How music has helped one neighborhood connect with its past and plan for its future

Nicole Stempak is a writer who lives in Northeast Ohio and shares today's guest article about a unique pop-up music venue.

The lit sign is like a beacon, calling people to come back, come out, come again. It’s more than a signal that there’s live music being played inside on a makeshift stage in a remodeled bar. Live Music Now! is inviting folks to see what a neighborhood has to offer and remind them of its existence. It’s a tall order for a tiny space, and it’s living up to expectations.

Live Music Now! made use of vacant space on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron, Ohio to create small-scale, incremental change that happened in months, not years, and with about a $6,000-7,000 investment. The pop-up music shop is an effort to reimagine how to breathe new life into a once bustling blue-collar city.

Akron residents enjoy a night out at the Live Music Now! pop-up space.

Akron residents enjoy a night out at the Live Music Now! pop-up space.

It’s an example of how to build up the business district in the Kenmore neighborhood. It’s a model for how to develop commercial space, fill storefronts and bring in new business through the collaboration of local nonprofits, development and government. It’s a testament to its residents that their neighborhood has something to offer. And It’s a sign that things could change for the better after years of pessimism and decline.

“Here’s the thing I’ve learned about Kenmore: There are so many people here who want to see this place succeed, who want to see the Boulevard succeed,” says Tina Boyes, executive director of Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. “This was the spark that brought people to the table, and it really helped to galvanize the community.”

Here's the story of how this unique music venue came to be and how your town could do something like this too.

Setting the Stage

Kenmore has always been a working-class community, through and through. Many of the early settlers came from Appalachia in search of work in the factories or salt mine. Kenmore was its own self-sufficient city at the time, and was once hailed as the fastest-growing city in the world. Developers touted Kenmore as far away from the smoke and dust of the factories. In 1929, the city was annexed into Akron.

Residents kept a strong sense of pride and identity, and the neighborhood remained bustling and largely self-sufficient. There were movie theaters, coffee shops, sit-down restaurants, pharmacies, a hardware shop and a cobbler.

Kenmore Boulevard, affectionately referred to as the Boulevard, is the largest contiguous business district outside of downtown Akron, stretching from 17th Street SW to about 12th Street SW. The Boulevard is lined with two-story commercial buildings, built at the time of streetcars and pedestrians. Those buildings are still intact, and they come right up to the sidewalk. 

Once industry started to leave, Kenmmore's population waned in a pattern that has repeated itself in cities across America. In 2017, their high school as well as their only commercial bank on the Boulevard both closed.

“People in Kenmore have a grudge,” says Boyes, a fifth generation resident of Kenmore. “They feel like things are always being taken from them.”

Early Signs

Then Kenmore solicited the help of nonprofit Better Block to help reimagine what the neighborhood could look like. The project began by distributing a survey to ask the community about challenges, public infrastructure and desired improvements. A recurring theme was a desire for economic development along the Boulevard: 42 percent of respondents said they wanted a restaurant or coffee shop.

The event culminated in September 2017 with a weekend of pop-up shops, cafes and concerts. A survey afterward showed that people felt safer and more connected, and had a stronger sense of identity.

As their experiments with Better Block came to a close, the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance realized it was on to something. Kenmore has a strong undercurrent of musicians, recording studios, a music store and the legendary Lay’s Guitar Repair. The Alliance found its niche and quickly followed up in October with an event called Busk until Dusk. A half dozen local performers played 30-minute sets in front of the Rialto Theatre and Studio 1008 as a few hundred people came out to listen.

Todd Edererer, member of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance and owner of Edererer Real Estate & Construction, saw the successes of these pop-up events. The owner of four properties on the Boulevard, Ederer wanted to create and sustain this energy—and he had no plans for a specific property that had formerly housed the Ideal Nite Club bar. So he offered to let the alliance use the space free of charge and do whatever the nonprofit wanted, within reason. He gave them six months and told them to have some fun.

A variety of musical acts has made this venue especially popular — and paying the musicians well means more are attracted to perform.

A variety of musical acts has made this venue especially popular — and paying the musicians well means more are attracted to perform.

A Second Act

Inspired by the talent in their backyard, the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance decided to use the space to host a pop-up music venue. In the end, the decision about how to use the space boiled down to this: how best to tap into the neighborhood’s resources and give them a platform to shine.

It took the Alliance a couple months to figure out what the business model would look like. After all, Better Block was their first real foray into large-scale community development.

“Let’s face it: Kenmore is not widely known as a place where you come and experience high-end entertainment. We knew we needed to change that,” Boyes says. “None of us knew what that would look like, but we all just trusted it was the right thing to do and go from there.”

They developed Live Music Now!, a partnership among the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance; singer-songwriter, producer and Skylyne Recording and Productions owner Jim Ballard; recording artist, sound engineer and Studio 1008 owner M. Thomas Kincaid; Open Tone Music Academy, a nonprofit of jazz musicians that offers weekly music lessons in Kenmore; and Big Love Network, a neighborhood improvement organization. 

Each of the four partners would book a night, and the venue would open the first and third Thursday and Friday of the month. Their diverse music genres, circles and ages gave variety to the lineup.

Around this time, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance a two-year $240,000 grant to spur development. The funding, combined with a willing partner in Edererer, gave the Alliance latitude they needed to try something new.

Getting to Work

Boyes describes Live Music Now! as a tactical urbanist operation. A motivated group came in with not a lot of money, but ended up making a big impact in a short period of time.

“We’re a bunch of hard working blue-collar people. Getting it down and getting it done with sweat and a little bit of elbow grease is not foreign to us,” Boyes says. “We’re about going in with a lot of energy and just offering ourselves versus just trying to raise money to make something happen.”

A crew of volunteers from the community and Boyes' church, The Chapel Kenmore, got to work scraping soot off of glass block windows, painting the walls, scrubbing the floors, installing drop ceiling tiles, and feeding volunteers. Boyes’ husband built the stage and rebuilt a four-tap keg system the day before they opened, Jan. 14, 2018. Studio 1008 sound engineer Jason Chamberlain installed foam sound panels and studio sound equipment to create the perfect environment for artists to shine. 

Opening the Doors

From the outset, this project was about drawing attention to the Boulevard and showcasing the artists.

“We want artists to know that they are valued in Kenmore, that you can make money in Kenmore, that we will celebrate you in Kenmore,” Boyes says. “Yes, it was about building energy in this space and bringing attention to Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. But it was also really about building a brand of music and artists being celebrated in our neighborhood.”

Boyes would get up on stage each night and encourage concertgoers to order and bring in a pizza from  nearby restaurant Pierre’s. They sold a collection of wares from local artists. They sold craft beer from a local brewery.

Live Music Now! has been a spot for people of all backgrounds to gather and enjoy music in the neighborhood together.

Live Music Now! has been a spot for people of all backgrounds to gather and enjoy music in the neighborhood together.

The door price was a sliding-scale donation, and all of the money went directly to the artists. Ballard says most venues give artists between 25 and 50 percent of admission. At Live Music Now! some nights, the door brought in between $700-900. Word quickly spread, and artists started approaching the four bookers and Boyes, looking for a place to play.

Next up

Soon, Live Music Now! was booked for months. And now, they’re taking a hiatus to re-evaluate what’s next. They want the venture to continue and are hopeful the venue will keep going in a way that benefits both the artists and Ederer, who so generously offered his space.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back Busk until Dusk, so the music will keep playing. They’re reducing the Boulevard from four to two lanes with a protected bike lane. They’re working to connect the Kenmore Loop to Ohio and Erie Towpath trails for bicyclists. A new coffee shop is under discussion. The Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has formed a Projects Committee, and Ederer is spearheading efforts for Kenmore to be a designated historic business district, which would open up additional financing to economic development.

Local recording studios are now collaborating with one another, and Ballard helped bring everyone to the table to write a song about Kenmore called the “Bones of the Boulevard.”

The vision for the future is for Kenmore to be a Friday night neighborhood — a place where residents can have a nice time with their families and spend it in the neighborhood, supporting local businesses and helping to build a strong town.

“We’re in a pivotal point right now,” Boyes says. “You blow one way, and we could really fall off, but with a little energy and some reinvestment, this neighborhood could really take off, too.”

9 Ways to Make it Happen in Your Town

Live Music Now! was a unique and fortuitous venture, but any neighborhood looking to improve its community from within could do something like it.

Here are nine ways to get started and to make a difference:

  1. Get to know your property owners. If there are vacancies, get to know the property owners along with their hopes and dreams for those spaces. See if there’s a way you can partner. A space with something temporary in it is better than a space with nothing in it.
  2. Become a developer. Temporary projects are a great way to become a developer with a low risk. It’s also a great opportunity to uncover entrepreneurial spirits who have a desire to open or own a business. Visit Strong Towns' Small Scale Developers page to learn more.
  3. Invite people to the table. Ask members of the community to come to the table—and keep asking them to come back. Get their input.
  4. Pool your talents. Artists have really creative visions and ideas, but they don’t always have funding or business acumen. Invite business leaders, influencers and financiers to get projects off the ground.
  5. Build a sense of community. Pop-ups are a great way to include existing businesses together. Create opportunities for business owners to collaborate and help remind them they’re not doing this alone.
  6. Share your ideas. Groupthink isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Give your ideas to the community and embrace their ability to morph and change them into something greater than your wildest imagination.
  7. Recruit volunteers. Involve local businesses, property owners, residents and other people who have an interest in what you’re doing, beyond your tried and true volunteer crew.
  8. Be scrappy. You don’t need a lot of money to get started. Yes, you'll probably need some money, but you don’t have to make the space perfect to make it usable. Look at the space and see what it is saying. Seek in-kind donations from community members and businesses whenever possible.
  9. Keep moving forward. Every day isn’t a forward motion: there are setbacks, there are compromises and there are failures. But don’t give up on your idea, your city or your community. 

(All photos from Live Music Now! Facebook page)

About the Author

Nicole Stempak is a journalist who has written for a variety of consumer and trade publications. She chose Cleveland as her home and is proud of, and invested in, the area's revitalization efforts.

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.