The Akron Parks Challenge asks the community to envision how to better use the city’s neighborhood parks. In Kenmore, residents are restoring a long-neglected gem.
A musical legacy
Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood is known for its musical backbone--Kenmore Boulevard. It has several recording studios, a legendary guitar store and a number of live music venues.
Chestnut Ridge Park with its historic amphitheater has become the neighborhood’s latest venue.
“I always thought it was great, it didn’t feel like it belonged here, but I don’t mean that in a bad way cause it doesn’t seem like it belongs in Akron,” said musician and Kenmore native Chris Miller. “It seems like a park from another time.”
In a way, it is. It’s been decades since performances took place in the park’s amphitheater.
“It has a lot of natural acoustics,” Miller said. “The stone kind of carries the sound. That makes it ideal for any performer to play.”
The amphitheater is why Angela Miller (no relation to Chris) decided to take action -- she entered the park in the first year of the Akron Parks Challenge.
“The amphitheater haunted me,” she said.
It’s built from stone quarried nearby in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration and registered in the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.
“I could imagine the WPA stone masons laying it thinking of all the wonderful things that would happen,” Angela Miller said.
Like the majority of Rust Belt cities, Akron’s gradual population loss resulted in a decline in its infrastructure -- Chestnut Ridge Park was no exception.
"The park has needed TLC for decades,” Angela Miller said.
“When my children were small, this is where we came,” she said. “They’re in their early thirties now and the playground equipment wasn’t safe then. It was so old.”
As part of the Akron Parks Challenge, residents are invited to submit ideas to the city that will have an impact on the surrounding community. Winners get up to $100,000 but must have a defined volunteer group to coordinate with the Akron Parks Collaborative, the nonprofit that oversees the challenge.
Making change happen
“I get to work with the community to find out what they want and I get to work with the city to say this is what they want, make it happen kind of thing,” said Collaborative Director Bridget Ambrisco. “But we find we’re kind of down to the details with the community because they want to have input too on like cool looking benches. So they’re engaged to that level, and I’m sort of the conduit in between.”
Chestnut Ridge Park now has a new playground; new lighting was installed throughout; and electricity was run to the park’s pavilion and amphitheater.
“Everybody is blown away by the beauty of this park and a big part of it is that structure,” Ambrisco said. “I mean you can have all kinds of programs, from weddings to Shakespeare to concerts. This park I think is really special and it’s right in a neighborhood so it’s accessible for so many people to walk to.”
Chris Miller, who also plays ukulele, said he’s happy to have another place to perform. He calls the amphitheater a partner in the performance.
Revitalizing the park is part of a larger strategy to revitalize Kenmore. Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance Director Tina Boyes grew up not far from the park.
“Kenmore has always been a really great, close-knit community,” she said. “It’s changed over the years, but there’s still a core of people who love this community and want to see it come back.”
Collaborations that foster civic pride, like the one in Chestnut Ridge Park, are key to revitalizing all of Akron’s neighborhoods, she said.
“People collaborate here,” she said. “I know it’s an overused word but you can’t just build a park and they’ll come; you can’t just build a boulevard and they’ll come. How do you get people back to the space together so they can experience something, so they can walk away collectively and say, ’man that was good!’?”
"One way to do that is to bring residents out of their houses and into shared spaces,” Ambrisco said. “People need to know that their city parks are theirs,” she said. “Feel empowered to improve your own park. It’s their park. These are great spaces.“
In its first year, the Akron Parks Challenge awarded grants to three parks, with two more awarded in its second year.
The city will issue its next request for applications in the spring.