My latest article for City Journal is a feature in the Summer issue about Akron called “Middle City, USA.” As the name implies, I examine Akron as an urban tweener:
Basketball superstar Lebron James takes pains to make it clear: “I just always want you guys to remember that I’m just a kid from Akron, Ohio.” As James’s frequent encomiums to his hometown make clear, this Rust Belt city of just under 200,000 people (in a region of 700,000) still boasts a fierce civic spirit. But Akron and its most famous son don’t compete at the same level. “King James” is an international basketball superstar, an all-time great of his sport. Akron is a quintessential middle city, more like a role player or sixth man off the bench. It’s not a big city, like Cleveland, or a small one, like Lima, Ohio. It’s neither an economic nor a demographic superstar. Like many other industrial cities, such as Flint or Youngstown, it declined significantly starting in the late 1960s, but less severely than many others. Akron is still characterized by middle- and working-class neighborhoods, in a country where the middle class has been getting squeezed. It’s not a sexy city, full of glitzy projects to wow the outsider, but its many low-key quirks give it a unique personality.
I talk about its economic history as the Rubber City, its relationship to nearby Cleveland, its better than average economic and demographic performance, and yet its struggles to reinvent itself as well. Here are some excerpts:
Like many other industrial regions, however, Akron hit choppy waters in the 1970s. As with autos, part of the story was foreign competition. In this case, it wasn’t low-cost, high-quality Japanese cars but technical innovations from a European competitor. The French tire company Michelin had developed the radial tire, far superior to the older bias designs that Akron firms were still using. In 1968, Consumer Reports gave its seal of approval to radials, finding that they had longer life, steered better, and delivered superior gas mileage than tires using the dominant bias designs….Employment had been declining at Akron’s rubber companies before foreign absorption because the firms had built more modern and efficient factories outside the city, often in the less union-friendly South. As productivity grew, demand for workers fell. Downsizing, plant closures, and mergers devastated rubber-industry employment. The industry employed 37,100 people in 1964. By 1984, that number was down to 15,400; by the 1990s, it had cratered to 5,000. Economist George Knepper estimated that Akron lost 35,000 manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 1990.
Akron, then, is clearly a Rust Belt city —though it’s healthier than most. Metro Akron’s population, for example, has actually expanded since 2000, albeit slightly. That makes it one of only three Ohio metros to post growth in that period. Its municipal population has fallen by a steep 31.9 percent since its peak in 1960, but other urban centers in Northeast Ohio have fared worse. Canton is down 39 percent, Cleveland 57.8 percent, and Youngstown 62.2 percent. On the jobs front, Akron is the third-best-performing metro area in Ohio since 1990. Even in the troubled 2000s, when every Ohio metro area lost jobs, Akron was down only 4 percent, again third-best in the state.
Combating weak demographics is one of Horrigan’s key agenda items. He wants to reverse population loss and start growing the city again, using tools like generous tax abatements on housing upgrades. His goal is to attract 50,000 new residents to Akron by 2050.
One unlikely source of new residents has already started making a difference: fleeing from Bhutan, ethnic Nepali refugees were resettled in Akron, and the city is now home to one of the largest Nepali communities in the U.S., with about 5,000 residents. The Nepalis are centered in the North Hill neighborhood, which boasts the kinds of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants that one would expect of an immigrant neighborhood. Local leaders have rolled out the welcome mat, eager for new blood in a region with a low share of foreign-born population. The Nepalis have integrated well so far, many becoming home and business owners, but for now, they remain concentrated at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The city will need to leverage its culture and character for economic growth. Akron possesses quirky but interesting traits that set it apart from other cities, while also stamping its identity as a middle city. It’s a place where kids grew up with the sound of buzzing in the air—that meant that the Goodyear Blimp was flying overhead. It’s home to the All-American Soap Box Derby World Rally championship at Derby Downs, which attracts contestants from around the world. It was the longtime home of the Professional Bowlers Association—it doesn’t get more middle city than that—until former Microsoft executives bought out the troubled organization in 2000 and it moved to Seattle. Lay’s Guitar Shop has supplied guitars to musicians such as Joe Walsh and continues to sell custom and restored vintage guitars. Akron was the birthplace of the iconic oddball rock band Devo. It’s a city that possesses unique character traits, the kinds that add depth to a community. Akron should not run away from, or seek to homogenize, these features, but rather enhance them.
Click through to read the whole thing.