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Akron Celebrates Signs that Summit Lake is Leaving its Polluted Past Behind

Photo of Sims and Rice
WKSU public radio
Veronica Sims grew up in the Summit Lake neighborhood, and Dan Rice sees the waterway as a key connector for the rest of the city.

Akron’s Summit Lake isn’t quite back to its glory days as the city’s “waterfront playground.” But a new report finds it is cleaning itself after years of industrial dumping and other abuse – at least to the point where it’s safe for boating, fishing and birdwatching. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on the attempt to make the lake an attraction instead of a liability – and to reconnect an isolated part of the city.

Akron Councilwoman Veronica Sims looks shaky even after she slips off her heels and settles into the front of the canoe, clutching a paddle. Canoeing makes her nervous. But Summit Lake, she says emphatically, does not. Not its legacy of industrial pollution and sewage run-off -- not even the urban legends of alligators, dead bodies and a sunken ferris wheel.

“I love the folk stories, too. They were kind of fun. (But) I’m glad the study has occurred to kind of dispel those myths and bring people back to the lake.” 

'Summit Lake is clean. It's no different than the Portage Lakes or other lakes that have million-dollar homes all around them.'

The study was done by the company EnviroScience as part of the Knight Foundation’s Civic Commons effort to reconnect some of Akron’s neighborhoods via the Ohio and Erie Canal corridor. The report is nearly a hundred pages thick, but Dan Rice, the head of the Canalway Coalition, summed it up quickly at a presentation Wednesday morning.

“The environmental health of Summit Lake is good and the water quality continues to improve, allowing for opportunities to interact with the lake. That deserves applause.”

Credit Google maps
Google maps
Interstate highways cut Summit Lake off from much of the rest of the city.

And he got it.

Slow signs of progress
The report presented by Rice and other Civic Commons partners at the Summit Lake community center follows up on signs of progress earlier this year, when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources OK’d consumption of even bottom feeders like catfish from the lake – albeit on a limited once-a-month basis.

Joe Hadley of the Northeast Ohio Four County Regional Planning and Development Organization, which oversaw the study, cautions that Summit Lake is not perfect. There continues to be occasional oil spills and signs of toxic algae and metals in sediment – though at levels well below the thresholds for human safety.

“The study did note that there’s some ecological impairments from ongoing exposure to the lake and canal sediments. In other words, fish and bugs matter.”

Photo of Hadley and Hardy
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
WKSU public radio
Joe Hadley (left) of NEFCO cautioned that reminders of Summit Lake's industrial past remains, but he and Jim Hardy say it's in about the same shape as the Portage Lakes and other urban lakes in Northeast Ohio.

But there are increasing signs that both are thriving: blue gill and small-mouth bass in the water, with blue herons and other birds nesting on its edge.

A million-dollar view in the poorest part of the city
James Hardy, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan’s chief of staff, drew a parallel with other urban lakes.

“Summit Lake is clean. It’s no different than the Portage Lakes or other lakes that have million-dollar homes all around them.”

But the homes around Summit Lake include some of the poorest in the city of Akron. And the Canalway’s Rice notes urban development isolated the neighborhood decades ago.

“It has been cut off by the highways, cut off by the railroads. You have a hillside to the west, and then the schools have been taken away.”

His hope is that the Canalway reconnects the area to the rest of the city – without the downside of gentrification. And though the Enviroscience report focused on the physical condition of the lake, the presentation included references to broader social concerns.

Star Saulsberry moved into the Summit Lake neighborhood three years ago, and remembered her first Civic Commons meeting.

“I walked in and there were a lot of suits, … and I’m thinking, I’m not feeling this. Are they going to come in and tell us this is what we’re going to do here? That’ll be a problem.”

photo of Star Saulsberry
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
WKSU public radio
Star Saulsberry says, despite her early fears, the project has been a collaborative.

Instead, she says, there was consultation and collaboration giving her neighborhood ownership of plans to turn Summit Lake into a recreational hub. But ownership also takes a bit of a culture shift.

Seeing it as their own
Fabian Ferguson is preparing to launch a kayak into the lake. He acknowledges there are old images to deal with.

“Rumors, rumors, rumors, ‘Oh it’s a suicide lake, you know they digging up bodies and alligators.’ Rumors rumors rumors."

The perception he worries about now is one he says comes with poverty—that his neighbors won’t see their stake in the lake and use it.

“A lot of people being in a kind of poor community, they feel like everything costs. So if they see the bikes or see the boats, they are like: “Oh, that costs, and they won’t even come to question.”  

So Ferguson sees his mission as convincing his neighbors a clean lake is theirs to enjoy.

M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.