On Oct. 4, 500 diverse Akronites gathered together for a meal on Akron’s Innerbelt Highway. The project was called 500 Plates, and was organized by San Francisco artist Hunter Franks, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
I am standing at the foot of the longest table my eyes have ever seen. Plates are set out, glasses turned upside down for what seems to be miles and miles across the expanse of the Akron Innerbelt. We are set up for a banquet—a feast, and all have been invited. I walk slowly to my seat, soaking in live music that is rich and vibrant and warm, a music that speaks “Welcome. Have a seat.” I finally find my place about three-fourths of the way down the expanse of the table, sit at the table that has many seats, but is one.
People are descending down the hill to the Innerbelt filled with music, the 500 who accepted the invitation. These are the people of Akron—people from all walks of life, from all neighborhoods, races, ethnicities, sexes, ages, orientations, faiths, classes. The expansive table, once empty, begins slowly filling with the stories and laughter of the people. And though the stories and the laughter are many, the table is one.
Finally we are all seated, ready to begin. Opening speeches are greeted with applause, thanks given for the creation of this space. Together we recite an opening poem, a collective grace that speaks of food’s ability to bring us together across neighborhoods. From there we pick up our plates, each with a printed recipe on it from one of Akron’s 22 neighborhoods. Mine is a recipe for collard greens from an Akronite in East Akron; my neighbor’s plate is a recipe for chow mein from an Akronite in North Hill. We are ushered section by section into a line to get food, and though the plates are many, the line is one.
My table sits together, some empty seats on either side. The empty space seems symbolic of the distance between us as strangers. I find myself nervous for the conversation that lies ahead—will we connect? Will we find common ground? It is so clear that we are different in many ways, and even as we eat this food together, I am leery that we will connect. Our neighborhoods—West Akron, Summit Lake, Merriman Valley and Copley—are so rich and diverse and different. I am nervous, even fearful, of being rejected by these total strangers. There are many seats; can we really be one?
More than 30 minutes and a good meal later there is laughter from our table, only laughter. I’m talking about the Towpath and how I recently learned about it and biked three miles downhill forgetting that I’d have to go uphill on the way back and the adventure that that was. There is laughter, and soon the conversation shifts from talking about the Towpath to John Brown, to the Perkins Stone Mansion to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, to old department stores downtown and shenanigans that we’ve gotten into in the city. We’re talking about the Innerbelt and plans and dreams we have for the space. We’re talking about our lives; we’re talking about our love for this city—our home. Though the seats are many, we are one.
At the event’s end I am helping the organizers clean up by washing the chili bowls. The motion is rhythmic, and in it I’m able to reflect on the event that just occurred. Live music, recited poetry, conversation, food, a city represented—it is all so rich and beautiful to me. I find myself thinking about the future—not only about the future of the Innerbelt, but also about the future of us as a community of people. Often I think how diverse our city is, and how we can better connect with one another and listen to each other. At this table, we (myself included) were invited to ask questions of one another and connect with people we may have never approached on our own. I find myself filled with hope. As I finish rinsing my final dishes, I know that this day will always stick with me—a day were I saw that though the seats are many, we are one. We are Akron.