Streets connect one neighborhood to another. Mass transit can connect neighborhoods to downtown. But what connects your town’s people to one another? What do they use to share creative ideas, shape a unique identity, and build a common narrative that can be used to build a stronger, more vibrant community?
In Akron, Ohio, this role has been well-served by The Devil Strip, an alternative-news monthly that has served to identify, connect and inspire a wide range of people throughout the community. Over the past three-and-a-half years, the newspaper has highlighted the uniqueness of Akron’s many neighborhoods, celebrated its history, and brought people together to help envision and shape the city’s future.
Among the most fascinating things about the newspaper aside from its name (more about that later) is that it was founded by Chris Horne, a transplant originally hailing from Macon, Georgia. While the local daily newspaper had always been highly respected and did a good job of fulfilling its essential news-reporting role, Chris sensed that Akron needed something more. There were stories that needed to be told, people and groups that needed to be connected. Some of his Medium posts say it best:
“We believe the most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that this is as true for cities as it is individuals.
How do you know you’re in Akron, OH instead of Syracuse, NY or Des Moines, IA or Las Vegas, NV or Macon, GA or anywhere else? Answering that question every month is why we’re so adamantly local.”
As a result, The Devil Strip (TDS) is big on planning and sponsoring events that are designed to promote Akron’s identity, offering visibility and inclusiveness that reaches into every one of the city’s racial, economic and diverse lifestyle groups.
“Akron is the biggest small city in which you’ll live,” says resident Steve Brightman. “It’s also the smallest big city—which is to say you will always see faces you recognize but may not know. The Devil Strip erases the not knowing part.”
Since it’s been in operation, The Devil Strip has helped Akronites identify their associated “affinity groups,” which has led to a surge of interest in local arts groups and artists, neighborhood organizations, social issues like homelessness, addiction and immigration, and the overall quality of life in the city. As stated, one of the paper’s primary missions has been to “Keep Akron Akron-y.”
“When we moved to Europe several years ago, we were convinced we’d never live in Akron again,” says local photographer Charlotte Gintert. “The Devil Strip can claim almost all of the credit for changing our minds. We discovered people who cared about the things we cared about. It was, in fact, the community we had been looking for.”
While it initially started as practically an all-volunteer operation, The Devil Strip has now grown into a more traditional news operation with paid staff, paid writers and a host of enthusiastic supporters who appreciate the important role it plays in the city. Beyond the usual fare of concert reviews, things to do, and profiles of local people doing interesting things, the paper focuses on telling The Akron Story via articles on local history, urban archaeology, and tours of obscure neighborhoods and lesser-known parks. Mixed in with these are interviews with the homeless, real profiles in addiction and recovery, and an editorial sense of inclusiveness where everyone in Akron feels welcome and encouraged to tell their story.
“We live to challenge the broken narratives about who and what Akron is, to prove there’s more happening here than is visible on the surface,” explains publisher Chris Horne. “Along the way, The Devil Strip itself has become a kind of a place, a commons where the many parts of Akron’s personality gather, a way to find your people.”
Helping people gather together goes beyond the printed page, as TDS has created and sponsored downtown festivals like Signal Tree Fest, which not only features a day full of music on downtown’s Lock 3 and Lock 4 stages, but also celebrates new and traditional Akron food favorites, like Jo-Jo’s, sauerkraut balls, Lawson’s chip dip and more, in addition to offerings from local breweries.
In addition, the newspaper holds monthly get-togethers at local watering holes as well as Town Hall editorial meetings, moving them from neighborhood to neighborhood in an effort to engage the wider community and enlist more people in the effort to define, renew and re-invent Akron.
“There’s always going to be a push-pull problem with our limited resources, trying to reach a city that’s small but spread-out,” notes Horne. “But it’s more than geography. It’s best for Akron if we can reach and represent everyone better.”
The Devil Strip also plays a role in economic development, keeping people up-to-date on local entrepreneurs who are making an impact. From highlighting local retail centers that are popping up in Akron to profiling individual businesses, TDS is big on local development, both throughout the city’s neighborhoods and downtown’s central core.
“The local businesses, nonprofits and civic orgs who support The Devil Strip are part of our community and are as vital to our culture as our artists and musicians,” says Horne.
Bringing all these players together to help advance the cause of building a better Akron is a big job. That job will see new opportunities open up and new ideas take shape as Horne completes Stanford University’s John S. Knight journalism fellowship over the coming months. Leaving daily operations of The Devil Strip in the hands of a trusted editor-in-chief, managing editor, and business manager while he is in California, Horne is committed to evolving TDS into a nonprofit news organization that offers in-depth, contextual and investigative local reporting.
“I think the ideas and values we’ve developed have a place in the broader conversation about the [journalism] industry,” says Horne. “The best thing may be that I come back rested and recharged, bringing along more perspective, a wealth of knowledge and new insights.”
Those insights can play an important role in creating a new Akron. In the most recent issue, TDS managing editor Noor Hindi and writer Yoly Miller highlighted how small-scale public space projects like The Innerbelt National Forest provide valuable ideas about city planning and creative placemaking. The article explains how low-risk, high reward projects can lead to long term gains that benefit everyone.
Local publications like The Devil Strip play a critical role in helping inform, shape and inspire a community. If your town has a local newspaper that’s good at these things, you’re lucky. Many don’t.
All the walkable streets, protected bikeways and creative zoning in the world won’t help your town if there’s no “there” there. Creating a shared identity, a strong and attractive local narrative, and a sense of community is just as important when it comes to building a true Strong Town.
P.S.: If you’re still wondering, the “Devil Strip” is the local Akron term for the grassy area between the public sidewalk and the street curb. There are several theories for its origin, which is said to go back to the 1920s or ‘30s.
(Disclaimer: The author of this article, Mark Schweitzer, writes occasionally for The Devil Strip. The Devil Strip founder and publisher Chris Horne has also previously written an article for Strong Towns.)
About the Author
Mark Schweitzer is a creative writer, book publisher and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. His passion for architecture and historic preservation has led him to research the development of urban planning, historic neighborhoods, and today’s best practices in city renewal. Currently a member of Akron’s Urban Design and Historic Preservation Commission, he is guiding the effort to have Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.