Volunteers still needed for neighbor-led event
The corner of East Market Street and South Arlington Road will get to experience a neighborhood pool, coffee shop, fresh market, safe street crossings, a spare tire jungle gym and bicycle lanes, along with live music and other family friendly events July 30 and 31, as part of Middlebury Better Block.
Like last year’s Better Block on North Hill, this Better Block is a community development tool and exercise in imagination, helping residents realize the full potential of their neighborhood using its own tools and resources. Most importantly, each Better Block should reflect the unique flavor and characteristics of its neighborhood.
That’s why it’s critical that Middlebury Better Block be “neighbor led,” says Marissa Blewitt, community organizer from Neighborhood Network of University Park (NNUP), who’s leading the Better Block effort. She says two Middlebury residents helped conceive the event at an NNUP meeting last year that featured Jason Segedy, who’s now director of Planning and Urban Development for the city of Akron. “We had two neighbors who were watching Jason present on the North Hill Better Block and they got really inspired,” says Blewitt, adding the two women flipped over the pieces of paper with their agendas and began constructing ideas for Middlebury’s Better Block.
Blewitt, who has led a powerful transformation of this neighborhood through her role at NNUP, was able to gather the tools and support to help see this vision through.
“Out of the survey came a lot of concern about what’s lacking in Middlebury and people said hope and identity, and it was physically gloomy,” she says. “What we were hearing from those responses is Middlebury has a lack of identity.”
And indeed, many residents who have remained in this neighborhood amid the high vacancies and crime rate discuss day-to-day struggles. It would be nice, says Blewitt, to not look at Middlebury as a “Bermuda Triangle” but as a neighborhood hub.
And the Better Block logo of a compass face bears this out and also hearkens to the idea of this area being known by many as Akron’s first settlement. Blewitt says there are plans to install street banners with these logos throughout the neighborhood after Better Block.
Partnerships are key
Partnerships will be crucial for this Better Block, as there are more than 35 community sponsors and partners.
For example, the Akron League of Creative Interventionists, which also took part in last year’s North Hill Better Block, will build a jungle gym for children made from 200 discarded tires that will be painted and stacked into a giant pyramid. The League, which is still looking for help building the jungle gym, will assemble the project July 25. (Click here to find out about volunteering and participating in this project.)
Thanks to John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding, the artists at Better Block will be paid, and Jilly’s Music Room will sponsor the main stage and help bring musical acts to the event.
“Rooted Akron and Big Love Network will help to make this event as close to zero waste as we can get it,” says Blewitt. “That will definitely be their strong suit.”
Oriana House has offered up volunteers, and Summit Cycling Center will help focus on bikeability and walkability and have helped with the street design, she adds.
Partnerships were also key for the recent Neighborhood Reborn project, at which Blewitt served at the helm as well. Neighborhood Reborn took place at Excelsior and Roselawn avenues in Middlebury and mobilized 150 United Way volunteers for home repairs and landscaping work, reclaiming lots from newly demolished homes, planting new trees and conducting “artistic board-ups” of abandoned homes, among other improvements.
Middlebury Better Block also has garnered support from the Better Block Foundation, which provides guidance for these neighborhood programs. Better Block originally started in Texas six years ago and has since helped cities across the United States revitalize their underused neighborhoods. Last year, the Better Block on North Hill included popup restaurants, live music, art, bicycle and pedestrian lanes and locally sourced food. There are also plans for a Cuyahoga Falls Better Block in August.
What happens next?
Blewitt wanted to make sure there was permanency in the Middlebury Better Block. She said two of the crosswalks will be painted with real street paint (oftentimes Better Block events use chalk to make bicycle and pedestrian lanes), and the tire/jungle gym will be installed for permanent use.
Recently, a planning group met at Family of Faith United Methodist Church on East Market Street to discuss what happens after Better Block, and ideas included hosting a business plan competition, food truck events or partnerships with local financial development projects like ECDI and the University of Akron’s EXL Center, along with helping to build “density” in this neighborhood, whether through residents or new businesses or industries.
Also at the planning meeting were Caitlin Boyle and Kelly McHood, who lead Rooted Akron, the group which recently hosted Envision Akron in the nearby community garden of the Way of Mind and Body (the W.O.M.B.).
“After we did Envision Akron, we both fell in love with the neighborhood,” says McHood.
“We really wanted to further connect with the community through Better Block and saw this as an awesome platform to be able to do that,” says Boyle. “Envision Akron was really powerful, being able to provide and hold that space for the community to step into and just be and connect with one another.”
Boyle says Envision Akron brought about some breakthroughs from residents, some of whom said they never felt at home in this neighborhood until the event.
The pair has operated healing spaces at previous events and has taken the notion of “holding space” to the neighborhood level, where people can gather in common areas and feel safe and connected. “We hold space for people during yoga and reiki, which is really important, but we also hold space for the community on a bigger level,” adds McHood.
Akron City Repair also is helping with Middlebury Better Block, with plans to set up a site in this neighborhood. The group’s strategy of creative placemaking, and using a neighborhood’s existing resources, aligns with Better Block’s philosophy. Planter boxes with fruit trees on Market Street and the League’s jungle gym are among City Repair’s chosen projects, says Beth Vild, project manager.
Event dates are Saturday, July 30, from 1 to 7 p.m., and Sunday, July 31, from noon to 4 p.m.
Better Block is still in need of community volunteers (click here to register).
There are more than 35 community partners and sponsors involved in Better Block Middlebury, many of which we’ll feature individually over the next week. Here’s a list of sponsors:
• Middlebury Community
• Better Block Foundation
• Knight Foundation
• Neighborhood Network of University Park
• Ad Direct Inc.
• Summit County Public Health
• Jilly’s Music Room
• Rooted Akron
• Summit Cycling Center
• Smile Minded Smartworks LLC
• East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation
• City of Akron
• The W.O.M.B.
• The Big Love Network
• Akron City Repair
• The League of Creative Interventionists
• Family of Faith UMC
• The Well CDC
• South Street Ministries
• Visitation of Mary
• The Trust for Public Land
• Akron Waterways Renewed
• Keep Akron Beautiful
• Mustard Seed Market & Cafe
• The Akronist
• Department of Neighborhood Assistance
• Let’s Grow Akron