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Knight Cities Challenge Awards Nearly $500,000 To Two Akron Projects

The Knight Cities Challenge has announced its latest round of grants. About a half-million dollars will be coming to Akron with the goal of unifying neighborhoods.

The Knight challenge is focused on 26 cities, including Akron. Applicants are asked for ideas to help their cities attract talent, spur civic engagement or break down barriers to economic opportunities.

Demolition began earlier this year on one literal divide in Akron: the Innerbelt expressway downtown. The underused highway essentially segregated the city when construction began in 1962. In 2014, then-Mayor Don Plusquellic announced plans to remove the roadway.

A year later, San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks gathered people from each of Akron’s 22 neighborhoods for a large-scale picnic on a closed portion of the Innerbelt. And he asked the 500 people there for ideas on what the space could be used for in the future. The feedback Franks received helped him come up with a winning entry for this year’s Knight Challenge.

“We’re going to be taking two acres of the 35 acres that are opening up and creating a temporary, three-month pop-up green space. So we’ll have programming and other ways for people to come down and get involved. We’re really interested in how we can create a point of connection for folks and a point of curiosity and space for creativity in between the West Hill neighborhood and downtown, and also getting students from the university involved. We think there’s opportunity for some social mixing and there’s not a lot of discussion and interaction between those different points.”

Recently, about two dozen area architects, planners and activists gathered to brainstorm ideas for the land. One takeaway was that more brainstorming was needed, and it should include ideas from people who live in the neighborhoods near the Innerbelt. Franks came to the same conclusion.

“The first part of the process will be talking to residents in West Hill and Glendale Park – also people who work downtown and at the University [of Akron] – that will inform a lot of what the actual design is. The goal of this also is not to just create the space, but also to think about how they can inform the long-term use of the space. So, we’re not necessarily saying that this needs to be a park forever, we’re thinking about how can we take this thing and inform the use. So even if it ends up being one giant, 35-acre corporate campus, they can still understand that people want to see some sort of space for connection and public use.”

Franks says the project is slated to open next summer.

Another project in Akron
Further to the east, the Middlebury neighborhood is the starting point for Akron’s other Knight Challenge-winning project. Mac Love’s @PLAY aims to visit every neighborhood over the next 18 months with an art project of some kind.

“The answer’s not always going to be a mural: sometimes it will be a park bench, sometimes it will be some trees planted in certain areas. Sometimes it’s going to be a weird Olympics with strange, unusual games that we play in the summertime. I’m really looking forward to working with the neighborhood organizations, but also doing a lot of research and trying to gain a better understanding of the little things that we can actually do to really vivify the life and experience in each of our neighborhoods.”

That research includes partnering with neighborhood groups, and even re-visiting parts of the city.

“Some neighborhoods might have a certain big event – a community event that happens on a certain weekend every year. Even if I do something in one month, I would love to come back and create a collaborative mural where we create an image that the community themselves can come in and paint. I’m going to be working in collaboration with Akron Public Schools, Summit County MetroParks, Summit County Historical Society and the City of Akron. We’re really looking to create an experience and a range of amenities that just further enhance this community.”

The view from the neighborhood
Love plans to kick off “@PLAY” in Middlebury next month, and he’s partnered with J.T. Buck, who grew up near Middlebury and says people there will benefit from finding out the area’s history.

“Story sort of helps guide you; it can inspire you. It can give you a sense of identity and create a sense of place. You’re not just living in a house your parents are renting when you’re a kid: you’re from somewhere.”

That history includes the fact that Middlebury was once a separate city that was known around the country for clay manufacturing.

“Matter of fact, many of the tiles that are still in the New York City subway system – in the platforms – the older tiles are from Akron. The same infrastructure footprint that grew up around that industry then became convertible into rubber, especially when Goodyear moved in. So there’s this whole sort of intersection of Arlington, Exchange [and] Market Street that was downtown Middlebury at one point, and that’s why it’s configured that way.”

One the horizon
J.T. Buck recently moved back to Akron to run Coach House Theatre. Mac Love is a native New Yorker who fell in love with the city while living abroad and reading about the resurgent Cleveland Indians of the 1990s. When he fell in love with a girl from Akron, he knew he had to move to his adopted home town. Both of them see big things on the horizon for Akron, which Buck sees as a building fire.

“The last two three years, with efforts like the Knight Arts Challenge and other sort of shifts in conversations, we have a lot of campfires burning all over the city that weren’t there before: Kenmore, North Hill. And so now it’s time to maybe think about institutionalizing some of those campfires in some way so they become more sustainably bonfires.”