Akron is a great Ohio city. I visited there a few times when I was working in politics. Stayed at the Quaker Oats building that was turned into a hotel with round rooms. Went drinking with the Mayor. (Though the details of that story will remain forever unpublished.) Akronites taught me that Akron was the “brass buckle on the rust belt.” I suppose this may have been political spin, but what the hell. It was good spin. I still love that line.
And I know great people who’ve spent time in Akron and Northeast Ohio. Colleagues and friends who are deeply proud of their roots in or connection to Ohio’s fifth largest city. One of those friends (Greg, who also gets a deserved cameo in this book) sent me “The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt,” by David Giffels, a professor at the University of Akron, writer, and lifelong Akron resident.
I loved it.
Giffels not only captures the ethos of Akron, but of so many rust belt cities in Ohio and in the midwest. He’s nails it with great writing, observations of culture, and self-effacing humor. It’s a fun book to read because as a lifelong Ohioan myself, I could relate to his commentary on what it’s like to live right here in Ohio, the heart of it all.
There are insightful essays about sports (LeBron of course, but the Browns too), about growing up as a young reader, about urban exploration, about resenting people who leave, and about resenting people who come back. When he writes about weather and music and our penchant for calling things by their old names and celebrating unusual local firsts, I was cheering that someone was finally writing about Ohio and the Rust Belt with firsthand and intimate knowledge of the subject. When he writes about Gold Circle and getting clothes there growing up, I knowingly chuckled out loud. My tennis shoes had four stripes down the side too. Giffels has a way with words, and he writes with a decidedly midwestern accent. If you are from here, you will read this book and instantly feel like you are having a conversation with a neighbor.
The title comes from how Giffels describes people from the Rust Belt: “Here, uniquely, we do things the hard way on purpose. We recognize a virtue and a necessary creativity in choosing to do things that way.” Such a simple concept that makes so much sense. Giffels also writes with respect about the unionized workers in Northeast Ohio who were ravaged when company after company fled Ohio to go elsewhere. “Here, the working class had for decades been the most stable, most prosperous, most highly regarded local demographic,” he writes. He goes on to point out that those are the workers who had vacation homes and Cadillacs. He says that with pride, and not with the contempt that usually accompanies political commentary about working people who also happen to have plenty of expendable income.
Giffels sums up rust belt professional sports allegiances with this gem: “I’m from a place that always almost wins.” Are you a Bengals or Browns fan? Those words will resonate. (In fact, they’re now printed on an exclusive line of shirts from Rubber City Clothing.) Again, Ohio cities are often defined by our association with our sports teams. That we “almost always almost win” must be why so many people look down on those of us here in flyover land.
An essay about traveling Ohio during the 2004 election was one of my favorites for obvious reasons, though I cringed that the only two stories of Cincinnati were of a rock concert at Sudsy Malone’s and a megachurch festival in the ‘burbs. But alas, this is a book from Akron. In that essay, Giffels talks about how “radically diverse” the state is. Not a lot of people know this, but if you have ever driven around this state, well, you’ll see the diversity up close. It’s a gorgeous state and I’m damn proud to live here.
High praise to Giffels’ writing. Witty and wise and, in fact, very unique. His essay, “Do Not Cry for Me Arizona,” about people leaving (and coming back) is perfect. It exemplifies the simultaneous pride and frustration we get from our home state and eloquently explains why Giffels chose to stay. Careful to not force a “redemptive ending,” Giffels nevertheless beats his chest with pride about Ohio in this passage that anyone from and Ohio city will almost certainly relate to:
“We’re not Manhattan. But for some reason this comes up time and time again, this suggestion that our worth can only be measured upward. Cleveland has been called the Paris of the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh has been called the Paris of Appalachia. Detroit’s been called the Paris of the Midwest. Cincinnati, for God’s sake, has been called the Paris of America. But what about living in the Akron of Ohio? What about saying its my favorite city, and not because it compares favorably to other cities–places I also love–but because it doesn’t.”
I think you’ll like this book even if you’re not from Ohio. If you want to learn the Rust Belt, I’d suggest skipping the coffee table book featuring ruin porn pictures of Ohio and Michigan, and instead spend a few hours reading “The Hard Way on Purpose.”
Thanks for reading.