In three weeks, the Akron marathon will visit the Summit Lake neighborhood for the first time. Runners will be nearing the finish line as they stream along the east side of the lake, heading north toward downtown. To be part of the marathon route may not seem like a big deal. Yet it carries much significance in this instance.
On Marathon Saturday, the city comes together in a unique way, through the many participants to the larger number of us along the route cheering and otherwise offering encouragement. It’s a party.
And now Summit Lake has been invited.
That is a departure. For decades, the neighborhood felt increasingly isolated, going back to the construction of the interstate highway slicing across the city. Thus, incomes are low, home ownership rare and business opportunities few. This has been a neglected part of town. That is, until recently, and most notably through the work of the Akron Civic Commons, led by Dan Rice of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.
For more than three years, the Civic Commons and partners, including the city, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, have been building relationships with residents, seeking to lay a foundation for elevating the neighborhood. This has been hard work given the deep mistrust and years of disappointment.
Rice tells the story of how the one bench at Summit Lake faced away from the water. Here is the largest lake in the city, where marathon runners should be routed, and it long has been viewed as a liability. So the Civic Commons engaged residents to ask, essentially: How can we join in turning that bench around?
Residents took the lead. When they expressed fear about the lake, about the potential toxicity and danger, in light of the city’s heavy industrial past, the Civic Commons launched an environmental assessment. The result? The lake is as safe as any other in the region. Its problems do not pose an obstacle to the likes of fishing, birding and canoeing.
Today, there is a small yet popular beach space — facing the lake.
Residents put high on their priority list a walkway around the lake. That, too, has become a reality, if not yet in a completed form. At work is a first principle of the Civic Commons, using public space to help bridge different communities — thus, commons — in this case, the west and east sides of the lake, one largely white, the other black, one with higher incomes, the other lower.
By next summer, Summit Metro Parks plans to be operating a nature center out of a restored Pump House on the east side of the lake, offering programming, including opportunities to see blue herons, kingfishers and even a bald eagle. This will be another shared space, something the three-year Summit Lake Vision Plan calls for expanding at the north end with a boardwalk, boat ramp and overlook, among other elements.
The “long play,” as Dan Rice describes it, involves spurring sustained investment, in housing and businesses. (Residents first want a coffee place.) He talks about “three petri dishes,” the areas where the Civic Commons has invested, Summit Lake, downtown and Park East, soon to see a state-of-the-art playground. These experiments are testing the concept of including residents at the front end.
More, they go to the value of developing enviable public spaces as a centerpiece of an economic strategy.
Rice cites Mitchell Silver, the New York City parks commissioner, “People believe the change they see.” The Civic Commons benefits from a learning network among cities pursuing similar work. Such believable change can be achieved through public spaces. See the improved property values.
The concept is evident in the city Parks Challenge of Mayor Dan Horrigan and in plain sight via the Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It follows that engaging residents and focusing on public spaces becomes a model for enhancing one Akron neighborhood at a time.
That may make some uneasy. Include more people, and the risk is the process gets messier. It also is an opportunity to build trust, or apply the early lesson of Summit Lake: When residents have a stake, they want good things to happen.
This column stems from a conversation with Rice and Kyle Kutuchief, the Akron program director of the Knight Foundation. Listening to them brought to mind an abiding lesson of journalism — how much the editorial writer, in this instance, doesn’t know. So, on this day, my last at the Beacon Journal, thank you to the many over the years, critics and otherwise, who helped me to see and understand.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.