Neighborhood Network is mobilizing residents in one of Akron’s most challenged areas
— Volunteers of the Neighborhood Network of University Park (NNUP) often get confused for an earlier organization, one that deflated in a flurry of broken promises and legal issues, forestalling an ambitious development plan for this embattled group of neighborhoods, and leaving empty houses and undeveloped plots in its wake. It also left residents with an overwhelming sense of mistrust, which this group has been actively working to change.
After the contentious decline of The University Park Alliance (UPA), the Neighborhood Network has been diligently picking up the pieces and operating squarely from the ground level in the blocks surrounding the University of Akron, helping residents to more critically monitor the activity on their streets, strengthening block clubs, advocating for demolition of the scores of empty houses, organizing community gardens and simply listening to the residents’ concerns, of which there are a litany.
“You have to build trust in University Park,” says Marissa Blewitt, who in May was hired as a community organizer for this otherwise volunteer group. “University Park and Middleburg residents have seen the ball dropped many times, and they have every right to be mad.”
Since assuming her current role, Blewitt has spent many hours in living rooms and on front porches, speaking with residents. “You have to be strategic and also respectful of where they’ve come from and what they want from their neighborhood,” she says. “I really take the time to listen to them and make sure their vision is the one we’re pushing for because they know best.”
A graduate of the University of Akron, Blewitt is the only paid employee among a handful of volunteers, meeting weekly at the Front Porch Cafe, an extension of nearby South Street Ministries. This group is considered the Core Team, a bridge between the larger, mainly defunct University Park Alliance, which is still a registered nonprofit, and the residents who have more questions than answers available.
At a recent meeting, the Core Team discussed block watch activity, an upcoming concert at Mason Community Learning Center (the Wanda Hunt Band will play in the neighborhood Aug. 30), bringing more arts and cultural events to University Park and a potential Better Block event in Middlebury.
Many of the pressing resident concerns revolve around the overabundance of vacant and dilapidated houses in this area, a host of them awaiting demolition, which not only leads to possible vandalism and crime, but also attracts wild animals and rodents in large numbers, creating problems for the occupied homes. Some residents have even reported seeing coyotes roaming these streets. There are so many vacant houses, that some of the streets in University Park appear almost third-world.
Only 57 percent of structures in University Park are occupied, among the lowest rates in the city, according to the Akron Property Inventory Report, prepared by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute. When compared to Firestone Park (86 percent), Fairlawn Heights (85 percent) and Goodyear Heights (82 percent), the contrast is stark.
Block club leaders also talk about a waste transfer station that they claim is illegally operating, leading to respiratory and health problems, along with a lack of engagement from political leaders.
“Without question the reason we’re still here and continuing to grow and impact the community, in my mind, is because of the quality and character of the people on the Core Team,” says the Rev. Ron Schultz, from Family of Faith United Methodist Church. “Each one brings specific talents and passions to the table that helps make the Core Team greater than its parts.”
Along with Blewitt, Schultz is joined on this Core Team by Joe Tucker, executive director of South Street Ministries, itself a powerful community organizing collective; Sue Schaad, from the United Way of Summit County, which, until recently, has been this small group’s primary funder; Zac Kohl, from the Chapel; Yvette McMillan, from the Haven of Rest homeless shelter; and Eric Green, from the University of Akron’s Off Campus Student Services. Green’s job, unfortunately, was among the wave of recent layoffs from the University due to budget cuts, but he has decided to continue working with this team for now.
“Each one brings specific talents and passions to the table that helps make the Core Team greater than its parts,” says Schultz. “We’re currently taking another hit with the recent cutbacks at the University of Akron.”
Tucker, who has been instrumental in this group’s support, offering up South Street Ministry’s Front Porch Cafe for its weekly meetings, says that the group began to gel with the hiring of Blewitt. “She’s really done a great job of meeting neighbors, getting to know businesses, listening to folks.” She also regularly attends block club meetings.
But being the face of this neighborhood group is not without its challenges. “As soon as you step into that mantle of responsibility, all of the sudden you’re the reason the potholes aren’t getting fixed or the grass isn’t getting cut,” cautions Tucker.
He says that keeping these block clubs in operation is another difficulty, as many in this neighborhood are “person dependent.” A number of these neighborhoods’ leaders are older residents who still have a stake in University Park. But as they continue to age, NNUP volunteers have found it difficult to recruit their successors. “When someone like an Ethel Chambers passes away, there goes your block club,” says Tucker.
Blewitt says she’s up for the challenge, however. “It was a great fit for me, almost one of those ‘a-ha’ moments. Nonprofits have always interested me, and I’m definitely on the service end rather than the corporate end. And it clicked.”
Rocky beginnings: ‘A kick in the stomach’
Four years ago, when the University Park Alliance was still thriving, a group of neighborhood stakeholders was brought to the table.
“When the University Park Alliance was still in operation, it hired Round River Consulting, led by Sue Lacy, to convene a group of stakeholders,” says Tucker, who adds this group comprised “about 50 community and faith-based leaders to discuss neighborhood appearance and ways to make the streets safer and empower residents.
“And then the ill-timed decline of the University Park Alliance led to lawsuits and frozen assets, and these neighborhood stakeholders were left frustrated and felt voiceless. The core team shrunk from 12 to six.” As predicted, when the grant funding left the project, so did some of the stakeholders.
But the remaining six have gladly carried this mantle, fielding weekly group meetings, with larger monthly meetings to hear resident concerns.
Schultz recalls the beginning of the end for University Park Alliance. “One day during a faith community meeting, we received word that UPA was shutting down operations immediately, which came as a tremendous shock to everyone. I remember the feeling around the room was that we had just been kicked in the stomach, and knocked down cold. Fortunately we, as a group, were able to recognize that what we were doing was important for the community, and we simply decided to move forward as best we could. At this critical juncture, the silver lining for us was that the United Way of Summit County stepped in and provided much-needed support, both financially and on an emotional level, which gave us more confidence to move forward.” United Way is currently NNUP’s fiscal agent.
Core Team members say they are thankful for both UPA and Round River for their work in putting the Neighborhood Network into play. In fact, even when UPA funding ran out, Round River continued some of its work pro bono.
One of NNUP’s most important functions is simply listening. “I really take the time to listen to them and what their visions are,” says Tucker.
Thanks to continued support of United Way of Summit County, the Neighborhood Network in May was able to hire Blewitt, a part-time community organizer and the group’s only paid employee. The group hopes that someday soon she can be full-time.
Fallout from University of Akron
Given this group’s ties to the University of Akron, the recent mass layoffs and budget cuts made by the University have also affected the Neighborhood Network. Eric Green’s job with Off Campus Student Services was eliminated, but he still shows up to meetings and is still committed to this cause. And he says he hopes he’s able to remain involved once he lands a new job.
Shultz says the University’s recent crisis is yet another hit to the group. “By eliminating the Off Campus Student Services department there will be a big leadership void in the UP footprint, specifically in the Leggett area, because of the extensive outreach Green and his department were doing. Part of NNUP’s mission is to recognize and develop leaders in the community.”
He adds: “Hopefully, we’ll be able to have an effect on limiting the impact of UA’s cutbacks by helping others step forward to lead. Once again, though, in the midst of taking a hit we are simultaneously blessed with a silver lining. For NNUP the silver lining is that we’ve been able to secure funds to hire (Blewitt). She is extremely bright and talented and has a wonderful passion for bringing the community together. In her limited time with NNUP, she’s already built strategic relationships with residents, organizations and elected officials in the UP footprint. We know she’s going to be a huge asset for the community moving forward.”
Blewitt and Tucker say the connection to University of Akron administration is not as crucial as the connection to students, who they can still reach through their neighborhood work.
Cops on porches, artistic board-up
NNUP leaders make it clear that they are not developers. Much of their programming starts and ends at the neighborhood level. One program, modeled after one in other neighborhoods, is an “artistic board-up,” during which volunteers will paint silhouettes of lamps, pets and other functional items over the boards covering windows to at least give the passing appearance of activity within these vacant houses. While artistic board-ups in other communities focus more on the art, with murals and fantastical designs, this particular program is more functional and geared toward reducing crime under the “broken window” theory, or the concept that if something as small as a few broken windows aren’t fixed, it could encourage vandals to break even more windows.
The group also hosts the annual Night Out Against Crime, and works closely with the Akron Police Department’s Community Oriented Policing Service (C.O.P.S.), to help build trust between police officers and residents. As part of this outreach, NNUP will sponsor monthly Coffee with C.O.P.S. meetings on block club leaders’ front porches. Many University Park residents only interact with officers when a crime has been committed. “They’re a great asset to our community,” says Blewitt, who adds that C.O.P.S. Officer Michael Gould, in particular, “offered to help me connect with the residents he already knows that are strong leaders already. He has a great rapport with the neighbors.”
Another visible outcome of NNUP’s work is the half dozen community gardens that have sprouted up throughout these neighborhoods, along with hosting mini farmer’s markets, with the help of Countryside Conservancy.
NNUP also is working with adjoining neighborhood groups, like East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp., to share program ideas.
Tucker says he could see NNUP eventually becoming its own 501(c)3 nonprofit, hosting events and continuing to serve neighbors as an umbrella organization, possibly becoming a fiscal agent for funding of neighborhood programs. For now, the group has reached out beyond United Way to appeal to other local funders and is slowly but steadily gaining more traction while earning the trust of residents.
And even with funding, NNUP is successfully operating on a fraction of the budget of UPA.
The group also will continue to focus on neighborhood gardens, with new fences, new gates, greenhouses and gardening training for residents, along with mini farmer’s markets.
Group volunteers also express interest in hosting a Better Block in University Park, in the vein of the popular event in North Hill in May. Better Block transforms areas of a neighborhood with popup storefronts, art galleries and temporary bicycle and pedestrian lanes to help residents envision what a neighborhood could become, and to help them become more walkable and livable.
The NNUP also is hosting a concert Aug. 30 at Mason Community Learning Center, 700 E. Exchange St., featuring the Wanda Hunt Band. The free concert runs from 5 to 7 p.m.
“Getting the masses to buy in will take all of the community leaders,” says Blewitt.