To drive into the town square of Medina, Ohio, is to retreat in time. For one thing, the junction of State Routes 42, 57, and 18 is a square of emerald-green lawn. You stand on the lawn at the foot of a Victorian bandstand and look at the brick-faced, curlicued, jolly-porticoed courthouse and the storefronts lined up shoulder to shoulder around the square and you get the feeling that all is right with the world.

This is a place of summer concerts and ice cream socials. A visitor a season later is greeted by a harvest moon in the smooth autumn sky. The old-fashioned streetlights have just come on and blink through the branches of the trees curtsying in the wind. Lights in the storefronts glow gently in small, clean, well-kept windows. The store names are written small and lit by incandescent rather than fluorescent light, so one doesn't feel the commercial grab that comes with so many night street scenes.

Night here is friendly. The dark is pierced by lamplight from cozy living room windows back behind the square. It is a dark you can be out in alone.Somehow this little place seems to have ducked out as the rest of the country became more grimy, hurried, and urban.

Medina looks like it could stand in for Winesburg, Ohio - at least until the traffic light changes.

All at once hulking shadows fall on the peaceful little scene and a low, brooding roar grows louder and louder. It is like a scene from a horror movie. But the dark shapes that rise on the horizon and thunder toward the square - some of them taller than the quaint brick and glass confections they are shaking to the foundations - are not science fiction monsters; they are semitrailer trucks.

Coming from east to west along one side of the square, they labor audibly. One of them snorts as it changes gears. Then along the opposite side comes a convoy going west to east - faster because they have just whipped around a corner behind the lovely Victorian scene and geared up to climb the hill into and bomb through the square before the light on the opposite corner changes.

Amazingly, this little picture-book town is on cross-state and cross-country truck routes. Three-quarters of a million semitrailer trucks a year rattle through the square and down two-lane roads past private houses. Little children walk home from school on sidewalks five feet from the traffic. A few weeks ago, one truck overshot its mark and demolished a parked car. Fortunately it was empty. And four years ago, an elderly woman was killed crossing the street by a truck whose driver was perched up too high to see her.

But this is not a new problem. Actually, it is older than Medina's innocent, late 19th-century charm, which wasn't achieved until the early 1970s, and then by committee effort.

Medina is not a town that time forgot. The sturdy little storefronts, put up in the 1870s, were contaminated by the tacky 1950s. Those tall Victorian windows with the slightly curved tops that look out on commerce like sleepy eyes were blinkered behind a large plastic front with swooping script about a story high spelling out ''Ziegler's.'' A Tiffany leaded-glass sign languished for years behind a painted one; the brick fronts bristled with lit-up plastic announcements, and bright lights glared everywhere.

The tide began to turn in 1969, when the Community -Design Committee was formed after Gene Smith - an industrial designer from Bath, Ohio - brought around a slide show about beautifying old buildings. The effect, says Kim Zarney, CDC president, was ''to get us to look around and say, 'Gee, we do have some problems here, but we've got a pretty little downtown that could be better.' ''

While you can't legislate good taste, CDC seems to have used persuasion rather effectively here. Store by store, merchant by merchant, the square was restored to a remarkably unified look. Unified because it had all been rebuilt at one time after a fire in 1870, not because of any agreement among the old (or particularly, the new) Medinians. CDC showed every civic group that would look at them artist's renderings of how the street could look if restored, as well as historical photographs. But it took a lot of public relations and working one on one to get a consensus.

And it took vigilance. CDC was around when new streetlights threatened, and got the town to keep the old ones. It made the ''right'' suggestion when it heard someone was getting a new sign, and was on hand - not hassling, but definitely there - with 19th-century color schemes when it was time to paint. Even now ''there are still people . . . that are lukewarm on this or feel they're being imposed upon,'' Mr. Zarney says.

Nonetheless, when you look at the restoration, it appears that once Medinians get an idea, they come around - in their own way, in their own time, and with their own money. The restoration costs ranged from $2,000 for a new paint job to the $1 million the Old Phoenix Bank spent to become the Victorian showcase it now is.

''It was all done with private funds,'' residents of this eminently Republican town will proudly tell you when you exclaim over its beauty. The positive attitude, keeping the ''pretty little downtown'' in mind while eradicating the rural blight, seems to have prevailed over the individual feelings of being imposed on. Which is no wonder, says state Assembly-man William Batchelder III, since ''boosterism in the (small-town) Midwest has got to be right next to religion.''

As the people of Medina once looked around at their pretty little downtown and decided, in their various ways, to take action to make it prettier, it might be expected that they have also wheeled around in horror at the overwhelming trucks. Surely they are just as obvious. But the trucks have been much tougher to deal with. It is not, after all, something new paint and a talk with the Historical Society can take care of. The trucks roar through without stopping, part of a huge national transportation industry and a large state highway system. And they have been roaring through here since the 1940s, when they began using Route 18 to haul, among other things, rolled steel from Youngstown to Akron, just east of Medina. At that time it was thought the trucks brought business to Medina and so, when the state offered to build a bypass in 1954, merchants went to Columbus to protest, and talked them out of it.

Since then, the traffic has continued. Though some still think a bypass would keep all business out of Medina, times and attitudes have changed. Now, Sunday band concerts have been reinstituted in the new old-fashioned gazebo in the middle of the square, and they can't be heard. The local feeling for the square's historical value has been confirmed by the National Trust, which declared it a historical district, but the diesel fumes dirty the new 19 th-century paint jobs.

There is also a new sense of Medina as a town in its own right, which may not need to put up with 750,000 trucks a year just to stay in business. After all, its population has nearly tripled (to 15,000) in the last 10 years as young people chose it over Akron and Cleveland and moved into the subdivisions to the north in search of peace, pure air, and good schools. All they've gotten so far is the schools, and those are perilously near the truck routes. Though the newcomers are blamed by some for not being community-minded and concerned enough , some of their voices are heard in the latest wave of dissatisfied rumblings.

The thing is that there have been many such waves, but they have always receded, and the problem has always been laid back at Medina's door. Medina and the Ohio Department of Transportation have been bickering ever since 1954, but never has Medina been as effective as when it kept the ODOT from spending money on it. William Batchelder made a try back in 1968 when he was first elected to get the ODOT to build a bypass around Medina, but gas tax revenues, which fund the ODOT, were too low. Outgoing Mayor Gus Eble says he has been working on the problem for 15 years, though he has been criticized by others for inaction. ''I don't think anything is going to happen until the public agitates Columbus enough,'' he explains.

Pauline McClelland's family has lived along Route 18 for over a hundred years. As a little girl, she had to keep her dog off the street because of the danger from horses and wagons. She remembers, ''One person said years ago, 'Why don't all you women lie down on the pavement? The trucks aren't going to run over you.' A little extreme, I must confess.'' A local shopkeeper, who sells cookies and cold cuts behind a vibrating plate-glass window, avers that ''young people have to get into it. Once the young people get involved, they'll carry it through.'' Three teen-agers who work at Burger Chef say the windows rattle there and ''something's happening to the buildings.'' Will there be a protest? ''Not in Medina.''

Everyone thinks someone else isn't agitating enough, except for Bill Batchelder, who thinks they have only to agree on a route and the State of Ohio will build them one. Why? Because Gov. James Rhodes promised, during his election campaign in 1977, that if the town agreed unanimously on a bypass route , he would see that they got one. They sent the governor two routes - the northern route preferred by engineers but protested by people who lived there, and a longer but uncontested southern route. Mr. Rhodes wasn't satisfied. He sent word that he wanted one, not two, routes. That's where the problem began - or ended - and ODOT and Medina haven't spoken since.

Batchelder interprets this as a failure on the part of Medina to take care of itself. Far from agitating for more government help, he apologized to Rhodes for wasting his time in bringing him two routes instead of one. He feels the problem is Medina's and that Medinians are, or should be, proudly self-sufficient. ''We're Republicans by the bloody shirt,'' Batchelder says, referring to the loss the town sustained on the Union side of the Civil War.

A young lawyer with a shock of thick black hair that falls over the same type of black glasses Barry Goldwater wears, Batchelder was first elected in 1968, at the tender age of 23. And he has been resoundingly reelected every two years since then. A picture of him shaking hands with Ronald Reagan hangs in his office in the building Williams & Batchelder - the law firm that also includes Bill Batchelder's wife, Alice, and his father, William Batchelder Jr. - bought and restored themselves to upright, four-brick-thick elegance.

''Our system is decided by individual, atavistic decisions, because we don't have centralized decisionmaking, thank God. . . .'' he says.

The district now is particularly hard hit by the unemployment woes of the auto industry, which has cut back steeply on tire orders from nearby Akron. Batchelder calls it ''unfortunate that it comes in that form, (but) it will have a salutary effect on all of us when people realize there is a bottom of the barrel,'' and that they must rely on themselves.

Though he applauds the restoration, Batchelder sternly says the town must return to the values of its founders - his hero is H. G. Blake, an orphan from New Hampshire who came here and pulled himself up by the bootstraps. Blake founded the Old Phoenix Bank, edited the newspaper, and served in the legislature.

''Those people built for the future, not for consumption,'' the state lawmaker says. He feels today's Medinians, like the rest of the country, need to overcome their hedonism and ''me generation'' mentality and hew to the old civic virtues. They are not involved enough in the governing of their town, he maintains, or they would have solved the problem themselves, instead of sending Governor Rhodes a choice.

The mood in the square, however, is resigned. Ask a Medinian if the trucks bother him and he will shrug or say no, unless he happens to work or sleep along Route 18. Drivers say the trucks scare them. Most shop owners, like the barber, keep the windows closed and the radio on, loud, and say it doesn't hurt business. Even if they have to shout to be heard over the roar of the diesel-powered engines, many townspeople say there's nothing that can be done about it. They feel they have tried everything, and they have. In fact, they have solved the problem. But the day I talked to them, neither Medinians nor Batchelder knew that, nor did ODOT.

Even the deepest, most taciturn shruggers mentioned David Brown, a young lawyer who moved here with his family seven years ago and began another assault on the truck problem at the same time those two routes were sent to Columbus. Mr. Brown came to start a small law practice in a nice place to raise children. He restored an old house along Route 18 - and discovered he had to tighten his light bulbs about twice a week and couldn't hold a conversation in his front yard.

''David Brown is young and eager,'' says Ted Galvin, who runs a camera store. He points out that Brown is the first to have taken the problem to Washington. ''I don't think he'll get anywhere with it,'' he adds mildly, echoing the almost eerie lack of outrage of most 40-year veterans of the passing trucks.

When Governor Rhodes made his promise to do something about the trucks, he sent ODOT staff to talk to a group of 30 people. David Brown was among them. It soon became apparent, he says, that ''they were not going to be able to do much in the way of building a bypass for a number of reasons. Primarily (money). So I passed around a sign-up sheet. . . .'' and the Committee to Save Our Square was formed. The battle for a solution began to take a new tack at the same time another committee was submitting the inappropriate two routes to Governor Rhodes.

The Committee to Save Our Square looked at the problem from a variety of angles and rejected various local solutions - a noise-control ordinance and a weighing station among others - as too expensive for Medina, and hard to enforce.

Furthermore, ''It isn't a local problem in the sense that a bomb raid isn't a local problem,'' Brown says. ''As the bombs fall, it's a local problem, but the source isn't local, and the solution isn't local.'' The problem, it was decided, was a federal one.

So in 1979 the Comittee to Save Our Square submitted a petition for rulemaking to the Interstate Commerce Commission. It asked the commission to rule that trucks without local business had to use the Ohio Turnpike, 12 or 15 miles to the north. The pike, which runs parallel to 18, doesn't go through towns, and costs about $10 more in tolls. Now the trucks usually get off the turnpike to the west near Toledo, hook up with 18, and take it to the next east-west Interstate, 76, which also doesn't charge tolls.

This solution, Brown pointed out, was much more economically efficient than a bypass, which would cost millions of dollars a mile to build. The Ohio Turnpike, Brown says, is an already existing means of bypassing Medina.

''It's really, when you think about it, an unfair situation, because we are going to be expected to expend a substantial amount of money, and the State of Ohio a great deal more, to costruct a bypass because the trucking industry . . . wants to save money by avoiding the turnpike. What they manage to do is externalize the cost, make us internalize it, and make us respond by spending even more money.'' Brown is a tall, curly-haired, round-faced man who seems to be evolving an impressive rhetorical style as the explanations for what is happening - and not happening - in Medina get more and more complicated.

As the people on the street could have told him (and probably did), last summer the ICC refused to adopt a rule.

In September, the Washington-based Institute for Public Representation appealed the decision on behalf of Medina, but again without success. The court felt the ICC was acting within the ''broad scope of discretion'' it has as a federal agency, and that there were ''other modes of redress.'' This meant, says Laura Macklin, a lawyer for the Institute for Public Representation, that Medina should seek local solutions.In other words, the federal government joined the ODOT and the state government to tell Medina that the trucks passing through it were Medina's problem and Medina must solve it. The town had been told the same thing so many times it stopped listening. If it had listened, it might have realized it already had solved its problem.

Since the bypass was offered it by the Ohio Department of Transportation in the 1950s, the town has grown to the north, so that what ODOT thought of as the ideal route would now cut through a residential area. People in that area petitioned ODOT not to build a bypass there. But the southern route was unopposed. When Bill Batchelder came back with the latest ''no'' on the bypass in 1979, because the town had submitted two instead of one route, it sounded to Medinians like the same old runaround - solve it yourself - and the second route was all but forgotten.

What had happened while the Committee to Save Our Square was agitating in Washington was that there was a revenue freeze at ODOT in 1979 due to a drop in gas consumption. No new projects were started. The southern route was not turned down, it was just never investigated. There was no money to do it, and there were plenty of other projects further along, says Harold Reader, ODOT deputy director in charge of Medina's area. Neither ODOT nor Medina was aware that ODOT hadn't done anything about the southern route, and each was waiting for the other to make a move. And when you have been waiting 40 years for something to be done about traffic, two years seems like just a pause.

When first contacted in a conference call, David Findlay, public information officer for ODOT, and deputy director Reader both said there was absolutely no hope for a bypass in the foreseeable future - promise or no promise from Governor Rhodes.

Mr. Findlay explained that when the ODOT started moving on projects again as a result of a recent 3.3 cent-per-gallon rise in gasoline taxes, they looked to the backlog of 1,000 projects and chose 84 to move on. Medina wasn't even in the backlog. ''Medina lost its programming status for two reasons: local controversy , and the cuts during the '70s,'' Findlay says.

If there is any local contention on a route, he adds, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which must -approve such projects, usually turns it down right at that stage. But ''it had more to do with money than controversy,'' Reader says. He adds that for projects to be under way in a community in these pinched times ''there had to be a start'' beforehand, and ''in this case there's no start.'' The southern route didn't count.

''The only thing they accomplished was that they didn't have any opposition, '' Findlay explains. Apparently everyone, including Medinians, had forgotten that that was all they were supposed to accomplish.

When ODOT ran out of money and tabled the bypass issue, ''it just kind of dissolved,'' Harold Reader says. ''It was never settled properly. The money thing became the No. 1 problem.'' Medinians felt that ODOT, in turning them down on their proposal, was looking for another excuse not to build. ODOT officials claim to have been waiting for further word from Medina.

No one ever said Medina didn't need a bypass. ''They're a good example of one of the first communities that should have had a bypass, back in the '40s,'' Reader says. ''The fact that they don't have anything indicates something is wrong. It indicates there was a lack of something that made the community and the department get together.'' To say the least.

As a long day of telephone calls continued, the governor's promise seemed less and less binding. But when I asked Jack Daly, the Governor's press secretary, about the promise, Daly had Rhodes call ODOT director David Weir. In moments he called back to announce with all but a flourish of trumpets: ''The State of Ohio is ready to stand by its word!'' It is? was all this reporter could stammer out as a reply. One more call brought the ODOT director's avowal that ''William Batchelder never got back to me formally or informally.'' He then repeated that the southern route was unacceptable. But, I muttered, feeling a Medinian confusion mounting with every moment, the unopposed southern route was never even looked at, because ODOT ran out of funds before it could decide whether it was acceptable or not. When I quoted deputy director Reader to that effect and reminded Weir that all Medina had been asked to do was agree on a route, he said, ''Medina is an example of someplace where the State of Ohio said you will have to make up your mind. I was present. I would have to do something to honor that commitment if they agreed on a route.''

And that was that, or so it seems. The missing link was not city or county government, it was the southern route, languishing unlooked-at in ODOT files and given up by Medina as another false start. Medina and ODOT failed to communicate. Medinians failed to communicate with one another. Which is understandable. With 750,000 trucks going by a year, who can hear anything anyway?

Unison never came easy to Medina, but then that's not what people live in small towns for. They did come up with a single bypass route, and they did paint their buildings. Medinians contacted on the phone seemed to think it was very nice that ODOT says it will make a start on a bypass, but no one seemed overjoyed. Forty years of truck traffic notwithstanding, there are miles of red tape still to get through, so those diesel engines won't stop for a while.

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