An Open Letter to Folks Who Think Akron Is a ‘Dying City’
To the people who think Akron is a “dying city”:
An Open Letter to Akronites Upset by Folks Who Think Akron Is a ‘Dying City’
Many crews retreat, nightly news repeat
Who got shot down and locked down
Spotlight to savages, NASDAQ averages
My narrative rose to explain this existence
Amidst the harbor lights which remain in the distance
Mos Def, “Respiration” (Black Star)
To my folks who get upset when people talk shit about Akron:
My favorite moment on the “(Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are) Black Star” album actually belongs to “Style Wars”, a documentary about hip-hop culture in 1980’s New York City. In the preamble to “Respiration”, a poetic track that anthropomorphizes the city, there is a snippet featuring graf writer Skeme talking about a piece he bombed on two subway cars.
He says, “On the first car in small letters it said, ‘All you see is…,’ and then, you know, in big, big, you know, some block silver letters, that said, ‘Crime in the city’.”
That image has popped in my head dozens of times since moving to Akron with my wife and daughter more than three years ago. While we were falling in love with this place, enamored with its people, opportunities and potential, a few folks occasionally surfaced to badmouth the city where they live. Even though I’ve surrounded myself with people who are active and engaged in the life and culture of Akron, I still come across this blanket negativity, which I think is born from an ignorance about the city most folks encountered.
A few days ago, it popped up on my magazine’s Facebook page after I asked what our readers what they’d learned or discovered about Akron over the last two years, which is how long The Devil Strip has been in print. Hidden among dozens of affirming responses, a guy mocked the premise, saluting “the run down neighborhoods and the meth labs an crime!” (sic), later posting the link to a news story about a recent murder.
All you see is…
About five paragraphs into the reductionist history that opens “Rubber and Heroin in a Dying City”, published by The Baffler, I realized I just don’t care. Do I wish this guy had a better opinion of Akron? Sure. Does it change how I’ll go about my life here? Nope. There are bigger fish to fry.
The author is a Columbus, Ohio native who admitted in his piece that Akron is drive-by country for him. Cobbled together with a handful of scary headlines, stats and a Google search on the tire industry’s rise and fall, he produced an unflattering essay on his way to attempting a point. But that’s okay. Broad generalizations and surface-level observations are artifacts of the legacy media outlets you’re trying to avoid when you open up journals like The Baffler. That kind of work fades. Don’t sweat it.
That said, I can’t lie; several of the comments on the angry post that first led me to “Dying City” make me smile. As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, this kind of knee-jerk defensiveness, which I recognize as civic pride, clinched it for me when we were deciding whether to move here or not. This chip-on-the-shoulder reflex told me we’d be living among people who care. Caring deeply matters, as I discovered in the company of likewise passionate people in Macon, Ga., my small Southern hometown, which was, like Akron, once much wealthier and better populated than it is now.
Since I’ve got that chip on my shoulder too, I’m fighting the temptation to do a rollcall of the Akronites, artists, civic leaders, organizations, agencies and movements that inform my view of Akron and inspire my faith in this city. And, of course, I want to argue with what I see as the inaccuracies in these negative depictions, countering with the evidence of another Akron, which is what we’ve shared in our pages for the last two years — from #TheAkronWeKnow series to our stories of people overcoming their opioid addiction.
But the Akron I know doesn’t need defending. It just keeps doing its thing.
Aside from the flash of annoyance we feel when the city is slighted, the folks I know are too busy working to let it bother them long. For example, the guy whose post first sparked me to read “Dying City” was bothered, I’m guessing, precisely because his day job is about helping people overcome addiction. He knows it’s hard enough for folks to enter into or stay in recovery without hearing they, their city or their situation is hopeless. However, come Monday, both my friend and his wife will be right back at it with their colleagues from several agencies, helping folks kick heroin.
How you see Akron is determined by the role you think you have here.
All you see is…
The story that matters most is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. It drives everything else we do. You don’t get far focused on the external, so while I’d be happy for the world to fall in love with us, I’m much more interested in helping other Akron residents see this place the way we do.
For whatever the discontented or apathetic among us have in common with the drive-by naysayers, the difference is that these neighbors can help us build this place up. They’re the ones worth winning over. Akronite can, and I think should, mean more than living within a few zip codes. It requires more of us than telling people that they’re part of the problem if they aren’t part of the solution.
Majora Carter, a “genius grant”-winning revitalization activist, says, “You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.”
That mentality sums up what I respect most about the people I know here. They aren’t giving up on Akron. Some are making their home here for the first time, others have come back home and many never left. These folks can’t stop themselves from doing something, just like I can’t keep myself from finally doing this mini-roll call. From the Art Bomb Brigade, Big Love and Crafty Mart to the Neighborhood Network, South Street and the DIY/house show music scene, this city is populated by people who see the problems in our city and acknowledge the damage that does to real human beings. That is, in fact, why they work: they recognize these problems as opportunities to make a real difference.
And that’s the difference. That’s the story about our ourselves that we should be telling ourselves. This is a city where people care too much about each other to sit on the sidelines only pointing out what’s going wrong.
All you see is…
The problem with preaching to the choir is that it keeps them from singing. If we want this to spread, we’ve got to let them sing. At the risk of stretching this metaphor too thin, sometimes we’ve got to point out they are the choir and singing is what they do.
That is, I don’t think folks start their lives intending, as a goal, to stay on the sidelines, cheering or jeering. But we live in a culture that has a habit of putting people there by telling them they’re the audience. When we say you’re a participant, that’s some step several steps removed from real action. You get to vote. You can answer a poll, pick up the paper, call your Congressman, donate. They’re not bad things, in and of themselves, and some can be important, but there’s more to genuine participation — what I’d call civic engagement — and it’s fulfilling. Which is what I love about the orgs I listed earlier, and the many in between. They pull people into the action.
Akron is not a dying city. Akron is not a thriving city, nor is it a city on the rise. It doesn’t need to be either. Akron is a place where you can connect to your neighbors, connect to community and to a higher sense of purpose. Akron is a city where you can pursue something that fulfills you and can help make someone else’s life a little better in the process.
It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. And eventually, everyone is going to see that.
//Chris Horne is the publisher of The Devil Strip and a guy who wishes he’d seen Mr. Willis-Abdurraqib read for Big Big Mess at Annabell’s in January to show him a side of the city he missed.