Akron Is Rolling Again
AKRON, Ohio (AP) _ There was a time when Americans started their days eating cereal made in Akron and driving to work on tires made in Akron.
Working men flocked to ``the rubber capital of the world″ _ poor men, black and white, from Europe, Appalachia and the South _ drawn by the scent of molten rubber and good factory jobs.
Akron wasn’t like New England, with quaint covered bridges and a Revolutionary past, or New York, with skyscrapers and an attitude. It felt it was somehow more, well, American.
Just working people, building the wealth of the country. Not a sophisticated place; Akron had no Broadway. But it had the Soap Box Derby, the Pro Bowlers Association and the Goodyear Blimp.
Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, Akron died with the factories that made it strong. Soon the city was just a particularly rusty spot in the Rust Belt _ and that’s the way it seemed it would stay.
These days, to the surprise even of loyal Akronites, the town is starting to come back.
Nowhere is the rebirth more visible than on a clear evening at Canal Park, home of Akron’s minor-league baseball team, the Aeros. It’s one of several big projects, publicly funded and bolstered by private development, that have breathed life into the city center.
Fans amble over to the quaint, red-brick ballpark after grabbing a bite to eat and a beer nearby. Inside a few players warm up on the outfield grass while others sign balls.
Kirby Twigg, who works for a printing business, shows his sons the art of getting an autograph. Jeremy, 8, and Josh, 5, catch on quickly. Pens in outstretched hands, they stand at a wall separating fans from the field, wearing expressions somewhere between enthusiasm and desperation.
Everything is so pleasant that their father still can’t quite believe he’s downtown.
``I can remember the old, dilapidated buildings, places that were totally abandoned,″ Twigg says, waving his hand as if to push the memory aside. ``Akron has really come a long way.″
Watching the Aeros from behind home plate with her young son, Diane Craddock has similar thoughts.
``Growing up, shopping downtown was such a treat,″ she said. ``Then everything disappeared. Now we’re bringing it all back.″
Akron’s rise and fall was tied to rubber.
The first rubber company came here in 1870 when Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich, a Civil War surgeon turned businessman, put down roots to get away from competition in the East.
Akron became home to four tire-makers _ companies now known as B.F. Goodrich Corp., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., GenCorp and Bridgestone-Firestone, Inc.
Quaker Oats Co. cereal mills moved in, and Akron’s population tripled in a decade to 208,000 in 1920. Eventually, it topped 300,000. A magazine profile at the time was titled ``Akron _ Standing Room Only.″
In 1925, Goodyear launched its first advertising blimp, an icon big enough to match the city’s enormous productivity.
Black families like Art Minson’s came here for a better life.
Minson, now 85, arrived when he was 6. His father worked in a West Virginia coal mine but wanted out. He was on his way to Detroit to look for a job. He stopped in Akron, got some construction work and stayed.
His son worked for 40 years at Goodyear.
``I’ve seen Akron go down and go up,″ Minson said. ``When I was a kid, there were so many people downtown you couldn’t get on the sidewalk.″
George W. Knepper, a 73-year-old city native and now a professor emeritus at the University of Akron, also remembers when downtown was vigorous _ if hastily built and poorly planned.
The whole place stank of molten rubber, he recalled. But people got used it and, hey, it was the stench of money.
Grit from the smokestacks settled on everything. If you lived near a rubber factory you couldn’t hang sheets out to dry for fear of getting them stained with soot, said Ray Dove, a retired Goodyear chemist.
But the prosperity, and all that came with it, didn’t last.
In the 1970s and ’80s, mergers, takeover attempts and product recalls destroyed Akron’s tire-making industry.
Factories shut. Knepper, the professor, estimates the city lost about 35,000 manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 1990.
Today, no major tire plants are left in Akron. Goodyear is still headquartered here, but Quaker Oats was gone by 1972.
Department stores closed as the job losses and competition from suburban malls annihilated the downtown. Akronites of today have grown up with the legend of the city official who walked through a vacant downtown lot and was asked why the weeds weren’t cut.
Why bother, he is supposed to have replied; they’ll just grow back.
Things got so bad in the early 1980s that native daughter Chrissie Hynde, lead singer and songwriter of the Pretenders, immortalized the town’s plight in ``My City Was Gone″:
``I went back to Ohio.
``But my city was gone.
``There was no train station.
``There was no downtown ...
``My city had been pulled down
``Reduced to parking spaces.″
But Akron has fought back, shifting the emphasis from heavy industry to leisure, high tech and small businesses.
Under Don Plusquellic, Akron’s mayor since 1987, the city has poured money into projects to lure people downtown.
Said Jim Phelps, deputy mayor for economic development: ``Our strategy was that if we can modify people’s behavior, we may be able to modify their attitudes. We modify their behavior by giving them something they can’t find somewhere else.″
In the past five years alone, Phelps estimates, $100 million or more has been spent on Canal Park; Inventure Place, a science museum that houses the Inventors Hall of Fame; and the John S. Knight Center, a downtown convention center.
Those efforts, helped by the economic boom of the 1990s, have sparked some action.
Canal Park, for example, attracted 521,122 fans last season, the best figures in Class AA baseball. A district of bars and restaurants has sprung up around the park, doing good business before and after games.
Businesses are coming back, too. Akron’s jobless rate as of May was 5 percent, a little above the state and national average but lower than Cleveland, Dayton and nearby Canton.
While manufacturing still makes up about one-quarter of the jobs, the focus has shifted to smaller firms involved in automotive parts, specialty chemicals and metalworking, said Rebecca Guzy of the Akron Regional Development Board.
Downtown, developer Tony Troppe recently renovated two grand old buildings near the federal courthouse and has had little trouble renting to lawyers and other professionals who want to be in an area with more character than a suburban industrial park.
Troppe likes to say that he used to drive through the same neighborhood ``to hear my muffler reverberate off the empty buildings.″
GOJO Industries Inc., which makes skin care products, plans to move its headquarters with about 250 employees into the old Goodrich headquarters next year.
Of course, Akron still has problems.
The boom days of rubber are gone forever. Ohio doesn’t even rank among the top five states for tire production anymore, according to Rubber & Plastics News. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Illinois are the leaders now, and roughly one-fifth of the tires on the road in the United States are now made abroad.
Inventure Place, the science center, has battled budget deficits since it opened in 1995. The city schools have received low ratings from the state, and the police department has been plagued in the past year by errant officers. In the most serious case, a captain was convicted of murdering his wife.
In another, a retired lieutenant faced charges after he was accused of protecting the leader of an alleged prostitution ring.
And while the U.S. Conference of Mayors honored Plusquellic in June for his efforts to make Akron more livable, the May issue of Forbes magazine ranked Akron just 154th among 162 cities on its list of best places to do business.
But the mood in Akron is still upbeat. Some people have even stopped longing for the days when rubber was king.
``Akron today is a much better place to live and work than it was in the good old days,″ Knepper said.