Kyle Kutuchief wants more places around Akron for people to just hang around.
To show what he means, he walks onto a newly renovated pedestrian bridge.
“Behold, behold, the grandeur,” Kutuchief says. “We’re standing over a big old highway.”
And this highway, known as the Innerbelt, is empty. Soon, the whole thing will be removed.
“A highway that was intended to carry about 115,000 cars a day only carried about 15,000 cars a day,” he says.
Kutuchief, program director at the Knight Foundation, says the highway’s construction in the 1970s created a barrier between the largely African-American neighborhoods of West Akron and the city center. That barrier created social and economic rifts that still affect the city.
Now the Knight Foundation is working with Akron on a new vision, led by an artist from San Francisco.
In a video from 2015, when the highway was still open to traffic, artist Hunter Franks hosted a big community meal called “500 Plates.”
Franks got the state of Ohio to close Route 59 down for a few hours and set up a really long table, big enough for hundreds of seats, right on the highway.
“We’re having 500 people from every neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, come together, sit next to their neighbors, to talk about the challenges and opportunities in their neighborhoods and the city at large, and also to imagine what this Innerbelt freeway could be used for in the future,” Franks says, standing in the middle of the highway.
Speaking more recently by Skype, Franks says people really seemed to want more public space, and more green space.
“I think the juxtaposition of this freeway and all this concrete with something that is so soft and welcoming and gentle to people in a park, or whatever the green space may end up looking like, that was really something that people connected with.”
The Knight Foundation has given Franks a grant to create something of a “pop-up forest.” For a few months starting next spring, they’ll bring in temporary trees and plants, add seating, and offer things like concerts, a farmer’s market and movie screenings.
Re-imagining infrastructure like this isn’t unique to Akron.
“This is a phenomenon that’s definitely happening across the country, and internationally as well,” says Joshua Newell, assistant professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.
Newell points to the High Line in New York City. It used to be an above-ground rail line, and was converted into an elevated park and walkway.
“And now it’s a huge success, a major tourist attraction in Manhattan, and brings people from all over the world to walk along the High Line,” he says.
But critics say that property values and rents near the High Line have skyrocketed, pushing out local businesses and lower income residents. Newell says gentrification is something cities should be wary of when adapting old infrastructure.
“There’s a very real danger of increasing property values around these very attractive, often green spaces in the city,” Newell says. “And so that has to be a continual effort by city officials and community to guard against.”
In Akron’s quiet downtown, where few people are walking around on this hot summer day, Kutuchief says gentrification is less of a concern. He says many work in the city’s high rises, but he wants to see them on the streets.
“That people don’t just sit in their cubicles and have Jimmy John’s delivered and get back in their cars and go home,” Kutuchief says. “That there’s, you know, ‘Let’s go meet for breakfast. Let’s go walk to the food trucks and grab lunch.’ And it’s just having that rhythm of life and activity and interest in the city.”
Kutuchief hopes the pop-up forest will bring people together, and spark some creativity for what’s next in Akron.