Geography is not destiny when we intentionally reach across the divides between us

By Dan Rice and Eric Nelson

An installation of portraits by Akron photographer Shane Wynn along Summit Lake celebrates the people who live there. Photo credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

Researchers have built a strong case that geography too often determines destiny for children growing up in low-income households.

Raj Chetty, a Stanford University economist, has shown that neighborhoods are a critical factor in shaping children’s life outcomes. The longer that kids spend growing up in disadvantaged areas, the worse their lives are likely to be. Conversely, kids living in mixed-income neighborhoods (rather than in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty) have dramatically increased earning potential over their lifetimes. And when it comes to health and life expectancy, our zip codes at birth may matter even more than our genetic codes.

And yet over time, people have become more segregated in neighborhoods where one’s earnings and background are the same as one’s neighbors, places of concentrated wealth and places of concentrated poverty. The places with a mix of incomes, those that provide the long-term benefits to kids and families as found in Professor Chetty studies, are becoming more rare. And as we segregate into separate neighborhoods, we lose empathy and understanding for one another.

Yet the neighborhoods at the root of these disparities are also key to solving them, as our Akron Civic Commons project in northeast Ohio illustrates. In Summit Lake, we’ve been able to forge a “new way of doing business” for civic asset work that is rebuilding trust from the ground up, helping to revive a long-neglected neighborhood and creating new connections among people from diverse backgrounds.

Kayakers enjoying Summit Lake. Photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

Once known as Akron’s “million-dollar playground” in the 1920s and 30s, by the 1950s Summit Lake became a dump for the rubber and manufacturing industries that lined its shores. In the second half of the 20th century, highway construction cut off the 100-acre lake and surrounding neighborhood from city services and amenities, creating a pocket of isolation and poverty only a few short miles from downtown.

One of the major goals of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative is more socioeconomic mixing — creating public places where everyone is welcome, and where opportunities for shared experiences happen among diverse people. Central to this intention is the belief that communities and people are better off when people of different cultures, economic backgrounds and experiences can come together to solve problems. Today, as the Akron Civic Commons team is remaking Summit Lake Park into a place with infrastructure, activities and resources to enrich the lives of local residents and attract visitors from throughout the region, we’re also creating opportunities for diverse people to come together and build a better Akron.

Community members come together with civic commons supporters for the “200 Plates” dinner on the shores of Summit Lake. Photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

While the vision for Summit Lake is transformative, the process that is driving those changes is equally so. We refer to it as the Akron Civic Commons ‘way of doing business.’ There’s been such a legacy of things being done to the neighborhood and not with the neighborhood, things promised and not delivered. From the very beginning of our work, therefore, we’ve focused our energy on building relationships and revealing the agency of residents who are key to making change.

Akron Civic Commons team member Star Saulsberry. Photo Credit: Tim Fitzwater

Local residents like Star Saulsberry, who lives in Summit Lake and was initially skeptical about the Akron Civic Commons project. Star’s opinion on our work changed over time as the process unfolded in the neighborhood, and today she is a core part of the project team. Star is working as a storyteller and editor for the Summit Lake newsletter, a newsletter that exists because neighborhood residents thought it would be a beneficial idea to have one. Star has said that her opinions on the project changed because she could tell those involved were truly interested in working with the community instead of simply for it.

Star reflects, “I was skeptical up to the point that I actually saw that the civic commons team was acting on the feedback that residents indicated they wanted to have in Summit Lake. The biggest ‘aha’ moment was when the prototyping began with the grills and bike share. People were using the grills and bikes, and even after the prototype grills were gone, they were replaced with permanent grills, and the bike share stayed! I knew right then that I wanted to be more involved with the Akron Civic Commons project.”

Places to “sit, chill and have a grill” at Summit Lake. Photo Credit: Tim Fitzwater

Engagement that builds trust and subsequently opportunities for the meaningful interaction between people of different backgrounds is also evident in the work of The Leaven Lenses project — a photography apprenticeship program of the local non-profit Students With A Goal. Leaven Lenses exposes Summit Lake youth not only to photography as a medium for storytelling, but to the mentorship and experience of professional and skilled amateur photographers from all across Akron for 11 weeks. Leaven Lenses reveals the power of our civic commons work in ensuring neighbors learn new skills, positioning them to take leadership roles, and in the process, exposing them to new people and new ideas — socioeconomic mixing.

Students participating in the Leaven Lenses project learn photography skills. Photo credit: Students With A Goal

And amid much community skepticism, the Akron Civic Commons team has begun to make improvements to physical space in the community that has also spurred people from different backgrounds coming together to enjoy the lake. After listening carefully to neighbors in dozens of forums and across many months, a relatively simple request about improving Summit Lake Park quickly emerged — neighbors were anxious for a place to “sit, chill and have a grill.” That meant some quick improvements along the formerly-abandoned lakeshore, installing benches, barbeques and umbrellas. Improvements to children’s playground included removing a fence, better play equipment and some nature play installations. These were relatively inexpensive, “tactical” changes that produced an almost immediate response. Our team saw people from the neighborhood come back to Summit Lake to enjoy themselves — and we saw people from other neighborhoods in Akron start to stop by, to see what was happening and participate.

A young resident learns to fish at Summit Lake. Photo credit: Katelyn Freil

With the help of Akron artist Shane Wynn, those visiting Summit Lake had the chance to get to know community members in a new and interesting way. Shane’s large-scale photography installation along the Towpath Trail showcases residents from the neighborhood, with large printed portraits and a brief introduction of the subjects.

Once Summit Lake neighbors started to see the changes that were directly benefiting their community, other changes became apparent. More people regularly show up at neighborhood association and community council meetings. Echoing the civic commons, Akron and Ohio elected officials talk of accomplishing goals with residents, rather than presenting plans to them.

All of these changes, rippling out from our small project, show the power of the civic commons on even small levels to impart much bigger changes for long-neglected communities. Starting with authentic engagement, we are able to bridge differences between people of different backgrounds and build bridging social capital between Summit Lake residents and residents from other neighborhoods whom may never have had access to one another before. We believe this social capital — and the trust developed through the process — will ultimately provide Summit Lake residents with the connections to resources, jobs, and political power, and build economic mobility over time.

Enjoying the Summit Lake bike path. Photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

We’ve seen this theory of social change play out in our own relationship, as people who come from very different places. Though we come from different neighborhoods, different organizations, and different backgrounds, authentic engagement and listening in our own relationship has brought the trust we needed to bridge our differences, acknowledge past practices, put our shoulders to the same work and call each other family. We bonded over our similarities, the desire to support our community and do good work.

When geography determines destiny, we must be intentional about connecting across divides. Civic Commons is offering that opportunity in Akron. It’s a model we know will work across the country, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, person by person.

Eric Nelson is the Executive Director of Students With A Goal (SWAG) and Daniel M. Rice is the President & CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and the convener of the Akron Civic Commons demonstration.

From left to right: Eric Nelson, Shirley Finney, Mitchell Silver and Dan Rice.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.