Scott Read walks through the newly renovated house on Elma Street in the North Hill neighborhood, pointing out the amenities like a proud parent. And for good reason: this nearly 100-year-old building was formerly run-down and abandoned and has come a long way over the past year.
This particular house, known as the Exchange House, will be the site of a cultural center and will celebrate the neighborhood’s ever-changing refugee population.
“North Hill has always been the international area of Akron,” says Read, the Ohio project manager for the Better Block Foundation, which has led the restoration efforts for the Exchange House, expected to open in February. “As the years go on and as North Hill evolves, the Exchange House will evolve with it.”
According to the Better Block Foundation’s website: “The Exchange House would be programmed according to the refugee population’s traditions, and allow existing immigrants to invite community members to stay in Akron, providing a place for the non-immigrant community to stay and engage with its new population.”
The idea for the project arose from a Knight Foundation Cities Challenge grant for $155,000 “to convert excess housing stock in Akron into a vibrant community center for the refugee community.”
Like many buildings in this neighborhood, renovations can be difficult, as developers struggle with aging foundations, burst pipes and houses built during a time with more lax construction codes.
But Read has led a team of community partners that has brought new life to this property.
The first floor will be a community and cultural center, which will host performances, community art projects and meetings, and Read says there’s already been some interest from the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron, which is in need of meeting space. Local nonprofits could also potentially use the first floor, Read adds.
The second floor is expected to host an “Airbnb,” or short-term lodging for visitors, which will help subsidize community activities on the first floor and help people experience the diversity of the North Hill neighborhood first-hand.
The third floor may be reserved as living space for someone who can manage programming for the Exchange House, says Read.
The backyard, which faces North Main Street, is expected to include a community garden, along with a connection to the area known as Temple Square. It’s another attractive point for this location: a connector to some of the area refugee-owned businesses, like Family Groceries, a Nepali grocery store operated by active community leader Naresh Subba. Read notes how just removing a fence panel in the back of the Exchange House property has opened up access and encouraged residents to frequent more of these North Main Street businesses.
The house next door, also owned by the Better Block Foundation, is being used as rental property and is currently occupied by Bhutanese families.
“What I really admire is the pride I’m seeing folks take,” says Read. “You drive around and you see decorations on the houses, rental houses that you see being maintained.” He also notes that in his experience, refugee families have helped to decrease crime in this neighborhood. “You sit down and talk with Akron police and they can almost predict when a new Bhutanese family goes in because their calls go down.”
The renovation of the Exchange House has truly been a community effort. Workers from nonprofit re-entry organization Truly Reaching You Ministries helped tear out the old walls and prepare the home for rehabilitation, and Habitat for Humanity of Summit County helped restore the kitchen, among other improvements.
AxessPointe, which operates community health centers in Northeast Ohio, has discussed conducting health counseling and screenings at the Exchange House (more than half of North Hill residents live below 100 percent of the federal poverty level).
Although there will be an initial focus on the Bhutanese and Nepali population, Read clarifies that the Exchange House is meant to adapt to North Hill’s changing international population, whoever that may be. “We really want this to be for the community as opposed to any nationality,” he adds.
And historically, North Hill has long been a home for immigrants, whether it’s people from Poland, Italy or Germany.
The Exchange House is located at 760 Elma St. For info, visit theexchangehouse.org.