Featured, General

A brief Akron history lesson before the NBA Finals

Will Gibson/WFNY

The NBA Finals begin on Thursday. Finally, we’ll be able to discuss real basketball, and not the other pomp and circumstances we’ve been debating for a week. But while I have your attention, I’d like to talk about the city of Akron just a little while longer.

All week, there have been conflicting reports about whether Stephen Curry and LeBron James were born at the same Akron hospital. Initially, reports stated Steph was born at Akron General — and said LeBron was born there too! But LeBron has long been known to be a product of Akron City Hospital. Birth certificates, tracked down by the Akron Beacon Journal, showed that both were born at the same hospital, but it was Akron City. Go figure!

So amid all of this back-and-forth and he-said-she-said, I wanted to share a perspective on what Akron is really like, besides just the hospitals. Because, you know, Akron is a real city, and real cities do indeed have multiple hospitals. They also have all sorts of other things going on.

Akron is known for its drive-in burger restaurants. Old school drive-in style, where the employees run out to your car in a hurry. The long-time debate is between Swenson’s and Skyway. But this is mostly a fake tough guy rivalry, kind of like the Cavaliers-Wizards in the mid-2000s. My totally unsophisticated market research indicates Akron is about 85 percent pro-Swenson’s. It’s a completely one-sided affair. While in town, order a Swenson’s galley boy, potato teezers with cajun, and ranch on the side, along with a strawberry milkshake (pumpkin, if in the fall). You won’t be disappointed. Akron also hosts the National Hamburger Festival, which is legitimately a thing.

We’ve got other peculiar food habits, too. Luigi’s Pizza might be the best ‘za in Northeast Ohio. Nearby town Barberton is famous for its fried chicken, either White House or Belgrade Gardens (this is a real food rivalry). Akronites often call potato wedges “jo jos” for no known reason. Tiger Woods loves to frequent the Diamond Grille downtown when around for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. And although we’ve got more chain restaurants that you could ever imagine, there are dozens of thriving local places too, if you know where to look. Some personal favorites include Mustard Seed, Lockview, Gasoline Alley, Wally Waffle, Diamond Deli, New Era, and Papa Joe’s.

Akron is the former rubber capital of the world. This is why the University of Akron is known as the Zips, from the city’s ties to Zipper rubber shoes back in the early 1900s. The Goodyear, Goodrich, and Firestone tire brands all have their roots in the land of the “330.” Famous musicians behind The Pretenders and The Black Keys attended Harvey S. Firestone High School on Akron’s west side. Stan Hywet Hall, the former house of Goodyear founder F.A. Seiberling, is one of Akron’s main tourist attractions. Goodyear is the only of the three tire companies still based in Akron, and its signature blimps remain housed in the area.

Instead, Akron could now be known as the hand sanitizer capital of the world. Purell, likely the nation’s leading hand sanitizer brand, is a product of GOJO, founded and still headquartered in Akron. In other noteworthy claims to fame, Akron used to be the site of the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. The All-American Soap Box Derby takes place each July at Derby Downs in Akron. Quaker Oats began cereal production in the city. The Akron Pros won the 1920 NFL Championship, led by Fritz Pollard. Alcoholics Anonymous started here in 1935. Akron used to be a hotspot for professional bowling back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. DEVO, Joseph Arthur, Thurman Munson, Butch Reynolds, and Ara Parseghian are all locals. And heck, neither of the 2014-15 NBA Finals stars will be the first native Akronite to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame: That’d be Nate Thurmond, who spent 11 seasons with the Warriors before finishing his career with the Cavs.

Akron’s just-retired mayor was as fun of a local legend as could be. An American PG-13 version of Toronto’s Rob Ford, perhaps? Don Plusquellic, former All-State Kenmore High School quarterback, was Akron’s mayor from 1987 until just last week, when he abruptly resigned just before an upcoming election season. Mayor Don would often be seen at some of the local bars, and his final years in office were mired with mild controversy. But his imprint is all over the city. His initiative to build a downtown minor league baseball stadium — Canal Park, home of the Akron RubberDucks — was a catalyst for an incredible downtown resurgence. We’ll miss you, Mayor Don. Akron won’t quite be the same without you in charge.

That doesn’t mean we don’t still have some notable quirks. Yes, that is indeed our old abandoned mall on BuzzFeed. Yes, we had a poop bandit earlier this year. Yes, the city has had an unfortunate problem with meth over the years. Yes, Jeffrey Dahmer is from nearby Bath township. Yes, we describe directions to pretty much anything in relation to Market Street. We’ve got some slight issues, but doesn’t every city?

Overall, we’re a prideful and stubborn bunch with a cheerful bit of crazy. Say you’re from Akron, but you’re actually from Medina or Wadsworth or Twinsburg? We might have some serious problems. Akron is not Cleveland, either. But just like Cleveland/Ohio State sports fans are notorious for being loud and obnoxious, so too are Akronites about their city. Folks might not always return back home to their Northeast Ohio roots, unlike a certain MVP, but they’ll always remember their time in the city.

As my mother told me just the other day: “You can’t just be born in Akron, it has to run in your blood.”