Akron, Ohio is no more resistant to change than any city in America. Probably less so, in fact. In 2007, the art museum downtown was remodeled by an Austrian architecture firm and now has a futuristic glass addition. A couple years back, the three-story, decades-old Arby’s sign on Market Street—the one in the shape of a cowboy hat and illuminated by dozens of lightbulbs—was replaced with a smaller, more energy-efficient sign. That same summer, my elementary school was demolished. King School had been built in 1923. Its basement had hosted the first Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Preservation groups collected signatures and raised hell. But it was as leaky and drafty and mold-infested as you’d expect of a pre-war building subject to humid summers and freezing winters, and the state was offering money to rebuild. So it, too, came down.
Still, there are some things in Akron that won't budge. It’s mayor, for one. Don Plusquellic has been on the job since 1987. And food. The city’s most popular restaurants are a hamburger stand opened in 1934 and a pizza parlor opened in 1949. In 2007, Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the Pretenders and an Akron native, opened a gourmet vegan restaurant two doors down from Luigi’s. Akron adores Chrissie Hynde, but the restaurant closed after four years. There are lines to get into Luigi’s every Friday and Saturday night.
Akron is also inflexible about Christmas. There’s the tree festival—now in its 31st year—that raises money for Children’s Hospital. And the Boy Scouts selling trees out front of Fairlawn Elementary. And there's the nativity scene—that’s tradition for me, anyway.
Every Christmas Eve, my mom and I would go to eight o’clock mass. Then, afterward, we’d drive through our neighborhood and look at the lights.
The neighborhood was a giant cul-de-sac. Within it, there were several smaller sections—three- or four-block parcels that each had a distinct feel—but there was only one access road, just the one way in or out.
Our house was near the start of the road. When I was growing up, the neighborhood was full of boys my age. A couple years ago I tried to remember the names of all those in my grade or a grade above or below. I counted close to 30. We ran all over the neighborhood. I knew every crack in the sidewalks, which yards you could cut through without the owners caring, which houses gave out the best Halloween candy.
Except for school, my friends and I didn’t leave the neighborhood much. That changed in high school, especially once we started driving, when the only part of the neighborhood I saw regularly was the hundred-yard stretch between our driveway and the access road. The rest of the neighborhood I only saw on those Christmas Eve drives.
We’d pass our house, bearing right and continuing down Palisades, admiring the milk jug lanterns that lined both sides of the street to the dead end at Canyon Trail. We’d turn left, passing the small park where my friends and I played football, then left on Mardon. There, my friend David’s old house, the adjustable basketball hoop no longer in the driveway. Left on Eaglenest, up the hill to the dead end at Palisades.
Here, mom would stop and turn off the radio and flip the brights. It was a simple nativity scene, poster-board illustrations of the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph and the Magi. There were also camels and a donkey or two. I think the manger and straw inside might have been real but I can’t remember. It was a big yard, and the nativity scene was far enough to the side of the house that the brights didn’t shine in any of the windows. I’m not sure the owners could even see it from the house.
We’d sit there for no more than thirty seconds. I could go into our religious beliefs, and that had something to do with it, sure, but when I think about it now what I think about is sitting in the warm car in silence with my mom on Christmas Eve in the neighborhood where I grew up and where the only house I ever lived was and not a single car passing by. Then she’d flip off the brights and turn right and loop around Palisades to Lafayette and the house.
This Christmas will be the fifth since she died. There’s no eight o’clock mass anymore. I go to a midnight service, at a different church. And there’s somebody else living in the house now. I stay at my father’s, ten minutes away. But after church, I still make the drive through the old neighborhood. I still stop.