When America Was Great

It would be nice if everything was either-or, black or white;  if the laws of physics only allowed one cause for every observed effect.  It would be useful if history books reflected the true nature of what occurred in the past, and all our problems would be solved if everyone always told the truth.

This is all wishful thinking, of course.  It’s like unicorns and colonies on Mars.  It’s like the past we think we can recapture.

I was born in Akron, Ohio in 1947.

It was a good time to be a kid in Akron, especially if you were white, male, and straight.  The war was over and Eisenhower was in the White House.  Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich, and General Tire were all headquartered in Akron.  It was the “rubber capital of the world” and as the auto boom continued, the rubber industry thrived.  In high school we played city championship games against Garfield in the Rubber Bowl, right next to Derby Downs where the Soap Box Derby finals were held.  What says “America is Great” better than the Soap Box Derby!

The Rubber Bowl and Derby Downs in better times.

I have some very good memories from the fifties.

I lived in what was known as the “sticks.”  There were about three houses within two blocks of us.  Mostly it was open fields.  There weren’t any “neighborhood kids” to play with.  There really wasn’t any neighborhood.  I read books.  I walked a mile to grade school and two miles to high school (uphill, both ways, in the snow).  I have vivid memories of walking to Lawndale  Elementary down Wilbeth Road  in April, thunderstorms pounding away overhead, leaves beginning to emerge on the big trees in the tree lawns, the sun poking through now and then under the dark clouds creating a rainbow, and that wonderful  smell of ozone in the air.

The school crossing guard at Wilbeth Road and 27th St. was usually an adult, not one of the sixth graders that manned less busy intersections.  She would be out there in the driving rain with her long black raincoat and her big red paddle sign that said “stop,” and she’d invariably say hello to each of us.  Sometimes on the way home I’d walk down Wilbeth Road and cut across the field behind the East Avenue Tavern to get to Mud Run at Woodbirch and continue on home.  You had to be careful of the huge St. Bernard tied up behind the tavern that liked to chase kids until he hit the end of his chain and flipped over backwards.  Sometimes I’d walk with Virginia down Kentucky Ave where she lived and then cut up Swinehart until it turned into Kenmore Ave and then again into Grand Blvd. where my grandad had his auto garage.  From there I could climb the hill behind the shop and cut through my grandparent’s yard to get to mine.

If you ask me when America was great, those are the memories that stand out.  They are the memories of youth filtered through more than a half century of life.  The history book of the mind has ferreted out and eliminated much of the unpleasantness, leaving that longing for the days when things were so much easier and seemingly simpler.

I remember how excited I was to finally get invited to one of Lana’s weekend square dances and how great it was to be elected captain of the crossing guards at Lawndale Elementary for a while.  I took bowling lessons at Ken-Bowl.  I delivered newspapers and camped with Joel, Stan and Gary, all of us members of Troop 210.

There were bad things to remember too.  We had regular drills where we hid under our desks to avoid nuclear blasts.  Khrushchev said he was going to bury us.  The world outside was scary, but in Kenmore, when we were that young, things were pretty great.

We can go back to that, can’t we?  Square dances in a garage on Battles Avenue and thinking that a school desk would save us from a nuclear attack… we can recapture that, right?  Isn’t that what every boomer wants, deep down in the recesses of a mind pummeled by a history we would like to forget? Can’t we just go back to that time when June Cleaver vacuumed the house in heels and Ward gave the Beaver a stern lecture when he did something thoughtless and the Beav genuinely regretted his actions immediately, unlike these pampered millennial snowflakes with their safe-zones and trigger warnings of today?

Kenmore Blvd. in 1961 – not quite Pleasantville after the “change,” but close.

We can go back to Christmas trips downtown to see the elaborate window displays at O’Neil’s and Polsky’s department stores with their animatronic characters and colorful costumes, stand in line for hours to visit Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer in Polsky’s  with the smell from the Quaker Oats silos only blocks away wafting through the town.  We can do that, can’t we?

Fish and Chips at Lujan’s Big Boy and summers swimming at Nesmith Lake?  Taking a date to Young’s Hotel?  Mary Lou cheering on the sidelines and Wade and Skip on the field, making Kenmore proud?  We can go back to all of that if only someone would Make America Great again, right?

I truly wish it were so.

Quaker Oats closed in 1970.  They made a shopping mall out of the silos.  That closed.  They made a hotel out of it.  That closed.  Now Akron University uses it for a residence hall.

Polsky’s closed in 1978.

O’Neil’s closed in 1988.  The rear of the building was torn down and the city built a parking garage there.

The tire industry had struggled since the early sixties with the introduction of radial tires and the recession that began in the mid-seventies doomed it.

Goodyear stopped making tires in Akron in 1978.  The rest soon followed. There were 32,700 jobs in the rubber industry in 1974.  By 1984 there were only 15,400. By the ‘90s there were only 5,000.

Unemployment in Akron in the 70’s hit 12.1%, the highest since the Great Depression.

I left Akron right after I graduated from Kenmore High School in 1965.  I didn’t watch all this happen.  But fifty years later I came back and saw the result.  Fifty years later I went back for a reunion and saw what my city had become.

Chrissie Hynde said it in her 1984 song about Akron:  “I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone.” (1)

Rolling Acres Mall when it opened.

I stood on the steps of Lawndale Elementary once again.  It would close later that year and I got to say goodbye.

They had torn down most of the Kenmore High I went to in 1981 and replaced it with a mostly windowless bunker.  They will close and raze Kenmore’s arch-rival, Garfield, this year and close Kenmore permanently as soon as a new combined school can be built on the Garfield site.

The Lujan’s Big Boy site is now a rib place.  Young’s Hotel is gone.  The girl I often took to dinner there has passed away.

You can’t go back.  Nothing stays the same.

The Rolling Acres Mall, down Romig Road from the house I was raised in, once had over 50 stores in the ‘70’s.  Now it is an empty shell, weeds poking through the parking lot concrete.

Rolling Acres Mall now.

The Rubber Bowl is an abandoned skeleton.

I drove to Cuyahoga Falls to see the house my maternal grandparents had lived in.  I was prepared for the fact that the wonderful old elms that created an arch of green over Big Falls Avenue, branches from one side intertwined with branches from the other, would be gone.  I wasn’t prepared for the abandoned houses, windows broken, doors off hinges.  One had a hand-scrawled cardboard sign that said “For Sale – $500” nailed to the front.

My paternal grandparent’s house was occupied by a renter.  We needed to sell the property, and I visited her to explain that she would have to find a new place to live.  She said she was looking for a place in Wadsworth.  She wouldn’t move anywhere nearby because “everything had gone dark.”  Like most cities, Akron had undergone a population shift.

I didn’t see any of this happen because I wasn’t there.

I wasn’t there when two out of every five manufacturing jobs in the county that were left in 1999 disappeared by 2010.

I wasn’t there in 2013 when Akron led the state in busted meth labs – 248 in one year; or more recently when heroine manufacture came into vogue. (2)

I wasn’t there, but I know people who were.

Those people had to watch this all happen on a daily basis.  They had to watch as every day a new piece of all that was great about our youth was destroyed.  They had to live with it in real time.  That must have been an awful thing.  This isn’t Detroit or Chicago or some other city that’s just a name on a map.  This is where we grew up.  This was homeis home.

There are reasons, of course, for all of it.  If you want to, you can trace the myriad of causes that led to Akron’s decline.  They don’t matter.

What matters for most people is that it happened and nobody did anything to stop it!

All of those things – all of those things that are so important to our sense of who we are and who we were –were taken from us.  They were taken away by someone or something and no one stepped in and said, “No.  Stop this.”  And what came to take their place was not of our making.  It was done to us.

“Too many rental properties, vacant/foreclosed property, heroin squatters, heroin users, drug activity, [neighborhood] ex-cons, speeding, not enough police presence, litter, homelessness, registered sex offenders, drug dealers, drive by shootings, burglary, vandalism, trash cans out on curbs for weeks.” (3) This is what came to take the place of what our city was back when we were growing up, back when we thought Akron was a great place to live.

Where was the government when all this was going on?  Weren’t they supposed to protect people?  Wasn’t Akron worth protecting?

The Rubber Bowl, one time home of the City Championship games, in harder times.

It doesn’t do much good to try to explain how the tire companies let their plants become obsolete because they refrained from capital spending and how the introduction of radial tires created a new market which required expensive retooling just when an oil embargo prompted by the US rearming of Israel after the Yom Kippur War drove gas prices so high that driving declined and tire demand dropped and then a recession hit that sealed the fate of the tire companies.  Pain is never overcome by reason.

It doesn’t do much good to try to explain that when a blue collar town tries to become a white collar economy that alone will not help the blue collar workers who can’t get those new jobs and then turn to crime to survive.  Once arrested and sent to prison, they can’t get any job when they get out.

It doesn’t help to draw the arc from the creation of the War on Drugs during the Nixon administration to the heroin overdoses that have plagued the city recently.

This isn’t about facts or reason.  This is about an almost overwhelming sense of loss.  We had something, and if it wasn’t great, it was a whole lot better than we have now.

There were elm lined streets and they are gone.  There were neat little neighborhoods and they are gone.  There were square dances in garages and now there are heroine squatters.  There were jobs and they have disappeared.  Not just in Akron.  Anywhere there was a blue collar middle class at one time, now there is a sense of loss.

And no one did anything.  No one said, “These people are hurting.  We need to do something.”

Instead, banks offered variable rate, sub-prime mortgages and people who were already hurting got more in over their heads.  When the housing bubble burst, what was left of the middle class had lost even more.

People voted for Obama because he promised change, but places like Akron saw no real improvement.  They saw the backlash to his election make racial strife worse, but there were no more jobs.  There were just more drugs and more overdoses, more disrespect for the police.  Homes were abandoned; malls were abandoned.  Crime increased.

I didn’t see any of this happen because I wasn’t there.

But if you did see all of this happen, then I can understand the appeal of “Make America Great Again.”  I can understand how exciting it must have been to have a man stand there and talk directly to you and tell you that he would bring back the jobs.  He would stop jobs from leaving the country.  We would win again.  We would win so much that we would forget all that stuff we had lost.  He would negotiate great deals because he was a great negotiator.

And he would drain the swamp.  He would get rid of all those politicians that had paid no attention to you and to your city for all those years.  Finally, they would have to pay for all the poverty, the crime, the drugs, and the neglect.

It didn’t really matter whether you believed him or not.  Finally, someone was talking to you.

It didn’t matter whether he could deliver on what he said or not.  Everyone hated him.  His own party hated him. Democrats hated him.  The media hated him.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  If nothing else, he was a human hand grenade that could be lobbed at the establishment which had destroyed so much that you cherished.

I get it.

If he could do the things he said he could, then he would “Make America Great Again,” and if he couldn’t, then as Michael Moore said before the election, at least voting for him would be “the biggest fuck you ever recorded in human history.”

The pundits and the social media activists on the left are currently entrenched in advancing the notion that Russia interfered in the election process and that explains why Trump won.  They did, and it does not.

Others adhere to the excuse that FBI director, James Comey, sabotaged the election with his announcement that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton’s emails.  It certainly had an effect.

But if you really want to understand why Democrats lost the election, you need to understand how the people I left behind in Akron must have felt after fifty years of watching their city fade.  Walk down the street you played on as a kid and look at the boarded up windows and trash in the yards.  Look at the bricks falling off the top of the building by the library.  Watch the emergency rooms overwhelmed by overdose patients.

If you really want to understand why Trump supporters don’t care about the lies and the ethics violations and the nepotism or any of the rest of it, just look at how much turmoil he has brought with him to DC.  Payback is a bitch.

This isn’t about facts or reason.  This is about people who were hurting and who needed to be heard raising an enormous middle finger to the establishment who ignored them and shouting “fuck you” at the top of their lungs.

Who else haven’t we been listening to?

Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

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5 thoughts on “When America Was Great

  1. Roger this is one article that I totally agree with. When I went back for the reunion it was the 1st time I had been back with enough time to drive around since the late 70s. The house I grew up in had been empty for over 2 years. I did hear that a family had bought it and moved in last summer. The high school looked more like a prison than a school. Nothing on Kenmore Blvd looked familiar. We did get to visit with the family that lived next door to us. Very enlightening for my wife. What ever happened to Lana and Stan Sobleskie? I was hoping to see them at the reunion. Virginia was one of my 1st ‘crushes’. I always thought she was the smartest girl in school. She lives in San Diego now. We’ve exchanged Christmas cards the past couple of years. Often lately I sure wish things could go back to the way they used to be.

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  2. Sad essay. We were great in the 50’s because we were the only developed nation still standing after WWII. Everybody had to come to us to rebuild. Couldn’t last. I was also struck by the constant refrain of “I wasn’t there.” That’s also a big part of the reason for the decline. People wanted better and more so they moved out. Or they didn’t want integration so they moved on. Or they saw the neighborhood declining so instead of stepping in to take action, they bailed out. We can’t blame the government for all of the decline. Of course, now our own ingenuity is overtaking us with computers, machines and robots that can do the work of many for far less money. Meanwhile populations are exploding, we’re facing a global water crisis, climate change, . . . We can’t just think of the U.S. in isolation from our entire world. We are all in this together. Either we work for solutions that will make life better for everyone or we will all be worse off together.

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