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Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan (Or 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Akron')

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For those who were kids at the time the great unraveling began (people like me, and people like Della) it is partially about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke. In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends' parents worked in rubber factories. In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron. By 1984, 90 percent of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory. 

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Just as when a person dies, many people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment and denial. As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live. The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, was of a proud Akronite: This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves ... .

Well, that all got yanked away. I couldn't believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it. I could see it with my own two eyes. Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can't live a lie the way that adults can. When the mythology of your hometown no longer stands up to scrutiny, it can be jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.

We're the middle children of
history, man. No purpose or
place. We have no Great War.
No Great Depression. Our great
war is a spiritual war. Our great
depression is our lives.

— Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I'm fond of the above quote. I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old. Time, and the realization that life is short, and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it besides analyze it as an outside observer, has lessened its power considerably. It remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.  But, then again, maybe it shouldn't.  

I use the phrase "Rust Belt Orphan" in the title of this piece, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut level. But it's a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing. 

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the "Generation X" of regions — the place that just doesn't seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself; the place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because they have already been subsumed by the place's own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

— Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees"

The whole Gen-X misfit-wandering-in-the-Rust-Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom-acknowledged, part of our regional culture. It is probably just as well. It's so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie. Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

WHITHER THE FUTURE?

The Greek word for "return"
is nostos. Algos means
"suffering." So nostalgia is
the suffering caused by an
unappeased yearning to return.

— Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us? 

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on. We have begun to do this in Akron and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole. 

But what does "making our peace" and "moving on" really mean? In many ways, I think our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades. Nostalgia and angst over what has been lost (some of our identity, prosperity and national prominence) is all part of the grieving process. The best way out is always through. 

But we should grieve — not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on — but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Coming to grips with and acknowledging those things ultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief. There's a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with "moving on" and (even worse) that "moving on" is synonymous with "getting over it."

We're very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, amen).

We're not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention. But that's the world as we actually experience it, and it's the one that we must live in. It is far from perfect. But for all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one big advantage: It is real. 

"Moving on" means refusing to become paralyzed by the past, living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people who are better able to help others. But "moving on" doesn't mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn't experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we've actually been dealt.

Second, I don't think we can, or should, "get over" the Rust Belt.  The very phrase "get over it" traffics in denial, wishful thinking and the estrangement of one's self from one's roots. Countless attempts to "get over" the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable, short-sighted "get rich quick" economic development projects, and public-private pyramid schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective and expensive. 

We don't have to be (and can't be, even if we want to) something that we are not. But we do have to be the best place that we can be. This might mean that we are a smaller, relatively less-prominent place. But it also means that we can be a much better connected, more cohesive, coherent and equitable place. The only people who can stop us from becoming that place are ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, big business and big industry, we always seem to be so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization and the Next Big Thing. I'm not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both. Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big? No. Absolutely not. But it does mean that we should be prudent and wise, and that we should prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused and ultra-diverse. Fetishizing urban designer Daniel Burnham's famous quote — "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood" — has done us much harm. Sometimes "little plans" are exactly what we need, because they often involve fundamentals, are easier to pull off and more readily establish trust, inspire hope and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges, and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us who stuck it out and still live here know where we came from. We're under no illusions about who we are or where we live. I think Della Rucker was on to something when she listed what we can bring to the table:

 Determination
 Long-game focus
 Understanding the depth of
the pit and the long way left to
climb out of it
 Resourcefulness
 Ability to salvage
 Expectation that there are no
easy answers
 Disinclination to believe that
everything will be all right if
only we do this One Big Thing

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills and leadership. It all rings true.  

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished. "Long ago," he said, "long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more." 

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

So, let's have our final elegy for the Rust Belt. Then, let's get to work.

Excerpted from The Akron Anthology, out now from Belt Publishing. Beltmag.com. The Akron Anthology release party happens on October 16 at the Akron Public Library, 60 S. High Street. It’s at 6 pm, free, and open to the public – with featured speakers including Segedy, Giffels, and others to be announced soon.

Jason Segedy
  • Jason Segedy

Jason Segedy is the Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, Ohio. He has worked in the urban planning field for the past 21 years, and previously served as the Director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), the Metropolitan Planning Organization serving Greater Akron. He is an avid writer on urban planning and development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. His work has been published by Planetizen, Streetsblog, Rustwire, Wise Economy, Real Clear Policy, and New Geography. A lifelong resident of Akron's west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where residents can live, work and play. He came into this world at St. Thomas Hospital, in 1972, and he'll continue to do this work until they put him in the ground at Holy Cross Cemetery — hopefully a long time from now.

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