DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I have spent my whole life watching people leave - those words were written by David Giffels of Akron, Ohio, his hometown. Akron was once a hub for tire-manufacturing giants. It was proudly known as the Rubber Capital of the World. Goodyear, Firestone and Goodrich provided thousands of high-paying jobs, until those jobs migrated to places with cheaper labor.
That began in the late 1970s, when David Giffels was a teenager. In the years since then, he's been thinking and writing about the effects of that loss; first, as a columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal, now in "The Hard Way On Purpose: Essays And Dispatchers From The Rust Belt."
David Giffels begins his book with the story of an exhibit in 1982, at the Akron Art Museum. It showed images taken by a renowned photographer.
DAVID GIFFELS: He spent a year or so shooting photos across the region, of industry. And really, what he was photographing was the end of industry, this beginning of architectural decay and of people starting to be sort of beaten down by the decline. And really, what he was probably doing was kind of holding up a mirror to something that we hadn't really seen about ourselves. And to me, that, at least in some ways, represents the beginning of what's been, I think, a regional identity crisis for my entire adult life.
GREENE: When you talk about the tire factories closing down - I mean, such an important part of Akron's identity. In one of your essays, you're describing the dismantling a giant smokestack at the Firestone tire factory. And I wonder, could you read a bit about this story of the smokestack coming down?
GIFFELS: Sure. (Reading) The men had erected a platform that surrounded the spire so they could take it down methodically, course by course - handwork. They were removing the intricate puzzle of blocks a piece at a time and loading them into a bucket, which was lowered to the ground, emptied, then hauled back up for another round. I don't know why they didn't just whack the thing with a wrecking ball. Plenty of other stuff around here has been erased that way, including Firestone's main factory many years before; which the guy from the wrecking company told me once was the toughest building he had ever encountered. It took two years to demolish. Someone had apparently predicted permanence.
GREENE: So was part of doing this book, and part of your - sort of curiosity about these things - just sending a message that there is something to see here, there's a culture that's going away, but it's a culture, you know, worth reflecting on?
GIFFELS: Yeah, definitely. And I wouldn't say that it was so much an overt message with a purpose, as it was just kind of like, organically: This is what I've come to understand, having spent my whole life here. And one of the things I've come to understand is that the rest of the country doesn't pay that much attention to the post-industrial Midwest. And when it does, you know, we sort of bristle because when you have, you know, sort of been trying to redefine your identity and then, you know, in Ohio every four years, here come the parachutes with everybody kind of, you know: Ohio is going to pick the next president. And so...
GREENE: Mm-hmm, it's the swing state.
GIFFELS: Yeah. So a big instinct of this book is that, sort of - that bristling of pride and of wanting to tell our own story.
GREENE: Very funny revelation in this book. You have a lot in common with the NBA basketball star LeBron James.
GIFFELS: Oh, LeBron James and I are the - I think - the only two people in the entire world who went straight from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
GREENE: We should say you were not a star basketball player. But you were with the team.
GIFFELS: No. He was the first pick in the draft lottery, and I was an entry-level ball boy.
GREENE: And he becomes sort of the face and the hope of Ohio, to try and get a championship. And then, as many sports fans know, he left and went to the Miami Heat. And you spoke about his decision as something that everyone should have known was coming.
GIFFELS: Yeah, I think there's a lot of understanding, nationally, about how he left in that really - sort of devastating and disappointing kind of way. But I think only here can we really understand what he represented, which was, you know, first of all, he was born in 1984. The term Rust Belt was invented in 1982. So he almost like, completely parallels this difficult journey. He really self-identifies with being from Akron. And he's got the local area code tattooed down his forearm, and he still makes his home here. So he likes being one of us.
And so, to know that he left when he had the choice to stay is - man, how many people did I grow up with, professional people, who left when they had the choice to stay? And do I resent them, or do I understand what they did and just decide I tried to do it a different way>
GREENE: I wonder if there were moments when you, you know, thought about leaving and why you decided to stay in Akron.
GIFFELS: Yeah, actually, there was a specific moment. I had a job offer in New York that I gave a lot of thought to, and talked to my wife a lot about it. And it was, you know, do we leave and go where it's going to be a more obvious sense of opportunity, or do we stay and commit to a place that kind of needs us more? And it kind of came down to, we belong here. And we belong here in a way that we're starting to kind of be proud of. It would've been different if we'd left and gone and, you know, made our way in some other place.
GREENE: We began talking about sort of you and people in Akron, and that part of the country, trying to define the new identity - the next identity. Have you done it?
GIFFELS: I think we have, and I think we've been doing it all along. And that identity is reinvention. You know, the University of Akron recently launched the first baccalaureate degree, basically, in the engineering of rust. And instead of calling it something scientific and modern-sounding, it's taken on this colloquial name: the Rust Institute. And it's drawn millions of dollars in grant money. And its drawing students who are coming to Akron to study this, you know, rust-prevention technology.
But to call it the Rust Institute is to not say, we're ashamed of this past that was, you know, partly defined by decay. But we embrace it. It's something that's integrated with our future.
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GREENE: David Giffels, thank you so much for spending time with us. It's been a real pleasure.
GIFFELS: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me
GREENE: That's David Giffels. His book of essays about life in the Rust Belt is called "The Hard Way On Purpose."
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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