Akron’s Innerbelt never lived up to its potential. It never even came close. The highway was supposed to give Akron’s suburbs easy access to downtown, but the road was never completed as intended. The bigger problem is that entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for the highway.
Some of that history and the voices of a few of those who were affected are the focus of a story in the new issue of The Devil Strip: "A Road to Nowhere: How the Construction of the Innerbelt Displaced Thousands" by Noor Hindi.
While there has been a fair amount of reporting on the Innerbelt — a road that was only operational for a dozen years before then-mayor Don Plusquellic started looking at decommissioning it in 1999 — Hindi said she wanted to focus on the neighborhoods it destroyed.
"It was really important for me to try to find people who were displaced and get some of their voices in there," she said. "I think that's the heart of the story and the trauma we were wanting to report on."
Noor added that it was difficult to find people who remembered the old neighborhoods, but that once she came in contact with them, they were eager to talk.
"It seemed like something they really wanted to talk about," she said. "A lot of them were actually surprised that anybody wanted to interview them about this and talk to them."
The Innerbelt construction was more than just building a highway — planners hoped the project would result in urban renewal, a city development initiative popular in the 1950s and '60s. By constructing the Innerbelt, the city hoped to make access to downtown Akron easier as well as improve the community.
But as Hindi points out in the article, that plan is considered controversial today.
"Rather than working with the communities and seeing what can be improved upon, they just took everything out," Hindi said. "It was a solution for them, and they thought it was the best possible idea they could have to kill two birds with one stone and solve both of these problems."
The neighborhoods destroyed by the Innerbelt’s construction were predominately African-American and impoverished. Hindi said the neighborhoods remained connected and intact. Businesses were also bulldozed to make way for the highway — businesses that, as Hindi writes, poor families in the community relied on. If the customer had no money, the business owners would often loan them food or items for their children.
Before the construction, neighbors could easily walk from one home to another. Hindi interviewed Director of Summit Community Actions Malcolm Costa, who said the construction was intended to make controlling that neighborhood easier for the city.
"Part of that was purposeful … to make access to that neighborhood easier, to block certain streets off to keep track … so that nobody could escape in case a crime happened," Hindi said. "That was either an intended or unintended consequence, but either way, there are barriers."
The Innerbelt highway is being decommissioned, but not quickly deconstructed. Hindi said the neighborhood that was removed will likely never return. She said members of the neighborhood remain upset, but complacent, regarding the Innerbelt construction.
"Cynicism is a good way to sort of describe it — they are very cynical about city government," Hindi said. She added that one of the people she interviewed said they do not vote because of their distrust in city officials.
"[They said] 'these people in power don’t look out for us, they don’t care about us, they don’t listen to us,'" Hindi said.
Hindi is a senior reporter for The Devil Strip. You can find her feature story here.