Akron residents recall life before Innerbelt buried their neighborhood

Since moving into a balcony apartment on Vernon Odom Boulevard, life’s been easier these past two years for Norris Hill, who gets around in a wheelchair. Like others from the old neighborhood, Norris still calls it Wooster Avenue when his mind travels back 60 years to his childhood in Akron.

“When we were growing up, it was wonderful,” said his wife, Cheryl Hill. “You could leave your doors open. People looked out for you. You could sit on the porch. You could walk across the street at night. It was a wonderful time.

“We had Isaly’s. We had Rockefeller bakery. There was a pool room. And there was a record shop,” she said.

“It was called Homell Calhoun record shop,” Norris recalled. “It was nice. I’m telling you. You couldn’t believe how nice.”

“Everyone kept up their yards,” Cheryl remembered.

“We had all the business up there. And I watched it all fall apart when urban renewal came through,” Norris said.

History has placed another fork in the road for the former Lane-Wooster neighborhood, now called Sherbondy Hill.

The city, this time, is inviting residents to help write the next chapter nearly six decades since the Innerbelt project. The highway ran over budget, fell short of projected traffic volume and never reached Route 8 as intended. But it saved a couple of minutes for suburban commuters heading downtown — at the cost of demolishing hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses, almost all owned by Black people.

The highway was part of U.S. urban renewal programs of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The answer to “urban decay” displaced thousands of mostly lower-income residents in Akron, leveling their homes, cleaving neighborhoods in half, scattering families and separating communities from economic opportunities.

A giant swath of dirt where homes and other buildings once stood cuts through Akron during early construction of the Innerbelt in the 1970s. The highway never lived up to expectations, and now city leaders are seeking community input on what to do with a decommissioned section in downtown.

At a reunion hosted by the Akron Urban League and other community partners Aug. 28, the Hills joined dozens of current and former residents who shared joyful memories, unresolved frustrations and hope for the future.

The state has given the city 30 acres of the decommissioned highway north of Exchange Street. And city leaders, in learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, are welcoming resident input in the redevelopment plan.

The Akron Innerbelt:The failed Innerbelt drove decades of racial inequity. Can the damage be repaired?

But many who attended the event last month said future generations must understand what was lost if the community is to rebuild it, together, in a lasting and equitable way. This, from the mouths of some of those who lived there, is the story of a community of promise — a village, many called it — buried by the Akron Innerbelt.

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