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State of the Arts: Using the Power of Art to Transform Akron's 24 Neighborhoods

The public art project called @Play brought something special to each one of Akron's neighborhoods. Now photos, maps and resident interviews are archived in a single museum-style exhibit.

On this week's State of the Arts, WKSU's Mark Arehart talks with @Play's creator about capturing each one of the Rubber City's distinct communities.

Over the course of a year and half Mac Love and his team worked with local partners and the city to do different projects. There were more than 100 public murals made by residents and area artists, several theatrical performances and local events.

"We threw a silent disco neighborhood dance party that was a cleanup," Love said. 

For the silent disco, participants wore special headphones tuned into the same music so they could each enjoy a tiny concert while picking up trash.

Love and his team also refinished two public pools in Goodyear Heights and West Akron.

"We threw a bubble fest in East Akron, basically just entertaining and engaging with over 200 residents. Just activating Joy Park and bringing that space to life with all kinds of bubble fun. It was pretty amazing," Love said. 

Hitting the streets
Preparing for an undertaking like this was a huge task.

Murals like this one from a project in East Akron are awaiting installation.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Murals like this one from a project in East Akron are awaiting installation.

"We went down all 2,466 streets. In some neighborhoods we had interviews with as many as 300 people."

The project was awarded a $240,000 Knight Cities grant.

At the Art X Love studios downtown you can take a tour through @Play's projects in each of the 24 neighborhoods.

The exhibit uses headphones to cycle through multiple channels, whether it’s an audio guide or music from Akron Recording Company artists.

In the studio
The Art X Love studios are actually housed in an old Key Bank downtown. It's complete with high ceilings, chandeliers, a giant vault and artwork from corner to corner.

Akron natives Cameron Blakey and Jamilya Maxwell point to familar landmarks throughout their hometown as they comb their way through the @Play exhibits.

They are shrines to Akron's many different neighborhoods. 

"I've seen Sherbondy Hill in the newspaper, and I didn't know what they were talking about," Blakey said with a laugh. 

Formerly known as the Lane-Wooster neighborhood, the City of Akron renamed it Sherbondy Hill in 2017. Turns out, that's where Blakey grew up.

"We used to race each other down this hill behind old South High School. I saw LeBron (James) as a teenager playing at Perkins Pool. It was like a man playing with kids. It was ridiculous," he said. 

As Maxwell looks at photos of people painting murals, cleaning up parks, splashing around in pools and enjoying each other’s company, it makes her want to rediscover the city’s neighborhoods.

"Just when I thought I was getting bored with my hometown, just parking the car and getting out and walking. It’s like wow," she said. 

The Art X Love studio houses hundreds of pieces of local artwork.
Credit Mark Arehart
Mark Arehart
The Art X Love studio houses hundreds of pieces of local artwork.

Getting it all done
In the 18-month project, Mac Love admits there were some projects they couldn’t get done.

There is a series of metal benches in the shape of colorful letter A’s that still need to find a permanent home and about 40 murals that have yet to be installed. 

Credit @Play and Art X Love

"So the goal is to get them out and to the public by this spring," Love said. 

Looking beyond the installation of the remaining artwork, Love wants @Play to be a model for engaging communities, whether it be Akron or elsewhere.

"My pipe dream thing is for it to be an initiative that our entire country could embrace. I know that sounds crazy, but we have major infrastructure problems across the country. And I think @Play is an interesting roadmap and template for ways that we can do improvements and make changes in a really responsible way."

The @Play exhibit runs through April at the Art X Love studios in Downtown Akron.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.