Back to the Future? Future to the…Back?

The I-77 Shuffel St. Exit, whose existence I refuse to acknowledge

I grew up in North Canton, Ohio. With a few brief stints in Florida, I lived there the first eighteen years of my life. I often reflect on the places, people, and events that help to shape how we self-identify and core beliefs- for good or bad. In fact, I’m planning to write a book about it. Comprising all of my most formative years, the people, places, and events of North Canton obviously play a large part in who I am today.

You don’t really think too much about your hometown and how it has changed, is changing, and will continue to change until you are able to look in from the outside- especially of you are an angsty teen eager to get out and see what else the world has to offer. Sure, if you live in your hometown your whole life, you likely still notice that things have changed. But change happens more slowly, is less perceptible, when you can experience it as a continuous curve rather than an individual point on that curve. You have time to accept that a new building or housing development “has been there awhile.” If you haven’t been there in a few years, there are probably a few areas that shock you in either their development or decline.

I’ve visited North Canton a few times each year since I last lived there 35 years ago. I’m a believer in using data to help visualize trends and context. The North Canton I grew up in just happened to be in a fairly uneventful period as far as growth – and therefore change. Between 1940 and 1950, North Canton’s population almost doubled, increasing from 2,988 to 4,032. It almost doubled again between 1950 and 1960, and yet again in 1960-1970, when the population was 15,228. I came on the scene in in 1969. Between 1970 and 1990, which encompasses the entire time I lived there, the net change in population was only -3.5%. Following 1990, and continuing through 2020, North Canton once again experienced a fair amount of growth. This is all to establish the idea that when I lived in North Canton, not a whole lot of change was happening, anyways, so most of my memories there are equally stable- most things looked the way they always looked, and that’s the way I remember them.

Flash forward to yesterday, 6 Mar 2022. Having decided that I once again have the energy to resume my attempt at writing this oft-threatened book, I decided to head down to my old hometown for inspiration. I planned ahead. I would first meet some friends for lunch. After that, hit the list of local places I decided to visit, jot down some story ideas associated with them, and BOOM, inspiration would happen!

The Shuffel St. exit on I-77 opened in 2005, apparently. Being an old-school North Cantonian, though, the idea of an exit there was preposterous and I refused to acknowledge its existence. Yesterday was the day I would enter the modern NC era and use that exit. I immediately got lost. How was that possible? I had walked, ridden, roller-skated, and eventually driven every inch of that damn town. How am I lost? Of course, none of the streets I was on existed when I lived there, but still… Not to be discouraged, I eventually found my way to places I knew, and then to the mall for lunch.

As planned, after lunch I headed out for site visits. As I passed each one, instead of triggering memories, they seemed almost unrecognizable. As I passed place after place, instead of inspiration, I felt nothing. Nothing at all. As I threw in the towel and headed towards the freeway home, I felt like I was in that fading photo from Back to the Future where Marty and his siblings are slowly fading from the image. It was thoroughly disheartening that in the two hours seeking inspiration, I felt nothing. I never felt more disconnected from North Canton than in that moment. How am I going to write a book largely centered on the town if I can’t even evoke some feelings by being back there?

And then the answer hit me, and provided more inspiration than I could ever have initially planned: I didn’t need to see these things anymore. I so clearly see them in my mind’s eye, that visiting the actual locations as they exist now is relatively pointless other than for comparison/contrast, old/new. They’re not the same places I’m planning to write about, even if they happen to be the same buildings. The building or playing field, or house itself is irrelevant to its significance. I can describe the building, but it’s that site’s importance to me that’s really the story. Even if someone doesn’t know me, know the building or has never even heard of North Canton, we’ve all had those kinds of memories and the experience of the modern-day place not seeming like the same place we remembered.

So the images are fading back onto the picture and I’m back writing again. We’re saved, Marty! I’m planning for roughly 30 short chapters: 1500-2500 words each. I’ve already written one, and previous attempts have the foundations of several others. Hell, maybe part of this post will find its way into one of them. The rest? Those will come from the places I carefully laid out in yesterday’s plans– the places that may share the same address on a map, but not the same address in my heart.

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