Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood wants to be “Music Row”


Tina Boyes, head of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, has been working since 2017 to make Kenmore Boulevard exciting again. For every new business, there are still spaces like the old Hairston Appliance store quietly awaiting a new tenant. Boyes began consulting with Dallas-based Better Block five years ago on how to make the boulevard more walkable. They added bike lanes. They filled a vacant lot with artwork and turned it into a courtyard for community meetings. And then she came to a realization: Kenmore is a music district.

“We have recording studios, [and] we have the two guitar shops right across the street,” she said. “The Rialto Theater [is a] regional music hall.

The neighborhood alliance began hosting music events using nonprofit beer permits.

“Why can’t we take a vacant space and have a two-day event every two weeks where local artists play?” Boyes said.

Boyes enlisted volunteers and local musicians to help him: Zach Friedhof of Zach & the Bright Lights, Matt Garrett of the neighborhood Open Tone Music Academy, recording studio owner Thomas Kincaid and musician Jim Ballard.

Buzzbin presents
One of the spaces they used for events has a vintage, art deco “Live Music Now” sign out front. When lit, people know to enter. This building will soon be the new home of Buzzbin, a well-known DIY and punk venue that recently closed in Guangzhou. The move happens with the support of another music venue, the Rialto Theater, a few blocks away. In 2010, brothers Nate and Seth Vaill began transforming the Rialto from an abandoned movie theater into a concert hall.

“I got questions, ‘Is this going to be a competition?’ No, it won’t be competition,” Seth said. “Nashville has venues everywhere, and they’re all making tons of money with tons of opportunities.”

The Vaills are organization of a benefit event for Buzzbin on September 24, and the new club plans to open around Halloween. Vaill says it would be nice to have another place to go after a show at Rialto, but the neighborhood needs more bars and restaurants.

“I want to walk along this boulevard and see people on Kenmore Boulevard at 10:30 p.m. at night,” he said. “I don’t want people to leave our house and then leave the boulevard.”

Kabir Bhatia

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Ideastream Public Media

Canton’s Buzzbin’s new home is one of the spaces that has been reactivated for temporary arts events by the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. The art deco sign currently on the building is decades old.

Become the Music Row of Akron
A few doors down from the Rialto, Dan Shinn owns Lay’s Guitar Shop.

“My hunch is that this is going to become Music Row,” he said.

Lay’s was opened by Virgil Lay in 1962. He took on Shinn as an apprentice in 1979 and Lay died in 2009.

Behind the store, a narrow strip of road is where guitars are constantly picked up or dropped off for repair. Earlier this year, the city renamed this street “Virgil Lay Way”.

“I would say the bulk of my clients are probably between half an hour and an hour and a half,” Shinn said. “I got a lot of guys from Michigan [and Pennsylvania]. I would say the biggest group of guys per capita that come here who are really good guitar players are almost always from Youngstown. It’s something in the water.

Upstairs from Lay’s is the Loft, run by Steve Givens. It’s a cozy space with enough material on the walls that if every member of the Cleveland Orchestra suddenly walks by and wants to buy a guitar, they can do it – for a price.

“The Smithsonian recently published an article on the mahogany of the tree – it comes from this tree,” he said. “The next one I ordered, which I just got the retail price for, is $22,000. This wood adds about $8,000 to the price of this guitar because it’s so rare.

While most of Givens’ business is online, he says they still welcome visiting musicians who sometimes take a piece of northeast Ohio with them. The Loft has a 1953 Les Paul Gold Top finished with wood from a demolished Goodyear building.

“The wood is older than the rest,” he said. “The wood on top is from the 1800s.”

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Kabir Bhatia

/

Ideastream Public Media

Steve Givens runs the Loft above Lay’s Guitar Shop. He says much of his business is online, but there are still people visiting in person to pick up an instrument.

The Loft’s inventory complements the store next door, the Guitar Department, owned by Ed Michalec and run by his son, Quinn.

“Every age group comes looking for something completely different,” he said. “Adolescents and young people [have] gone from guitars a few years ago to now, oddly enough, bass guitars. And the ukulele has taken over a lot of the youth sales that we do.

The guitar department was originally across the street when it opened in 2009. But they strategically moved next door to Lay’s a few years ago.

As Tina Boyes of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance walks the street, she notes that some of the guitars from these stores end up in recording studios on the boulevard.

“We have seven here now, and there are three or four just in this block,” she said. “At the corner of the street is the old cook’s hardware store building. It’s a concert hall downstairs and the acoustics are amazing. If you walk around here, you can hear drums recorded there at all hours.

Thom Tadsen owns the studio in Cook’s old building and currently works with Griphook (and his drummer, Wachovec). Tadsen said Buzzbin’s addition to the boulevard would be “huge” and “exactly what we need.”

From rock to hip hop
Drums are as essential to rock and jazz as they are to hip-hop – which also finds its way into Kenmore. Ben White hosts hip-hop nights at the First Glance Urban Youth Center in Kenmore and said that in 2019 he “met a group of eight to ten young rappers. We basically had a Wu Tang Clan from Akron. I’m like the old white guy: OWD.

Although he grew up in the 90s listening to grunge and classic rock, he felt there was an opportunity to connect with young people through hip-hop.

“We found it was a really therapeutic and helpful thing for kids to come in and express themselves,” he said. “It’s like music therapy for them.”

White hosted a hip-hop camp this summer in conjunction with South Akron Youth Mentoring (SAYM) at the nonprofit Akron Dream Center.

Ronald Kent, executive director of SAYM, said it helps teenagers express themselves.

“There’s a lot of social-emotional learning going on,” he said. “Telling people how you feel about something is normally stigmatized. In hip-hop, it’s good to communicate [your heart and mind].”

White is expanding the camp to a free-for-all weekly Friday night at the Akron Dream Center in Firestone Park, since receiving a grant for a state-of-the-art recording room. Boyes wants to attract those kinds of grants and businesses to Kenmore.

Boyes grew up in Kenmore, where his father owned a dry cleaning business. She said the recent development of Highland Square is an example of what could happen in her neighborhood.

“Think back to 25 years ago, Highland Square wasn’t getting Chipotle. It was a process. I don’t think we necessarily want to emulate what Highland Square did, but it gives us hope that some of these music-focused companies [are] will attract food one day.

Boyes said the neighborhood wants to stay true to its working-class roots, but his surveys indicate residents also want to see more restaurants and places to eat.

During the pandemic, the boulevard added 12 businesses. Half of them, like the Ethicrace clothing store or the Srina cafe, are owned by people of color. And a third of businesses, like The Rialto, are owned by Kenmore residents. In the future, she is also looking to attract more music-related businesses, such as a record store.

Maybe Kenmore Boulevard will one day be as bustling as it was when former Kenmore activist Cletus Swords was growing up in the 1940s. He remembered it in a 1997 documentary about how to work with young people in a region suffering from economic decline and increasing crime.

“Saturday night on Kenmore Boulevard was a big thing,” he told the doc. “They had the dime store, [a] store at five and ten cents. It was a big thing [on] Saturday night to get on the boulevard and hang out.

This documentary was made 25 years ago by Jim Ballard, one of the musicians who worked with Tina Boyes. He has lived in Kenmore since 1977.

“[Boyes] brings in business leaders, political leaders, foundation people, whatever entities you need to make this stuff happen,” he said. “Singularly, she wanted to include artists and musicians from the start and take their input seriously. That’s what made the things that happened in the last five or six years on the boulevard happen.”

The Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance is celebrates five years of work with Better Block on Friday, September 2. It’s part of the neighborhood’s First Friday series featuring pop-up shops, visual arts, food and of course music. Boyes said they would also hold “compare and contrast” demonstrations showing where the boulevard was five years ago.

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