Ed. note: Mark gave this as a talk at the most recent PechaKucha Night in Akron. It’s not just an excellent example of the reason PK has become my favorite local event, but it perfectly sets the tone for this issue. We who love Akron and its people have a lot to celebrate but we have a lot of work left to do. I think Mark does a compelling job here making the case that we will prevail. – Chris H.
words and slides by Mark Schweitzer
What I want to share is about how I see the world. Let’s talk about vision: Usually, when we talk about vision we are speaking of being able to imagine the future. But I think it also means being able to look both forward AND backward.
We all remember Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” when he said, “I see dead people.” Well, I see old buildings, especially the ones that aren’t there anymore. I look at old photos of Akron and am amazed. For example, if you look at the area around B.F. Goodrich about 65 years ago, it’s a marvel — the density of buildings, the sheer amount of activity that must be going on in those streets. But most all of those buildings are gone. It makes me shake my head.
Now, the fact that so little is left is stunning to me. In most other Midwestern cities, a lot of these old buildings—these ghosts of the past—are still there. But then, Akron is not and never has been like most other Midwestern, post-industrial cities. For most of our history, we preferred to tear shit down.
I’ve always loved the concept of Urban Archaeology. I look at a place and wonder “What was there before?” Sometimes there are clues. Sometimes you have to dig through old books, old photo collections, old city directories. But sometimes, I’ve discovered you don’t have to dig at all.
For example, I was checking out the Better Block event in Middlebury this summer. I parked in Dave’s parking lot. Years ago, this spot was home to a huge clay sewer pipe factory. So I go walking over there and what do I find on the ground? An old piece of clay pipe. Seriously, I could have tripped over it.
As I mentioned in an article I wrote in October, the clay product and cereal industries – these are Akron’s ancient empires. We only find traces now. An old coal pit. An old garage made of clay tiles. Some pieces of these empires are visible, others are found under later development. Like ancient Troy, they lie buried under all the things that came after.
Now, if you lived in Akron around 1900 people were probably saying to themselves:
“We are knockin’ it out of the park. It can’t get any better than this.” But we know better, right? Akron was just getting started.
Books have called Akron “The Rubber Industry’s Rome”. As you look around at the greater Akron Area there is plenty of evidence for this. The Rubber Bowl, a mighty, ruined sports facility, is our Coliseum. The Airdock, a marvel of engineering, built with no visible means of support, could be our version of The Pantheon. The stately, reclaimed brick and stone arches found on the U of A campus remind one of the Arch of Constantine.
The point is, go to Rome and you won’t find one true Roman who doesn’t look upon their own landmarks and feel pride. Even after two millennia, they still speak to — and about— every Roman. Even today.
How much closer are we to our own great achievements? A half-century is just a blink of an eye — 50 years, a speed bump. How do these achievements speak to us? What do they say about Akron and the people who live here?
We tend to think about this history and feel a sense of loss. I think we need a need a broader, longer term perspective.
Akron really is one of the most unique and fascinating cities in America. No other city our size has seen so much building, demolishing, rebuilding demolishing and rebuilding again – for better or for worse. As an example, think of the spot at Wallhaven that was home to the West Point Market. When the new Whole Foods store is completed, I will have seen three different buildings on this site — in my own lifetime. How many other cities have passed through so many waves of change to transform themselves into something totally new? We are still doing it.
Now, this eye on the past is important to me, not because I like to dwell there, or keep reminding myself “how great things used to be.”
That’s not the point.
What it does is remind me that many of these past achievements were the result of happy accidents. It was about Akron having the right people at the just right time.
Many of these achievements were built upon smarts, hard work, creativity. And we have plenty of that in in Akron today, am I right? Look around at the next event where our creative people, our leaders and our entrepreneurs are gathered and you’ll know this is true.
It’s also important to reflect on the fact that many of these achievements were brought about by outsiders who came here from somewhere else. They were imaginative, hard-working people from other places and other countries. For whatever reason — they were drawn to Akron. How many people do you know came here from somewhere else?
I’m also reminded that these people lived in a place with a strong sense of civic duty. One that encouraged healthy competition but also smart coordination, cooperation and collaboration. I ask you: what is so different, now?
What all of this tells me is that the patterns and formulas for greatness don’t change. Only the faces do. Just look at some of the Akron business and creative leaders of yesteryear – and today. If you’ve study Akron’s past, you may have read about some of these people in our history books.
I am also sure that, in the future, more books about the history of Akron and Summit County will be written. Let me say without a doubt, there are people you know—friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow artists and activists, including some of the people you read about here in The Devil Strip—who will be in those books.
Look around our community. We have Entrepreneurs. Artists. Creators. Software coders. Poets and writers. Community leaders. Above all, we have the thing we need MOST of all, and that is DREAMERS.
The French historian and political leader Jean Jaures said, “Take from the altars of the past the fire — not the ashes.” It’s great to appreciate the Old Akron. But look around today and what will you see? You’ll see the faces of the people who are going to create The Next Akron.
Mark Schweitzer is a lifelong resident of Akron, who published a novel, “The Steadfast”, in 2002. With 30 years experience in advertising, marketing and public relations as a copywriter, account executive and creative director, Mark also designs and publishes books via his American Biblioverken imprint. He maintains three blogs about some of his favorite subjects: historical architecture, beer and Akron history. Currently Mark works at FirstEnergy and resides in Ellet, where he enjoys watching airplanes fly overhead, getting ice cream at Strickland’s and watching the Rubber Bowl become a worthy and picturesque ruin. Follow him on Twitter at @schweitzercomm