Kailey Sherrick is an Ohio native and writer sharing today's guest article about a unique community space in Akron.
In Akron, Ohio’s North Hill neighborhood, a small blue house sits nestled in between other similar residences. To look at it from the outside, the house itself is rather non-descript. It’s stylish, yet traditional, with clean white accents and a quaint porch. From the street, it looks like any other two-story inner-city house with touches of craftsman architecture. It’s only on closer inspection that this house sets itself apart.
Inside, the house features a large, open, and warm gathering space. The walls are decorated with pictures of immigrants, illustrating their past as well as their present here in North Hill. The three bedrooms feature beds with colorful Nepali-inspired duvets that were made by the refugees themselves. It becomes clear, rather quickly, that this is more than just a house. It’s a meeting place. A gathering ground. A harbor for understanding, cultural exchange, and the free flow of ideas. It’s called the Exchange House, and it’s the brain child of an organization called Better Block.
In order to truly understand the Exchange House, it’s important to understand the background of North Hill.
Akron’s North Hill neighborhood has long been a multicultural melting pot. For over a century, this area has been host to Irish, Italian, Polish, and German immigrants. North Hill has a rich history as an international and multicultural hub, which is partly why the International Institute of Akron (IIA) chose the area for their headquarters.
Today, the neighborhood boasts residents of various nationalities and ethnicities. When you walk through North Hill, you might meet people from Afghanistan, the Congo, India, Burma, and more. But the overwhelming majority are Bhutanese refugees from Nepal.
The IIA began resettling Bhutanese refugees in North Hill beginning in 2008, and with the influx of new residents, a revitalization of the community began. Empty storefronts had new life breathed into them as immigrants started small businesses. The high school saw a much needed boost in student population, and boasts a very successful soccer team, along with a 50% South Asian demographic. But, as with any neighborhood, new neighbors mean new tensions.
Overall, most immigrants settle into the area without any issues. They’re able to get work through the IIA at one of the numerous manufacturing plants in Akron, they take English courses, they take citizenship courses, and they turn to one another to figure out the intricacies of daily life in America. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a neighbor where the mailbox is located. Other times it’s as complicated as buying a house for the first time. But there are always landlord/tenant complications to be resolved, language barrier issues to be confronted, and cultural misunderstandings and suspicions to be quelled. That’s where the Exchange House comes in.
Building a Foundation
In 2015, the organization Better Block was inspired by North Hill’s multicultural atmosphere, as well as the area’s need to revitalize vacant houses left abandoned by the recession. After winning a $155,000 Knight Cities Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation (which splits $5 million between organizations and individuals with plans for projects to make Akron’s communities more successful), Better Block teamed up with other volunteers and organizations to turn a vacant house in North Hill into a gathering place for local Akronites and immigrants alike.
When the house on Elma Street was picked and purchased for $28,000, the dreams for the Exchange House took their first steps towards reality. Its creation was just as diverse as the population it serves. Sai Sinbondit, a designer for Bialosky Cleveland and a refugee himself, was the architect behind the project. Truly Reaching You Ministries, a group that provides work for former convicts, carried out the demolition. Habitat for Humanity of Summit County donated cabinetry for the kitchen and bathroom. A number of neighborhood volunteers donated time, materials, and effort into turning the water-damaged, abandoned house into a brand new space that encapsulated Akron’s resiliency and its welcoming atmosphere.
The Exchange House Today
The Exchange House officially opened its doors to the public on February 28, 2017. The gathering space is open to the community for meetings, classes, and cultural events. Currently, they hold English as a Second Language courses there as well as healthcare classes, leadership workshops, concerts by the Nepali Druk Fusion band, a community garden, social work hours, and more. As the Exchange House grows, it evolves to meet the needs of the community.
Another interesting facet of the Exchange House is its commitment to multicultural exchange, not just for local Akronites and the immigrant community, but for people nationally and internationally. The top three bedrooms of the Exchange House serve as a multicultural hostel, and are listed as “Little Bhutan” rooms on AirBnB. They book for $30 per night. These rooms serve both to temporarily house other immigrants in the North Hill neighborhood, as well as to open up North Hill to multicultural tourism.
With its location so close to many cultural and ethnic businesses and restaurants, it gives international, national, and local guests a chance to experience everything North Hill has to offer. It’s also located in very close proximity to Main Street, so those who want to experience downtown Akron can do so.
According to Krista Nightengale, Managing Director at Better Block, and Katie Beck, Project Manager for the Exchange House, the house uses the funds from AirBnB rentals to pay for the day-to-day operations of the house, such as utilities, housekeeping, etc., as well as to fund community events.
At the time of this writing, the Exchange House has been open to the public for over a year. It’s amassed good ratings and great reviews on AirBnB. It’s become a staple in the North Hill area for all of its residents by offering much needed resources for the community, as well as a source of pride for the volunteers who help keep it running.
It is currently in Phase 2 of development. Katie Beck said the second phase “will have more public spaces built to encourage interaction and new connections between neighbors.” By July of 2018, they hope to add an outdoor stage, permanent international market stalls, and group dining tables. They hope to rent the space for bigger events, such as weddings and large parties.
At the Exchange House, you can find community, you can immerse yourself in other cultures, and you can experience everything this neighborhood has to offer. Especially in this current political climate, it’s a great model and example of how multiple organizations (like Better Block, the International Institute of Akron, the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron), and individuals can find mutually beneficial ways to bridge barriers and unify a diverse area for the betterment of everyone.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(All images courtesy of The Exchange House.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kailey Sherrick lives in Wooster, Ohio and works as a Social Media Manager. She's a recent graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program, where she earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Besides writing, Kailey enjoys playing softball, gardening, spending time with her family, and being involved in her community.