On a beautiful fall day in October, all roads did indeed lead to Akron. Equal parts community picnic, public forum, and living art project, 500 Plates invited Akronites from 22 distinct neighborhoods to dine, side by side, at a 500-foot communal table on the Akron Innerbelt. The section of roadway where we ate is set to close in 2016, and the event—made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—was designed to gather the community for a meal and to collectively reimagine the area.
San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks envisioned the project as a way to break down barriers and build a sense of community in Akron. “I wanted to explore food as a unifying force, and do so in a way that also enabled local residents to reimagine public space,” Franks said.
Using social media and other outreach, Hunter and local project assistant David Swirsky identified ambassadors from each neighborhood who invited members of their communities. Each ambassador submitted a favorite household recipe that was personal and symbolic of his or her culture, family, or Akron experience.
Akron ceramic artist Eva Kwong printed the recipes on her custom-designed stoneware plates on which the meal was served. Each guest took home a plate as a memento. Diners enjoyed learning about family recipes and ethnic specialties that were printed on the plates, such as Allyson Ford Boyd’s “Ford Family” marinated flank steak and Hem Rai’s chow mein.
“I love the plate—the concept of taking them home,” said Sharon Connor of Goodyear Heights. “They’re a snapshot of a neighborhood and we can share the sentiment behind them when we share the recipe with others.”
Diners enjoyed a buffet prepared by Robert J. Events & Catering that included Mike Mosley’s (West Akron) Westside summer salad, Christel Silas’ (Elizabeth Park) veggie chili, and Jamila Martin’s (University Park) sautéed rice.
Residents were inspired and imaginative as they discussed alternate uses for the stretch of roadway beneath them. Ideas included a water park and community sports center, green spaces and parks, affordable housing for young professionals, and a Towpath connector trail for walking and biking.
Jan Naher-Snowden of Merriman Hills commented that she’d like to see public garden space. “A lot of people don’t have access to fresh produce. We could create a place where civic-minded groups, schools, and churches could tend to it.”
Appointed facilitators prompted the sharing of ideas that were transcribed on a giant paper table runner that was later presented to local government officials. Many Akron residents arrived as strangers, but left as friends, bridging the physical and emotional gaps that often exist among neighboring communities that don’t have the chance for such dialogue.
Hunter’s vision was a catalyst, but the organizers hope that their community will find additional ways to bond. In an effort to continue the spirit of community, Dominic Falcone of Rubber City Fab crafted 22 dining-style tables that are ultimately headed to each of the neighborhoods represented to encourage future community gatherings.
You can keep track of future developments with the project at 500Plates.com.