In every culture, you have a “creation myth” – a story you tell yourself (that may or may not be entirely true) about where you have been, where you are, and where you are going.
In Akron (the city that I live in and love) our “creation myth” goes like this:
We were a world-renowned city, the global center of the rubber and tire industry, for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century; we struggled mightily in the 1970s and 1980s; we began a comeback in the 1990s; and we have been on an upward trajectory ever since, outpacing most of our Rust Belt peers (minus the road bump of the 2008 recession).
There is a lot of truth to this myth, but like any unifying narrative, it glosses over some details that might get in the way – like our continued population loss, and our corresponding failure to figure out how to renew our community as a place to live.
Worrisome Trends in Akron
To be clear:
- We did weather the storm of the collapse of our primary industry far better than most Rust Belt cities did.
- We have an amazing stock of high quality, older housing on the city’s west side that is likely to sustain it for years to come.
- We are the least racially-segregated major city in Ohio, and one of the least-segregated older industrial cities in the entire U.S.
- We have consistently economically outperformed every major city in Ohio (except Columbus), and have held our own compared to our Rust Belt peers nationwide.
- We enjoy political and economic leadership that is the envy of most cities, and that has served us extraordinarily well throughout the aftermath of the collapse of the rubber and tire industry.
But with a current-day population of 199,000, we have now lost 91,000 people since we reached our peak population of 290,000 in 1960 (a 31% decline).
After losing only 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost 17,000 in the 2000s.
In 2010, we shrunk to below 200,000 for the first time since 1910.
So, since the beginning of the 21st century, our population loss has actually accelerated, rather than decelerated – by a factor of three.
Even more worrisome is the fact that, since 2000, we have seen a significant decline in the number of households – for the first time since 1960.
Most of our shrinkage through 2000 was due to the changes in household size. These changes were still concerning, but they were not out of step with what was going on in most other older cities.
Almost unbelievably, between 1960 and 2000, we had the same number of households, despite the fact that we lost 73,000 people.
It’s really quite remarkable.
But since 2000, we have been losing people and households.
This is extremely concerning, because it is the loss of households that has directly contributed to our growing vacant and abandoned property problem and the erosion of our tax base.
Here are Akron’s numbers by decade. They are dramatic:
Year Population Households Avg. HH Size
1960 290,351 90,004 3.23
1970 275,425 91,592 3.01
1980 237,177 90,576 2.62
1990 223,019 90,119 2.47
2000 217,074 90,143 2.41
2010 199,110 83,718 2.38
So, despite losing 73,000 residents, the number of households in Akron was consistent for 40 years. But since 2000, we lost another 17,000 people and over 6,000 households.
Even worse, this unprecedented loss of households came at a time when average household size was starting to level off. If we had been able to keep the same amount of households, we could have retained a lot of the people that we lost during this past decade.
In fact, if we had retained the same number of households, we would have lost less than 3,000 people in the last decade.
But we didn’t.
Maybe we couldn’t have retained these households.
Maybe we didn’t have the available housing to do it.
Musical Chairs…in Housing
The 21st century represents a true demographic turning point for our city. Our loss of not just population, but now households, too, is a direct result of our using up all of the viable, marketable housing that we had, and our tearing down more housing than we have been able to rebuild.
Simply put – we are now at the place where we are physically unable to grow, because we are experiencing a net loss of housing, year after year, as it gets older and older.
On average, we tear down 500 houses every year in this city. On average, we build 10.
New residents can move to Akron, of course, but they simply will be replacing someone who already lives here. We are playing “musical chairs” with our housing stock – one person replaces another, and every once in a while, another chair is taken away.
It is a very disturbing trend.
It is also a very underreported trend. I had never seen this information until I pulled it from the census for this post. I’m not sure that anyone else even knows this.
So what should we do?
We have to learn how to build new housing in this city – a lot of new housing. And we have to learn how to market it well.
Rehabilitating old houses (where practical) will certainly help us, but my guess is that, even in a best case scenario, we will tear down five houses for every one that is renovated.
The houses that we have left are simply getting too old and obsolete. The best ones, in the best neighborhoods, are already occupied and are being cared for.
I think downtown Akron’s future is as a mixed-use residential center, rather than as an office center. This trend is already happening in many cities. It is happening on a significant scale in Cleveland, as more and more office space is vacated and retrofitted as residential space. We should intentionally support that same thing here.
We have a lot of undeveloped and underutilized land in this city that could be re-purposed as new densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhoods, especially if we got creative.
Rolling Acres Mall, for example, could be redeveloped as a huge, new residential neighborhood. I’ve heard talk of reusing it as an industrial park, but I’ve never heard anyone mention the possibility of redeveloping it as an actual neighborhood.
We should think about it.
We have schools that are shutting down. The former Perkins Middle School, for example, could be redeveloped as a cluster of new homes in an already quite attractive and convenient residential neighborhood.
We have a lot of underutilized parks in this city. Grace Park, for example, has been a crummy park for over 60 years. My grandfather, a former APD Captain used to tell me about how he would bust drug dealers and prostitutes there, even back in the 1950s.
Grace Park could probably be shrunk down to one-third of its current size, with the rest of the existing park redeveloped as a new, densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhood. The remaining third of the existing park could be preserved, re-sized, and with new adjacent residential properties, might actually see some use. It’s an extremely attractive site – located immediately adjacent to Downtown Akron, the University of Akron, and Summa Akron City Hospital.
Some of these ideas are probably infeasible. They might even be kooky. But even if these ideas prove to be crazy, there have to be other creative and innovative ideas out there for rebuilding our city.
Starting a Dialogue
Not enough people are publicly thinking about this, or proposing audacious ideas about how to grow again. But this is the kind of thinking that actually repopulates your city.
As important as they are, a stray infill house here and there simply is not going to get the job done.
The oldest neighborhoods, like West Hill or University Park, that are closest to the core of the city may eventually begin to redevelop as attractive residential areas, as Highland Square has begun to. But, at the same time, many of the older, formerly stable working-class neighborhoods like Kenmore, North Hill, and Goodyear Heights will begin to “age-out,” as their housing becomes increasingly obsolete and difficult to maintain. Ellet and Firestone Park may not be that far behind.
Much of West Akron will continue to age gracefully and is likely to remain a stable, attractive area for years to come, but we can’t rely on it forever.
We are likely to experience a lot of ups-and-downs in terms of neighborhood revitalization and decline over the next several decades. We will probably need half-a-dozen (or more) different redevelopment strategies for our neighborhoods, depending on which neighborhood we are talking about.
We will need to learn how to bring the public sector, the private sector (specifically developers, home builders, and realtors), non-profits, and residents together in order to strategically, intentionally, and creatively rebuild each one of our neighborhoods.
It will be challenging, but we can do it – working together.
As a community, we need to adopt some bold and audacious goals involving population growth and residential redevelopment.
I, for one, would like to see us grow back to a population of 250,000 before I die.
In the meantime, we could start with a more modest goal of growing our population back above 200,000. Given current trends, it is not going to be as easy as it sounds.
If we could get one in five homebuyers in Summit County to end up purchasing a house in Akron (who would not have otherwise) we could get back above 200,000 – provided that we are building enough new housing that we are not simply playing musical chairs with the existing housing.
If we can learn how to build new housing, and attract new residents to Akron, we could begin to mitigate our abandoned and vacant property problem, begin to restore our tax base and begin to create new markets for entrepreneurship and small-business development in our neighborhoods.
It would create new opportunities and new jobs, and would provide more people with a wonderful place to live.
It would also leave plenty of residential growth to go around for the remainder of Summit County. After all, the city of Akron still accounts for 37 percent of the county’s population, so attracting 20 percent of the new homebuyers is far from an unreasonable or an inequitable goal.
Restoring the residential housing market in Akron would also be good for taxpayers throughout Summit County. As property values decline in the urban core, it is suburban homeowners who end up having to make up the difference.
I think that Akron has the human capital and the innovative and collaborative culture to figure out how to do this.
But we have to get intentional about it. It’s not going to happen on its own.
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