The corner of Edison and Long streets in Akron embodies what many would imagine as urban decay and despair.
One corner has an overgrown vacant lot; opposite is an abandoned house, its doorway and more than one window open, a “Keep Out” sign meaningless. Another home remains boarded after a fire, and litter is scattered along the sidewalks and in unmowed grass and weeds filling the devil strip.
Most days you would think this is a place without hope. But Saturday was not most days. Maybe because of that, there will be better days ahead.
Saturday, unused land owned by the adjacent Miller Avenue United Church of Christ was filled with people, sounds from drills and hammers, labored breathing as concrete was stirred and mulch spread — and bright colors.
Some came from the new hopscotch patterns being painted on the sidewalks.
Far more came from the playground going up on the lot.
The Miller Avenue church is one of three local beneficiaries of KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit helping to put playgrounds within walking distance of every child, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided $1.5 million to help fund nine playgrounds in Akron, Miami and Detroit.
Scenes similar to that by the Miller Avenue church were playing out Saturday at Celebration Church on Dan Street and in Cascade Village, a mixed-income community on East North Street.
The Miller playground — one of more than 2,100 nationwide that KaBOOM! has helped build — takes up about 2,500 square feet, with picnic tables in a shaded area and benches. Asked whether the church could have done this without outside help, Pastor Tom Gerstenlauer said, “Not on this scale.”
Before the new playground, neighborhood children had only a smaller play area behind the church, and so would seek amusement in the abandoned houses and vacant lots, Gerstenlauer said.
“They come here for Vacation Bible school, but that’s one week,” he said. “They come here for the summer lunch, but that’s only 11 weeks.”
The new playgrounds could be magnets for children and parents. Celebration Church chose a site in front of its large parking lot along Dan Street and next to the new Juvenile Court and detention center so it would be visible and available to all children in the area. Senior Pastor Jeff Wade said the church had considered a location close to its building but the board did not want it to seem like a church-only playground.
The Celebration location also makes it useful to people coming to the courthouse. During the application process for KaBOOM!, Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio wrote a letter in support of the playground because it would give children something to do when families come to the courthouse by bus for a hearing and must wait for a long period of time, Wade said.
But the projects are about more than putting new structures in needy communities. Having local volunteers, especially those from the neighborhoods being helped, might lead to other bonds. A Knight Foundation report in May said KaBOOM! projects “help volunteers and local organizations cultivate the skills, confidence and inspiration to get more involved in their communities.”
The need for local involvement and leadership began well before Saturday. It included a Design Day, when local children could offer their ideas for the playgrounds.
“What we did was have them all draw their dream playgrounds,” said Kenny Altenburg, a senior project manager for KaBOOM! “We see everything from chocolate fountains to big rivers — and hot tubs on every single one.”
The chocolate fountains don’t happen, but after seeing repeated suggestions for a zip line, the final design “has what we call the monorail, which is a little track ride, which is very similar. So, sorry, we can’t build a chocolate fountain but we do try to incorporate themes from what they drew.”
The participation continued on planning days, when “local leadership begins ... to step up and take charge. Those people usually step up quickly,” said Jennifer Thomas, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation. The foundation makes grants to cities that were home to newspapers in the old Knight Ridder newspaper chain.
“We really focus on the community-build model, not just in the physical building but in bringing the community together to plan and pull off this event, and use it as momentum to go on to future, bigger, better things,” Altenburg said.
“What happens when there’s a place that’s regarded as a safe and stable area, where people can gather, is that people start to interact,” Gerstenlauer said. “To start to share the various things that they know will help keep a stable space. When that happens, you’ve got the basic building block of a community.”
In fact, Gerstenlauer added, “To use the term ‘community’ to describe [the church’s neighborhood] is almost absurd. Because it’s just been about neglected to death. But they haven’t given up. Most of the people here can’t live anywhere else for one reason or another, but they have a memory of some kind of stable place, of a place that they have their lives anchored to.” And the playground may give them a new anchor, he said.
At Miller, a church with only about two dozen core members, organizers estimated 300 volunteers contributed to the effort over six hours. Most came from the neighborhood, they said, while others came from sister churches and organizations.
At Celebration, about 150 volunteers came from the church, courthouse, city employees and residents. One couple who used the church’s free wedding service drove down from Cleveland, Wade said.
“It’s just awesome to think that people would be willing to give for kids,” Wade said. “To make time in their life to take a day. It’s unbelievable.”
Beacon Journal reporter Betty Lin-Fisher also contributed to this story.
Rich Heldenfels is a reporter and columnist for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.