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Akronites have food for thought on the Innerbelt
A public art project brings together 22 neighborhoods for "500 Plates"

Kabir Bhatia
About 500 people from 22 Akron neighborhoods converged on the Innerbelt for '500 Plates'
Courtesy of KABIR BHATIA
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Hundreds of people converged on the Akron Innerbelt Sunday -- without their cars. An event called “500 Plates” invited people from the city’s 22 neighborhoods to discuss what should be done with the roadway. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports.
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Akron’s Innerbelt has been closed several times for events, but never for a 500-person picnic that could decide the highway’s future. Local poet Ace Epps opened the festivities by reciting his work, “Food For Thought":

“The central activity to all mankind. Over one meal, we learn as we dine.”

And that’s what the “500 Plates” event was supposed to be: a gathering of representatives from Akron’s 22 neighborhoods to chat and swap ideas about the city and its future.

Waffle time
San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks conceived of the event while visiting here on a Knight Foundation grant last year, which took him to a Highland Square landmark.

“Anybody been to Wally Waffle’s? Show of hands? Pretty good, right? And I was like, ‘Wally Waffle’s -- this is the spot.' I mean, everybody is at Wally Waffle’s: black people, white people, rich people, poor people, old people, young people. And what is the one thread that’s bringing them together? It’s the food.’”

Swapping recipes
Franks says the social aspect of breaking bread together – as opposed to just a community meeting – was the perfect way to start the dialogue. So he enlisted one ambassador from all 22 of the city’s neighborhoods and asked them to invite people from the community, and also to contribute a recipe. Michael Mosley represented West Hill with what he calls “Westside Summer Salad.”

“Pasta, little bit of dressing, little bit of salt and pepper. Real simple; real easy to make. And everybody seems to really, really enjoy it when it’s at a picnic, you know?”

The salad was made by a caterer based on Mosley’s recipe, as were sauteed rice from University Park, veggie chili from Elizabeth Park and chocolate chip cookies from Firestone Park. Akronites ate from plates imprinted with one of the neighborhood recipes (everything from Wallhaven salad to Rolling Acres beans) as they pondered the future of the Innerbelt. Mosley said what many people were thinking: “I’d like to see something green.”

Going green
The Innerbelt was built in short bursts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and has never seen the vehicle capacity city officials expected. Technically, it was never completed: temporary connections became permanent and many on-and-off ramps were only completed in one direction. Last year, then-Mayor Don Plusquellic unveiled a plan to demolish about a mile of the road, which would free up about 31 acres of land downtown. Much of that land is in Ward 1, represented by Councilman Rich Swirsky.

“We need to know what people in Akron would like to see happen here.

“One of my strongest values is greenspace and open public parks. I think we might be able to combine that with a kind of mixed-use project here that has some residential and maybe some business if we have enough space."

Craig Libman from Highland Square says he and his tablemates were inspired by seeing the temporarily shutdown Innerbelt.

“There’s a ton of ideas that people are having, whether it’s more greenspace or more bike paths. Community gardens. I also think a food truck area would be really cool.”

Block party
The “500 Plates” event was not just intended to ponder the roads, although Mike Herhold from Goodyear Heights says that is still one of city’s main problems. But while he ate and chatted with other Akronites, he found commonalities and ideas for his own neck of the woods.

“We’re gonna do [like] North Hill had that activity where they put in some pop-up businesses. So we wanna do one of those next year. And we’re working on a farmer’s market.”

Darlene Washington from Cascade Village was sitting right next to Herhold. She asks, why not get the city together more often?

“... Maybe in the wintertime and we could have a community Christmas dinner. In the summertime, we could have a 22-neighborhood picnic for all the neighborhoods.”

Which brings it all back to food, just as artist Hunter Franks wanted when he designed “500 Plates.” 

“Food is a very basic thing whether you’re in a different country or whether you’re in a different neighborhood; food has the ability to really bring people together unlike anything else.

“My work focuses on how to bring people together in public space and how to do it in ways that are safe and fun and interesting and get people to re-imagine their relationships with each other. I think once we do that, we can then reexamine our relationships with our neighborhoods and with our city.”

Related Links & Resources
Akronites at 500 Plates dined to the music of local jazz-soul outfit, The Admirables

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