When a neighborhood is a neighborhood unto itself
words and photos by Mark Schweitzer
The pocket neighborhood. If you’ve never lived in one, then you’ve probably never seen one, since they are often hard to find. Often hidden, and more often forgotten, these are the small-to-medium-size enclaves of houses that exists in cities everywhere. Akron has them, too—hidden behind factories, walled off by expressways, obscured behind urban overgrowth and stashed across a bridge or perched at the end of a narrow lane.
A few were created with intention. Most were created by accident; when geographic and socio-economic development factors collided and left them as the inevitable result. In this case, they are often the residue of short-sighted and too-rapid land development, poor road planning and general neglect.
This was especially the case with some central-city neighborhoods during the early part of the 20th century. Several blocks of viable housing may have been quickly surrounded by industrial shops, small factories and other commercial businesses that were created to support Akron’s Rubber Boom. In other cases, housing may have been quickly erected in areas where zoning or development was still in transition – due to demand and expediency. Later in the century, the expansion of the highway system also played a major factor in creating some of these pocket neighborhoods.
What makes a pocket neighborhood unique is not necessarily its size—though they are generally not very large—but its sense of isolation. Commonly, these types of neighborhoods are bordered on three sides by various types of barriers, leaving only one side (or in some cases, a single street) connected to the outside world. These barriers can take a number of forms, for example:
Topographic Barriers – like hills, valleys, swamps, rivers, canals and other waterways—can set a natural neighborhood boundary. In some cases, they can serve as a scenic amenity.
Semi-Undeveloped Land – this can include a large park, cemetery or forest land, large recreational areas—like ball fields, reclaimed urban land (cleared of prior structures) as well as brownfields (cleared industrial lands) and even open areas, like landfills.
Transportation Barriers – commonly these include major transportation arteries like highways, but can also include railroad tracks and rail yards (in use and abandoned) as well as airports.
Zoning & Industrial Barriers – These include factories, large scale retail developments and everything that goes with them—including parking lots.
Akron’s Pocket Neighborhoods
Looking back over the years, it’s easy to see that in a hilly, fast-growing industrial city like Akron, there would have been plenty of opportunities for small neighborhoods to get cut off from the rest of town. Here are just a few examples.
Laird Street / This small neighborhood in old Middlebury, nestled on a high bluff overlooking Case Avenue on the north, is hemmed in by the old AC&Y rail line on the east, and East Akron Cemetery and Seiberling Field on the South. The only entrance is via two access streets on the west side, Willard and Fulton, which run off of E. Market between two old Goodyear parking lots. Most of the houses here were built by 1910, and for many years, this neglected area became run down and a haven for crime. A close look at Google Maps reveals that housing density in the neighborhood has been significantly reduced through aggressive demolition; about 40% have been removed, with the result that this area has been mentioned as a possibility for future redevelopment.
Excelsior – Oak Park Hill / Centered around the old Lewis Miller Estate, this tiny enclave of apartments and old houses is surrounded by Glendale Cemetery on the west, Glendale Park on the north, and finally cut off from the rest of town when the RT 59 Innerbelt was constructed along its east and south sides. Generally well-maintained, the area remains its “own little world” and provides excellent views of downtown Akron.
Englewood – League Street / It would be easy to miss this tiny enclave of about 20 houses as you pass south under I-76 along Innovation Way (formerly Martha Ave.). Tucked between the highway and Middlebury Run Park, it probably dates from about the same period as Laird Street, though the circumstances of its envelopment center around the fact that it was largely cut off from the rest of East Akron by the construction of I-76. Earlier, an industrial plant had encroached from the east, and major rail lines (now abandoned) had formed the boundary to the south. On the west was the huge Goodyear Plant II complex, now home of the company’s Tech Center and International HQ.
Merriman area – Bastogne Dr. and Winfield Way / The two small enclaves have been Pocket Neighborhoods from the very start, and retain their sense of separation due to topographic reasons (they are on the edge of a valley) steep grades and railroad tracks that lie on both the east and the west. Access for each is by a single road; in the case of Bastogne, it crosses over a rail line.
Northside – a couple of decades ago, we might not have thought of this as a neighborhood, but since the completion of the Northside Lofts and the condominium units on Howard Street, this unique “pocket neighborhood” provides a great example of mixed use development. Furnace St. offers a narrow access corridor from the east and west, but the area is separated from the rest of town by the slopes of the Valley and its railroad line, undeveloped land and the formidable swath of MLK Blvd that was the result of the RT-59 / Innerbelt terminus. Cut off from the rest of downtown, the future may have looked bleak 30 years ago, but the area has survived and thrived, becoming a popular city hot spot.
Big Plans for Tiny Places?
These are just a handful of such neighborhoods; and there are many others scattered throughout Akron. What makes them interesting is not only their individual character and the way they were created, but also what they have to offer for the future. Some of these Pocket Neighborhoods, like those off Merriman Rd., will continue to provide comfortable family living. Northside, small-but-mighty, continues to mature into an exciting mixed-use neighborhood with the addition of a new hotel. Small as it may be, Oak Park Hill may have an important role to play as a visual anchor with the eventual redevelopment of the Innerbelt.
The future is less certain, but no less interesting for areas such as Laird St. The high percentage of vacant lots points to eventual redevelopment in the future—residential or otherwise—and its close proximity to the East End development and easy highway access is a plus. The same holds true for the tiny “village” of Englewood/League St. near Goodyear’s World HQ.
Pocket Neighborhoods have their advantages. Many are quiet, with limited access and street traffic, plus the added security of neighbors who may know or at least recognize each other. Another thing to consider is that even though they are small, they can have a big impact on larger areas – serving as an anchor of stability, an outpost of innovation or even “weirdness”, or a potential laboratory to try out an urban development idea on a very small scale.
Sometime in the spring, take a look at a map of Akron, get on your bike and visit some of these pocket neighborhoods. Take a look at them with a city planner’s eye. What kind of potential is there? What would you do with them?