Grand Forks, ND versus Akron, OH by Dana Williams


[This essay is an attempt to add to the discussion on "population retention" in Grand Forks and North Dakota. Yes, I know this essay is shamelessly biased. Aren't we all? I'd like to propose that people who have had similar experiences as myself (or even radically different ones) attempt to do a similar contrast. If there is a better future for any of us, it lies in our abilities to share our experiences and viewpoints]

So, I've lived in three cities in my lifetime.

They've all been different, and yet similar. Sometimes I wonder if the differences are more related to me growing up and becoming "aware" or if there was because of an actual difference between them. Probably both. The largest differences exist in the two cities I've most recently lived in: Grand Forks and Akron, Ohio.

People reading this are likely rather familiar with Grand Forks, so I won't explain where it is and what it's like to live there. Akron, on the other hand, is another story. It's about a half-hour drive south of Cleveland, and not too far north of Canton. Kent is close by. Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh are both just a bit over two hours drive away. It's smack in the middle of a whole lotta trouble.

About a quarter million people live within the city's official boundaries. The whole metropolitan area is just about the population of North Dakota, but don't expect everyone to know each other like they do in ND. It's an old industrial city, specializing in rubber and tire manufacturing. Firestone and Goodyear got their start here and modern industrial unions held the first-ever sit-down strike here. Now it's one of the primary centers for polymer research (as they like to call "rubber" these days).


I'm not exactly a babe in the woods, coming from a relatively "large" Minnesota city (St. Cloud), but I was amazed at many things when I moved to Akron, especially when you contrast it to Grand Forks.

I knew homeless people existed in Grand Forks, but you rarely saw them. But, homelessness is unavoidable in Akron, and I've grown skilled at being able to spot the homeless (or maybe I'm just more aware).

I've read about police brutality before, but never met a victim of it until I moved here. Every African-American here has either a personal story or something that happened to a family member to tell. People get their asses and heads kicked in by cops in this town. I've heard the term Driving While Black before, and I know what it means. It might not be all that different from Driving While Indian (DWI), which I was also beginning to "appreciate" while in Grand Forks.

Being a student of geography, I knew about gentrification, or thought I did. Same thing with "gated communities", freeways, and disinvestments. I maybe knew their definitions before, but now I can give you an annotated list of what they mean to people and how they destroy neighborhoods.

Oops, did I mention toxic land dumps or crack, yet?

At the same time that I was realizing that the world isn't all that safe and simple as it is in North Dakota, I was realizing incredible possibilities. Freeing myself of a "small world" perspective, I began to learn and explore about things that barely reaches the radar of a North Dakotan.

Thriving cities lead to cosmopolitan tolerance and diversity. Imagine a town with a dozen Mexican restaurants, East and South Asian grocery stores, a soul/funk radio station (and a college hip-hop station!), homophobes who are less likely to act like jackasses, and people of countless nationalities and races getting along, living side-by-side.

I discovered that even in a relatively apolitical city like Akron, there was thriving activism: a poor black neighborhood battling the City over horrible water quality, a radical Quaker group that was rated the biggest hell-raising organization in Northeast Ohio, countless grassroots projects operating without the permission or acknowledgement of The State, and people well-educated in the science (and the art) of radical direct action. I met many anarchists and participated in different anarchistic organizations.

Sure, UND may be in an uproar over the activism of anti-racist pro-name change supporters, but quite honestly it doesn't compare to Kent State's plethora of no-shit-taking activists. If you dropped Kent State's Student Anti-Racist Action down in the middle of UND, I wouldn't be surprised if the university grinded to a halt due to the ensuing commotion.

Looking back I see that many things I experienced in Grand Forks happened in a vacuum. A social and political vacuum. Not that such experiences are bad, but it was very good for me to get out and explore the world a bit.

Grand Forks

On reflection, there's also ways that Akron can't really measure up to Grand Forks-- for me at least. People here (in Akron) are nice enough on the streets to say "hi" to, but I've usually got to initiate it. Well, at least the common person-- most suits and yuppies just walk away faster. But, in Grand Forks, you can always say "hi", and it's a rarity if someone doesn't at least look you in the eye or nod in your direction.

Since this is being written under the inspiration of BrianChill's essay on the Fargo muzak scene vs. Grand Forks muzak scene ("One Rock, One Not", February 14, 2001, VastLane), it wouldn't be fair unless I mentioned my impressions of Akron's "scene". I might not be in the right circles right now, but frankly not much is going on. In Grand Forks there was rarely a point while I lived there that there was no existing place for bands to congregate and play, to whatever size audience. In Akron, coffeehouses have apparently yet to catch on to the notion of booking punk rock and indie rock bands. Of course, a trip to Cleveland could land you in one of any number of rad music joints, but there's not much local action.

I had some of my most amazing personal and emotional experiences at darkly lit and under attended punk/indie rock shows in Grand Forks. I'll never forget that shiver I felt in a basement watching the first-ever H Is For Harlot performance. It'd be equally difficult to forget standing in a crowded soon-to-be-bike-shop and watch a long, drawn-out Michael Jackson cover show, and be blown away by watching the Quaranteen's singer fling himself off the stage, erupting the audience, singing "Smooth Criminal". I've never witnessed such raw energy at a punk show in Akron. Why? It's such an easy thing to see live music around here-- maybe not in Akron, but it ain't tough. In Grand Forks, though, I remember everyone was starving and lusting after audible stimulation, and reveling in it once it came. It meant so much more when music shows happened, since they were (are) so rare.

There is an innocence and a politeness (termed "North Dakota Nice") that just don't exist in Akron. It's a shame, actually. The pace and tempo in Grand Forks is simple and pleasant. Sure people might drive like idiots in both places and not particularly like bicyclists (such as myself), but at least Grand Forks had wide enough, decent roads to accommodate a biker. The change in weather feels more real in Grand Forks. Winter is really Winter. Here, the snow didn't stick around for much longer than a few weeks at the most. It'd always melt. How depressing. Instead everything was a big slushy, gray mess.

As a student at UND for four and a half years, I was occasionally a part of a government body, or in the process of forming a student group, or going before committees, or trying to work out my academic requirements. UND has an amazingly easier system to navigate than the University of Akron does. That's not to say that UND is angelic-- I know full well how corrupted the white power structure of UND can be (especially in terms of being beholden to large donors)-- but frankly I've had more enjoyable experiences dealing with the agreeableness of UND than the bureaucracy and complexity of UA.

I'm also in agreement with Steve Albini when he noted that just being rural doesn't necessarily mean someone is stupid and na´ve. I've met just as many clueless morons in Akron as I've met natural geniuses from the farmlands of the Dakotas. Being urban doesn't mean you've got any leg up on anyone else. In fact, I think people from the city should spend time in a small town in order to appreciate what other possibilities exist.

After my time is up in Akron, I don't know where I'll end up. Sometimes I wonder if I've been born to travel from place to place, putting down roots only long enough before I stumble away again. I guess I'm just curious about other places. And I think it's healthy to explore, compare, and challenge your experiences.

So, what does all of this mean? What wisdom (if any) can I convey to the kind reader of this essay? The old saying "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence", isn't necessarily true. But, it doesn't hurt to peek over the fence, and maybe you can observe something in that other pasture that will inspire you in your home pastures.