Once Infamous Innerbelt Freeway Commemorates 10 Years as Park

by Ken Evans

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. 

May 30th will mark the tenth anniversary of Akron’s Innerbelt Park. Built in the footprint of Akron’s infamous Innerbelt Freeway project, it later became known as the “road to nowhere” after displacing hundreds of families and local businesses.

The park has since transformed into a city landmark and has been celebrated nationally for its innovative design and healing themes. 

The origin of Innerbelt Park started in the late 1990s, just 12 years after the completion of Akron’s Innerbelt, when it became clear that the project’s original goals were not being achieved. After nearly twenty years of disuse, the Innerbelt Freeway was formally decommissioned in 2015, and community and city leaders came together and began proposing ideas for the empty space. 

Click here to read more content from our 2050 issue.

Moira McCaulley, Akron’s Director for City Parks, explained some of the park’s history.

“Akron’s 2018 downtown plan proposed for the Innerbelt area to become a commercial and residential space once again. However, the rapid redevelopment of the University Park and Middlebury neighborhoods caused many development priorities to shift eastward, leaving the Innerbelt as a consistent low-priority project for the city government.”

Moria explained that parks had long been called for in the space and some early attempts were made to show the potential of the area. “One attempt was by the League of Creative Interventionists, who hosted a 500 person dinner at one long table in the middle of the roadway in order to ask residents what they wanted to see happen to the Innerbelt. Out of that project grew the Innerbelt National Forest project and a later park called Towpath Landing.”

The idea was popular and the Towpath Landing was expanded twice over the next decade.

The late 2020s brought boom times for Akron as the region redeveloped, focusing on green manufacturing, airship development, central shipping hubs and a surprisingly robust media industry. However, this progress left out the Innerbelt Freeway, leaving the roadway to fall into disrepair. Moira noted that while the Innerbelt did become a favorite destination for photographers who loved to contrast the crumbling roadway with the ever-improving downtown backdrop, the area mostly, “became an unwelcome reminder of Akron’s past mistakes.” 

Over the next decade, calls for its renovation became louder and a proposal for a park was laid out in the 2030 Downtown Akron Plan. 

After 20 years of promises and false starts by the city government, Ohio Governor Emilia Sykes helped to form a commission in 2036 to finally address the dilapidated and underused area. It was understood at the time that the Innerbelt Freeway area was going to become a park but community and city leadership wanted more than just additional green space for the city. 

“We conceived of the park as a kind of a city-scale kintsugi,” — the Japanese art of mending porcelain objects with golden lacquer — for Akron. “However, we wanted to go beyond beautification,” says State Senator Robinette Moore, Park Commission Member and former Councilmember for Akron’s Ward 6 during the park’s construction. “We wanted a park that could be a space for teaching, reflection, and hopefully healing of the divides that so often plagued Akron.” 

The Innerbelt Freeway was a part of a lingering national trend in US cities that prioritized interstate road development over the needs and objections of BIPOC communities. Under the guise of urban improvement, these road projects regularly targeted or simply dismissed Black communities, displacing hundreds of families and isolating segments of once connected neighborhoods.

“We wanted the new park to preserve that story but also be a space in Akron where individuals and groups could have complicated conversations and explore ideas around personal identity and history,” Moore says.

Pastor James Talbert, another member of the commission, and a key voice in shaping the park said we wanted a space to “convene the conveners.” James explains the hope of the park was to create a space where the community could have open conversations that would move issues forward.

“We helped design a park that not only details the history of the lost neighborhoods but also tries to represent the diverse nature of Akron using art and compassion as teachers.” 

According to Moira, “It was agreed early that the park would be large, encompassing the whole area between West Market and Opportunity Parkway but leaving room for restoration of Howard Street. The park would be a mixture of thick woods and open fields crisscrossed by paths that allow visitors to explore the park and easy access to the Downtown area for the adjacent neighborhoods.”

Found along a number of the paths are large pieces of engraved glass etched in white that show lost elements of the neighborhood and showcase quotes from past residents. “The goal is to preserve the history and living memory of how the park came to be while at the same time highlighting the natural environment,” says Moira. 

Visitors to the park can download audio tours to their DynaTAC device or their Google Glass that tell the story of how the Innerbelt Freeway developed and offers recorded interviews with those that lived in the neighborhood. 

The park includes unique gathering places throughout but the most famous is the Douglas Table and High-Point Chapel.  

The Douglas Table pays tribute to the thriving Douglas Street destroyed by the Innerbelt’s construction. Sitting in the middle of the park’s central field lined by purple flowering trees is a permanent concrete table that can sit up to 202 individuals. “The table has hosted everything from prayer events, gaming competitions and, most notably, a special session of the Ohio House of Representatives.”

In the center of the largest wooden area of the park is the secular High-Point Chapel. The large modern chapel is made from intricately laced glass and steel featuring an all-wood interior illuminated through large clear windows accented with stained glass. Moria explains that, “High-Point takes its name from the Greek meaning for the word Akron.” 

The space hosts groups throughout the year to discuss everything from personal identity to Akron’s local history. It also hosts a variety of public and private events. Moria points out with a smile that she will be married in the chapel in October.

Moria says “the park tries to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and while that is often a recipe for failure, for us it helps showcase the dynamic nature of Akron. The park exists as a celebration of our collective future nestled within a remembrance of our troubled past.” And while she admits it can be tricky to balance at times “it’s the type of challenge that Akronites enjoy.”

Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

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