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Rubber and Heroin in a Dying City

In Akron, Ohio, the Goodyear sign tells a story of lost jobs and lost hope

In 2001, facing an industry significantly weaker than it had seen in recent years, the Goodyear Tire Company laid off nearly eight thousand employees around the country, many in its hometown of Akron, Ohio. Akron is a town that has run on rubber since 1898, when Frank Seiberling established the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company on the shore of the Cuyahoga River. The city thrived in the early days of the rubber boom, when demand for the product was high and there were only a few places manufacturing it in the United States.

In the 1960s, the tire industry in America shifted in response to new radial tire technology. Radial tires were stronger and more flexible, due to a network of cords reinforcing the rubber, giving it better shape. But the technology used to build them cost hundreds of millions of dollars. As other companies floundered or sought outside funding, Goodyear C.E.O. Charles Pilliod chose to keep Goodyear independent. Despite heavy criticism, he invested in new factories and tooling to build the radial tire. The factory in Akron became a technical center, working to stay ahead of the industry’s research and design curve.

Pilliod’s strategy wasn’t without flaws: in 1986, Goodyear hemorrhaged two billion dollars to stop a corporate takeover. After the immediate dividends paid by the shift, the cost of the transition eventually caught up with the company. The first big layoffs came in 1991, when Goodyear had to expand into new international markets, resulting in twelve thousand lost jobs, several hundred in Akron alone. In 1999, Goodyear made a $1 billion deal with Japan’s Sumitomo Rubber Industries, establishing joint ventures across the globe to make them the world’s largest tire company. When demand dropped at the end of the nineties, in concert with rising oil prices, the 2001 layoffs seemed inevitable to the town’s struggling residents, many clinging to hope in the form of a local legend—a high school junior at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary high school named LeBron James.

In the nineties, during the aftermath of the first Goodyear layoffs, Summit County, where Akron sits, began to be known as the “Meth Capital of Ohio,” ranking third in the nation in the number of registered meth sites. Laid-off workers fell into biker gangs that sold the drug out of area bars. It was the city’s first drug crisis. It lasted for decades, until the next crisis arrived.

When driving into Ohio from the Northeast, as I now do several times a year, one of the first things one sees when crossing over is the towering Goodyear plant. The headquarters, and then the old factory. It is a haunting image, the “GOODYEAR” atop the factory with its lights blinking or fading, smoke seeming to rising out of nowhere, the windows broken or blackened. It is, in some ways, how I know I have returned home, to the site of a vanishing promise that I have not yet been able to articulate to anyone in my new region.

On a Friday night in the fall of 2016, Akron reported twenty-one heroin overdoses. The day before, there were four overdose deaths reported in Akron, bringing the total number of deaths due to overdose that year to 112. During one particularly startling stretch in July, there were 236 overdoses reported in just three weeks. This was a sharp spike from the period of January through June, when Akron paramedics got 320 overdose calls. In 2015, someone died from a drug overdose every two hours and 52 minutes in Ohio. The problem is worst in the northeastern part of the state.[*] The river towns, the factory towns, the towns where there was once hope and now less.

This is what made Ohio fall in love with Barack Obama, and, on the other hand, what made them fall in love with Donald Trump.

Today, heroin has become inexpensive to make, and therefore inexpensive to purchase, without cutting into the high it gives. To make it even cheaper, traffickers began cutting it with Fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller. Some would even cut their heroin with elephant tranquilizers, too powerful to be consumed by the human body, which is what kicked off the influx of overdoses in Akron last year. There is seemingly no end to it. In towns like Akron and the even smaller towns that surround it, officials have begun to throw up their hands and just let the epidemic play out, hoping that there will be a population left when it does.

It is perhaps hard to look at all of this in a historical context, as a story of how misfortune echoes down generations. Goodyear, having effectively outsourced its labor to places all over the globe, is back on its feet now. But the layoffs of the early nineties and the early 2000s had a lasting impact in Akron. There is no story that’s just an ending. Akron wasn’t always as hopeless as it seems now. The people who were laid off in each of those two eras were parents, neighbors, community members who supported the town and helped it thrive. Without their income, the town suffered, and without the ability to move anywhere else, their struggle was passed down to their children. In one decade, thousands of Akron’s working class were rendered jobless, and as the old story of deindustrialization goes, many of them didn’t have skills that transferred out of the factory and manufacturing settings they were trained for.

When I lived in Ohio, Akron was where you could see a good rock band and a handful of drunks outside on a corner telling you about how great it was in the days when everyone needed tires at all times. Heroin hadn’t taken over yet, but the sense of grief and despair that folded itself into the city when the jobs left was still present. You could see it in children who watched their parents struggle, and who were now struggling themselves, sometimes after dropping out of school just to help keep a roof over their families’ heads. Parents who watched their children escape the minute they could, leaving them to their own sadness. Schools and locally-owned business closing down. Even with LeBron James, now a megastar, giving back generously to his community, no one is creating an industry large enough to bring back anywhere near the amount of jobs that were lost. And even if that many jobs appeared, with the town so gripped by addiction, there is no telling who could fill them.

This is how cities die. Not overnight, but slowly, through a series of bad, or brilliant, or greedy decisions, over a long period of time. In a line down the center of Ohio are the state’s three major cities: Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, from north to south. If you live in one of those cities, it might be easy to forget that Ohio is largely made up of towns like Akron, or small farm towns that have the same problems Akron has, some even worse. Ohio, flawed as all states are, has a lot of good, hard-working people who are easily seduced by the ideas of promise and hope. This is what made Ohio fall in love with Barack Obama, and, on the other hand, what made them fall in love with Donald Trump. Ohio is a swing state in name only, not in ethos or ideology. The divide between its rural and urban constituencies is too sharp to foster diversity of thought strong enough to push the state in truly unpredictable directions. Ten miles outside of a city there’s often a rural area that feels like an entirely different world. So much of the state’s economy relies on disappearing industrial jobs—the kind of jobs Donald Trump has promised to bring back. The people here will respond to whoever can promise a way out for their cities—cities that aren’t the big ones, and cities that used to be big, but then became smaller and smaller.

This is how cities die. Not overnight, but slowly, through a series of bad, or brilliant, or greedy decisions.

Meth didn’t kill as many people, so Akron’s first drug crisis didn’t cause the kind of panic that this new one has created. Everyone wonders out loud where it came from, how this could happen here, even as the shadow of the old Goodyear factory looms over the town. Of course, I’m not saying that Goodyear is to blame for the opioid problem. But things done in the name of progress, in the name of the machine of capitalism that we all ride in order to survive, sometimes have real human consequences. Heroin will likely kill hundreds more before Akron can shake it, if it ever does. People there say that the town’s population will just have to become so thin that it’s no longer appealing to traffickers.

I was back in Akron last summer, stopping through on my way back to Columbus, where I’m from. In a gas station, the man ahead of me purchased a large stack or rubber gloves. When he left, the attendant shook his head and told me “that’s how you can tell the heroin dealers. They’re always buying rubber gloves, so their hands don’t get messed up when they’re making it.”

The city of rubber, still making its money.


[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of Ohio residents addicted to opiates.