These projects were intended to redevelop what was considered to be blighted areas in order to build new infrastructure. However, what we now know is that these projects did more harm than good and primarily targeted and displaced largely Black communities.
Learn more about Urban Renewal here.
The neighborhoods on which the Innerbelt was built are an important part of Akron's history. Prior to the freeway’s construction, they were vibrant and robust communities. Benefiting in large part from an influx of workers for the rubber industry, these neighborhoods were home to a significant percentage of Akron’s African American population. Given Akron’s location between Detroit and New York, the city was a popular stop for national talent like Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Neighborhood businesses like the Matthews Hotel, one of the few on the cross-continental rail route that served African Americans, contributed to the neighborhood being a thriving cultural hub. At one point, it was even called “Little Harlem.”
But all that came to an end because of the Innerbelt.
The idea of the Innerbelt emerged in 1962, spurred in part by federal funding to expand the interstate highway system. As urban renewal projects broke ground across the country, they often targeted areas deemed to be “slums.” Due to the historic practice of “red-lining,” many predominantly Black communities were valued at substantially lower figures as opposed to white neighborhoods.
Learn more about red-lining here.
Throughout the 1960s, several large urban renewal projects were planned and initiated in Akron. Two of these projects (Cascade and Opportunity Park) focused on Downtown Akron and entailed the widespread demolition of existing houses, and the relocation of predominantly black and lower-income residents in order to make way for new offices and industrial parks. The construction of the Innerbelt freeway was a key component of both of these urban renewal projects, and was seen as something that would help revitalize the Downtown by linking the new offices and industrial areas to the rest of Greater Akron. Acquisition of hundreds of homes and businesses in the path of the Innerbelt began in the late 1960s, and construction of the freeway began in 1970. The freeway, originally envisioned to connect the west (I-76/77) and north (State Route 8) legs of the Akron expressway system, was not completed until the mid-1980s, and was never completed as originally planned.
Those who called the area home had no choice. Compensation for homeowners was often inadequate and there was little to no support for the many families that rented. The construction also displaced businesses, houses of worship, and other social cultural organizations. In short, it devastated a community and it stripped people of their wealth and livelihood. The impacts of which are still being felt today.
In the late 1990s, then-Mayor Plusquellic suggested vacating and redeveloping the portion of the Akron Innerbelt immediately adjacent to Downtown. This portion of the freeway was vacated in 2016, and now-Mayor Horrigan successfully worked with the Ohio Department of Transportation to return the vacated land to the city for public use.
Now the time has come to think about what’s next.
From 2021-2023, Phase 1 of the Reconnecting Our Community initiative engaged with community members to identify community preferences for future use of the site while also creating opportunities to begin increasing knowledge of and healing the wounds caused by the Innerbelt’s construction. In late 2023, a report detailing the findings from that process was released.
In 2024, work will begin on advancing some of the efforts connected to those findings, including a formal master planning process, funded in large part through a US Department of Transportation grant.