Finding Community in Middlebury

Finding Community in Middlebury


As we stood in the large lot, watching the volunteers put the finishing touches on the hay bale pool, we were approached by a man who works in the neighborhood of Middlebury, Ohio. “What’s going on?” he asked. We told him we were doing a Better Block, showing people the potential of the area. “I wish you weren’t leaving this stuff out overnight,” he said. Things happen in this neighborhood overnight, he said, and he gave us a knowing look.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

We explained that that was exactly why we were there. If the space is activated with shops and music and bikes and pedestrians, then there are more eyes on the street. Safety will increase. Business will increase. And fewer bad things will happen in the neighborhood overnight.

“Well, you’ve got me excited,” he said, and then he went across the street to watch the project unfold.

The beauty of a Better Block is that it shows potential. And in Middlebury, we did just that.

The Middlebury team, led by the incomparable Marissa Blewitt, community organizer with Neighborhood Network of University Park, worked for 90 days to transform Akron’s first settlement into a bustling area with a true identity for the area and places for kids to interact on July 30 and 31. With this in mind, the team helped transform an empty block with food trucks, vendors, a stage, a jungle gym created from old tires by the League of Creative Interventionists, and a wading pool for the kids created from hay bales and discarded billboards.

The renovated bank drive-thru. Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

The renovated bank drive-thru. Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

We produced a concept map with bike lanes that would slow down the traffic and created a buffer. With the help of Jason Segedy, Akron’s City and Planning Manager; David Gasper, the city’s Traffic Engineer; Andy Davis with Summit Cycling Center; and the Summit County Public Health, the Better Block team was given a first: the bike lanes we proposed for a temporary installation were permanently installed.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

With the bike lanes in place, we were able to focus on the rest of the activations, which included renovating a drive-thru bank into storefronts for local businesses, including a coffee shop and a water ice vendor. With some donated fabric, a few staples, some handy volunteers, and a few hours, we were able to do just that. The team also created crosswalks, which were made permanent.

While many things worked. One thing wasn’t on our side: the weather.

After enjoying a few hours of sun, the rain came down on Saturday night, falling on the sound system. While the kids didn’t mind (tire swings are great in the rain), others did. We had to come up with a plan B.

The band was moved over to the drive-thru theater, and the vendors in the empty lot were consolidated for day 2. With a smaller footprint, the audience was able to engage more with vendors, and it created a more intimate feel, which made day 2 even better.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

And that’s the joy of rapid intervention: you get to learn, adapt, and move forward, something the local team took to heart and ran with.

All in all, Middlebury Better Block was a success. But it has nothing to do with us. It’s all about the incredible team on the ground who worked tirelessly to pull off the weekend, which resulted in long-term action. The bike lanes are permanent. There’s talk of a permanent playground. And, to ensure success moving forward, the team has created a What’s Next Committee, which meets this week. “While explaining the concept of a Better Block to the community, the feedback we heard loud and clear was the need for permanency,” says Blewitt. “No way would they support or participate in something that didn’t have lasting effects on the community. While it’s easy to see the physical permanent aspects of the Middlebury Better Block (crosswalks, bike lanes, and artistic board ups), we knew that there was so much more work to be done if we were to actually honor that request for permanency.”

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Logo created by Ad Direct Inc.

But the best thing to come from the Middlebury Better Block, according to Blewitt? The community. There’s now a connected database of involved citizens who are passionate about and dedicated to Middlebury. “The planning committee formed a cohesive and enthusiastic community itself—one that was and still is focused on improving the Middlebury community,” Blewitt says. “Most of the planning committee has committed to participating in the “What’s Next” committee, which will no doubt use the momentum from the Middlebury Better Block to inform policy, investments, and community engagement in the neighborhood.”

In a moment’s notice, that community can be called on to advocate for Middlebury.

“The entire process of planning, connecting, learning, growing, accepting, understanding, and organizing, humbled and moved me,” said Caitlin Boyle, one of the organizers and founder of Rooted Akron. “It isn’t about a two-day event. It’s about connection, about visioning, about feeling, about permanency, about support, about growth, about depth, about continuing the dialogue, and working together to establish what’s next.”

Huge thank you to the Knight Foundation for its support of the Better Block. 

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater.