Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Banana republic

Flying into the Akron-Canton International Airport right now is a little bit like touching down in a small foreign capital*. There are nine gates total, and the terminal is built on the straight-line model, where you leave the secured area by the same hallway where others are standing in line to enter it. There's one baggage carousel per airline, and your baggage is there by the time you walk up. You get a rental car, drive past some upheaved dirt and razor wire, and in three or four minutes you're on the road.

In other words, today's landing was the most efficient and pleasant airport experience I've had in years. It was almost surreally good. But there's a dark side to it.

The terminal is well-kept, but aging. Nothing has been replaced anytime in the recent past. I don't remember it looking so outdated, but then again, I think the last time I was there I was in high school. The bathroom faucets that looked a little dated in 1985 look positively institutional today. The tan brick that matched a thousand local ranch homes has lost its sheen.

Driving out into the world, I'm greeted with a shock. I knew the recession had hit Canton hard, but I didn't expect such immediate visual corroboration. The word "Timken" has been removed from Timken Mercy Hospital, where my brother was born nearly 28 years ago. Industrial building after industrial building is for sale or lease. There is a noticeable decline since December, when I last visited.

Akron's in a lot better shape. Columbus is diverse, fun, and altogether booming. But the lifeblood of Canton has been sucked into the wealthy suburbs, and even there it's hemorrhaging. This is where I grew up, and I mean that in more ways than one. Here it's still 1977 economically. The revival got a promising start in the early '90s, but it never really took hold.

And now that factories are once again shutting down everywhere, this beautiful city's grip is weak.

*This perception was heightened by the presence of a passenger across the aisle from me, a pleasant middle-aged black man dressed in an extremely natty orange and gold linen outfit with a feathered porkpie hat. His ensemble reminded me a little of my father, who used to dress for formal occasions as if he were the president of a developing country: white linen suit, white Panama hat. I miss my dad all the time, but especially when I come back to my home state. Perhaps this was a little psychic visitation, a reminder.