Friday, January 23, 2015

Waters Park and Chestnut Ridge Park

Akron Empire is excited to welcome guest blogger Tessa Gaffney, a senior at the University of Akron, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Theatre Arts. Last year, she gathered stories about hate, love, and courage from gay Akronites to create the musical revue, Hope Will Never Be Silent, which was performed at The Interbelt Nite Club. She believes in the ability of theatre to spark ideas, change minds, and foster empathy. She wishes to help build a world where art is valued in our education system and unavoidable in our public spaces, starting right here in Akron

Elise Gaffney, who took the photos for this post, graduated from the University of Akron in 2013 with a B.A. in Business and Organizational Communications and a minor in Photography. She recently returned to pursue a B.F.A. in Photography. She discovered Chestnut Ridge only a few years ago while exploring her hometown of Kenmore. Her photography project, “Wasted,” a close look at our throw-away society, was a winner of the 2012 Akron Art Prize. All of her work is based out of neighborhoods in Akron, including Cottage Grove and Firestone Park.

Waters Park and Chestnut Ridge Park
by Tessa Gaffney

The Works Progress Administration provided jobs to millions of unemployed workers during the Depression to carry out public works projects. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. Akron had three: Chestnut Ridge amphitheater, Waters Park amphitheater, and the Glendale steps.

Chestnut Ridge Park sign as seen from East Avenue


In 1933, Frank Hyde Waters donated his $75,000 property to Summit County for a tuberculosis clinic or to the city of Akron for a public playground—the only stipulation being a monument built on the grounds in memory of his wife, Cora Ann Swift, and their daughter, Mary Waters Sheddon, who had died of tuberculosis. As North Akron only had one park at the time and the county already had adequate medical facilities, Waters Park was established—right off the Y Bridge, across from St. Thomas Hospital. Waters specified the park was to be developed by a civic organization.


Monument at Waters Park in memory of Frank Waters' wife and daughter who died of tuberculosis


Over the years, attempts to maintain a lily pond and a fountain with a statue have failed, but recently efforts to fix up the park have been revitalized by David DiDomenico and the Waters Park Restoration Alliance. They successfully cleared the brush in certain areas, planted flowers, installed bird feeders and benches. Unfortunately, for most of its existence, the stage has served little purpose other than allowing neighborhood children to pretend they are performing to adoring fans or giving speeches to a captivated crowd. 

What if they actually were doing those things? 

In the summer of 1965, classical plays were presented by amateur actors on the Waters Park stage. The Akron Recreation Department brought in a voting booth to serve as a changing room and tin cans punched with holes containing candles lined the stone benches guiding the audience to their seats. About ten years ago, Ingenue Theatre Ensemble led by Suzie Graham of Downtown Akron Partnership, gave kids the opportunity to perform Shakespeare at the amphitheaters at both Waters Park and Chestnut Ridge. 
Nowadays, the columns of the Waters Park amphitheater have begun to crumble and weeds are sprouting in its cracks. But when the weather turns nice, the stage is perfectly framed by tall sunflowers and its charm is undeniable.



Waters Park amphitheater from the front (top) and back (bottom)


The amphitheater at Chestnut Ridge, located off of East Avenue, however, remains in pristine condition. We were unable to find any information on Chestnut Ridge in the Special Collections department of the Akron Summit County Public Library, but through talking to others, we found out that a couple years ago, the Akron Regional Chamber Orchestra sponsored a Clean-Up Day in order to host a concert there. 

Except for these few instances, it seems both amphitheaters have seen little use since their construction.


Chestnut Ridge amphitheater from front (top) and back (bottom)

In addition to the amphitheater, Waters Park also features a stone observation deck cut into the hillside, basketball and shuffleboard courts, and a breathtaking view of the entire city. Slightly smaller, Chestnut Ridge contains a picnic pavilion and playground. In 1982, Don Stephens, the executive director of the Akron Regional Development Board, declared Waters Park a Veterans’ Memorial; nowadays, the only veterans who frequent the park are homeless. Chestnut Ridge has a flagpole presented to the Boy Scouts of America by Leo L. Laney. Just last month, Waters Park tied for second place in Akron Empire’s “Favorite Parks in Akron” poll. Both parks are literally the backyard for some Akron residents.

And yet these stages sit, unused.
The spectacular view of Akron from Waters Park

WPA amphitheaters are standing proof that an era existed in which the government found art important enough to fund it. They are also an homage to open-air theaters in ancient Greece, where going to the theatre was a communal activity that was hard-wired into the social, political, and religious rhythms of the ancient city; the entire city would shut down to watch theatrical festivals that incited discussions about the state of society and questioned authority. They are important historical landmarks that should not only be preserved, but cherished and utilized to their full potential.

Placemaking is a philosophy that encourages the use of a community’s assets, inspiration, and potential to create public spaces that promote people's health, happiness, and well being. It sparks an exciting re-examination of everyday settings. Imagine these forgotten parks as central hubs, filled with sculptures and murals, spontaneous theatre and music, vegetable gardens and flower beds. There could be Saturday brunches and Sunday beer gardens, concerts, contests, and festivals. The possibilities are endless.

EraAir Theatre Company was created to fill the seats and light the stages of these beautiful relics of local history. For more information, please visit our website at www.eraairtheatrecompany.org, like EraAir Theatre Company on Facebook, or follow @eraairtheatre on Twitter and Instagram.

4 comments:

  1. I love this post - I lived right across from Chestnut Ridge as a teenager and loved the charm of it. Huge old trees, a great hang out.

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