From Oak Cliff to Akron: Lessons on stigma

April 10, 2017
by Eric Nelson


(Previously posted here)


photo credit: Eric Nelson


Overcoming stigma was the subject of a recent learning journey made by members of the Akron Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Core Team. Members traveled to a neighborhood in Dallas named Oak Cliff.

History buffs may recognize the name Oak Cliff as the site where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man allegedly responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was captured inside of the Texas Theatre in 1963. Others may point to Oak Cliff’s earlier connection to the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s.


Texas Theatre; photo credit: Eric Nelson


More recently, Oak Cliff was largely ignored and left to decline.

But for people who were raised there, and people who could not afford to live elsewhere, the neighborhood of Oak Cliff was simply home.

Consistent with too many neighborhoods with large concentrations of low-income families, Oak Cliff developed a stigma as a place to avoid.

Enter the original Better Block members, Jason Roberts and Amy Wallace Cowan. In 2010, the pair decided to do something about the vacant storefronts, and their neighborhood’s curb appeal. Jason and Amy talked to city officials to get permits to shut off a one-block section of Oak Cliff. With the help of volunteers and local businesses, Jason and Amy reimagined and staged a temporary alternate visual narrative for Oak Cliff. The temporary staging was a hit, drawing hundreds of local residents, city officials, and skeptics alike. Oak Cliff’s resurgence was born.

Host for the Oak Cliff Learning Journey was none other than Jason Roberts himself. This motivating and highly informative study tour provided the history, challenges, and triumphs of the entire Oak Cliff reimagining process.


Jason Roberts leads the learning journey in Oak Cliff; photo credit: Eric Nelson


Oak Cliff, in many ways, is comparable to the Summit Lake community of Akron. When I returned home from the learning journey, my cheeks were sore from smiling! The “before” image in my mind was present day Summit Lake. But my “after” images were that of a reimagined Akron — an Akron where the Towpath Trail is the main artery providing nourishment to Downtown, Park East, and Summit Lake seamlessly.

Top Five Applicable Takeaways From the Oak Cliff Learning Journey:

Reimagine bigger! It is encouraged to have lofty, community-driven visions for what could be.

Pop-ups help to promote collective vision. Create fast and cheap visual possibilities in partnership with the community.

Be intentionally inclusive with planning. Akron is stronger when resources are shared by all.

Be passionate and courageous for the Akron RCC project! When people ask, “Why?” redirect with the more relevant question, “Why not?”

Control the narrative. What we say about our community, others will say about our community, even if it has not yet come to pass.


Civic Commons Learning Journey to Dallas


Eric Nelson is Executive Director of Students with a Goal (SWAG) in Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood.