Being from Northeast Ohio is a deeply personal, but also a deeply collective, question of identity, and within that identity, the concepts of “place” and “region” are inextricably linked.
Place, for example, is a concept that operates on many levels. Personally, I feel the greatest degree of kinship with a cluster of several adjacent neighborhoods on the west side of Akron – West Akron, Wallhaven, and Highland Square – which is the place that I grew up, and where I live today. But I also feel a strong connection with downtown Akron, where I work; and with the City of Akron, the community in which I live.
However, my concept of “place” doesn’t end there. I feel a strong connection with lots of places throughout our region – whether that means a night out in downtown Kent, riding the Towpath Trail through Barberton, going to the Apple Butter festival in Burton, spending time prowling the used record shops in Lakewood, or going to see a show at the Beachland Ballroom in Collinwood. This kaleidoscope of places reflects back to me the colorful mosaic that is our region.
Region is a fuzzier, more nebulous, concept than place, but we all know what it means for each of us. Northeast Ohio happens to be a more complicated (and wonderfully diverse) region than most.
There are not many places in America where you can find four central cities, each with their own unique metropolitan culture, in such close proximity to one another. In 1920, Cleveland was the 5th largest city in America; Akron ranked 32nd; Youngstown ranked 50th; and Canton ranked 82nd. That sense of individual identity and that legacy of central place remains with us today.
These four cities are not suburbs of one another. Nor are they separate islands in an isolated archipelago in the South Pacific, with a dragon and a clipper ship along the border representing the edge of the world. The same goes for their surrounding suburbs, and all of the towns in between. The reality of our region is extremely complicated. Those of us that are trying to strengthen our region ignore this reality at our peril.
The complexity of our cultural geography involves three components – place, space, and people. And it is people – real actual people – that too often get lost in the shuffle, as we sit around with our maps, and our data, and our statistical models, and our plans.
In the end, all efforts to foster regional cohesion hinge upon our views on people, space, and place, and on this thing we call “society”.
What is society?
Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”. The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not. No one is an island.
It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important. But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed. The word “society” reminds us of this reality.
And what is place?
Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary? Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?
Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word? Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?
And what about the people themselves? Where do they fit into the equation? Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations? Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life? Is it even possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?
These questions are seldom considered in conversations about regional economic growth and development. But they should be.
David Giffels’ new book, The Hard Way on Purpose, is a title that perfectly captures the spirit of the people that could have left, but have chosen to stay, and not just in the region, but in the perennially-shrinking central city of Akron itself: how they exorcise the ghosts that haunt this place, and how they are building something new out of the rubble of the past.
Our generation serves as a bridge between the one-for-the-history books past and the yet-to-be-determined future of a region that is, at-turns, both manifest and enigmatic.
Those of us that have no memory of a prosperous economy, of a growing population, or of a championship-winning sports team, but chose to stay anyway - we know who we are and we know where we came from. We stay here for the sheer love of this place. We stay here because we recognize that love is a choice; an act of the will; a verb.
It’s not completely altruistic. Love is meant to be given, and it is meant to be received. We stay because this place needs us, and we stay because we need it. We love it because of what it’s been, what it is, and what we want to see it become.
Our wonderful region is a great place to live for many of us, but it is facing some very real, intractable social and economic challenges, which disproportionately affect our most vulnerable residents. These problems must be addressed, but we have to put time and effort into understanding how to collectively solve them in a way that avoids trying to place a very ineffective square peg into a very politically infeasible round hole.
So, how do we get it right? How can we knit our core cities, their surrounding suburbs, and all of the towns in between together to create effective, politically feasible, governing frameworks that work for all of our residents, rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban?
Like most people, I have more questions than answers, but part of the answer has to do with starting small, working on fundamentals, building trust, inspiring hope, and building authentic relationships between real people and their social networks. I’m not just talking about transactional relationships between the rich and powerful, but empathetic human relationships between people from all walks of life; relationships that transcend place, and race, and occupation, and socioeconomic status.
As an urban planner, I like to think that "good planning” is an important part of the answer, but I think we need to redefine what we mean by “good planning”. Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s famous “Make no little plans…” quote 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 human relationships.
In the end, it is about the people. They are what make our region a great place. As a public servant, I remind myself of this every single day.