Shuffle: Musicians Lead Akron's Kenmore Neighborhood Revival

Mar 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly stated that Marc Lee Shannon is the former guitarist for Michael Stanley. Shannon is still with the band  

A few city blocks in east Akron are coming back to life with the help of musicians. For this week’s Shuffle, WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz walked Kenmore Boulevard to hear how the community is rebuilding a music district.  

When you make the turn off the I-76 exit ramp and onto Akron’s Kenmore Boulevard, it’s hard to tell at first glance that this is the site of a renaissance. The busy street is riddled with potholes. The brick buildings are old, and many are vacant. But if you look closer -- or rather listen closer -- there’s life.

A music district
Kenmore Boulevard now has two live music venues, recording studios and guitar shops along the three-block downtown district. It’s largely the work of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance that’s been trying to overcome the area’s reputation as abandoned and unsafe. The Alliance’s director, Tina Boyes, says working with musicians captures the neighborhood’s working-class history.

"You see them on the stage and you look up to them, but man, these are salt of the earth people -- these are people who have hustled their entire lives. I feel like that’s what we’re doing as the neighborhood organization. We’re hustling."

The new and the old
Boyes says Kenmore’s music revitalization is a combination of the new and the old. Our first visit is to Lays Guitar Shop, which has been in business for more than 50 years. Joel Shin and his brother are known worldwide for their work restoring and building guitars. 

"We’re trying to bring this community back to where people want to walk along the streets and feel safe again," Shinn says. 

The colorful Rialto Theater in Kenmore's music district
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz

The Rialto Theater
The hub of Kenmore’s music district, is the Rialto Theater, which used to be a movie theater. 

Musician brothers Seth and Nate Vaill took over this 100-year-old building in 2010 at first to open a couple recording studios. Now, it’s also a music venue that books local and national musicians three nights a week.

"Every time we’d get a little money we would finish something else. We did a lot of traveling and a lot of the music venues you would play in say, New York City, would be warm, intimate places. And we thought once we painted the walls, we could start fulfilling that here. It morphed into that, pretty much."

'I call it sprinkling fairy dust.'

Seth and Nate built an apartment on the building’s second floor and lived there while they worked on getting the venue ready. They’ve since moved out, but stayed in Kenmore.

"People who have lived here longer than Nate and I -- I mean we’ve only lived here for seven years -- that have lived here their whole lives. They have a lot of pride here. And they are open arms wanting to see this place be successful."

Live Music Now is a pop-venue that will book shows through May, with the idea that someone will take it over permanently.
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz

Pop-up Venue Live Music Now
The Rialto has been so successful, that it’s needed help meeting demand booking events. Enter Live Music Now, a pop-up venue that opened earlier this year down the street. 

"Seth and Nate down at the Rialto were feeling like an island," Boyes says. "We felt the burden to help them out, but also to show that there’s more than just one trick in this neighborhood."

'We're the sons and daughters of steel and rubber workers. And our work ethic was always deeply embedded in us. ... This neighborhood just represents to me the essence of that lost America.'

Tina Boyes and the Neighborhood Alliance have leased this former bar that was in shambles just six months ago. They got volunteers to paint the walls, add custom lighting and rebuild the small stage. They have local musicians and others booking shows. The Alliance has the lease through May, with the hopes that someone will take it over.

"I call it sprinkling fairy dust," Boyes says. "Showcase something and get people thinking. Because honestly you can say things all day long, but until people experience, it, they need to know what it feels like. And this feels good."

Former Michael Stanley guitarist Marc Lee Shannon recently performed at Kenmore's Live Music Now
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz

A grassroots revival
On this night, Marc Lee Shannon is performing. The guitarist for Cleveland rocker Michael Stanley, Shannon lives in Akron and is launching a solo career. He says he wants to support Kenmore’s revival.

"We’re the sons and daughters, grandchildren of steel and rubber workers. And our work ethic was always deeply embedded in us when we grew up. This neighborhood just represents to me the essence of that lost America. And I think that I can do anything to be a part of a revitalization of that heritage, I don’t think there’s anything more that America needs right now."

And that’s the overall model of Kenmore’s music district: Community. Back out on the Boulevard, it’s still pretty quiet with the exception of the busy traffic. Boyes says she wants to keep working to have more people feeling comfortable walking the streets, by adding coffee shops and more businesses. And she thinks they’ll get there, one beat at a time.