After years of challenges, Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood is ready for a renaissance. This movement is being led by a core of committed residents, and at the forefront are music industry professionals, performers, instrument makers and producers. So it’s fitting that “Kenmore Rocks” be the theme for the upcoming Kenmore Better Block Sept. 1 and 2.
From customized guitars known all over the world, to recording studios and a venue that’s become a favored stage for musicians and other performers, Kenmore’s arts, culture and local businesses will be on full display. Kenmore Better Block will feature a full roster of premier bands, some with national connections and neighborhood roots, buskers (or street musicians) and even a theme song written by a Kenmore native. The event also will include a beer garden, community mural, bike lanes, popup storefronts from Kenmore-bred businesses and a popup “silver screen theater,” which pays homage to a Kenmore inventor and an innovation still used in move theaters today.
“There are five studios here on Kenmore Boulevard and people don’t know that, not even some of the residents,” says Tina Boyes, an active Kenmore resident and chair of the Better Block event, the third Akron Better Block in two years. “There’s an internationally known luthier in Lay’s Guitar Shop, and Guitar Department carries EarthQuaker’s entire (guitar pedal) line. What if we took advantage of those assets and if when people dropped off their guitar, we gave them a reason to stick around an extra hour, go have a cup of coffee somewhere?”
Boyes, whose Kenmore connections go back generations, sees a lot of promise in this event, especially when it comes to cultivating local business. “To me, Better Block’s a way to reimagine this place that people not only start out in but also stay and play and raise their families and create community,” she says, adding, “The great thing about Kenmore’s Better Block is a lot of our businesses that are popping up, they originated right here in the community.” Like resident Sally Ohle, whose bakery startup, Summit Croissants, will be one of the Better Block popup stores, which could perhaps plant the seeds for a future coffee shop and gathering place for residents.
Bones of the Boulevard
While there are a number of vacant storefronts on Kenmore Boulevard, many have remarked that Kenmore has “good bones.” And these bones will be the topic of a theme song, “Bones of the Boulevard,” which musician and composer Jim Ballard will debut at Better Block on Sept. 2 with the band Rachel & the Beatnik Playboys.
“What I hope to accomplish is to begin a bit of rebranding and a re-perception of Kenmore and Kenmore Boulevard in particular,” says Ballard, who has operated a successful studio (Skylyne Recording Studio) from the basement of his Kenmore home for decades. “I think Kenmore Boulevard has the best bones of a boulevard in the city. The buildings are beautiful. They’re also masonry buildings; they’re brick and stone. If we can begin to get back to that and revitalize the boulevard, the infrastructure is already there. I can see cafes. I can see live music venues. I can see things for the daytime and for the nighttime on Kenmore Boulevard.”
Ballard, a 40-year Kenmore resident, joins a number of musicians and businesses who have survived the ups and downs of operating in Kenmore. “I want to see Kenmore Boulevard and the Kenmore area in general prosper and come back and be able to build around this idea of music and art,” he adds.
The renovated Rialto Theatre, a former movie theater that closed down in the 1950s, also has become a welcome addition to Kenmore’s art and culture scene. Entrepreneurs and brothers Nate and Seth Vaill have poured years of passion into restoring this space that’s been ideal for bands, theater productions and community groups. “We can all grow our businesses, we have customers coming out to our shops, whatever we sell and whatever we offer,” says Seth Vaill. “Some of these spaces that are on the boulevard, nobody knows they’re there. With Better Block, it’s a chance for these spaces to really show their talents.”
Better Block theme notwithstanding, it’s about more than a rock and roll attitude. It’s about enriching culture, fostering local businesses and drawing new residents, much like nonprofit First Glance on Kenmore Boulevard, whose volunteers were among the first to move into Kenmore and help kickstart this neighborhood’s resurgence.
Popup businesses, murals and bus shelters
Popup businesses at Kenmore Better Block include Calhoun Recordshop, which is owned and operated by former break dancer and local DJ Forrest “Getem Gump” Webb. Others include a coffee shop featuring Akron Coffee Roasters and Pav’s Creamery. A former bar will be transformed into a movie theater named for former Kenmore resident Harry Coulter Williams, the inventor of the silver screen.
Children’s activities and an interactive mural by Mac Love will also be featured, as will food trucks and a Thirsty Dog beer garden. In addition, guitar pedal maker EarthQuaker Devices will offer workshops to guitar enthusiasts and the opportunity to plug in and test out dozens of their effect pedals at their popup in the Guitar Department at 972 Kenmore Blvd. Live entertainment will include hip-hop act Red Rose Panic, Zach and the Bright Lights and national touring act the Living Deads, each of which originate, play or record on Kenmore Boulevard.
To help with the event, Knight Foundation has given the Kenmore Better Block a $50,000 grant, joining the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance as presenting sponsors.
“Making Akron more vibrant means providing people with opportunities to contribute to neighborhood vibrancy and shape their public spaces,” says Kyle Kutuchief, Knight Foundation program director for Akron. “The Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance’s plan to engage the community in the revitalization of a key business district in Akron will help us move closer to this goal, and act as a model for future efforts.”
Knight Foundation support will also fund resident-built bus shelters along Kenmore Boulevard. In addition to being the city’s largest neighborhood business district, Kenmore Boulevard is also home to some of Akron METRO RTA’s most frequently used stops, according to Richard Enty, METRO’s executive director and secretary-treasurer.
“Hundreds of bus passengers travel daily along the Kenmore corridor. Working with Kenmore Better Block allows us to think creatively about METRO’s best practices in utilizing this vital public space,” Enty said.
Support for Kenmore Better Block is provided by Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 427 Design, Evolve Creative Group, the City of Akron, Jilly’s Music Room, Summit County Public Health and more. For a schedule and full list vendors, or to volunteer, visit www.betterkenmore.org or www.facebook.com/AkronBetterBlock.
Musicians who would like to perform as buskers are encouraged to upload a 30-second video of themselves playing, using the hashtag #AkronBetterBlock on Facebook and #KenmoreBetterBlock on Instagram.
Kenmore Better Block takes place Friday, Sept. 1, from 5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 2, from noon to 5 p.m.
To learn more about Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, visit www.knacares.org.