I spent a few days in Canton (that’s Ohio, not China) last week. It made me think about the past and the future.
Canton is a city in eastern Ohio that could be a poster child for the Rust Belt. Back in 1950, there were 117,000 people living there. Today, there are 72,000. Still, it’s not even close to its former steel city neighbor Youngstown, which had a population of 170,000 in 1960, but only has 65,000 today.
That’s pretty much the story in every large Ohio city except for Columbus. Cleveland has lost more than half its population since 1950. Cincinnati had a population of 503,000 in 1950. Today? Somewhere around 298,000.
The example we’re all most familiar with around here is Dayton. Back in 1960, Dayton had 262,000 residents. Today, its population is 141,000.
At one time, Dayton was the place to be. In the early years of the 20th century, it was home to famous inventors such as the Wright Brothers and Charles Kettering. John Patterson revolutionized American business. James Cox founded a media empire and ended up running for president.
I can remember going to Dayton as a boy to shop at Rike’s and wander around the Arcade. It was always exciting to go to the “big city.”
Somewhere along the line, things went wrong not only for Dayton, but for all those other Ohio cities, too. The steel and auto industries collapsed. A lot of people moved to the suburbs. Places like Centerville mushroomed as people bailed out of Dayton. Other people moved out of Ohio altogether.
Places like Troy, on the other hand, have been going in the other direction. Back in 1960, Troy was a city of 13,600 people. Today, it has a population of more than 25,000, as well as a large number of residents in surrounding developments. Tipp City’s population has more than doubled since 1960.
So what can we learn from all this? Nothing is permanent. Cities ebb and flow. The fact that in recent years Troy has shown a good deal of growth is no guarantee things will continue to go well in the future. It’s also no guarantee that Ohio’s cities, which have been in decline for so long, will continue on that path.
You can see it in Dayton, with the improvements in the downtown area in the last few decades. Canton shows the same kind of revival in an area of its downtown. Cincinnati may have a lot fewer people living inside its city limits, but its old neighborhoods have a special appeal that has sparked pockets of economic revival all over the city. What these old cities still have is a strong foundation of historic sites, cultural organizations and architecture that can be the foundation for new eras. In the long run, they may be healthier with fewer residents.
Columbus is a story all its own. Somehow, while almost all other big cities in this neck of the woods shrink, Columbus continues to grow. Part of its secret is that it has two gigantic public institutions that will never go away: state government and Ohio State University.
But back to places like Troy and Tipp City. I’d like to think that smaller Ohio cities have thrived in recent decades is because they are great places to live. I grew up in Troy in the 1960’s and thought it was a wonderful experience, but I want to tell you the city offers a lot more now than it did then. The downtown is much more attractive and active. The recreational facilities and parks are way better than they were 50 years ago. There are many more employment options now than there were then.
The danger is that in the search for growth, the city could lose what made it so attractive in the first place: its small-town, friendly atmosphere and the kind of care its residents show for one another. You can’t buy that and you can’t force people to be that way. It has to come from the people themselves and the institutions – churches, fraternal groups, schools, programs for young people – that people support. It’s not all about the numbers.
I’m rooting for places like Dayton and Cincinnati and Canton – and yes, even Cleveland – to continue making their comebacks. Sometimes it seems like the rest of the country looks at Ohio like a place where the cities are nothing but debris and people are running for the border as fast as they can. It’s certainly not that way in Troy. And after years of struggle, some of Ohio’s bigger cities may have turned a corner. It might be a long road back, but the road is still open.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.