‘Revival of the people and the souls’ on the shores of Summit Lake

by Colleen Carroll and Rosalie Murphy

Don’t call it a comeback. Summit Lake has been here for thousands of years. 

Summit Lake has been part of the Rubber City since the end of the last major glacial period, which ended roughly 12,000 years ago. The lake saw indigenous settlements displaced by colonization; its ecological balance ravaged by the industrial age; and now, an increasingly healthy lake surrounded by an increasingly connected neighborhood.

“I think this has turned into a place where you can actually come and get peace,” says SeKoria Finney, who lives in the neighborhood and works at the Summit Lake Nature Center. “Now people can come from all sides of the lake, Crosier Street, South Street — they can all gather down there of one accord.” 

Summit Lake: ‘A pristine water body… polluted from industry and development’

Summit Lake, situated just north of the Portage Lakes, is a natural glacial lake, according to Summit Metro Parks Chief of Conservation Mike Johnson. “It had a very long history as a pristine water body before it was polluted from industry and development.”

In 1917, Summit Beach Park opened on the northeast shore of Summit Lake. The amusement park hosted roller coasters, a carousel, a Ferris wheel and more. 

But around the time of the park’s opening, officials ruled that the entire lake was too polluted to be safe. Summit Lake was polluted by chemical runoff from nearby rubber factories. Most of this was point-source pollution, meaning the pollution can be traced back to one identifiable source, such as one specific factory, Johnson says. 

“At the time, industry was paramount,” Johnson says. “And the needs of the industry were a paramount importance. At the time, we had turned our backs to the needs of the environment.” 

The park responded by building the “largest mosaic tile lined pool in the United States” next to the lake, according to a 1917 postcard, and filling it with “filtered sterilized water.” 

Despite the pollution, Summit Lake “was a destination, a millionaire’s playground,” says Dan Rice, President and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition. “But for one group of people — white people. And when it closed, it was abused by industry.” 

Wealth was leaving the neighborhood long before the park closed, however. In 1939, a Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map shows that lenders labeled the western and northeastern shore as third-tier investments for potential homebuyers, and the southeastern shore as fourth-tier investments — a process known as redlining, which made banks much less likely to write mortgages in those neighborhoods. Redlining segregated U.S. cities in the 1930s and 1940s, concentrating white residents in high-value neighborhoods and residents of color in “third grade” and “fourth grade” neighborhoods like Summit Lake. 

Summit Beach Park closed in 1958. In 1965, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority built apartments on the land. And when Interstate 76 was built, it cut right through Summit Lake and other core Akron neighborhoods, displacing families and severing local connections. 

“Highways completely bisected those neighborhoods,” Rice says. “That basically is environmental racism. I-76/I-77 goes around Fairlawn. It was supposed to go right through Fairlawn, but it didn’t. That community was more vocal, more organized, and their opinions were not marginalized, [so] the highway ended up going around that neighborhood. That didn’t happen in the inner city of Akron.”

Rice explains that, in the following decades, several neighborhood schools were closed. The Reach Opportunity Center was built, but he found in conversation with residents that few felt a sense of ownership over the space. By 2017, a City of Akron report found that 24% of homes in Summit Lake were vacant. The neighborhood’s median household income was $19,075, among the lowest in the city. Summit Lake was also home to a large, dense concentration of city- and land-bank-owned properties, according to a 2018 housing market analysis.

“Are we surprised by what happens to a neighborhood when the social fabric is literally ripped out of it?” Rice says. 

Johnson of Summit Metro Parks says the Clean Water Act of 1972 catalyzed rehabilitation of Summit Lake’s ecosystem, along with that of the Cuyahoga River and other Ohio waterways. Regulations created safety nets that blocked industrial dumping. 

The lake has been getting cleaner ever since.

“Today, the water is quite clean,” Johnson says. “The sediments at the bottom bear the mark of pollution. However, there is about an 8-foot layer of clean sediment on top that acts of a safety buffer.”

According to an environmental study conducted by the Summit Brownfields Revitalization Program and administered by the Northeast Ohio Four County Planning Organization, which was released in 2018, “there is little risk to human health from recreational exposures to chemicals within the water and sediments in Summit Lake.” 

Only one of the measurements taken during the study period in 2017 exceeded EPA water quality standards — manganese, which was too high by drinking water standards but poses no health risk to people using the lake recreationally, researchers write. Arsenic was found in very small amounts. Samples from one day found traces of lead in the water, but lead was not detected on other sampling days. 

There was a high level of algal productivity near the surface of the lake, which researchers said could be caused by road salt running off nearby roads. 

Today, waterfowl and migratory birds inhabit Summit Lake. Resident Grace Hudson says she’s seen otters and beavers. And native fish species are successfully multiplying and thriving — except for the ones that are caught by people fishing on the lake’s shores, that is. Fishers stand on the Towpath’s floating bridge and on a dock on the lake’s eastern shore on most mornings, catching some fish and throwing others back. 

“The fish are edible and safe,” Johnson says. “The lake has an abundant fish population and is a great recreational fishery.” 

Transformation on the eastern shoreline

Summit Lake is lovely in the morning. Water laps the eastern shoreline. A few men sit scattered, fishing poles angled toward the water, waiting with no particular urgency for fish to bite. Geese patrol the Towpath near a wetland, hissing at joggers and cyclists. Neighbors in Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority-owned apartments just yards from the Towpath sit on their porches or take their dogs out for walks. Sometimes residents take canoes out onto the lake. 

It wasn’t always this way. 

“I live about seven minutes away from Summit Lake, and I did not know how to get there,” says Demetrius Lambert-Falconer, Chief of Community Engagement for Summit Metro Parks. “I didn’t know anything about it. Every time people said anything about it, they’d say, ‘you’d better take a gun over there, you’re gonna get shot over there.’ I was like, ‘I see a rec center, I see some preschoolers. Is it the preschoolers who should be frightened?’ 

“The whole conversation now has changed,” she adds. “The conversation in the community [was]… It appeared as if they had been banished to Summit Lake. Now the conversation is very, very different. People want to buy land. People want to come there. Family reunions, all sorts of programs from the community are there. Events from AMHA are larger with more partnerships. The school brings the kids outside, in the front half of the building where they did not go before, and they are utilizing the landscaping [for] nature play… I see them out with little binoculars. The kids are coming in the nature center and using that as a science component. We have residents who are leading programs in the center.”

During the last three years, a coalition under the umbrella of Akron Civic Commons invested in improvements on Summit Lake’s shores. They started with an intensive listening project with a simple goal: Finding out what residents actually wanted.

Residents said they wanted a playground, opportunities for exercise, and a scenic area for picnics equipped with lighting, grills, tables and peaceful shore access. 

Today, all those things exist. 

“These projects were done in tandem with residents to best represent what they wanted out of their public spaces,” says Katelyn Freil, communication manager for the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, the organization that served as convener for Akron Civic Commons. “One of the first comments we received when we began this work was that residents just wanted a place to sit, talk and grill by the lake — a place where they could be with their neighbors and get to know one another.”

Initially, residents were mistrustful of these outside organizations who said they wanted their input, because they doubted it would be seriously considered. 

“One of the things we learned early on was an incredible gulf of mistrust,” Rice says. “There’s a legacy of things being done to and not with, promised but not delivered, and here comes this white, middle-aged, privileged male saying, ‘we want to hear what you have to say,’ and guess what? They’ve heard that before.”

Grace Hudson, a resident of the AMHA apartment complex who now works as an Akron Civic Commons Neighborhood Fellow, says the process started with neighborhood meetings. Residents wrote down examples of things they’d like to see in the neighborhood — a pavilion, barbecue grills, a walking trail — on sticky notes. Organizers compiled them and used them to develop plans for infrastructure improvements along the lake. 

“In the beginning, I was a little wary, because my thought was: ‘You’re gonna put X number of millions of dollars on the Towpath, what about the rest of the neighborhood? How is that going to affect the rest of the community?” Hudson says. 

Then residents saw what they had asked for coming to life.

Nature conservation efforts and neighborhood development programs work in tandem at the Summit Metro Parks Nature Center. Located within the Reach Opportunity Center, the Nature Center offers hiking, kayaking and fishing programs, as well as educational opportunities including exhibits and learning labs for the neighborhood’s budding ichthyologists. 

Today, “it’s nothing to see somebody come down there with their toddler and fire up the grill and have a picnic,” Hudson says. “People kept saying, ‘Put that stuff down there and all they’re gonna do is tear it up.’ That’s not true. Stuff has not been vandalized, it hasn’t been torn up. I think because people got what they wanted, there’s a sense of pride, that ‘this is ours… Look at what we have, we’re happy to have it, and we’re gonna take care of it.’”

“This has brought people and families together in one spot that they do not fear,” says SeKoria Finney. Finney runs Growing MINDZ, a nonprofit that takes neighborhood youth to cultural institutions and supports their efforts to create art and eat healthy. 

Akron Civic Commons has been funded by the Knight Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the GAR Foundation. The current tranche of funding expires at the end of 2019. 

Rice doesn’t want Civic Commons to be remembered as a project that parachuted in and then left, however. He intends for all the Civic Commons projects — which were technically temporary, “pop-up” installations — to be made permanent. 

The Summit Lake Nature Center, which has been functioning as a pop-up attached to the Reach Opportunity Center, will move south to the Pump House in mid-2020. The Pump House was activated as a public art project in 2017 and transferred from the City of Akron to Summit Metro Parks in late 2018. The Knight Foundation is funding renovations. A community garden on site, managed by Let’s Grow Akron, will remain in place.

In May, Summit Lake saw the opening of the Loop Trail, a 2.25-mile walking trail around the perimeter of the lake. 

“Initially, candidly, that was a pretty controversial project. On one side of the lake, you have public housing, lower incomes, increased poverty; on the other side you have higher property values, the racial diversity is not as much — it tends to be largely white — and higher incomes. When we had the public meetings, we got statements like, ‘I don’t want those people on my side of the lake,’” Rice says. However, “It’s been in place since May and, anecdotally, when I’ve been out there surveying, a lot of people are using it, walking around the lake. I’ve talked to half a dozen residents on their front porches and a lot of the concerns they had have not come to fruition.” 

The trail is technically temporary — along the northern and western edges of the lake, it is little more than mowed grass — but Rice says he hopes to make the trail permanent, including adding seating and lighting. 

Rice calls these developments “version 2.0.” 

Permanent funding for all of the programming that started as part of Civic Commons has not yet been secured, although some has. But Rice says there’s a lesson right on the lake’s shores: the Towpath. 

“If you’d asked me that same question 25 years ago about the Towpath, I couldn’t have told you where they money was going to come from. What I’ve learned through 25 years of working on these projects is: Paint the vision, show people what the opportunity is, and the money will follow,” Rice says. “Everybody’s got a stake in what we’re doing here; now, how might we paint a compelling vision so that everybody feels like they want to be part of it?” 

What’s next for the neighborhood?

A healing lake and a healing neighborhood seem to be one another’s best allies. 

“If you had come back five years ago, the overgrowth around the lake almost created a curtain. People still fished, people from the neighborhood have always fished there… [but] now you will see kayaks, you will see canoes,” Falconer says. “Now with the trail around the lake, you will see runners and joggers, people walking and sitting on the beautiful benches that are around the lake. That’s the biggest difference: You can actually see the lake.” 

There are more people on the eastern shore than ever, Falconer says. They’re taking classes at the Nature Center or just hanging out there, coloring or using the computer lab. Finney describes Balloflex, a daily chair aerobics class for seniors that left her sore the next day. Hudson praises a multi-generational quilting club and community canning, which Let’s Grow Akron hosts two days per week. 

When she’s working at the Nature Center, Finney says, people come in to point out lightbulbs that have burned out. Falconer says people clean up the land around the lake of their own accord, leaving bags of collected litter next to trash cans that are often already full because so many people have used them.

That is proof of the project’s success, Finney and Hudson say — people actually use what’s been built.

“As long as we take pride in what we have, it’ll continue to look good,” Finney says. “A lot of times we don’t show that ownership, and once we show that ownership, it’ll continue to look good.” 

Grace Hudson says she reaps the benefits of updated infrastructure — and the community’s use of it — every day when she walks out her back door to walk her dog on the Towpath. 

“I always said that the people in the apartments do not realize where they live. You’re living on prime lakefront property,” Hudson says. 

More and more residents are getting involved in organized community groups, Hudson says. Neighbors have leveraged their collective voices to keep a corner store from relocating and to organize conversations on gun violence. Earlier this year, residents asked the Ohio Department of Transportation for wider sidewalks on the Princeton Street bridge over I-76; ODOT listened. Summit Lake now has a Community Development Corporation, which Hudson hopes will foster business development in and a louder voice for the neighborhood. 

“That’s showing that we do have a voice. People will listen and say nay or yay, but at least people are listening, and I think that’s really, really important, that this community has a voice, and that the powers that be are listening to what we’re saying and what we’re asking for,” Hudson says. “We know change is coming. We know that, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure [that] out… It’s going to be very important for the CDC to have a voice, again, as to what housing or what development” gets built. 

For now, Hudson believes that investment is possible in a way that doesn’t displace residents. 

“We recognize that — I hate that term — there’s gonna be some gentrification. But we don’t want to see displacement,” Hudson says. “This whole process, it’s gonna happen, but the main thing that we’re looking at is the people here not losing what they already have.”

That kind of development may still be years away, Hudson says. In the meantime, she’s focused on immediate next steps. Residents want a gas station, a pharmacy, a barbershop; they want to patronize their own coffee shops and restaurants. 

And one key hurdle has already been overcome, residents and visitors alike say: Public perception of Summit Lake is quite different than it was three years ago. 

“Perception is reality. That was people’s perception, so that was their reality, and that’s one of the major things we’ve tried to do: We’re changing the narrative,” Falconer says. “The revival of the people and the souls around Summit Lake is what we’re continuing to see.” 

“Come down and see what’s happening,” Johnson adds. “Come and participate in the programs to see the lake and its improvements. Then it’s hard not to see the value of the lake.” 

Colleen Carroll is a journalism student at Kent State University. Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.

Historical photos: These postcards show people recreating at Summit Beach Park, which opened in 1917 and at its peak attracted 25,000 people per day. At one time, the park included the country’s largest funhouse and largest mosaic tile pool, as well as a dance hall. The park closed in 1958. The land is now the AMHA apartments on the eastern shore of Summit Lake. Photos: Sherwood Kessell Collection, Akron Summit County Public Library. Used with permission.

Contemporary photos: Summit Lake in May 2019. Photos by Rosalie Murphy.