By Jason Segedy
September 4, 2014
Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972
Despite the technological advances of the modern world, such as the fact that I could show up in Tokyo 24 hours from now; or that I could send a text message to a friend in Australia in less time than it will take you to read this sentence; we human beings still exist in time and space.
As such, history and geography will continue to exert a powerful influence on our lives. This is true whether we realize it or not, and no matter how much we might have hated studying them as subjects in high school.
Our community. My neighborhood. Our history. It’s not a linguistic accident that we use these possessive pronouns when we describe place, and space, and time. The geographic and historic attributes of the places that we live and love continue to resonate with us on a deeply personal level; and regardless of whether we are completely conscious of them, they shape us as we go about our daily lives.
West Hill has always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in Akron. It is wonderful, and historic, and weird, which means that it is a perfect microcosm of a city that is most certainly all of those things.
This tiny residential neighborhood, which is one of the oldest in the city, is home to an astounding number of historic sites, interesting oddities, and culturally-significant places.
It serves as a cultural hearth, being the original home of both Akron’s Irish Catholic community and its Jewish community. It later became one of the city’s premier residential neighborhoods, as the wealthy began moving up (literally) and westward (because the wind blows toward the east here) to escape the air pollution and unpleasant odors generated by the rubber and tire industry.
West Hill is a mishmash of the kinds of weird, quirky, and incongruous things that people like us (yes, I’m dragging you in as a co-conspirator) cannot get enough of:
- Old churches and synagogues
- Old gothic cemeteries
- Insanely steep brick streets
- LeBron James
- Ancient looking stone steps that go seemingly nowhere
- One of the best bike trails in the U.S.
- Thomas Edison
- A gargantuan freeway that carries no traffic
- An apartment building with a swastika on it
- Devil Strips (whatever the hell those are)
I was. So I wandered around the other day and took a lot of pictures. After that, I sat down and decided to write about what I saw.
I’d like to invite you to read on and join me on a photographic journey through this amazing neighborhood.
Temple Israel on Merriman Road: Akron’s original Jewish congregation (established in 1865) built this synagogue in 1911, at a time when Akron’s Jewish community was settling in West Hill and growing rapidly due to immigration. This beautiful building is now for sale, as the congregation is in the process of moving to a new synagogue in Bath Township.
St. Vincent Cemetery, on West Market Street, was established in 1850, by the church of St. Vincent de Paul, Akron’s first Roman Catholic parish. The cemetery is small, but culturally significant - commemorating the lives of the predominately Irish immigrants that comprised the parish at that time.
The Balch Street Community Center is a neighborhood anchor. Built in 1929, it originally served as the Jewish Community Center of Akron, which later relocated to its present-day home on White Pond Drive on Akron’s far west side.
Know what a “Devil Strip” is? If you don’t, you’re not from Akron. Devil Strip is another one of our local quirks - it’s what we call the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that that’s not what others (as in everyone else in the English-speaking world) call it.
By the way, what the hell do you people call it? Whatever term you use, I guarantee that it’s not as badass as “Devil Strip”.
Bates Street is better known as Cadillac Hill, and is named after a nearby car dealership. The 28% grade makes it the steepest street in the city. It is not for the faint of heart. I’ve only had the guts to walk it. I value my life and the undercarriage of my vehicle too much to attempt tackling it by bike or by car.
Downtown Akron, as seen from halfway up Cadillac Hill.
Near the top of Cadillac Hill, the grade is so steep, you can’t even see the bottom.
This is why the neighborhood is called “West Hill”. At the top of Bates Street, the residences are not much lower in elevation than downtown’s tallest buildings.
One of West Hill’s many apartment buildings, located on Bates Street.
St. Vincent parish on West Market Street has served as the gateway to the West Hill neighborhood since it was established in 1837 on what was then the outskirts of the city.
St. Vincent Parish was established in 1837. The present-day church building was completed in 1867.
The stone-work at St. Vincent is truly incredible. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the sandstone on the church’s exterior was black. I always thought that it was supposed to look like that, until it was restored years later, and I learned as an adult that the original sand-colored stone was actually stained black from all of the soot generated by the rubber and tire industry in Akron.
St. Vincent, as viewed from West Market Street.
Leprechaun Lane, off of South Maple Street, home of the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School “Irish”.
St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, on South Maple Street - if you’re from Akron, it’s known simply as “St. V” (like “Devil Strip”, it’s another one of our local “tells”).
I have a soft spot for St. V, because my mom graduated from, and later taught here. You probably know it as the place where LeBron James came into his own as the best basketball player on the planet.
The Glendale Steps are one of the most unique pedestrian amenities that I have ever seen. Built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936, they allowed residents of Walnut Street to descend a 200-foot slope to access Glendale Park at the bottom of the hill.
Akron Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky and a group of neighborhood residents have recently been working hard to clear the steps of vegetation and turn the area into a “food forest” with gardens and edible plant life. Very cool.
Glendale Cemetery’s Glendale Avenue entrance is truly one of the most spectacular sites in Akron, with its striking topography of steep wooded hills flanking a lush valley; a Gothic bell tower; a beautiful Gothic Civil War Memorial Chapel, completed in 1876; and a gorgeous caretaker’s mansion; all of which provide visitors with a stunning and somber greeting.
Glendale Cemetery, established in 1839 as “Akron Rural Cemetery”, is one of America’s best examples of the “rural cemetery” movement, which strove to create a beautiful park-like, but still natural looking setting that honored the dead and provided solace and recreation for the living.
Replete with mausoleums designed in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Gothic architectural motifs, this Romantic-themed cemetery provided Akronites in the Victorian era with a beautiful place to celebrate the lives of the deceased, and was a popular place for picnics, concerts, and other outdoor recreational activities.
The Mustill family mausoleum - resting place of Joseph and Sarah Mustill, owners of the grocery store (restored and still-standing today) at Lock 15 of the Ohio & Erie Canal where they provided dry goods to Akronites and weary travelers along the canal.
Throughout the 19th Century, great care was exercised (and even greater expense incurred) in laying the departed to rest. Many of Glendale’s mausoleums are incredibly ornate, both inside and out.
Glendale’s design plan and landscape architecture, consisting of rolling hills and valleys, a mixture of various funerary motifs, and a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other types of vegetation provide visitors with a contemplative and tranquil environment.
Glendale is a veritable “Who’s Who” of 19th Century Akron, and is the final resting place of many of the influential WASPs from New England and Germans from Pennsylvania that helped found and settle the city.
Most of our storied “city fathers” are buried here, including A.M. Barber, a prominent banker and local merchant; John R. Buchtel, founder of Buchtel College (today known as the University of Akron); Alvin Voris, a Civil War general, judge, abolitionist, and legislator; and O.C. Barber, famous industrialist, founder of Akron City Hospital (today known as Summa), and namesake of the neighboring city of Barberton, which he helped become an industrial powerhouse.
In the 20th Century, Glendale continued to serve as the final resting place of many of Akron’s most important, revered, and beloved public figures, such as Frank and Gertrude Seiberling. Frank and his brother Charles founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Akron in 1898, which went on to become the largest tire manufacturer in the entire world. It is the only one of the “Big 4” rubber companies still headquartered in Akron today, and the only one still under American-ownership.
Thousands of veterans of America’s wars are buried at Glendale. This section of the cemetery commemorates those who served in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of Glendale is the juxtaposition of the natural and urban environments that its vistas offer.
Strolling through Glendale, one encounters name-after-name of notable residents from Akron’s past - and also its present. The gravestone of well-known restaurateur Nick Anthe includes the glasses from the iconic sign at his North Hill restaurant.
This obelisk marks the grave site of George E. Pierce, former mayor of Hudson, and founding president of Western Reserve College. The college later moved to Cleveland, and you probably know it better as Case Western Reserve University.
Glendale is a treasure-trove of gorgeous and austere statuary, like these beautiful weeping angels.
One of Glendale’s larger sections serves as the final resting place for many members of Akron’s Jewish Community; most of whom settled on the city’s west side. Akron’s Jewish population grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th century due to Eastern European immigration. Despite discrimination that has been, at times, quite overt, Akron’s Jews have been a significant and valued part of the city’s civic, institutional, and cultural life for over 150 years.
The central portion of Glendale used to be known as Willow Lake. The cemetery originally included a second lake and a stream. All of these water features were eventually drained, as the city grew around the cemetery. Today Glendale doesn’t include any water features. Restoring them would be a worthwhile project.
Glendale does not contain a very large cross-section of Akron’s sizable population of Southern and Eastern Europeans - partly because many of these immigrants did not arrive until the 20th century, and partly because many of them were buried in the city’s Catholic cemeteries, such as Holy Cross. If you look carefully, though, you can find some traces of the city’s significant cultural heritage of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
St. Bernard Cemetery, which adjoins Glendale, was one of the first Catholic cemeteries in Akron, and serves as the final resting place of the early wave of Catholic immigrants that came to Akron, primarily from Bavaria. Akron’s magnificent West High School, built in 1913, was once a cornerstone of the neighborhood, and can be seen in the background. It was converted to senior citizen apartments in the 1980s.
St. Bernard’s was originally a German Catholic parish, so you will find many German surnames on the graves located throughout the cemetery.
For years I didn’t realize that St. Bernard Cemetery was actually separate from Glendale. The two cemeteries are adjacent to one another, and separated only by this fence, which contains a tiny portal that is navigated with some difficultly by someone that is 6’3”.
The fence between Glendale and St. Bernard’s, and the separate section of Glendale devoted to Akron’s Jewish community, reminded me of how significant and powerful our various cultures and communal identities are, even in death.
Only one thing marred my walk through Glendale Cemetery - the occasional whiff of raw sewage from Akron’s Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
Water could be heard rushing through the sanitary sewers that are linked to the storm sewers. The CSOs are a big problem for the city, its residents, and people throughout the Lake Erie watershed, because they were designed to allow raw sewage and stormwater to mix and be discharged into the Cuyahoga River after heavy rains.
CSO problems are faced by nearly all major cities in Ohio, and by many cities across the United States. The EPA has mandated that this environmental problem be fixed, which is good. The federal government is not providing any financial assistance to fix this problem, which is bad.
West Hill is connected to downtown Akron by the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, show here as it spans the Innerbelt Freeway.
This magnificent bike and pedestrian trail is currently 85-miles long, and will eventually span all the way from Lake Erie, in downtown Cleveland, to Dover in Tuscarawas County. The trail follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath where mules would pull the canal boats on their long journey between Lake Erie and the Ohio River.
Akron was founded in 1825, and owes its early growth to the canal, which was begun that same year. Akron benefited greatly from the canal, due to the city’s location on the continental divide separating the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River watershed.
Over a dozen canal locks were located in Akron, due to its steep topography. The large number of locks meant that boats would take a long time to traverse the city - which was extremely good for business and for local merchants.
The Towpath Trail crosses the Innerbelt Freeway in downtown Akron. This woefully underutilized roadway spans 675-feet (the length of over two football fields) from one side of its right-of-way to the other, cutting a huge swath through downtown Akron, and separating it from West Hill.
This section of the Innerbelt was built in 1970 as a combined transportation/urban renewal project. It failed miserably on both counts.
It was never completed as planned (to connect State Route 8 and I-76/77), so it is virtually empty throughout much of the day, carrying only about one-quarter of the traffic that it was intended to. I shot the photo at the top at 1:30 in the afternoon.
The Innerbelt also displaced thousands of people (many of them poor and African-American) and decimated the original street grid which used to seamlessly connect West Hill with downtown Akron.
Plans are underway to remove this portion of the freeway, replace it by rebuilding the two parallel service roads to carry the remaining traffic, and redevelop some 25 to 30 acres of land where the freeway currently sits.
Greater Akron’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, AMATS (the organization which I lead) has provided $5 million in federal transportation funds for the first phase of this project.
When the Innerbelt is removed, one of the most significant design challenges that the City of Akron will face is seamlessly reconnecting downtown to West Hill. In 1968, another major urban renewal project, Cascade Plaza, was constructed in concert with the Innerbelt.
Designed in a modernist/brutalist architectural style which has not aged well (it is hideous, in my opinion), the plaza was designed to “turn its back” to the freeway, and is elevated some 20-feet above the freeway service road, buttressed by a concrete wall.
Akron will need a team of visionary architects, urban planners, designers, and landscape architects to figure out how best to knit the tattered fabric of our urban core back together, and to create something beautiful, functional, and lovable in the process. It is a design challenge worth pursuing.
Immediately across the Innerbelt from Cascade Plaza, sits the tiny stub of a West Hill neighborhood known as Oak Park. This once magnificent neighborhood was decimated by the construction of the Innerbelt freeway. What looks like a dense, urban streetscape in this photo is, in fact, one of just four streets which remain.
This beautiful house, called Oak Place, located on Dawes Avenue, was the home of Akron inventor Lewis Miller. Thomas Edison married Lewis’ daughter, Mina, here at the house in 1886. Today, the house is subdivided into nearly 20 apartments. One of my best friends lived here in the early 2000s, and I always enjoyed my visits to this amazing place.
As I said, Akron is a weird and quirky place, which is why those of us that live here love it so. You may have noticed that this apartment building on King Drive has a swastika inlaid as part of the brick work just below the cornice.
Wait.. .Run that by me again? A swastika?
This building was built in 1925 (predating Hitler’s rise to power) and the swastika is designed after the Hindu fashion (90 degree angle), rather than the Nazi fashion (45 degree angle).
Nevertheless, I’m surprised that it survived World War II (it does look like someone may have removed some of the bricks in the top of the inlay).
I’ve always found this building a bit creepy. But it’s definitely quirky. And it’s definitely Akron.
One of my absolute favorite things about the Oak Park neighborhood is the spectacular (and seldom seen first-hand) view of downtown Akron that it affords. You walk to the end of King Dr., and [BOOM!], there it is.
Now, if we could just do something about that crazy freeway…