Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Highland Square Celebration

It was a grand day to spend in and around Highland Square today. Don't let those dark clouds rolling over the brand new branch library's tower fool you, on this day the community came together to celebrate its unique character and its diverse population.

Art on the Square showcases the many fine talents that live in this neighborhood. Many of Akron's outstanding writers, musicians, visual artists, architects, photographers, film-makers, dancers and theatre artists live there. It is a community so unlike many of our city's neighborhoods, in that you see so many people out and about, walking here and there, waving and nodding to each other as they pass. If only Kenmore Blvd could regain that kind of vibe. Maybe when our new branch library becomes a reality, we'll have a chance.

Here's a photo of the Mayor speaking at the grand opening of the new branch library. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony and many of our local public servants were on hand to say a few words. Each person struck the same theme: how this project could not have been accomplished without the cooperation and collaboration of the library, the city and county governments, and the Albrecht family who have donated land for a reading garden. Afterwards, the crowd flowed into the brand new space, for ice cream and folk music, as well as to check out armfuls of books and videos.

Highland Square is a project not yet finished, with a gaping wound where the essential component for neighborhood sustainability should be -- there is no grocery store. I have been told by a resident that some of the senior citizens in Highland Square are buying their groceries at Walgreen's. Do we really think it is a good thing for our eldest citizens to exist on highly processed food on sale at a local drugstore?

There are some other problem spots on West Market St in Highland Square. The demise of the always popular Dodie's was not due to lack of neighborhood support, but rather bad management. The empty new store fronts on the other side of the street next to the new Chipotle need to find new tenants. Are they empty because of neighborhood turmoil or general economic malaise?

And then there is the fate of the Highland Theatre. I admit that at first I was skeptical about the value of saving this old neighborhood movie house. And then I listened to the the folks who are working to save it and thought their ideas were very creative and that the old theatre could indeed provide a valuable space for local artists and citizens. Akron only need look over at Kent to find a positive re-use of an old neighborhood movie theatre. Transformed into The Kent Stage, it is now home to the finest in acoustic music as well as home of the New World Children's Theatre, sponsored by Kent's Standing Rock Cultural Center.

Akron has done a great job in supporting the training and development of young artists, with its Lock 3 program every summer. The Highland Theatre could be a space where practicing artists of all types share their work and their knowledge with the up and coming generations. It could provide the community with a space that can host independent films as well as family movies and much more.

A Highland Square citizen told me that when plans for the new community learning center were on display for the public, the city wanted to tear down the theatre for parking and in return, the community could use the school's cafetorium because they'd have a projector installed there.

Cafetoriums started sprouting up all over Ohio during the Republican era of spend-the-least-money-possible on children and their schools. They are abominations that seem to be a clever consolidation of space usage. Sometimes, the "stage" is simply a large rectangular gap between a gym on one side and a cafeteria on the other. Sometimes it is one space used for all three purposes. Inevitably, your child's voice will not be heard on such a stage with its vast echoing volume-sucking space in which the audience must uncomfortably sit on folding chairs.

Cafetoriums may have fixed lighting that cannot be used for theatrical purposes, so expensive lighting instruments must be purchased. One techie told me that the grease from all those school lunches is drawn up and coats the lighting instruments. Doesn't sound good for the lights or the kids' nutritional needs being met!

For the residents of Highland Square, a cafetorium is not what they want or need. The Highland has a liquor license, and a community learning center does not. Adult works of art may not be always appropriate for a "learning center." The Highland Square Neighborhood Association is an active, thriving group of people who work hard to make their neighborhood a model urban community. I admire their efforts and envy their achievements.

It pains me to see the conflict between them and the city's administration. I hope both sides listened to the words spoken today at the library and renew their commitment to work together to solve the tough problems. I don't know if the legal threats and efforts to promote a maverick Democrat for mayor are the wisest choices of tactics. More visibility of the real problems caused by no grocery store is a better one. Getting the senior citizens out on the sidewalk with signs was an excellent tactic. It reminds the public that every delay affects the most needy of the neighborhood's residents.

Meanwhile the mayor and council -- please think about what makes urban life special and unique and keeps us city dwellers here rather than heading out to the suburbs. The commitment to neighborhood as exemplified by the folks in Highland Square is something I hope proves infectious and spreads out to all the wards in the city.


Valérie said...

Hello Village Green,

I came across your blog by accident after looking at Microdot's blog.

I don't got around much except sometimes from curiosity.

You sound like a very interesting person. I don't have my own blog because I am happy to just have fun and serious things in an international blog that I visit every day.

I am sorry if my English is not very good. I live in Paris and I am practicing my English on that blog every day, LOL.

Have a very nice day.

Village Green said...

Thanks for stopping by Val! You are welcome to practice your English here any time! Wish I could reciprocate in French, but alas I grew up in a country that really doesn't value teaching its students a foreign language. If we did, we'd have all been immersed in other languages from kindergarten on up instead of waiting until high school.

Dave P. said...

Nice comments on the day, VG. Amy and I visited the library, checked out the art fair, and then visited the Earthworm Collective later in the evening, before closing out the night with some friend at Frank's Place. All in all, a really nice day in the heighborhood.

I especially like that you noted that Highland Square is still in progress. As a new resident (to the hood and to Akron), the animosity I see within the community, and from the outside, is bothersome. So it's good to see your positive take.

Village Green said...

Welcome Dave P. I'm glad you got to the Earthworm event. I was so tuckered out I had to pass on it.

The animosity comes from all the emotions and passions on both sides taking over. Everybody needs to step back and take a deep breath before going back to the negotiating table and quite possibly find a neutral mediator. Nobody wants to see this fine neighborhood lose its much fought for character and charm.

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