The shining promise of the suburban lifestyle of the ‘60s tore straight through neighborhoods near downtown Akron. The Innerbelt Freeway, built in 1970, was built to connect the core of downtown Akron to the surrounding highways to the north and south. The highway cut right through the heart of Akron, displacing families and creating a physical and social chasm between downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Those economic, racial, and social divisions exist to this day, and like many other American cities, they exist in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Akron’s sprawl combined with a lack of public transportation and walkable streets leaves many neighborhoods physically and socially isolated. Through my time in Akron on the Creative Interventions Tour, I explored places that succeed in bringing people from different neighborhoods together. Concerts at Lock 3, biking or running on the Towpath, rallying around local sports teams. I asked people what they wanted to see in Akron’s public spaces. The one place I kept coming back to, where I continued to see the most diverse group of Akronites gathering, was a local breakfast joint called Wally Waffles. The diverse offerings of American breakfast and soul food standards appeal to a wide swath of Akronites. Food, more than anything, brings people together and breaks down barriers. I set out to explore this further and 500 Plates was born. On Oct. 4, we will bring together 500 residents from Akron’s 22 different neighborhoods at one, 500-foot-long table for a shared community meal, supported by Knight Foundation.
“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” — Michael Pollan
The next challenge was to assemble a meal where the participants were representative of Akron. With the help of local organizations such as Downtown Akron Partnership and the Akronist, and neighborhood organizations such as South Street Ministries and East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp., my project assistant, lifelong Akronite David Swirsky, and I put out a call for Neighborhood Ambassadors. Once we identified one Neighborhood Ambassador in each neighborhood, we met with them in their house and recorded their story, including their relationship with their neighborhood and the city they call home. These interviews displayed the unique personal histories of Akronites in each neighborhood and are being published on the 500 Plates Facebook page. Each Neighborhood Ambassador is also charged with signing up 10 of their neighbors to attend the meal, creating an event that will truly be representative of Akron’s entire population.
In addition, we collected a favorite household recipe from each Neighborhood Ambassador. These recipes are being printed onto custom stoneware plates by local ceramic artist Eva Kwong, which will be used at the community meal, creating a unique way to connect Akronites from different neighborhoods. Each guest at 500 Plates will take home one of the plates as an extension of the meal.
The meal will take place on a stretch of that same Innerbelt Freeway that tore apart neighborhoods 45 years ago. That stretch of freeway will be closed to vehicle traffic that day and is being closed and reconfigured as developable land in 2016. This event will serve as a way for residents to reimagine what that open stretch of concrete could potentially be used for in the future. Sixty-three tables will connect atop the concrete, creating one continuous 500-foot-long table. Attendees will be guided by volunteer table hosts to discuss their personal stories as well as the challenges and opportunities of their neighborhoods, public space, and the future of their city.
We are also creating a toolkit to help neighborhood partners carry out smaller community meals in their neighborhoods. Local fabricator Dominic Falcione of Rubber City Fab is creating 22 unique tables, one for each neighborhood, which will serve as gathering points for each neighborhood to hold their neighborhood meals. We are working with neighborhood partners to identify locations for these tables, such as community gardens or parks.
500 Plates will take place from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct, 4. Tickets are sold out, but there will be a standby ticket line, and those interested can learn more at 500Plates.com and on Facebook and social media with #500Plates, and reach out at [email protected].