As the sun rose over North Water Street on Saturday, September 29, 2018, volunteers huddled around a table of donuts, coffee, multicolored buttons, and canvas work gloves. After listening to a few directions, work began to make a months-long vision come alive. Hay bales and donated plants became a parklet to sit back and enjoy a cup of coffee. Pillows and an area rug became a cozy spot to grab a seat and listen to music. Duct tape and washable paint adorning the city streets became markers for the changes that are to come. A twelve-foot chalkboard wall covering a chainlink fence became an invitation for all of Kent to pause and share what big dreams they had for the street.
A few hours after the volunteers began their day, North Water welcomed hundreds of people to do something pretty simple: enjoy this block. Games, music, food trucks, a pop-up market, and brightly-colored art installations showcased what is already special about North Water Street, while temporary installations invited them to see the potential for revitalization. Families with strollers, friends out walking their dogs, and grandparents with toddlers at their side walked across freshly painted crosswalks as drivers on the temporarily narrowed street slowed their speed to look, listen, and ask: “What is happening on North Water Street?!”
Kent Better Block was a day-long event which temporarily showcased road improvements, community activities, artwork, and communal gathering spaces on North Water Street. The event resulted from months of vision casting, community planning, research, and volunteer coordination and was preceded by the 2017 rebranding of the historically and culturally-rich area known as “The Mill District.” After working with the community and City of Kent on this branding, The Mill District was identified as a unique space for placemaking and thoughtful, historical renovation and revitalization.
With so much potential at hand and a renewed sense of excitement in the community, planning began for Kent's first Better Block event – a day that could showcase all that North Water Street was and what it could become. “Embracing the past, envisioning the future” would become the guiding slogan for Kent Better Block as community members planned the event.
North Water Street originated as an industrial district in Kent dating back to 1829. As part of the Kent Better Block event, community members spent hours searching public and private archives and compiling information on the spaces and buildings of North Water Street in anticipation of displaying a curated collection of museum-like sandwich boards sharing their findings.
The collection included photos and stories about the Railway Speed Recorder Company, the Williams Brothers Mill, the John Brown Building, the Kent Wells Sherman House, a saloon, a blacksmith shop, and the Kent music scene. Following positive feedback and multiple requests for the sandwich board displays made accessible after the Kent Better Block event, the information was made available for download on the Mill District website.
Shortly after the planning for Kent Better Block began, the City of Kent received a $1 million grant for street improvements to North Water Street from the Ohio Department of Transportation. This stretch of roadway was rated #2 in Kent, and #7 in the Portage and Summit County Area for motorist crashes, and residents will note its lack of pedestrian facilities and other traffic improvements. Kent Better Block was the perfect opportunity to showcase what this grant will do for the state of traffic on North Water.
Day-of features included mocked-up crosswalks, diagonal parking, and temporary traffic bump outs in addition to other temporary street-wide improvements that included expanded gathering spaces and art installations. Lastly, Shape, a nonprofit based out of Cleveland, set up a 12-foot long chalkboard wall that asked locals to "Dream Big" and share their thoughts, ideas, and hopes for what North Water Street could become.
Kent Better Block was planned and executed through about 22 bi-weekly meetings of a group of dedicated community members divided into 3 sub-committees: event planning, marketing, and finance. Jumping off the community visioning workshops held in the Mill District branding process, Better Block committee meetings were comprised of brainstorming sessions, placemaking exercises, resource and volunteer coordination, and community outreach.
Over 75 volunteers participated in work sessions on Friday night before the event and Saturday of the event, building furniture, painting crosswalks, placing duct tape, and setting up the different activity areas used throughout Kent Better Block.
“Love the painted crosswalks! Very Kent...I hope they are permanent. I'd love to see more around town!”
“[North Water Street] is a key connector! Eclectic and electric, too. This street is a sounding board for the entire region!” —G. Balblerz
feet of duct tape
yards of duct tape
Kent Better Block was a day that our whole community celebrated this area's past and envisioned the bright future that lies just ahead. With traffic improvements coming in the near future and the addition of new businesses already in the works, the future is bright for North Water Street and the Mill District. We can’t wait to see what happens next!