Innerbelt National Forest project seeks Akron artists, urban historians and volunteers

May 22, 2018 GMT

Innerbelt National Forest project seeks Akron artists, urban historians and volunteers

AKRON, Ohio - Akronites will be able to enjoy a cool, green forest along both sides of the Innerbelt Highway this summer.

Urban artist Hunter Franks’ Innerbelt National Forest will only be standing for about two months - July and August. But while it’s there, it’s planned to engage people living and working in downtown Akron and the West Hill neighborhood.

Franks is also seeking Akron artists, writers or urban historians and ambassadors who wish to participate.

“The idea is to create a space that will allow residents to have a shared space to come together on both sides - for downtown workers to cross the Towpath bridge to the other side to explore the steps at Glendale or for people in West Hill to venture over to downtown to check out what’s going on,” Franks said.

The Innerbelt National Forest is a 2017 Knight Cities Challenge winner. The idea, which garnered a $214,420 grant, has been somewhat slowed by demolition of the Innerbelt. The city has said it will work this year on proposals for what the cleared 30 acres could hold, from city parkland to residential housing to other amenities for residents to enjoy.

“We have asked the group installing the temporary forest to capture and share the feedback that they receive from the public related to the future reuse of the Innerbelt site, as well as feedback related to connections between West Hill and Downtown.,” said Akron spokeswoman Ellen Lander-Nischt in an email. “We hope to leverage that public feedback as we develop plans for the long-term reuse of the Innerbelt site and hopefully improved future connections to West Hill.”

In the meantime, putting 90 native trees on the sides of the Innerbelt is one way to get residents to engage with the space. To contribute to the project, Franks is also putting out a call to residents to assist with the forest by signing up at this website.

Volunteers can sign up to help steward the Innerbelt Forest, and will receive an Innerbelt National Forest T-shirt while helping bring the project to fruition.

Artists can download a request for proposals at the project website. Five 3-D art pieces will be chosen for installation in the forest. Artists will receive a $800 stipend for their work, which must include some form of public engagement.

Stories will also be collected about the freeway’s past, present, and future, and how families were personally affected by construction and of the highway, and its existence. Residents who have stories to share can also sign up on the project website.

“It’s a way to personify the space and really understand how it’s served people or hasn’t served people in the past ” Franks said. “A lot will come from folks who were around when the freeway was built.”

Those who were in Akron in the 1970s might remember the unrest the highway created when it was built.

According to a report published in 1977 by The Ohio Journal of Science, the Innerbelt cut a “Model Cities Neighborhood” in half, positioning blacks on the north side of Interstate 77, where the first portion of the Innerbelt cut through, and whites on the south side.

Ill-advised from the start, and eventually costing $90 million, the Innerbelt highway has been proposed for removal a number of times over the decades.

Now with demolition underway, Franks wants the public art and personal histories to become a permanent part of the Innerbelt area’s new focus - bringing people together.

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