One neighborhood demonstrating how to achieve world peace.
by Katie Beck
Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron.
On any given Saturday night, the multi-lane intersection of North Main Street and East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue bustles with people on foot, bike or scooter. Delivery drones fly above picking up orders of local cuisine and homemade goods for customers within five miles. Packed soccer courts circumvolve with players yelling at every failure and grinning with every success. Each storefront alongside the road stands with its own bold design and cultural homage, welcoming guests for drinks, art, retail and unique experiences.
Multigenerational families gather in People’s Park, an outdoor public green space with swinging hammocks tied to trees and picnic tables filled with homemade food and restaurant take out. The chatter of different languages undulates like waves from an ocean: bursts of Nepali jokes and laughter, whispers of Arabic prayers and songs of K’iche’ voices belted.
This year, Akron, Ohio was named as one of the top cities to visit in the United States by Travel and Leisure, with North Hill as a contributing factor due to its diverse array of experiences for visitors, as well as its corresponding equity. The investment and development of physical infrastructure leading up to this national debut was the catalyst that has centered and benefitted the residents directly.
Not only has Temple Square seen a sparring of activity from outside travelers, but also the business district on Howard Street, which highlights the history and contributions of the Black American community in the area. Music clubs, local shops and small restaurants manifest the power of the surrounding neighbors. At the intersection of East Cuyahoga Falls and Howard is the North Hill Heritage Courtyard which has an art installation erected with market stalls, grills and seating.
Mayor Hsa Win is a long time resident of North Hill and acknowledges what makes North Hill so unique.
“This is a place where we take care of each other. Our homes, our businesses and our performances are all at the center of who we are and now the rest of the country is starting to recognize that,” says Win.
He sees his time in public office as a chance for young immigrants to see themselves in political positions some day. “I never thought that I could be mayor of a city until I came to Akron.”
At the North end of the All-American Bridge stands Waters Park, a public greenspace on the eastside of North Main Street’s beginning edge. Senior citizens play shuffleboard every week. The tennis and soccer courts fill with teenagers when school lets out and remain packed until midnight. An amphitheater, inspired by classic Greek drama, provides a platform for children to practice and perform in peace. At the southern peak of the park an assemblage of visitors rotate between the seating that faces downtown. It is the best view of the city skyline.
In the purview of this site stands a colorful polymer cityscape, connecting the city’s own downtown to the structure of the art piece, installed by Polymas, Akron’s largest sustainable manufacturing facility. The company started production in 2027 after purchasing the building that once housed St. Thomas Hospital. Elsa Mash, one of the founders of Polymas, moved to North Hill in 2024 after graduating from the University of Akron in Polymer Engineering.
“After the COVID pandemic, I felt inspired to reconnect people and there was an opportunity to address a major barrier: language.” Mash herself is a polyglot as she grew up in several different countries while her parents traveled in the U.S. Army. “I had to adapt wherever we went. I was quick at learning the basics of any language, but it was never enough to really communicate.”
Mash and her co-graduates collaborated on ListenERS, an ear piece that was built for cross-lingual conversation, allowing speakers to hear interpretations in real time. They designed it with the North Hill community in mind by creating easy to use technology with recycled materials. The ListenERS have revolutionized the ability to provide language access and have proven to be useful for other creative settings.
Mash says when Polymas started production, she knew that the strength of the workforce would be essential to their success. “We wanted to dismantle a system that has thrived off the exploitation of workers, especially in communities of color.” In its nearly 25 years of existence, Polymas has created 10,000 high-wage jobs for North Hill residents, and they’re not done. The company plans to expand next spring with a second facility for a new product that is in the works.
At 8:00 p.m. every Saturday night in Temple Square, the doors of Gum-Dip Theatre swing open for audience members who have excitement for a live band or the revelation for a theatre performance. From local dancers who rent the space to share their work to international professionals who are attracted to the neighborhood, the 500-seat theater has welcomed thousands of artists since its opening in 2028.
At the box office, there are ListenERS available for those who do not have headphones, and instructions are written in the digital program of how to connect them to the theater’s app. When the curtain rises, audience members hear an opening announcement in their native language, and the production continues in their native language. This experience is a special local feature of the ListenERS as it does not interpret in real time, but instead plays recordings of the lines on cue recorded by local interpreter-actors, who have created their own field of work.
Sital Bal-Beck, an actor and artistic director of Gum-Dip Theatre grew up in a multicultural home and was born the same year the theater opened. “It’s been incredible to witness the caliber of work that is produced here. It’s begun to heal many community members.” Bal-Beck, along with an ensemble of 20 multilingual actors are commissioned per project that comes through the theater. The public response to this element of performance has been resoundingly positive and has dramatically affected the diversity of audience members attending.
This type of performance model has grown quickly throughout the country for concerts, plays, musicals and even stand-up comedy. As the number of climate refugees entering the U.S. increases by the year, leaders in North Hill have built a pathway for people of all language capabilities to enjoy live arts and other cultural experiences throughout the business district.
“Hundreds of people sit next to each other without the ability to speak directly. But when they all see the same play, they all share the same breath. Their experiences are different but their presence is serendipity.”
Katie Beck is a creative community builder, director, writer, facilitator, speaker, and artivist who works to build spaces that highlight and prioritize underrepresented voices.
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