eyed and groggy.
“Well you are now,” says Weber. “Because this fine young gentleman gave you Narcan.”
It will take 11 days for Farnsworth to claim a bed at First Step Recovery on Youngstown Road in southeast Warren.
“His friend called to say he saw him walk through the door,” says Farnsworth’s mother, who will text with me over the following months, offering updates on her son, before ceasing to respond to my messages in the winter of last year.
Before the correspondence grows silent, she tells me that her son agreed to take Vivitrol, a pharmaceutical that blocks the effects of opioids. “It’s a big step,” she says. “I’m feeling a glimmer of hope.”
But Jeff Goodman, a defense attorney with the Trumbull County Drug Court—an alternative sentencing program for drug offenders who show a desire to get clean—is concerned about the treatment industry’s overreliance on drugs like Vivitrol.
“I’m worried about unintended outcomes,” says Goodman, a dapper country lawyer in his middle-50s. Of the recent dramatic rise in cocaine and methamphetamine use in Trumbull County, Goodman sees a direct correlation to the rise of opioid-blockers in treatment programs. Vivitrol may stop someone from using heroin, argues Goodman, but it doesn’t stanch their desire to get high. When it comes to the microeconomics of Warren’s black market for street drugs, the introduction of a pharmaceutical opioid-blocker appears to have created a game of Whack-a-Mole: Hammer down on heroin, and cocaine and meth pop up in its place.
Goodman’s greater concern, however, is the profit motive created in the legal market of the treatment industry.
“Over the last couple of years, state and federal money has been pouring in for the opioid crisis,” says the lawyer. “But it must go to MAT (medical assistance treatment) programs. Now you have entrepreneurs who see the potential, they hire a doctor, get state licensing and open up a methadone clinic, and then they have the government throwing all this money at them. They’re raking in millions and millions of dollars every year.
“In a perfect world,” he continues, “methadone is going to be used as a treatment tool, with the patient weaning off, but that’s not happening. We have these programs where they put them on the highest levels of methadone and just leave them there. We leave them on these MATs and are just building this giant customer base.”
Goodman says he has friends who work in the recovery business. “They’re not in the business of eliminating their clients,” he says. “They’re in the business of gathering their clients and keeping them. And they do very well.”
The picture Goodman paints bears a striking resemblance to the scenario that started the opioid crisis in the first place: a profit motive by Big Pharma selling prescription opiates signed off on by doctors and subsidized by insurance companies. The only difference is the role played by the government: In the original fire, they allowed it to burn; now, they’re fueling it.
One week after Farnsworth’s overdose, Congressman Ryan appears at the intersection of Maryland Street and Ogden Avenue in northwest Warren, in front of a one-story blighted home. The windows and doors are boarded up and the roof is caving in on itself. He’s flanked by employees of the Trumbull County Land Bank, including Matt Martin and Rachel Miller, the young woman who found Robert C. Triplett’s ashes in the garage of 1815 Baker. Ryan is introducing legislation that would provide federal grants for communities like Warren to address blight.
“This is a national issue, where these homes need takin’ down,” Ryan says to the assembled local news cameras, echoing his talk in Officer Weber’s police cruiser about a Marshall Plan for America.
After the gavels in the U.S. House switch from Republican hands to Democratic ones, Ryan’s blight bill continues to languish. He tries to make some hay out of it in the presidential race, but in a field of 20+ candidates there’s only so much room to get your message across. And so Ryan will stick to the idea of an industrial policy, and the need for manufacturing communities like Lordstown to start making electric vehicles.
“There’s gonna be 30 million electric cars made in the next 10 years, I want half of ’em made in the United States,” Ryan would repeat ad nauseum on the debate stage and on the campaign trail. But the message gets lost somewhere between Bernie Sanders’ call for a revolution and Joe Biden’s promise of restoration.
I check in with the congressman one last time before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, long after he’s left the race. He’s wary of the coming primaries and how certain policy proposals—like Medicare for All and open borders—are landing in his district. He says there’s the concern of union folks who’ve obtained their healthcare through hard-won collective bargaining being forced onto government-run healthcare, which might then be given to new arrivals who’ve just crossed over the border. To underscore his concern he tells me of the working-class man who wanted to shake his hand at the Primanti Bros. restaurant in Niles.
“The guy was at the bar, BS’ing and drinkin’ beer and watchin’ football,” says Ryan. “He says to me, ‘I voted for Trump and I’m just praying the Democrats give me someone to vote for. You guys gotta give me somebody….’ He doesn’t want to vote for Trump, but he may.”
Ryan then talks about the GM worker he chatted with a week prior at his son’s varsity high school football game. He was transferred to a GM plant in Toledo or Flint, Michigan (Ryan can’t quite remember which one, as there’ve been so many such transfers out of Lordstown), and finally had to quit. “He didn’t want to miss anymore football games,” says Ryan, lamenting the man’s uncertain future opening up a small auto repair shop here in Trumbull County.
“These folks need an idea of what they’re gonna do, they need a picture,” says the congressman, adding that Trump gave them one in his calls to reopen the steel mills and coal mines, as dishonest as those calls may have been.
“Look, you want a revolution?” Ryan asks, acknowledging his party’s internecine strife. “You gotta beat Donald Trump. That means you gotta win western PA, Michigan, Wisconsin. You gotta win Trumbull County, Ohio. And those people that worked in steel mills and auto plants, they gotta be with you, too. These folks need an idea of what you’re gonna do for them. They need a vision of where they fit, and where their hometowns fit, in the new economy. And if you can do that and win, that in and of itself is a revolution.”