Eric Anthony Johnson

As a child growing up in urban America, I was curious about blighted conditions and how things could have gotten so bad. I saw people struggling to make ends meet, going on without ever knowing whether conditions would change. Over time, I understood that in some areas, transformation could really happen, while in others, despair continued. One important difference, I now believe, was in the determination of local people to become a prevailing force to change their own neighborhoods.

This is why I was truly moved recently when 300 University Park residents spent nearly an entire day at a Neighborhood Summit to consider what they can do to improve their neighborhood.

Without a doubt, this was Akron at its best, with residents planning to address head-on issues of crime, housing, economic opportunity and more. More important, this display of civic engagement represented a commitment of neighbors willing to work together on common priorities.

These residents, many living at or below the poverty level, even decided to consider how they might help pay for needed improvements.

During polling at the event, more than 80 percent voted to explore a special five-year property assessment to tackle safety issues and other neighborhood priorities.

Imagine it. People of limited means (nearly a fifth had household incomes of less than $25,000 a year and more than half owned property in University Park) saying yes to the prospect of a new assessment. These residents are both engaged and prepared to do their part. They define good citizenship.

At University Park Alliance (UPA), our ambitious development plans for the University Park neighborhood include major capital projects that will become building blocks in reinvigorating the core 50-block area surrounding the University of Akron.

Yet no matter how well designed our redevelopment plans may be, long-term success depends on local residents — those with the greatest stake — fulfilling a crucial role.

In my job, I see streams of well-researched reports on what struggling American cities can do to adjust to a global economy that pummeled America’s heavy manufacturing sector. Yet much of the intellectual analysis diminishes the role of citizen involvement — even as schools and safety issues loom large in any urban recovery plan.

A 2010 report by the Kettering Foundation, on the culture of learning, offered this assessment of the role of citizens and communities in the success of children:

“Our experience working with children and families in neighborhoods over the last 15 years underlines the critical role that dense social networks play in the support of learning inside and outside formal classrooms. If we assume that learning is consigned to institutions and occurs between 7 and 3 o’clock Monday through Friday, then we’ve identified both the problem and the resources far too narrowly. Education reform and neighborhood engagement ought not be separated.”

At UPA, we believe all aspects of urban advancement are linked to civic engagement. Redevelopment of a city’s core requires committed neighbors, banding together and working in unison with government and other external support systems.

In University Park, we are especially fortunate to have numerous faith communities that form a basis for good people coming together across social, racial and economic lines.

Truly, we are building a coalition of the willing, now buttressed by more than 300 additional residents to help transform the 50-block area that comprises the core of Akron. This area includes families and children in the neighborhoods around the new Leggett and Mason elementary schools.

I like to think of this coalition as a growing group of true believers in the concept of citizens as collaborators in the long-term work ahead. The believers are those organizations and individuals who see beyond the challenges and the naysayers. Our goal is to accomplish a transformation of Akron’s core into a vibrant, safe place for people to live, work, learn, play and worship. The job requires hard work, patience and a willingness of people to put time and precious resources on the table in a coordinated effort.

At the highest level, the Neighborhood Summit championed democracy as an enduring means of empowering citizens. For their time and commitment to the fight for redeveloping the University Park community, I want to say thank you to all those who participated and joined our coalition of the willing. No one said this work would be easy. It will be tough and we will face ups and downs. Our task is to believe in this community and forge ahead as truly engaged citizens.

When you truly believe, the time and investment become a down payment — not a gamble.

Johnson is executive director of University Park Alliance, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.