Editor's note: WKSU is partnering with The Akron Beacon Journal and The Devil Strip to cover the city's upcoming election. This story, from the Beacon Journal, is the first in a series.
Beacon Journal launches series examining key issues facing community
Bucking the trend to move away, Michael Jewell got married and found his forever home in 1975 in the midst of a seismic shift in Akron.
Already 40,000 factory jobs had gone, signaling the full bust of an industrial boom that had built Akron and other legacy cities now competing to reinvent themselves. Akron — a city with neighborhoods named after the paternal companies that employed them — would shed 50,000 residents in the next 40 years as Jewell moved from South Akron to Firestone Park — “very congenial, I would say, upper middle-class neighborhood.”
As the years ticked by, his aging neighbors in their aging homes retired, passed on or left the city, steadily replaced by younger, more diverse and less affluent families in a city with fewer of the jobs that lifted up the previous generation.
“It’s more integrated and not quite as well-to-do as before, but still a very nice place to live,” said Jewell, 77, who retired 18 years ago from the production side of the Beacon Journal as the internet upended newspapers. After volunteering for years, his local YMCA offered him a part-time job.
“I’ve got no regret at all living in Firestone Park,” said Jewell, who spoke of a fundamental “misconception” of life in Akron. “I’ll probably stay here for the rest of my life."
A bold plan for the future
Akron is again at a crossroads. Leaders are reaching for revitalization, this time by looking inward to help local businesses while pushing tax breaks aimed at attracting buyers to distressed housing markets.
The bold plan is walkable, bikeable, vibrant communities, reliable public service and economic opportunity — for all.
As all of City Council and the mayor face re-election this year, the Beacon Journal is asking the people who live, work and play in Akron to measure progress so far. Over the next month, in print and at Ohio.com, the paper will dive deeply into infrastructure, crime, housing, economic development, Akron's role in the region and other critical issues.
At the end of this series, the Beacon Journal and media partners will host four open and public conversations starting a month before the May 7 primary.
In the meantime, we’re listening closely in coffee houses, barber shops, libraries, restaurants, public spaces and to all residents willing to answer a knock at their front doors.
Your responses have been deep on some pretty dynamic issues, like whether jobs will again miss low-income neighborhoods or how exactly tax breaks for new homes would help longtime residents.
Your concerns, though, have been quite personal: paying sewer bills, finding good schools, not wanting to leave after college, coping with construction, living a paycheck from homelessness or reading the (almost) daily story of an unsolved shooting with no leads and no witnesses.
“My biggest issue? Honestly, the potholes,” said Eric Razo, 27, who runs Compass Coffee in Middlebury, where he and others at the Well Community Development Corporation have committed to revitalizing Akron’s grossly undervalued and old housing stock.
“Potholes are terrible,” said Razo, who moved from Youngstown to Akron for opportunity. “I’ve been to Juarez, Mexico, to build houses for people and there are roads in Juarez, Mexico, that are better than the roads in Akron.”
Shop owners talk of customers blocked from parking spaces by year-round road work. Employees and residents who pay the highest of income taxes and sewer bills in Ohio gripe about tires popping on bumpy streets and clothes ruined in the wash when city water pipes burst.
You spoke gloomily about a city — and its youth — held captive by drugs and gun violence. Crime, just behind potholes, was on the most minds.
“My concern is young people killing young people," said Dionne Sheppard, 48, who runs a group home for mentally disabled men in West Akron. "That’s basically it. Drugs."
"I have two young black sons [ages 27 and 29] that I worry about on the daily,” she said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t worry about my boys, hoping that life won’t catch them up.”
Statistically speaking, reported crime is down, though some frustrated residents say they have given up on calling 911. Witnesses are reluctant to come forward. And gun homicides, which increased again last year, reinforce the idea of a more dangerous city.
The city is punching back with new anti-violence initiatives for youth as the understaffed police department rethinks hiring so low-income and minority candidates can afford to protect and serve Akron, too.
These concerns are common in cities. But in Akron, there are bright spots, too.
Akron has outpaced its peers on a host of economic indicators — from overall unemployment to slowing population decline to a smaller racial disparity in the workforce, though unemployment for blacks is more than double what whites face. Still, outside of Columbus, the Akron region ranks relatively better than nearly every other Ohio metropolitan area.
“For some time, Greater Akron has been a brighter spot in Northeast Ohio,” said Brad Whitehead, president of The Fund for Our Economic Future, a collection of philanthropic foundations, corporations, universities, hospitals, civic groups and governments across northeast Ohio. “You can argue that [Akron] was the best of a struggling old industrial region. Being the best in Northeast Ohio doesn’t mean that your [the best in] Silicon Valley.”
Municipal leaders are betting the future on an aggressive plan to repopulate the city. Those efforts include a citywide tax break for new homes, public improvements downtown and strategies to create vibrant communities and revive neighborhood business districts.
“I’m in grad school right now, so I would obviously want to get a job in this area,” said Liz Yoder, who lives in Tuscarawas County and studies occupational therapy at Walsh University. Akron's three major hospitals "could be a plus” when thinking about where to leverage her education.
After a checkup for their son at Akron Children’s Hospital this month, Yoder and Coby Hartzler, her self-employed handyman of a husband, leafed through albums at Square Records. The 34-year-olds visit Akron five or six times a year, mostly for concerts. Earlier in the day, they talked about moving to the city over Lebanese cuisine at Aladdin’s Eatery, an option they don't have back in their small town of Dover.
“We’re handy, so we like to fix up old homes,” Yoder said. “So, we’re looking around. There’s some fun, old architecture here that could be useful to live cheaply.”
Whitehead and other experts applaud the city's growth plan but caution that the new opportunity must equitably and intentionally serve all races and incomes while letting home buyers and developers know without a doubt what to expect from City Hall.
“I think Akron is facing the standard issues that most legacy cities face,” said Allison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a think tank on urban revitalization and sustainable growth. “That said, I have been really impressed with how Akron has repositioned itself.”
The call from City Hall to commit public resources “to attract population back to the city both in the short term and 50 years out has really inspired people and set the tone,” Goebel said. “For so long, places like Akron have been managing decline instead of planning for the future.”
With philanthropic support, community development corporations are flourishing and giving residents a voice on how millions of city dollars should be spent on business districts and community parks. And the Chamber of Commerce, which Goebel criticized for not coming to the table in the past, is walking hand-in-hand with the city and county on a plan for equitable, inclusive growth.
“I do believe there is a renaissance happening,” said Katie Beck, 27, who manages Exchange House, a gathering place for cultural enrichment in North Hill. “I do think we need to be careful about how we talk about people on the margins … to make sure their voices and narratives are not being excluded.”
The most consequential shift in public policy not requiring voter approval has been the rollout of a 15-year property tax break on new housing and major improvements. There’s now a heartbeat in privately funded projects like the Bowery, a conversion of six historic downtown buildings into restaurants, a brewery, loft apartments and a back patio overlooking the canal.
Not since the birth of Akron some 150 years ago has new home construction been this anemic, averaging about 25 new units a year for a decade straight. But now private builders are jumping at old downtown hotels, buying up enough public and private property for 850 new apartments and 375 new single-family homes. Can they find enough millennials and empty-nesters to rent or buy them all? Multiple market studies say yes as neighbors play wait-and-see.
Some of the optimists are those who’ve lived through the darker days of the past 40 years.
“I think we’re on a path. I see things getting better all the time,” said Jason Chamberlain, 45, who works at The Guitar Department and Studio 1008, one of three recording studios in Kenmore in the city’s longest neighborhood business district. “Here in Kenmore, we finally got our street paved for the first time since 1978, I believe. And I see all the improvement and growth downtown.
"I just have to say, let’s keep that going.”
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.
In the meantime, let's get talking — now. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with concerns and solutions for your community and the city or take your thoughts online using #ThisIsAkron (This is Akron) on Twitter to start or join a conversation.