On a recent evening, two weeks after President Donald Trump signed an executive order limiting immigration to the U.S., a peaceful march in support of refugees wound its way through Akron, Ohio. It was a cold night, but around 300 people, bundled up in coats and scarves, came out to wave signs and chant “refugees are welcome here,” as they walked through the streets of North Hill, an Akron neighborhood once home to European immigrants and now populated largely by newcomers from Bhutan and Nepal. Akron’s 9,100 immigrants now make up around 5% of the city’s total population.
The marchers ended up in the backyard of a blue clapboard house, not unlike the rest of the homes on Elma Street in North Hill. But at the end of February, the unremarkable-looking property will open its doors as the Exchange House–a resource hub and shared space for Akron’s refugee and immigrant communities.
In 2015, the Better Block Foundation–an organization focused on transforming neighborhoods into truly livable communities–was wrapping up a street-improvement initiative in North Hill. While consulting with locals on a plan that would eventually bring about bike lanes and two pedestrian plazas, Better Block’s cofounder, Jason Roberts, “really got ingrained with the community there,” says Krista Nightengale, the managing director for Better Block. He attended a Bhutansese baby-naming ceremony and ate at the immigrant-founded restaurants that line the neighborhood’s main drag of East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue.
It struck Roberts that these types of exchanges–which many people will spend thousands of dollars traversing the globe to experience–are available in pockets of cities across the U.S., and the immigrant communities lend vibrancy to communities that too often goes underappreciated.
Roberts was inspired to create the Exchange House as a place where all of Akron’s communities–from those who have been in the city for generations to those who have just arrived–can come together and get to know each other. In the summer of 2015, Better Block met with the City of Akron, the International Institute of Akron, and the Bhutanese Community Association to begin planning. After receiving $155,000 in funding from the 2015 Knight Foundation Cities Challenge—which funds local initiatives to increase economic opportunities and civic engagement—Better Block purchased the property on Elma Street for $28,000. Cleveland-based architect Sai Sinbondit, a former refugee from Thailand, came on board to redesign the interior.
Like many post-industrial Rust Belt cities, Akron has struggled economically in recent decades. Property values are low, and many houses are vacant and blighted. The problem of what to do with the housing stock has plagued Akron for years. With the Exchange House, “we wanted to show that you could take one of these abandoned houses, renovate it, and turn it into an anchor that really showcases the neighborhood and brings it together,” Nightengale says. One room in the Exchange House will be rented out through Airbnb to bring in revenue; the rest of the building will be open to a variety of community activities, from cooking classes to pop-up shops for local entrepreneurs and artists.
While Trump’s actions at the executive level have painted the U.S. as a country hostile to immigrants, that is not the case in Akron. “If you look at our native population alone, we have basically zero, maybe even negative, population growth,” says Scott Read, Better Block Akron’s project manager. “Population growth is one of the key drivers of economic growth, so without welcoming people from outside the U.S., we’re not going to be seeing any development here,” Read says. The dozen or so new businesses and shops that have opened in North Hill have been founded by immigrants, Read adds. In Akron, 6.2% of U.S.-born residents have started businesses, while 11.1% of foreign-born residents work for self-owned businesses that also create local jobs.
The rest of the city is similarly enthusiastic about the project. Leadership Akron, a program that gets senior residents involved with the community through sharing their skills and expertise, is interested in programming through the Exchange House; AxessPointe Community Health Centers plans to host information sessions and medical screenings for refugees. “Instead of the tension you see in the national conversation, this is something that is really bringing a lot of very diverse groups of people together,” Read says.
The heightened climate around immigration has lent an even greater significance to the opening of the Exchange House, slated for February 28. While the actual programming for the Exchange House is yet to be set in stone, Read says he wants all the events that house hosts to come from the community. The basic principle, and one that has been at the forefront of the Better Block organizers’ minds, is the idea that the Exchange House was built for love, not fear. “You think about things like park benches with the rails down the middle, so homeless people can’t sleep there,” Nightengale says. “That’s an example of building for fear. But when you design a space with the idea of bringing people together and helping them feel safe, that’s building for love.”