Originally published by WKYC Studios - Matt Rascon, December 6, 2023 

AKRON, Ohio — If you’ve been to downtown Akron, you've seen it — a stretch of the Innerbelt that's been unused and overgrown for years.

This week, decades after it was built, the city apologized for the highway's construction and released a report to improve and redevelop the 30 acres it sits on.

But to understand what the city is doing today, you have to understand what happened more than 60 years ago.

"I was born on Roads Avenue, which is one block away from the Innerbelt," longtime resident Dr. Albert Bragg Jr. says.

Bragg and others who lived in the area remember when the stretch of unused concrete adjacent to downtown Akron was a vibrant Black community.

"That's where I grew up, so I was very comfortable with that area and I felt safe," he told 3News. "I would spend time at the custard stand. It was right around the corner from my house. Perkins park, the zoo, all of that was just a few blocks away."

In 1964, Bragg's family moved to another part of the city, but he came back often to work and play, including in the 1970s when construction began on the Innerbelt.

"What used to be a thriving community was just no longer there. A swath was cut right through it, dividing people that used to be neighbors," Bragg lamented. "I used to shine shoes at my grandfather's barbershop. Once the Innerbelt came in, the customer flow dropped dramatically."

The city says the road was part of a growing number of urban renewal projects across the country that often impacted Black neighborhoods and communities. Conversations about changing the highway started in the 1990s, but nothing happened until 2016, when the Ohio Department of Transportation vacated the section of the highway between Market and Exchange Streets.

The 30-acre site went back to the city for public use, but for years, the only thing that's come out of it is weeds.

That history of the road was critical for designer and spatial justice activist Liz Ogbu when the city hired her in late 2020 to help oversee the process of change in the area.

"I think it's really easy to say, 'Oh, 30 acres! We can do something amazing there. Look at all the housing and office towers and stuff we can do,'" Ogbu said. "But if we ignore how this came to be and how this got disproportionately harmed to create a highway that was actually meant to bring people in from the suburbs, right, the people who paid the price for it [won't] necessarily benefit from what came through."

This week, Ogbu released the “Reconnecting our Community Phase 1 Report" outlining several recommendations for Akron, beginning with an apology. That apology came on Monday from Mayor Dan Horrigan, who in a statement said:

"I want to acknowledge the lasting harm that the Innerbelt project caused to generations of Akronites. It destroyed the possibility of passing on generational wealth for some and it left emotional scars on many others who still carry the weight of that burden to this day. On behalf of the City of Akron, we apologize for the city's past implementation of policies and practices from multiple levels of state and federal agencies which have caused this lasting harm to our community."

"I think the mayor should be applauded for apologizing," Bragg said. "I don't know if you can ever make them right, but we can certainly make it better."

Recommendations to "make it better" include building a land bridge over the abandoned stretch of highway that could support homes and businesses, putting a farmer's market in place, or creating a boulevard. Ogbu says they could have shovels in the ground in six or more years.

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