Kenmore is Akron’s underappreciated little sibling. At least this is how some residents feel. Although the neighborhood has been part of the city since its annexation in 1928, it has the essence of a place left to itself. People talk of Kenmore as if there’s nothing here besides a steady crime rate and abandoned buildings, which isn’t true.
Kenmore Boulevard, with its enduring brick storefronts crammed against the sidewalk, is a classic American thoroughfare; at night, it resembles vintage city blocks preserved in black-and-white photographs. Some Akronites recall the golden days of Summit Beach: ballroom dances, rollerskating, a massive outdoor swimming pool, fair rides – or the soda fountain at McDowell’s Pharmacy, where teenagers hung around after movie showings. The “silver screen,” both the movie theater invention and the popular phrase, originated in Kenmore. The neighborhood historical society has a lot to be proud of.
There’s more than just history, though; people here care about the community and are working to move the neighborhood past its has-been status. There are wide-eyed business owners like the Vaill brothers, who have reopened and revitalized the Rialto Theater into a vibrant live theater and music venue.
There’s the Kenmore Community Center, which supports the area’s elderly, and the First Glance youth center, which helps guide the local kids. There are unique, long-running businesses like Kenmore Komics and Games, Magic City Sports Cards and E&S Hobbies. Lifelong inhabitants regard the neighborhood as a collective of friends looking out for each other, as they always have. Some believe Kenmore is going through a revitalization; others think the neighborhood has been falling apart for years and will lose its sense of identity with the eventual closing of Kenmore High School. One thing that seems certain is that the neighborhood is going through a transition, and we should pay attention.
First Glance Youth Center
Have you stood in a room packed with a hundred unrestrained adolescents? This is a typical Thursday night (“Rec Night”) at the First Glance youth center, a stimuli overload. There’s basketball, video games, awkward teenage dancing (both the Whip and the Nae-Nae) and cheap pizza from Pierre’s across the street. Downstairs is a skate park where you can watch pubescent kids in knee pads and helmets tumble and eat floor. There are cliques and your quiet, shy types, but overall the atmosphere is friendly and accepting. That same air holds a faint scent of aggregate adolescent body odor.
Noelle Beck, co-founder and executive director, explains that the center’s function is “to provide a safe place for students where we meet physical, emotional and spiritual needs.”
First Glance provides nine programs, including a night for teen mothers (which “guides teen and young mothers through parenting classes while encouraging independence and self-sufficiency”), Man Up (which “allows volunteers to encourage the young men of our community to be men of character”), Ladies’ Night Out (which “guides teen girls through tough issues such as relationships, gossip, sex, and self worth”) and the free-for-all Rec Night.
“There’s not a ton to do for teenagers in Kenmore,” Beck says. She wears thick-rimmed glasses, Converse sneakers and tight-fitting jeans, not unlike a hiply dressed teenager. She says that the staff and volunteers encourage the potential they see in each of the teens.
“The students we work with are never projects to us. We see them as our family. They become our family; we become theirs.”
The family aspect seems accurate. Walking into the center, I was hugged by a jovial high school kid named Christian whom I’d never met before. Many of the current volunteers attended the center regularly as teenagers and wanted to stay involved with the program after graduating high school. Of the 90 volunteers, 43 currently live in the neighborhood. Some of them have recently moved in to be part of the community. Beck has shown up to her students’ sporting events, plays, graduations and baby showers. She taught one girl how to drive in the parking lot of the abandoned Rolling Acres mall.
Seventeen year-old Jon Marshall, one of the center’s lovable troublemakers, informs me that he’s two months away from being considered a “student leader.” He tells me that the center helps him with his anger issues, and that the place is “pretty dope.” Kids do windmill dunks on hoops barely six feet high in the low-ceilinged basketball court room we’re standing in. One boy continually throws a soccer ball as close to our faces as possible without actually hitting our faces. Another kid hands me his hat while he playfully punches his brother’s arm. Not one person in the room seems mean-spirited. When the event ends at nine, the teens stream out onto the Boulevard and saunter home in noisy cliques, and I find myself wishing, for a moment, that I’d grown up near a place like this.
Stay tuned for Part II