Saturday, May 17, 2014


Perhaps because I’ve spent all of my adult life in a city, San Francisco, that people are forever coming to, I’ve had a perverse fascination with those places in America that people leave, and even with godforsaken places that only scattered handfuls of people try to make a go of in the first place (Dayton Duncan’s “Miles From Nowhere” being a great example). David Giffels illuminates his lifelong city of Akron, Ohio – a place I’ve personally never set foot in – in a superb set of essay-length reflections and explanations that gets to the root of both his city’s and his own psyche. The city’s, and that of the Rust Belt in general, is one of bootstrapped hard work, loss, and a collective sense of “almost”. We almost got the Browns to Super Bowl. We almost had the best punk/new wave scene in the country in the late 70s (Akron – home of Devo, Tin Huey, the Rubber City Rebels and many others). We almost kept LeBron James from leaving his hometown of Akron and the state of Ohio – and so on.

Through nearly two dozen pieces, Giffels uses various expository devices to try and definitively crack the Akron nut, always with humor and plenty of humility. Childhood memories, ambivalent meditations on “ruin porn”, historical treatises on the company buildings that made Akron “the rubber city”, and a highly skeptical look at Akron’s claim to have invented the hamburger are among the pleasures to be had. Giffels puts his personal stamp on virtually every piece; for instance, the hamburger piece also includes him eating nothing but hamburgers for a week straight. Giffels also threads in much discussion of Akron’s underground music scene in the 80s, which he himself participated in via an unnamed punk band (perhaps someone you or I have even heard of, though I’m too lazy to Google it right now), with an especially funny piece about his friend’s art gallery complex being invaded by “anarchy girls” and industrial-music freaks from Philadelphia for one night only.

His own psyche and relation to the city that nurtured it is displayed in his endless fascination with Akron’s industrial past and his near-messianic desire to preserve and build upon that past – not in the historical documentation sense, though “The Hard Way On Purpose” does include a bit of that. His preservation instincts are actually quite literal – repurposing found bricks from demolished factories to build a pathway, for instance, or in buying the most ruined ornate old Tudor house in the neighborhood, for a song, just to fix it up to its former six-fireplace + servant’s quarters glory. Perhaps it’s a way of attempting to reverse the “decline” narrative that plagues this part of the country - quite deservedly, of course – one brick and one house at a time. Beyond this, of course, is the fact that Giffels is one of the few “born and raised and never left” Akron residents who knows only the Rust Belt era of the town. He stayed where most others didn’t, and it’s quite touching as he lists off the friends made and friends quickly lost in one poignant passage. It connects to the deeper whole of “loss” and of “almost” that pervades this terrific and well-written book about place, and our place within that place.