Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wait -- Where's the Rust?

“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.

2 comments:

  1. Part of the focus on keeping smart kids in Akron can be attributed to your efforts in the Beacon, so kudos, David.

    It hit me a few years ago, married to a longtime U of A person, that the thing that would and, in fact, is saving Akron is it's becoming a college town.

    Pres. Proenza took a buttload of criticism when he decided to approach Hilltop High as an infrastructural urban renewal program, focusing on the campus itself before dropping more cash into faculty and curriculum. But in the chicken and egg world, with kids looking at a campus and trying to decide where they wanted to make that first giant step away from the environment of high school, this was probably the best decision that could have been made.

    Real facilities, amenities, the feeling of stepping into a place for 'grown ups' is key. Get more kids and bigger time sports (yup, I said it) and the faculty will come. The curriculum will come.

    Taking all that fine research and development in the sciences as U of A has been known for all these years and mandating it (as much as possible) for commercial application LOCALLY is huge, and this is a primary thrust at the university these days.

    It's not, then, just a college town. It's a town with industry and technology and it's attendant economics BECAUSE it's becoming a real college town in a place where there's always been an eye on business and industry.

    Very cool. Very smart.

    I was on a plane a few years ago sitting next to a pretty young girl who was flying back home from NY to see her folks and friends. She told me she attended NYU and was majoring in education for kids with special needs. It did come out that one of the reasons she was in the City was to go to calls on Broadway. She told me she was going to come to U of A the next semester because she wouldn't be able to, in a lifetime, pay back her student loans with what NYU cost and what her profession was likely to yield in salary range. I assume her auditions didn't go so well and that was, as parental types maddeningly say, "out of her system." Still, the key of this conversation was when she told me all her friends from Green who attended The U of A reported that the experience was "awesome."

    I never thought I'd ever hear that. So no, I'm not surprised to hear how Akron is being viewed these days, but I AM delighted, Herr Professor.

    Hope all's well. Howdy to the family fer me.

    xoxo

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  2. Part of the focus on keeping smart kids in Akron can be attributed to your efforts in the Beacon, so kudos, David.

    If only H. Harvey knew how much your writing about Akron has influenced and informed my perception of my hometown.

    My pal Jessica Conti's in your creative non-fiction course this semester. She's a good egg.

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