By Amanda Page
Portrayals in films, on TV shows, in magazines and across other media can dramatically affect how humans see themselves and each other. We asked three different Ohioans to share how media portrayals impacted their own sense of identity.
Life magazine reporter Peter Meyer arrived in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1989 to write about the extended family at 215 Washington Street, a two-story dwelling that tilted a bit and was rumored to be former slave quarters. He barely noticed the Ramada Inn across the street.
The resulting article was titled “Children of Poverty: Growing Up at 215 Washington Street Portsmouth, Ohio.” At the time, Meyer reported, 13 million children lived in poverty in the United States. Carrie Copas, a 10-year-old who lived with 18 others in the home, suddenly represented those children.
As a child, I didn’t know poverty, but I did know the Ramada Inn. It was where kids who could hosted fancy birthday parties at the indoor pool. Parents would rent a poolside room, and a handful of kids would swim for hours. The area was filled with plants, and large windows let in natural light. I remember it being kind of magical. It was part of our bustling downtown. When I went to the Ramada Inn, I barely took notice of the house across the street.
When the article was published, I heard what my parents and their friends had to say about the story.
“No one ever talks about the good stuff in Portsmouth.”
“There are kids like that all over the county.”
There were, indeed, kids like that all over the county. Thirteen million of them. But somehow, Life found this family at 215 Washington Street in Portsmouth, Ohio, and decided to tell their story.
Decades later, I asked Peter Meyer, “How?”
Life, he explained, had bureaus around the world. Those reporters sent their editors different candidates to potentially feature in stories.
“We were looking for the best example of poverty,” he said. And the family at 215 Washington Street “fit the story perfectly.”
“Portsmouth…” Meyer said. “You can’t get more middle-of-the-country.”
I asked Meyer about the hotel that had, for me, represented the height of glamour in my young mind.
“I remember a hotel,” he said. “It wasn’t anything special—maybe a Holiday Inn.”
Now, years later, it is a Holiday Inn. There’s nothing newsworthy about the place. The pool area still exists. I don’t know if parents throw birthday parties there. I do know that 215 Washington Street is long gone, almost like it was never there.
It was easy to ignore 215 Washington Street. I was focused on the swimming pool and all its glory. But the article made me pay attention—to the house, to the family, to the comments of my parents and their friends. It was clear the article made them pay attention to something otherwise overlooked in their city.
There are good things in Portsmouth, Ohio. The people work hard to plan festivals, break world records and bake award-winning cupcakes. Not everything is newsworthy, but the city is an attractive middle-of-the-country for media.
Portsmouth is sought because it can represent things. Just like the Ramada Inn represented wealth and status in my mind, so too can the building across the street represent poverty and struggle in the minds of writers and readers everywhere.
That juxtaposition is important—in a place, in an article and in my memory.
I wonder if it is important in Carrie’s memory, too. For a moment, her story represented a place and a problem.
A place is always more than its problems—though that never means those problems should be ignored.
Amanda Page is a writer, editor, filmmaker and professor who is the founder and executive director of Scioto Literary, which supports storytellers in Scioto County and surrounding areas and is supported by Ohio Humanities.