In the 1970s, when the Innerbelt Freeway was built in Akron, Ohio, it split a neighborhood in half, with predictably bad results. Neighbors who could afford to moved away. Others could no longer walk to their local grocery store. The road intensified a racial divide in an area that was already struggling to come together.
When an artist wanted to find a way to help bring Akron residents from across the city together, the freeway seemed like a natural place to do it. So on September 3, he worked with the city to temporarily shut down the road to traffic. Five hundred neighbors–from all 22 of Akron’s neighborhoods–walked out on the freeway, sat down, and had dinner together.
Like most cities, Akron is a place where few people today know the neighbors on their street, let alone people in other parts of town. “It’s not unlike the disconnect that’s common in any urban environment in the U.S.,” says artist Hunter Franks, who created the project with a grant from the Knight Foundation. “But I saw an opportunity that was unique–Akron has a population of 200,000, so there’s a smaller feel to the city. That was what excited me about the opportunity to bring people together.”
He chose the freeway as a location in part because it was an opportunity for people to plan for the future. The road was never a success and little used as downtown Akron shrank. The city is now spending more money to tear down roads than to build them–and the Innerbelt Freeway will be next to go.
“They’re shutting it down to traffic next year and opening it up to development, but there’s no concrete idea of what it will be–if it will be a park or whatever,” says Franks. “So this seemed like a very unique opportunity to help people reimagine this space.”
As people ate, they talked about the future of the area. They also just got to know people they otherwise may have never met. Franks spent a year working with volunteers from each neighborhood to plan the event and to bring 10 people from each neighborhood. The plates at the meal, designed to go home with each guest, were printed with favorite recipes from neighbors.
It brought people together from neighborhoods they may have never visited, and across historic economic divides. “Akron’s interesting because it was a rubber tire city, that’s what it was built on,” says Franks. “The wealthy rubber barons built all their houses on the side of town where the smoke did not blow their way. And all the lower-income neighborhoods were on the other side of town.” Neighborhoods are still economically segregated.
The project will continue throughout the city, as Franks gives neighbors toolkits to plan their own neighborhood meals in the future. And he’s hoping that the experience of eating on a freeway might inspire people to start thinking differently about what’s possible.
“It was magical,” he says. “You walk out on the freeway and you’re like, ‘That’s weird, where are the cars?'”
“In the end, that’s the hope. What seems surreal and seems impossible for people to imagine–I can’t have a meal on a highway, or I can’t plant a community garden in my neighborhood–hopefully people came away thinking, Wow, I can do those things.”