For their fourth annual block party, community organizers were going to repaint the mural covering the intersection of Edison Avenue and West Long Street in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood.
The radiant heart has helped slow traffic on a street full of kids while anchoring the pulse of the community on the old Miller Avenue United Church of Christ.
But the city announced it would be repaving some of Edison Avenue, including the intersection. So, Stephanie Leonardi, a former teacher who’s dedicated her life to serving youth and community in Summit Lake, did what she usually does when thrown a curveball.
“I just pretend I’m a kid sometimes,” said Leonardi. “And who doesn’t want to roller skate down the street?”
The makeshift roller rink was a smashing, crashing alternative to the mural painting. The street filled with friendship as children rolled in an oval around a row of brightly colored tires. At the Miller Avenue end of the block party, a dozen kids played basketball in the middle of the street, which was closed to traffic Sunday afternoon.
Event organizers who live in the neighborhood watched their neighbors share a laugh and a meal, setting aside any issues that stood between them for a day of fun-filled revelry set to the smells and sounds of a summertime barbecue.
On a strap strung tautly between a pavilion post and a tree, a row of giggling kids sat with their arms interlocked like they were posing in a Coca-Cola commercial. There was pingpong and tug of war. Children ran circles around a playground behind the church, which is now operated by the Front Porch Fellowship led by the Rev. Duane Crabbs, pastor, and his wife, Lisa.
Leonardi remembers block parties growing up in North Hill where local leaders like John Valle, a former city councilman and the current director of Neighborhood Assistance, brought people together for no better reason than to celebrate community. "It was one of my favorite memories as a kid," she said.
In Summit Lake, she talked about starting a block party to "anyone who would listen." She hosted the first gathering in her backyard while living in the fellowship’s community house, which the church used to support her as she set out to serve the community.
By the end of each block party, Leonardi said the community’s battery is charged with enough “good energy” to sustain a year of mission-driven events and programming.
Skylah Smith, 20, sat at a picnic table with a paper plate of food in front of her and her 1-year-old daughter, Matayah Bowers, on her lap.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. I used to go to an after-school program at this church,” she said.
Despite dismal reports of crime, vacant properties and poverty, she’s seen her community come to life with events like the block party. “It’s changed a lot,” she said. “It’s become more family-oriented because, you see, everyone is so close.”
No one was roller-skating in the street in Adolph Owens’ day. The 31-year-old local resident listened as DJ Bryson Davis, a member of the Front Porch Fellowship, reversed the skaters' direction at the drop of a beat.
“The kids need this,” said Owens. “You gotta give them hope for the future and let them know there’s still love in the neighborhood.”
Leonardi said she got the idea of the mural after visiting Portland, Oregon, with The City Repair Project, a collaborative that inspires place-making projects.
The block party this year, funded by the Akron Community Foundation and the city's My Neighborhood Our Akron grant program, was sponsored by South Street Ministries, the community outreach arm of the church. The food and festivities cost about $600, Leonardi said. She wouldn't say how much it cost to have roller skates brought in to rent out. She shopped around locally but had to hire a company from Buffalo, New York.
Next year, she said, maybe the talent show will return, or perhaps they could hold a roller skate drive, collecting enough of the nostalgic footwear to host multiple pop-up roller rinks throughout the year.
For now, the group is planning a second block party on a yet to be announced date in early August, this time a block closer to Summit Lake on Princeton Street. Those who want to learn more or contribute can reach Leonardi at email@example.com.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.