Celebrating “Hope” In Park East Neighborhood

Guest Blogger: Ilenia Pezzaniti
📷: Ilenia Pezzaniti

At 5 p.m. on Friday, August 23, the sun in Park East set Lizzi Aronhalt’s finished mural ablaze, warming each bright acrylic color with an orange hue, working together to welcome neighborhood families out of their homes and into their community.

“For me, the point of creating this mural was to add beauty to Park East and to give local residents a voice in that process so that the mural would be a reflection of its physical context. I believe art can spark conversation, build community, and can bring people together who may not have crossed paths. That is what this mural did for me and I am really thankful for that,” said Aronhalt.

Soon the tennis court was filled with those who wanted to see and celebrate the community-minded mural. After seeing the mural, nine-year-old, Shianna said, “It makes me feel happy.” Seven-year-old Shanaysia said the first word that came to her head when she saw the mural was, “Wow.” A passerby described the mural as “looking alive.”

Aronhalt started working on the project in April and received support from the community throughout the process. “Working in community art was a new experience for me, and so I learned a ton about that and about this specific community around Park East in the process. There were some challenges along the way, but I met and was surrounded by gracious people who both encouraged me and said hard things when needed, and that’s what I loved most about the process. I think I learned that, as much as possible, it’s important to be clear and honest with people when working in community art, it’s important to own mistakes and to say ‘I don’t know’ when that is the real answer.  I loved getting to know residents who live around Park East and hearing their stories and getting a feel of the strong sense of community ownership not only of Park East but of the City of Akron,” said Aronhalt. 

“The whole purpose of this was to bring the community together and be proud. It’s kind of like family-oriented community unity,” said Kimberly, who served as an ambassador for the day.

Event attendees were greeted with tunes from DJ ForrestGetEmGump and smells of hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches from Stray Dog Cafe. Children lined up against the tennis court fence to get their faces painted to look like tigers and unicorns, others watched in awe as a balloon artist crafted a dog sitting underneath a rainbow, multicolored swords, and flowers.

Shawntia, who’s lived in the neighborhood for a little less than a year-and-a-half said she thinks the park will attract better people who will come to “enjoy their life.” When she looks at the mural she said, “It looks like we’re all having fun.”

Kids and adults alike tried their hand at sidewalk chalk, where turtle nesting dolls, names, hopscotch boxes, scribbles and patterns colorfully adorned the hardcourt under guest’s feet. Some rode bikes and scooters around, others danced and skipped. Under a large tent, attendees were given papers with the outline of the mural and markers for them to color it in.

Gwen, who lives in Park East and colored in the mural worksheet, routinely walks this area and said seeing the mural makes her feel “encouraged that people care, that the community cares about the park.” She also thinks the mural depicts the evolution of the area as well as those who live in it. “I think there’s quite a few different generations in here [Park East] and me being here for almost over 60 years and I’ve seen the changes and the growth so that mural is kind of displaying what has happened in the neighborhood. I like that. And the children are all still our future,” she said. “It [the mural] depicts the neighborhood, children of course, different ages, different colors: black, brown. So I think it encompasses the neighborhood somewhat.”

The mural showcases many different elements suggested by the neighborhood residents during community meetings held over the last several months, including children playing and buildings to represent the five different housing communities that share the Park East park as their backyard.

Community member Sammie drew three illustrations that became inspiration for parts of the mural. “I feel great. I feel like I’m part of the community, and the fact that they asked for our opinion and our input, that meant a lot. After being homeless for several years, it made me feel right at home. I cried,” she said.

Kimberly, who served as an ambassador for the community, feels strongly about the mural. “I think it’s beautiful. I’m encouraged because some of my ideas was used up there,” she said. “I had a vision to put something up there where people are walking, people are on bikes, people are sitting down reading, and when I seen that I was encouraged.”

The mural celebration garnered attention even from out of town folks, such as Dane, who lives in Boston, and whose daughter is friends with Aronhalt. Dane has observed how murals have impacted communities around the country. “It’s amazing to me how art can make such a big difference in communities,” he said. His daughter told him he had to come see the mural. Where he lives in Boston, Dane said he’s seen how murals have influenced the community. “It transformed the entire neighborhood and the feel of the neighborhood and their sense of pride of the neighborhood.” He said he already felt a shift after the drive into the area and then upon seeing the mural. “It was dark because of all the tree cover and then you get here and you go, ‘Wow, would they start to use this space more? Probably,’” he added.

When Edna, who lives in Park East, first saw the mural she felt wonderful. She thinks having the mural in the community raises members’ spirits. “It’s something to look forward to,” she said.