Rust Belt towns across the upper Midwest are on the verge of oblivion, their economies hallowed out by technological innovation and globalization. Yet many are not ready to give up on blue-collar bastions like Akron, Ohio, as David Giffels’ new book, The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, attests.
Akron born and raised, Giffels still calls the place once proudly known as “the rubber capital of the world” home. In fact, his previous book, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, conveys his 12-year struggle to rehab a decrepit mansion in the heart of Akron, an endeavor of dogged perseverance if there ever was one.
The Hard Way on Purpose features 23 deftly crafted essays, each a heartfelt and often humorous ode to Giffels’ hometown and the various ways it continues to nourish his life. CityBeat recently connected with the author via email to discuss a book that shines a sympathetic light on a region that’s been left for dead by so many.
CityBeat: The Hard Way on Purpose delves into the various reasons you’ve decided to stay in Akron despite its decline in recent years. Is there one overriding factor that has compelled you remain there?
David Giffels: I think it would be too simple to say there’s a single reason other than that it’s my home, which itself of course is not such a simple thing. I stayed at first because I didn’t have a compelling reason to leave, and then as my life went on, it began to feel like the good kind of challenge, to commit to a place most people considered not worth the effort. So many of my friends have left, and I understand, because it can be a hard city to succeed in.
Akron’s lost nearly a third of its
population in my lifetime. But I’ve stayed. My wife and I started our
family in a big old Tudor house that was about to be condemned, and
rebuilding it ourselves seemed to reinforce this larger idea of
embracing a city in need of that same kind of tending. So there’s a
pride involved, especially in knowing I’ve been able so far to make the
kind of life I want to live in a place where I want to live and without
feeling I’ve compromised anything.
CB: The first essay in the book is about the importance of LeBron James to the community. There's also a piece about your stint as a ball boy for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as a few other sports-related pieces. What role do sports play in a place like Akron — especially being so close to Cleveland, which hasn't won a pro sports championship in 50 years?
DG: It's a huge deal here, and it doesn't have so much to do with the actual games as the overall culture. This year, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the last Cleveland major pro sports championship of any kind, when the Browns won the NFL championship game, which wasn't even called the Super Bowl yet. To me, there's something even stronger about sharing this experience than there is about sharing a defining championship.
The Hard Way on Purpose includes a chapter about me, as a kid, attending an infamous Browns' playoff game with my dad and brothers.
The second coldest playoff game in NFL history. Just a miserable day, which ended with the notorious "Red Right 88" play, a last-minute interception just as the Browns were about to score the winning points. To this day, anytime I come across someone else who was there that day, the bond between us is far stronger than if two people had attended a championship victory. There's pain in it, and it makes us closer.
CB: You open the book with a quote from Studs Terkel: “It’s practical to hope.” Is hope for a better life eroding in a place like Akron? Are people now satisfied with just surviving?
DG: No, I don’t think it makes much sense to give up on places like this, which is why I like the pragmatism of that quote so much. One theme that has carried through the Rust Belt years is the idea of recycling, remaking. All the visual artists I knew in college and into my twenties and thirties made use of all this great industrial, urban junk, and many of the people I know who live in the city are in old houses that they are rehabbing. So there’s a way of life that’s born of the circumstances and which also informs the path forward. These cities know how to remake themselves, so even a place like Detroit, which some people have written off as dead, is starting to reemerge. And it’s because it knows, intrinsically, how to do that.
CB: Why are you so interested in reinvigorating decrepit things like your house and, more broadly, Akron in general? Is there an element of nostalgia involved?
DG: I think I probably answered that in the last question, but a further answer is that, because I came of age exploring a profoundly collapsed, mostly abandoned downtown, and didn't yet have a real grasp for the tragedy of that, I just saw it as beautiful, in a decadent sort of way. It defined my entire aesthetic. So it makes sense that I would continue to be attracted to such things. You should see some of the cars I've owned.
CB: Akron, despite its blue-collar reputation, has produced such singular artists as Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Jim Jarmusch and Lux Interior. What’s up with that?
DG: A lot of those people point specifically to the influence of Ghoulardi, who was the host of a Cleveland late-night B-movie show in the 1960s that was hugely popular in Northeast Ohio. He was this wild, half-assed beatnik who played cool Surf and Garage Rock during his studio segments and just has this twisted humor that created a weird counterpart to the low-budget sci-fi stuff he was showing. Aspects of all this show up in those people’s work — Devo’s retro-futurism; Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white aesthetic and his cracked sense of humor. Lux Interior was like the devil child of Ghoulardi, and even used some direct references in his lyrics. Like their album, Stay Sick! — that was one of Ghoulardi’s catch phrases. David Thomas of Pere Ubu calls that whole group of Punk-era artists “the Ghoulardi kids.”
And, you know, the other part of it is just teenage boredom. There wasn’t a lot to do in troubled industrial cities in the 1970s, and there was no media or audience paying attention, so all those artists had time to let those kinds of influences fester and mature.
CB: You worked for a time with Chuck Klosterman at the Akron Beacon Journal. What’s it been like for you to see him go on and have success after leaving Akron?
DG: It’s been great, and I’ve always been really happy and proud for him. We’re still very good friends, and we still share our writing when we’re working on something, and he’s helped and supported me in a lot of ways. He’s a very generous friend.
CB: Speaking of newspapers, it’s almost like the print media has become the Akron of communication enterprises — hallowed-out versions of its former self. How important is a publication like the Journal to the community these days?
DG: “The Akron of communication enterprises” — I love that my hometown has become a metaphoric catchphrase. “(NFL) Draft bust Trent Richardson is the Akron of running backs.” But, yeah, you’re right. I left the Beacon Journal five years ago, not because I didn’t love that kind of work or think it was unimportant, but just because I couldn’t see myself making it through the second half of a career in print journalism, which is so troubled as a business enterprise.
Yet still, I think local journalism might be the most important news media we have, because it’s the only kind of reporting that puts the world into proper perspective. Communities need a shared identity, and nothing else provides that the way a local newspaper — print or digital — can. People are becoming so isolated by personal electronics and the antisocial parts of social media, and so homogenized by the mass culture, and so the sense of a shared localness is keenly important, especially now.
CB: You've said that you always wanted to be a writer. What is it about writing that you find so satisfying?
DG: I'll defer to Dorothy Parker: "I hate writing. I love having written." Writing is hard, but once I'm doing it, I always find it exciting. I guess it's that sense of overcoming a void, entering a blank computer file with the shred of an image or idea and finding, a few hours later, through some process I still don't fully understand, that I've discovered something I didn't know I already knew.
CB: Finally, in the book you question Cincinnati’s supposed status as the “Paris of the Midwest.” Are you saying Cincinnati isn’t any better than Akron?
DG: Actually, Cincinnati called itself the “Paris of America.” That, to me, seems like the Akron of overstatements.
DAVID GIFFELS discusses The Hard Way on Purpose at 7 p.m. March 26 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. More: josephbeth.com.