26 February 2008

"It's a gritty industrial town..."

...or that's what a recent NPR report about a real estate scam called the place I grew up.

They're not really wrong. Akron is a dying city. Having spent the first 21 years of my life there, I found it funny when reading Babbit the characters thought of it as the big city, an exciting locale.

But it once was. Back in the days of yore, the canals made the town a booming industrial city. The "Oatmeal King," made Akron his home base and started the Quaker oats company. You can still go and see the grain silos--now somewhat outdated, circular hotel rooms. In the early twentieth century, the Seiberlings started the Goodyear Tire Company, the Firestone's started their own tire company and the...um, somebody started the General Tire company. Akron became "The Rubber Capital of the World." Quite a title. And one that was well deserved. Immigrants flocked to the city to work in the rubber factories. The city is divided by neighborhoods that bear the names of the companies that built them: Goodyear Heights, Firestone Park.

Sometime in the mid 1970s or early 1980s, though, all of that began to change. The city was already starting to fade--factories had begun to build tires in places where workers did not require company loyalty, pensions, or even high wages. As the rubber industry moved away, the jobs moved with it, and with the jobs went the people. For the last 10 years or so, the city has been trying to reinvent itself. New city schools, a snazzy outdoor amphitheater in the middle of downtown, even a minor league baseball team. I'm not sure how well it's working, but it's an ardent effort.

It's always a bit surreal returning to Akron for a visit. All of my family (except baby bro, who's off in sunny CA) lives there- many of them in the same houses that have been in my family for generations. Every time I go back, it's almost as though I never left. I round the curve of interstate 77 and from the top of the hill, I can see the city laid out before me. And it's like my body remembers before my brain, guiding the car towards my parents house, swerving left of center to miss the large lump in the middle of the road, coasting through the stop sign at the beginning of their block, and smiling at the sawed off telephone pole that was left up to serve as a street sign on the corner of my grandparents' property.

It's always so familiar, and yet every time I return it seems so different. There's a tattoo parlor in the small neighborhood shopping plaza now. There are instant check cashing places and "games of skill" parlors where video stores, rootbeer stands, and mom and pop businesses once stood. It always seems a little grayer, a little older every time I return.

But Akron still has its charm.

Last weekend, as I rounded that same curve as I always do, the Goodyear Blimp was above us in the sky--almost parallel to our car. It's a sight a took for granted as a child- the silver fish-like balloon that was omnipresent in my childhood summers. Only recently did I realize that most people never actually get to see the Goodyear Blimp in person--it's just something that flashes on the bottom of their TV screen during sporting events: "Sky cam provided by the Goodyear Blimp." I lived two minutes from the big hangar where the Blimps were originally housed.

"Look," I told Little Man. "Look out your window- it's the Blimp." It took him a moment--the word and concept were both new to him. But he finally saw it, just as our car rounded the bend in the road and it went out of sight.
"More Bimp!" he called out over and over.

As unlikely as it is that we'll ever live in Northeastern Ohio again, it's kind of nice to know that he'll definitely have more "Bimp" to come.


Will said...

Really great stuff here. You're writing is rich and extensive. I'd love to have you contribute to my blog. I'm trying to get all artists together and create great literary works. If you're ever interested, let me know.


commondiscourse said...

Ohio is littered with towns and cities that flourished in an economy of production, but have since withered away. While the revitalization projects are done with good intentions, they rarely take into consideration the unique character and history of the target city.

It's not enough to add a mall or contract Wal-Mart to assassinate your small business owners. Meaningful revitalization should make use of the existing architecture, encourage a return to "main street" businesses with tax incentives, and direct government funds to public use projects.

And really, a few more blimps wouldn't hurt.

Anonymous said...

I think akron has done a pretty good job of keeping its heritage during this revidlazation, not getting rid of some of the historic buildings, until i heard they were going to tear down the rubber bowl. Whats that all about a football stadium in dowtaon akron come on know the rubber bowl his a peice of history righ along with derby downs at least a peace of my history. I will never forget the pain in my ass march from ellet to the rubber bowl carring drums what the hell was grom thinking

LD said...

I totally agree- Akron without the Rubber Bowl is as unthinkable as Akron without the Blimp. At least when they moved the one street they kept the giant Akron sign. As for what Grom was thinking-- that is a question I have never had an answer for.

Candy Rant said...

I didn't know you grew up in Akron! My brother lived in Cuyahoga Falls and worked for Firestone from around 1974-1984. Therefore I was visiting him there when you were, uh, being born. :)

JollyRoger said...

I am a former Lorain denizen. If you want to go someplace that'll break your heart, look around at the city that was.

Akron-Canton is one of only three areas in Ohio that have seen increases in employment and income in the Chimperial era, strangely enough.

Anonymous said...

I'm 33 years old. I live in Akron and hear stories from older folks about what a boom town it was in the mid-20th century. Looking around, you see vestiges of those long gone days, especially the neat old buildings downtown that haven't been demolished yet. Sadly, Akron doesn't offer a whole lot anymore. I'm lucky to have a niche job I enjoy that allows me to make a decent living, and of course, my family lives here. But if not for those two factors, I would have left a long time ago, out of necessity. And Akron is still light years ahead of Cleveland, Canton, Toledo, etc.