By Eric Anthony Johnson
As a child growing up in urban America, I was curious about blighted conditions and how things could have gotten so bad. I saw people struggling to make ends meet, going on without ever knowing whether conditions would change. Over time, I understood that in some areas, transformation could really happen, while in others, despair continued. One important difference, I now believe, was in the determination of local people to become a prevailing force to change their own neighborhoods.
This is why I was truly moved recently when 300 University Park residents spent nearly an entire day at a Neighborhood Summit to consider what they can do to improve their neighborhood.
Without a doubt, this was Akron at its best, with residents planning to address head-on issues of crime, housing, economic opportunity and more. More important, this display of civic engagement represented a commitment of neighbors willing to work together on common priorities.
These residents, many living at or below the poverty level, even decided to consider how they might help pay for needed improvements.
During polling at the event, more than 80 percent voted to explore a special five-year property assessment to tackle safety issues and other neighborhood priorities.
Imagine it. People of limited means (nearly a fifth had household incomes of less than $25,000 a year and more than half owned property in University Park) saying yes to the prospect of a new assessment. These residents are both engaged and prepared to do their part. They define good citizenship.
At University Park Alliance (UPA), our ambitious development plans for the University Park neighborhood include major capital projects that will become building blocks in reinvigorating the core 50-block area surrounding the University of Akron.
Yet no matter how well designed our redevelopment plans may be, long-term success depends on local residents — those with the greatest stake — fulfilling a crucial role.
In my job, I see streams of well-researched reports on what struggling American cities can do to adjust to a global economy that pummeled America’s heavy manufacturing sector. Yet much of the intellectual analysis diminishes the role of citizen involvement — even as schools and safety issues loom large in any urban recovery plan.
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