Stephanie Leonardi lives in a difficult neighborhood. A few blocks to the west lies Summit Lake, once the center of area recreation, before years of industrial pollution befouled it and Interstate 76 bisected the neighborhood in the late 1950s. Today, “Summit Lake” stands for poor and blighted in the Akron lexicon. The neighborhood east of the lake that Leonardi calls home, hemmed in by the freeway to the north and Main and Broadway to the east, is a place that much of Akron rushes by on their way home without giving it much thought.
But Leonardi moved to the neighborhood two and a half years ago, and is one of a number of people helping to grow a vital community in a mostly forgotten patch of the city. She explains that by living in the neighborhood, she and her housemates are able to form relationships which is the key to making things better.
Walking around the neighborhood, Leonardi points out some of the projects she has led. The neighborhood came together over the summer to paint a street mural at the intersection of Long and Edison, near a Let’s Grow Akron community garden. Down the street, an installed mural borders a vacant lot that was converted to green space with new benches. She oversaw the mural while working for the city’s Summer Art Experience.
The public art projects cleaned up some of the evident neglect in the neighborhood. “When you walk by a where you see people don’t care, it’s easy not to care,” Leonardi explains, pointing out an abandoned house. “If it’s clear people care, it’s harder to do something like throw trash on the ground.”
She also organized the construction of a portable wood-fired pizza oven that is used at community events around the neighborhood. The actual construction of the oven, made with cement embellished with crockery fragments, was mostly completed by the neighborhood children. Because the work was done in the side yard of the house she shares with other recent transplants, everyone walking by had some connection to the project.
If Leonardi worked in the framework a more traditional non-profit, the account of her projects would be described in terms of forging public-private partnerships or leveraging resources. But her story is different. In fact, she will insist that the story is not about her but about the importance of creating real relationships.
She first became acquainted with the neighborhood through Pastor Duane Crabbs’s South Street Ministries. Crabb, a former firefighter and paramedic, started the ministry 19 years ago, moving his family into the neighborhood soon after. Leonardi volunteered in the neighborhood for a few years, finding it increasingly wrenching to leave. She also found in her school teacher position, “I couldn’t love children; I couldn’t love families.”
When a group home purchased by Terri Johnson opened in the neighborhood, she moved in and soon after she resigned her position with Akron Public Schools. At a Big Love Network street festival she learned about City Repair, a Portland based organization dedicating to combining art and sustainability toward redeveloping distressed neighborhoods. She was able to attend a City Repair training session and came back full of ideas and energy.
She currently has an “actual job” as project manager for the Summit Lake Pump House, a Knight-funded effort to turn the long-neglected structure into a community and art space. She is working to get community input about what the final result should look like.
Leonardi makes clear that the relationships she forms are more important than the tangible projects. Walking around the neighborhood or an event at the nearby Summit Lake Community Center, she attracts a cloud of children. She has a smile and hug for every adult who comes by.
After a recent community meal, trouble started to escalate in a group of mostly teenage boys who had gathered near the street mural intersection. A couple of punches connected. Leonardi waded into the crowd, persuading groups of boys to go separate ways. The incident demonstrated the virtue of Leonardi’s choice. By becoming part of the neighborhood and forging real relationships, she had the moral authority to defuse what could have been an ugly situation.
Not everyone can meet Stephanie Leonardi’s level of commitment, but the difference is apparent.