A group of about 200 community members from the North Hill neighborhood and the city of Akron recently assembled at the Akron Civic Theatre to learn more about the Better Block Project, an exciting event that will be taking place this May in North Hill. The Project will be hosted with support from the city of Akron and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The excitement of the crowd was palpable.
Two North Hill food vendors were distributing food at the event, emphasizing that the Better Block Project is focused on the people of the neighborhood: Family Groceries, which was serving a Nepalese rice dish; and the soon-to-be established Three Sisters Momo, which specializes in dumplings.
Kyle Kutuchief of the Knight Foundation introduced Jason Roberts, founder of the Better Block Project, who is bringing the project to Akron. He told the audience about Better Block and provided information about the goals of the North Hill Better Block Project.
The project originated in the Dallas, Texas neighborhood of Oak Cliff and its success led to it being adopted across the country and even overseas—and now, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.
Roberts founded Better Block in 2010 because he was dissatisfied with his rundown neighborhood of Oak Cliff, Dallas. Roberts wanted to bring back the community attitudes of yesteryear in cities, where people would take leisurely walks and go to restaurants and shops in their neighborhood.
Inspired by the charming, livable neighborhood of Montmarte, Paris, Roberts aimed to bring back the pedestrian-friendly, locally owned, individualistic atmosphere of, he said, the kinds of places where our grandparents lived.
The basic idea of the Better Block Project is to temporarily make one block of one neighborhood more attractive to pedestrians—Roberts frequently used the word “irresistible.” For one weekend, Better Block sets up a pedestrian-friendly, locally centered neighborhood, with places like coffee shops and art galleries that have been created for the event by volunteers.
The beauty of the whole thing, says Roberts, is that it is temporary. Sometimes, he says, when faced with creating something permanent, people will disagree or be unwilling to make drastic changes and therefore end up doing nothing; but a temporary project like Better Block presents no drawbacks. If all goes well, elements that the community felt worked may become permanent later.
North Hill’s Project
Roberts outlined some of the problems that North Hill’s Temple Square (the junction of Cuyahoga Falls Avenue and North Main Street) faces right now. There are what he calls “gaps in teeth,” blighted areas with empty lots and vacant storefronts. The wide, four-lane roadway makes walking dangerous for pedestrians.
Roberts says it’s a myth that places can only work for cars or for people—in fact, he says, they can work for both.
Some ideas for the event, which will take place May 16 and 17, include narrowing Main Street to two lanes to make it safer for pedestrians, bringing in trees, setting up a small park, creating mid-block crosswalks, having all local pop-up stores and restaurants (one of which will be Three Sisters Momo), creating a buffered bike lane, an open air market and a “civic science fair,” where citizens may share and present their ideas on how to improve Akron.
Though Better Block is temporary, the hope is that there will be permanent lasting effects. If elements like the planted trees and the bike path turn out to be well received by the community, then they might stay. The project will be focused on the community, and will be created by the hard work of volunteers. The volunteer coordinator, Tina Ughrin of North Hill, who answered questions at the end of the informational meeting, said that if the project goes well, Better Block projects might be tried in neighborhoods such as Firestone Park and Kenmore. In his talk, Roberts emphasized that it’s difficult for one person to make a huge change. But with the help of many people, change can be accomplished.
Akron Better Block will take place at the corner of North Main Street and East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue on May 16 and 17.
To receive more information about Akron Better Block and to sign up to volunteer, visit www.teambetterblock.com/akron.
Information on the Better Block Project can be found at www.betterblock.org.