“There’s this big project called Patchwork Nation,” she said. “They’ve chosen eleven cities to tell the story of the national economy. And Akron’s one of them.”
When you come from a place like this, a midsize city that has struggled for a generation with identity issues, being noticed always prompts a particular kind of thrill. Sometimes we feel like the Who’s down in Whoville, trying to get our story out. For most of the 20th century, Akron knew exactly who it was, and the rest of the hemisphere knew it too: The Rubber Capital of the World.
In the years since the loss of that defining industry, it’s often been difficult to establish the same kind of connection. We can say we live in the hometown of LeBron James, but that only provides the touchstone of a native celebrity. It doesn’t say anything about who we are.
So, yes, I was intrigued that my city was one of the chosen eleven. But I also knew what was coming next. She said each of these cities would represent a “type”: Boom Towns, Tractor Country, Monied ‘Burbs, Military Bastions.
I kept waiting for the one I expected to hear -- Rust Belt or Post Industry. Something like that. That’s the other thing we’re used to, the world identifying us by what’s no longer here.
And that’s when she said it.
“Campus & Careers.”
“Really?” I said.
And maybe I sounded a little more surprised than I’d liked to have sounded, but it’s a conditioned response in a place like this. You don’t lose 75,000 fellow residents in your lifetime without having a bit of a complex.
“Yep. Campus & Careers,” she said. “ It’s based on the high concentration of colleges around Akron and the number of young, educated people who live there.”
Which may well true, but even at that, Akron and all of Ohio struggle mightily with what the demographers call “brain drain,” yet another term that defines us by what’s no longer here. We’re used to the headlines about our brightest talent flowing to other places (often warmer ones), headlines based on statistics, but also on perception.
A 2006 study by the University of Toledo’s Urban Affairs Center concluded that Ohio’s brain drain was less common than is generally believed. “Only about 20% of 2000-2003 graduates left the state,” the authors wrote, quantifying the figure as “a relatively low percentage.” Additionally, the report showed, the trend has been improving over the past decade, in great part, I’m certain, because of the effort by cities to keep their homegrown talent here.
That’s another trademark of a place like this -- the recognition that we have to work harder to keep what many other places take for granted.
Some can argue that the Campus & Careers category is an odd fit for Akron, and I wouldn’t completely disagree. But I’d also argue that part of the oddness is based on the fact that we’re used to old perceptions of ourselves, and not so good at seeing what we are in the present, and what we’re becoming.
“Campus & Careers?” Sure. Why not? Of course.