Mark Schweitzer is a writer and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. Today he's sharing a guest article about the growth and contraction of his hometown — and what it means for all of us.
There are lots of ways for cities to grow. For much of the 20th century, the most typical way to build a bigger city was to extend streets, water and sewer lines further and further out from the central city, along with all the necessary support services they required. While this approach can offer an illusion of healthy growth, readers of Strong Towns understand that it eventually becomes unsustainable as the revenues from newly-developed areas fail to meet the demands of their ongoing maintenance and repair.
Akron, Ohio is no stranger to this phenomenon, though the particular circumstances of its growth may vary from what we commonly see in other cities. From the outset, Akron was surrounded with well-established communities that preceded its own 1825 founding: Tallmadge in 1807; Cuyahoga Falls and Middlebury in 1812, and even Bath Township in 1820. While Akron would eventually eclipse all these municipalities — and merge with neighboring Middlebury in 1872 — this fact would continue to influence the city’s growth patterns for well over a century.
The city’s geography, too, played a key role; Akron’s name is derived from akros, the Greek word for “highest,” in recognition of its location at the highest point of the Ohio Canal. The area’s topography had its influence as well — especially downtown, which is comparatively small for a city of Akron’s size. Hemmed in by rising hills in the west, the wide Cuyahoga Valley on the north, and major rail lines on the east, the city’s downtown evolved into a long and narrow band, centered on its Main Street.
A Fast-Growing City
As Akron initially evolved into a prosperous city of varied industries (see “The Big Gamble”) business expansion continued south and residential growth spread east, along Market Street, which initially became home to many of its most successful families. Within a few decades, Akron and Middlebury were physically joined, though their actual merger would come a little later. By the end of the 19th century, the city’s growth necessitated expansion in other directions too, especially west, where prevailing winds kept the air free of industrial smoke and ash, eventually making it a preferable location for the city’s more affluent.
By 1900, the city was growing by more than 50% each decade, but still had catching up to do in terms of building streets and getting water and sewer service to its 42,000 residents. Add another 27,000 residents by 1910 and another 139,000 by 1920 and you can see that whatever did get built got built in a hurry. That was the impact of the rubber industry boom.
The question of where to put all those people was settled rather quickly, as landowners and city planners could see what was happening all around them. Looking at an atlas map of Akron in 1915, it becomes apparent that, in terms of geographic area, the city is roughly about the same size today. By 1921, large tracts of land within those boundaries — much of it former farmland — had been quickly platted out for residential allotments.
Two of the larger and most significant of these, Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park, were not due to real estate speculation, but to the efforts of Frank Seiberling and Harvey Firestone to provide a Garden Suburb environment for their employees. While both companies invested their own money in construction and offered highly affordable plans for purchase, it wouldn’t be long before the City of Akron became responsible for all their streets, sewers, water lines, police, fire protection services and schools.
Annexation and Depression
Not just settling for organic growth, Akron also embarked on a 20th century strategy that included annexation of neighboring towns, including Kenmore and Ellet in 1929, absorbing not only their populations but also their infrastructure, which was still not fully developed. Yet with all that apparent growth, few seemed to worry — at least not until the Great Depression hit.
During the 1930s and through World War II, many of the city’s allotments that had been laid out in the 1920s remained only lines on a map. Population had slipped only slightly, but the city’s housing needs had been sufficiently met by the existing housing stock, much of it converted into apartments or rooming houses to accommodate factory workers on a tight budget.
Like almost all cities of the time, Akron neighborhoods were served by small retailers, with grocers, drug stores, hardware merchants and other types of businesses serving the residents who were within walking distance. What could not be found there could be obtained downtown at the larger specialty shops and department stores like O’Neil’s, Polsky’s and Yeager’s — along with cinemas, theaters, fine restaurants and nightclubs. All of this was easily accessible by public transit, which was in heavy use.
Post WWII, however, we begin to see the more typical pattern of development; with those already-platted 1920’s allotments being finally built out, primarily toward the outer edges of the city. More streets, more water and sewer lines, further out from the urban core, but still within the city limits — and best of all, easily reached by car. This was especially the case if you lived near the east/west and north/south expressways, which cut right through the center of Akron and made it easy to get from one side of town to the other. Besides making car-based transportation even easier, this legacy of the post-war federal highway system erased and cut up some old neighborhoods and removed a lot of housing stock from older parts of the city.
By 1960, the city was home to over 290,000 people. This growth, especially near the city’s extremities — coincided with growth in the surrounding suburban communities, made easier by new highways. This shifted Akron’s economic center of gravity outwards; creating the perfect environment for large strip centers to be built at the places where these outer communities met the city limits.
In the 1950s, it included Midway Plaza where Akron kissed Tallmadge, Fairlawn Plaza out west, Eastgate Plaza in Ellet, near the eastern edge of town, and South Plaza, near Akron’s southern boundary. Most of these mid-century retail centers, in turn, would be soon overshadowed by bigger, newer shopping malls, built even further out toward the edge of town or just outside it.
By the mid-1960s, Akron, from a residential standpoint, was mostly built-out inside its city limits. The city still seemed healthy, but changes were on the horizon. New housing was being built at a slower rate, and purchased by existing move-up buyers rather than new city residents. By the 1970s, it began to sink in that the decades of growth were coming to an end.
Seeking more revenue to support operations and maintenance, the city had maintained a strong annexation strategy throughout the 20th century; most of the additions were modest, but the friction it caused between the city and surrounding communities was significant. Recognizing this, in 1993, Akron became the first city in the nation to create Joint Economic Development Districts—extending water and sewer lines to outlying communities for a share of the district’s income tax. It seemed logical at the time, and continues to generate much-needed revenue, but based on how these deals usually pan out, it’s hard to know what difference it will make over the long term.
As in many cities, this overall pattern of development and outward expansion was also a primary reason for downtown’s retail demise. It’s the same reason a number of Akron neighborhoods which were once served by half-a-dozen grocers, a few drug stores, dry cleaners and an assortment of useful retailers now offer very little for residents within walking distance, aside from perhaps a small carry-out, a pizza shop or a cell-phone retailer. Clearly, the cost to the city goes beyond infrastructure expenses; there’s been a cost to the quality of life, too.
Today, we’re left to deal with 100 years of accommodating car owners, chasing after questionable growth, and watching as businesses and residents move to the outer edges of town and the suburbs. As a result, cities like Akron are now looking at strategies to reel them all back in.
That’s a whole other story, and for Akron, it’s shaping up to be a compelling one.
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.