To restore trust in an area where people have traditionally felt overlooked can prove difficult. Over 30 neighbors of the Middlebury community in Akron gathered together recently to discuss the issues their reviving neighborhood faces, from hazardous health conditions and animal nuisances, to vacant homes, crime and gentrification.
The panel discussion was the most recent in the “Common Threads Akron” series, a collaboration between Global Ties Akron and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that aims to empower communities to engage in dialogue.
Six active voices in the Middlebury community took the stage at Compass Coffee to discuss Middlebury’s sense of community, along with restoring trust and issues of environment, design and hope.
Panel speaker Darrita Davis, president of Stop the Violence Akron Movement, opened the discussion by stating, “We are living in a trauma responsive system right now, and there’s a lot of crisis going on in our communities.”
One day, Middlebury resident Zac Kohl noticed the Jewett Street Park seemed abandoned. Fear of rape, drugs and fights kept neighbors away.
He also took note on how the bars in Middlebury never drew in crowds. Longing for a place Middlebury neighbors could congregate, Compass Coffee opened in conjunction with The Well Community Development Corp. to provide the space for important dialogue.
The Well, named ironically because it didn’t have running water at the start like most Middlebury neighborhoods, is a community development corporation that works with seven nonprofit organizations. Kohl, The Well’s executive director, describes Compass Coffee as a “well within a well.”
Lyle Jenkins, named by Kohl as Middlebury’s historian, described the neighborhood’s past as booming during the 1800s when Middlebury’s clay industry skyrocketed, followed by the powerful tire boom in the 1900s that named Akron The Rubber City.
Once a thriving neighborhood, Middlebury homes now sit vacant.
Beth Vild, chief operating officer and director of programming at Akron’s Big Love Network, spoke on the panel about Middlebury resident’s lack of trust after a neighborhood redevelopment business’s abandonment. The organization, University Park Alliance, foreclosed on their properties and left their tenants with eviction notices.
The Neighborhood Network, a nonprofit community rebuilding organization, took recent interest in Middlebury with a different approach. According to Vilid, the Neighborhood Network seeks out the voices and needs of the community unlike University Park Alliance.
Jenkins’ participation in the organization brought him closer to his neighbors. “It’s really important to be involved with community grassroots organizations,” he said.
According to Kohl, there are 2,700 homes in Middlebury and 32 percent of those homes are vacant. Vild compares real estate prices in Middlebury to those in Highland Square; however, the Highland Square properties have working appliances and there aren’t any rats, unlike the empty homes in Middlebury.
For example, Jenkins fixated on a large mansion behind the Burger King on Market Street that sits vacant, its value dropping from around $1 million to now less than $600,000.
To leave the remaining residents feeling less empty, citizens paint pictures on the plywood that boards up windows in the vacant homes in Middlebury.
Kohl’s vision for Middlebury is to put ownership back into the hands of the community. He describes Middlebury as a place where cash must be dropped on properties because they’re only worth around $10,000. This is an issue, he said, because banks aren’t able to finance mortgages that low, so the houses remain empty.
“I’m excited about things in Middlebury, but I’m worried because of the development that is going to happen,” said Davis. “Will the people hired be from this city? Will they be people of color? Are these projects going back to the people in the community?”
Davis emphasized the need for the development to be economically feasible for the residents of Middlebury. She stressed that mom and pop shops will do the community more good than corporate places that sell $5 cups of coffee.
Kohl recognizes this issue as a common one among urban communities. He said as populations spread to the suburbs, lots of space opens up and companies move in.
“Will real money be brought into the people’s hands who live in Middlebury?” Davis asked. “I’m here and invested here because if I remove myself, things will happen to people in this neighborhood and their voice will go unnoticed,” she added. “I care about you, your health, your safety and your wealth in this community. That is why I stand at this table and that’s why I’m not going anywhere, OK? You can count on me.”
Panel Speaker Judy Cox, captain of Bettie St. Block Watch, expressed concern for the waste transfer station on Fountain Street. She speculates their placement in the city is drawing in dangers that range from coyotes to poor health conditions. Cox described seeing hazardous material removal more than once from the waste transfer station without being notified. She’s helped organize members from her block watch to try get the station moved.
“We have been down every road, every channel; we’re not giving up,” she said.
Vild expressed concern for what she described as glaring design issues in Middlebury. She said the busy streets of Exchange, Arlington and Market have left kids to play “Frogger” on their way to Mason Elementary School. Because of this, her organization, The Big Love Network, built a park for kids to cross the street safely.
“We need road diets; we need better ways of getting around,” said Vild. “This is a walking neighborhood, but it’s not walkable at all.”
Panel speaker Pastor Francel Parker of Open Door Assembly of God practices healing neighborhoods through community relationships by speaking personally to each person who comes through the foodbank.
His faith in Middlebury proved itself to him when he watched a kid knock over a flowerbox, and he saw a resident go out of their way to pick it up.
“More people open their doors now when you know them,” said Kohl. “Just that sense of relationships and community is really starting to build in Middlebury.”
For info about Common Threads Akron. visit www.facebook.com/CommonThreadsAkron.