Not long into the cover story of the most recent edition of The Atlantic, my thoughts turned to Akron. James Fallows wrote “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together.” He and his wife spent three years traveling the country by single-engine plane. Their many stops brought them in touch with “civic and individual reinvention,” in such places as San Bernardino, Calif., Bend, Ore., Bethlehem, Pa., Duluth, Minn., even “the golden triangle” of northeastern Mississippi.
In Holland, Mich., the renaissance stemmed from the arrival of Latino immigrants. In other cities, the arts proved the driver, or entrepreneurship or some combination of factors. What captures Fallows is “the alternative melody” to the clashing sounds of dysfunction in Washington. He discovered communities, larger and smaller, Pittsburgh and Louisville, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Ajo, Ariz., rallying to overcome and uplift.
I kept thinking: Akron might have fit the description.
How neatly the University Park Alliance might have reflected the theme, not the complete transformation of 50 blocks around the University of Akron but progress made, a foundation for new housing and revived neighborhoods. Or the Austen BioInnovation Institute, if the state had kept its pledge to provide resources for attracting talent to the university, and local partners had performed the real work of collaboration.
Or the strategic plan outlined by Battelle for mobilizing around the idea of “biomaterials,” still a concept well suited to Akron and its strengths but attracting little notice.
This isn’t to rehash old defeats, each of these initiatives fizzling in one way or another. Yet they are hard to overlook when as Fallows tells of cities achieving just such things, Akron receives a sobering assessment from the Greater Ohio Policy Center, supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The 62.4 Report (the number refers to the square miles of the city) offers a profile of Akron. Once viewed as a model for aging industrial cities making the rough transition to a new economy, the city has fallen off the pace, even dramatically. The report notes one observer describing the recent trajectory as “the smoothest downward escalator.”
Many may not have noticed the persistently high jobless rate, or the marked decline in full-time workers or the sharp rise in the poverty rate. Add a drop in median household and per-capita income, plus a steep loss in population and a jarring increase in housing vacancies.
The number of neighborhoods losing population faster than the city as a whole actually declined from 13 out of 21 in the 1990s to 11 in the 2000s. That is good until you consider that in the 2000s, the total number of neighborhoods losing population increased from 13 to 19.
More, the number of neighborhoods with a poverty rate higher than the city overall rose from nine in 2000 to 13 in 2010.
What makes the 62.4 Report so striking are the comparisons to five cities, Erie, Pa., Fort Wayne, Ind., Hamilton near Cincinnati, Syracuse, N.Y., and Worcester, Mass. Each has performed better in the main than Akron along these measures.
The report does carry a reassuring element. It points to “a number of promising programs” in motion here to address “these challenges over the long term.” That is evident, for example, in the arts community coalescing to make a greater impact, the efforts of the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and partners in the Summit Lake area and the work of the Downtown Akron Partnership.
It matters hugely (as one presidential candidate or two might say) that Mayor Dan Horrigan has opened the door to new ideas and initiatives, just as it is crucial to get past the turmoil at the University of Akron, the school integral to the city making improvements.
James Fallows put together “an informal checklist,” or “11 signs a city will succeed.” The list covers staying clear of the divisive politics; local leaders who make the city go; true public-private partnerships; residents aware of the civic story; a lively downtown; a research university; a nearby community college; distinctive schools; an embrace for immigrants and refugees; “big plans;” and, finally, craft breweries.
Akron has the makings to check the boxes. That is partly the legacy of what once won the city applause. It also goes to the emergence of new leaders. Then, as Akron surely learned, there is the big challenge of making better happen, returning, say, to model status the next 10 years. Will the city do what it takes to get off that downward escalator?
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or emailed at email@example.com.