Akron Better Block: Imagining a Better Akron, One Block at a Time
by Joanna Wilson
Can you imagine Akron's North Hill with new small-business markets and the streets made safer and more accessible for bicycles and pedestrians? I spoke with John Ughrin and Tina Ughrin, from the organization Team Better Block, who are working to create a temporary example of that vision. They're calling it Akron Better Block--a weekend long event--and an opportunity for neighborhood residents and visitors to see what improvements could actually look like and how they could work in an actual North Hill location.
I first met John and Tina on the Akron2Pittsburgh trip. Tina lead a group of us on a walking tour through several notable Pittsburgh neighborhoods, as we observed the negotiation of retail and residential spaces. I chatted with John on the two hour bus ride home at the end of our day in Pittsburgh. Both John and Tina impressed me immensely with their hard work and commitment to North Hill. Their enthusiasm and vision for their neighborhood was exciting and inspiring. I think you'll think so too. The conversation below took place after we returned to Akron.
Joanna: What is Akron Better Block all about?
John: A Better Block is a kind of "flash mob" urban planning project. For one weekend, we narrow the street, fill empty shops with pop-up businesses, bring in art, bike lanes, and other amenities. Almost everything is temporary, but that means its relatively cheap and easy to generate consensus. It gives people a physical vision of what their best hopes for an area can be. The power of that inspiration does the rest.
In some ways, it's about reconnecting neighborhoods with themselves. We've spent the last 60 or so years designing our spaces around cars, and a Better Block is a way to start and take them back for people. This is especially true in a place like North Hill, where the bones of that people-centered past still linger in our buildings and streets.
Joanna: Where did you get the idea to launch this project?
John: Last spring (2014) AMATS [Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study], through its Switching Gears group, put on a conference on Active Transportation (bicycling and walking). We (Tina and I) went, and Jason Roberts (inventor of the Better Block concept) gave a talk about the process. We left very enthused about the possibilities for applying it to North Hill.
Joanna: Why North Hill?
John: North Hill has a lot of untapped energy and diversity! Its reputation is outdated. As we've welcomed new populations to our community, we've outgrown our old image. We live in North Hill and love it. Hopefully, the Better Block will be a kind of catalyst to share that energy with more people.
|Concept drawing from Team Better Block. Click on it to enlarge.|
Joanna: Tell me a little about yourselves--and what inspired you to do this?
John: Tina and I have been living in North Hill for about 8 years. We've become rather fierce patriots for the neighborhood. Living in a place where you can be friends with your neighbors and share city life is a great experience. Our kids say that its like living in an old TV show. People in the 'burbs are missing out!
We are also big on walking and bicycling. If neighborhoods had commercial centers reminiscent of the past, we could reduce our collective use of cars.
Joanna: Please list 5 things visitors and North Hill residents should NOT miss at Akron Better Block?
John: Just 5? I don't want to leave anyone out, though! We've got Food, Clothing, Art and Art Galleries, Performances, and Games. Not to mention the changes to the street! I'm not even familiar with all of them! So I'm going to cheat a bit. Of the ones I know, I'd recommend visitors try:
1) Three Sisters' Momos (a type of Nepali Dumpling)
2) Chatpattey (sp?) - a puffed rice snack/lunch from Family Groceries
3) Neighbors' Apparel - a designer clothier staffed and supplied by Karen women from the US and Asia.
John continues: Of the ones I don't know, I'm most curious to see:
4) the Sepak Takraw tournament, if that happens.
5) The Dawn Group - Indian Fashions and accessories.
6) the various ethnic dance groups that will be performing on our small stages.
7) Carrom (sp?) a tabletop game similar to pool, but with disks instead of balls.
Tina: I would simply add that I am also excited for folks to experience Stray Dog restaurants, Wandering Aesthetics theater, a bike in movie, soccer tournaments, bocce tournaments, yoga, tai chi, and so much more. We can't possibly be sure we have mentioned them all as there will be so much to experience. It is an exciting time to be part of North Hill and Akron.
What are your goals for that weekend? How will you know if it is a success? Do you have plans for a 2nd Akron Better Block?
John: The primary objective of a Better Block project is to re-activate a block (or other space) for the neighborhood. In our case, we're hoping to reactivate the block on North Main Street by Cuyahoga Falls Ave. "Reactivate" means a lot of things including filling vacant commercial space by generating new businesses as well as inspiring physical changes in the space to make it more inviting as a place for people to linger and enjoy, rather than drive past or through. If those things start to happen, then it's a success. For the weekend itself, we're just hoping that a lot of people have a good time, and maybe re-examine how they see that block and North Hill in general.
Tina and I aren't planning a second Better Block right now, but others are looking into it in other Akron neighborhoods. I know Nolan James is working one up in Kenmore, and there's rumors of one being planned in West Hill or Highland Square.
I'd love to see other neighborhoods do one as well, and they don't have to be nearly as involved or large as this one is. All it takes is for neighborhood leaders to step forward and make it happen. If you're thinking about it, look around for help. Tina and I found great allies in Lisa Weiser at the North Hill Branch of the Library and Maria Mancinelli at the International Institute. They had a group of North Hill Community Leaders waiting for us already. People's Bank and North Realty have been wonderful as participating property owners. We've also gotten a ton of support from the city's Department of Neighborhood Assistance, Keep Akron Beautiful, AMATS, and the Knight Foundation. It's the kind of project that's easy to get behind.
Joanna: Thank you Tina and John!
Join us at Akron Better Block on N. Main Street at E. Cuyahoga Falls Ave.
Fri May 15th: 6-10pm, Sat & Sun May 16th & 17th: 10am-3pm.
For more information: check the website: www.AkronBetterBlock.com
click HERE for the schedule of activities