People of ACC: Audley McGill
Through His Eyes: Audley McGill Embodies the Spirit of Summit Lake
By: Abigail Bashor and Starleen Saulsberry
Audley McGill will tell you without a flicker of doubt that Summit Lake has millions of stories waiting to be shared. “The water speaks for itself,” he shares while contemplating both the tales he’s been told and the ones he’s bared witness to. “It’s been through a lot—from an amusement park, to a dump, to where we are now; it’s seen everything. There are lifetimes worth of stories that this body of water can tell.”
One of those very stories shaped by proximity to the lake is McGill’s own personal narrative. For the past 30 years (31 in June to be exact), McGill has been a part of the Summit Lake community in one aspect or another. “I’ve not only worked in this neighborhood, but I’ve lived in this neighborhood, too,” he says. As a lifelong resident who has done everything from attend school in the area, to coach local high school basketball, to work with children’s services, McGill’s seasoned experience in civic participation give him exceptional insight into the place he calls home. Now as a recreational supervisor for the City of Akron, he is able to look back on how the area has changed while maintaining a vision for where it can go.
“I was a community kid, so that’s how I ended up coming down here [at first], playing basketball,” explains McGill. “The [Summit Lake Community Center] supervisor before me, Roger Moore, thought it would be a good idea for me to work here while I went to school, so I got a job here during college working part-time.” With a jovial laugh, he adds, “I ended up being here forever.”
McGill says that simply being able to work closely with his community is what first drew him to the position. “When you grow up as a community kid, you are automatically involved in the community,” he explains. Being an athlete on top of that allowed him to begin making more of a contribution as well, due to the fact that people knew him personally and knew they could trust him.
Still, the social and structural forces of the time remained a challenge to developing the area to its fullest potential. “30 years ago, the neighborhood was on a downward spiral, and people were looking for things for their children to do,” says McGill. “A lot of times, the community center was a free place where they could get some activity.” At one point, Summit Lake was known for its sports programs more than it was for anything else. “People came here because they were trying to get their young boys away from bad behaviors. Parents would send their kids down to play basketball, and it ended up being an opportunity for a lot of guys to come down here and play. I’d say from the 1980s to the 2000s, it was strictly athletic based.”
One of the major reasons for this sports-centered association was the emergence of basketball prodigy, LeBron James, who played at the Summit Lake Community Center in his youth. According to McGill, a natural inclination to have children practice their followed. “When you look at it from that standpoint—when this area created one of the best basketball players in the game—it makes sense that the area would draw kids from all over the city who just wanted to come here for sports.” An unfortunate consequence, though, was that many other initiatives taking place at the community center were often left to the shadows. “Even though we had study tables and arts and crafts, the stigma on Summit Lake was ‘all we do is basketball.’ It was like that for 20 years,” says McGill. “We always wanted to change that stigma because we wanted to present other opportunities to our community. Overall here, we’ve probably helped hundreds of kids go to school for free, which has not been promoted. But that’s [still] something we’ve done.”
Much of the hesitation surrounding the community’s reluctance toward advancing extracurricular programming had to do with skepticism of the lake in its entirety. “People didn’t really look at the lake the way they look at it now. They looked at it more as a body of water that you didn’t want your kids to get too close to. The gym, the outdoor court, and the baseball fields had more people visiting to those than the actual lake itself,” says McGill.
For the most part, fears of the water kept families and sightseers at a distance. “Parents did not want their kids to come down here by this water. They were scared of the lake. The idea was, ‘Why would I bring my kids down here just to play or see the sights when people are telling me the water is bad and the kids can’t swim [in it]. It’s dangerous, except for sports.’ Changing the stigma from where it was to where we’re at now was definitely tough.”
McGill says that observing the 30-year window of change within the area from one extreme to another has been remarkable. While he credits the improvements made by outside sources, it’s the effort of people who have put in the time and groundwork to change Summit Lake’s overall perception that has helped dramatically. “We’ve turned it around and made it so there are so many other things that are going on here. There are kids and community members who want to see more. Hopefully with the Civic Commons project, that will help us open the door to [further] changing the overall perception of the water, the park, and the community center.”
Change is not easy for everyone, though, and McGill admits that he’s had his fair share of confrontations from disgruntled or confused community members doubtful of this new approach. “I’ve had some people get mad at me because my focus is not only on sports anymore. I have to tell them that basketball is the last thing I worry about down here. People want more than basketball; they’re looking for more than just shooting baskets. They’re looking for social services and educational programs for their kids. There’s definitely been a change here with the Civic Commons, but also the community overall was well overdue.”
The lake has always had a stigma of its own. The perceptions were all once negative, and visitors would hear of alligators in the water, near-drownings, fish that were not edible, and water that was so dirty it wasn’t even safe to touch. Those perceptions are changing, however. McGill says that some of these very stories are part of the lake’s history. He confirms that alligators have been extracted from the water, and that he has even jumped into the lake himself to save a seven-year-old girl from drowning. Still, McGill adds that facts should follow the stories to avoid confusion or misconception. The alligators, for example, were put in the water by someone who tried to raise them domestically, yet saw the lake as an opportunity to rid the responsibility one it became too much. “Alligators can’t survive in in a body of water like this,” explains McGill. “It’s not like [this guy] threw 50 alligators in there. The ones that were put in have been caught.” ?As far as the fish that live in the water, he adds, “I know a guy who has been fishing in the lake for 30 years and he’s fine.” The day McGill jumped in the water to aid the child that was drowning he was told to “get checked out” after being in the lake. So where there may be truth in some events that have happened, there are also circumstances that assist in bringing the beauty of the lake to light.
Most days of the week guests can visit the area to see the changes at Summit Lake for themselves. During the summer there were families fishing and bonfires held throughout the warm evenings. Today there are preschool and after-school programs for children of all ages, exercise and dance classes, a Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office, free meals, and many more resources quite literally in the backyard of most residents.
The involvement of the Civic Commons team has helped tremendously. Many different community groups have become involved in and dedicated to the growth of the area. Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, Summit Metro Parks, South Street Ministries, Let’s Grow Akron, Open M, Summit Lake Community Center, Reach Opportunity Center, and Akron Summit Community Action Agency have all come together over the past year to assist in facilitating the goals of the Civic Commons, which include serving the community and making it more inviting for families and individuals.
The unification of a community doesn’t happen often, and because of that McGill believes that the process of the Civic Commons in Summit Lake could be marketed around the United States. Although McGill wasn’t initially involved in the process at its very beginning, he has now been asked to speak at engagements on behalf of the Civic Commons project. ?“We are working on sustainability because we know eventually this money will be gone,” McGill says, adding, “When you have 20 non-profits willing to come together, it helps us build our coalition and credibility.”
A larger question is how to attract former Summit Lake “community kids” to come back and teach the younger generations how they’ve navigated and built their own success. Many parents choose to leave their past as exactly that and try not to expose their children to where they grew up, especially in an area that has had such negative publicity. The children in the Summit Lake neighborhood don’t always know that in addition to LeBron James, the Summit Lake area has had judges, lawyers, and even doctors originate from the area. It’s important that some of these success stories revisit their roots and say to today’s kids, “Look at me. I made it and you can too.” That type of connection is something McGill says he would like to see, and is hopeful that the Civic Commons is going to help open the door for others to say, “It’s not as bad as I once thought.”
Everyone who visits Summit Lake will have opinions about the area, regardless of whether it’s from personal experiences or hearsay. The important thing is that everyone has their own visual identity of the water. With the Civic Commons project coming in and offering hope, the views are beginning to change. According to McGill, seeing the lake in both positive and negative light is part of living in the area, but the changes “are offering more of the positive and it’s only going to benefit our residents.”