Friday, December 09, 2011

In Defense of Northeast Ohio

This week I happened to encounter through my news channels (read: Twitter) a couple of articles beaming praise for Akron, and I wanted to share them... because I really feel there is great value in my home city, and I love hearing good news regarding the state of its economy.

On December 2, Atlantic Cities published a piece about building community around job creation in the downtown area. I don't think this is revolutionary thinking necessarily, but that area around University of Akron's campus certainly needs some love and University Park Alliance is doing some really great stuff to make that area a true neighborhood and improve the quality of living within the area-- it's great work and certainly worthy of praise.

Just a couple of days ago on December 7, the Fiscal Times included Akron in their list of the Ten Best Cities to Find a Job. I have to say that I was surprised to see our city at #2 on the list... but happy nonetheless. I try to be fairly skeptical about these silly lists, but there is obviously much truth in many of them and it's nice to see Akron part of one that is on the more optimistic and positive side of the spectrum-- unlike Cleveland, which topped Forbes' 2010 list of the nation's most miserable cities.

As I recall, neither Cleveland or Akron fared well on that list. I do find it kind of interesting, though, to think about these exercises. I grew up and spent the majority of my life in Akron. I live in the Greater Cleveland area now. If Cleveland is the most miserable city in America, I would hardly be able to tell. I've found success in this city without any strings or connections, great investment in social capital. The cost of living is fairly low and there is a plethora of things to do- amazing restaurants, free cultural activities, and it's relatively easy to get around (even by public transit if you live in the right areas).

I've visited other cities that would probably not grace that list, and I've never thought to myself, "You know, self, these cities seem far less miserable than Akron or Cleveland." San Diego has gorgeous weather, Chicago has a bustling (and almost overwhelming) nightlife, and Toronto is likely the cleanest major city I've visited in all of the North American continent. None of those cities have the atmosphere, raw authenticity, or genuine nature of the Rust Belt, however. Perhaps they don't share in its devastation, either... but even with the blight, poverty, and rough economic status, I wouldn't on first glance put any of those cities far above Akron or Cleveland as "less miserable" (actually, I was told I could not even think of gracing the streets of Southern Chicago in broad daylight, despite my desire to see the more stressed areas of the city).

The fact of the matter is that every city has its problems- the sunbelt promotes sprawl and lack of social connectivity, hotspots like Cali and NYC experience a completely different cost of living, and many of the communities throughout the U.S. are devoid of any amount of diversity (while some may consider this an advantage, I would argue vehemently that it is a serious and tragic shortcoming). No matter where you are, residents will find something to complain about. No place is perfect.

Where I think this sort of list would matter is in terms of a city's at-risk and low-income residents. How does your city take care of its disadvantaged population? It is certainly easier to be homeless in some areas than others. It is easier to live on disability and social security in some cities than others. It is certainly easier to be a single, working mother in some places than others. Though I hear people of my generation bitching about how awful Akron is because the jobs are scarce (apparently not as scarce as we think), opportunities do not abound, and it may not be growing or thriving like other larger ones-- I can't say any of those people (myself included) are really in a position to call any quality of life they've experienced as a result of the city "miserable." I would argue that a family struggling to get their kids a solid (fair) education while trying to subsist on two measly minimum wage incomes, worried that a bullet may accidentally graze their kids while they are sleeping because gunfights are going on outside have a much better understanding of what "miserable" really means.

Of course every person's situation is different and people all have their issues... and these lists do include some of these more systemic parameters (unemployment, violent crime, etc) - but I think more times than not, people look at their own city's position on the list, become either proud, enraged, or defeated - and only base their assessment of that call on their own, limited experiences. But I also feel that the misery factor of a city would be far better measured by access to public amenities or green space than it would the performance of pro sports teams. Perhaps in this more socially-oriented perspective Akron and Cleveland are still towards the top of the list, but I also feel like it would be a list that would better serve to improve the cities that are under analysis.

As far as these silly lists are concerned now, I'd like to invite anyone with any amount of privilege to take a look around at the assets all throughout NEO. They are everywhere, and they need to be leveraged. Part of our problem is that we get so bogged down in our despair. We've become fatigued and exhausted. There is so much energy brimming in pockets all around us, however, and if we approach it properly it could potentially gain even more speed. I don't need Forbes to put Cleveland at the top of a list to know that change needs to happen. I need a collection of innovative and excited individuals to take pride in the identity of our region and tell me how this can happen and where to begin.

I think it all starts with an appreciation. Then investment. Not necessarily a financial investment (though these cities certainly need that as well), but an emotional investment. If Browns fans are still psychologically convincing themselves that the team is going to win "this time," why not champion the city itself and believe in something they can really be a part of? According to Forbes, our whole city, region is a "Factory of Sadness." The difference is that we have everything we need to turn it around- if we can bring ourselves to stop bitching and recognize that we have amazing things to offer and experience.

Miserable, say you? Fine. Every city has its problems. But when are you going to start taking responsibility for your part in ours? And what are you going to do about it?

Tara on the soapbox, signing out.


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