Highway 59: Revisited

Chad W. Lutz
Take a walk through Kent, Ohio, these days and you'll find there have been a few changes. For years, the small college town of roughly 30,000 inhabitants called home to a few bars, a couple of dilapidating gristmills, and quaint little coffee shops lining quiet main streets in AnyTown, USA. Abandoned hotels sat next to popular bars right on busy thoroughfares and abandoned night spots sat unused and unsuccessfully repurposed. But as the city's main attraction, education, continued to boom and flourish, Tree City, as it is known, had to begin entertaining the idea of an upgrade to accommodate increasing admissions and need for more accessible parking and transportation.

In 2008, Kent combined grants from state and federal governments, Kent State University, and The Portage Area Regional Transit Authority with city funds to begin construction on a massive overhauling of the downtowns areas surrounding Main St. and Rt. 59. The project includes staggering renovations to the tune of more than $100 million. The first fruits of the major restoration and renovation projects resulted in the area now known as Acorn Alley, which opened in September 2009. At glance, the area looks like a friendlier Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter series, with eclectic jewelry boutiques, Pita Pit, a toy store, a barber shop, and locally owned fashion retailers. Acorn Alley provided a glimpse of changes to come, and it truly served as just the tip of the iceberg.
Buildings under construction across from Phase II of Acorn Alley on Erie St. (Lutz 2013)
In the years, since, several (and I mean several) changes have taken shape in Kent. Phase II of the Acorn Alley project debuted a year later and continues to fill with new venders. Tenants include Tree City Coffee and Pastry, Wild Earth Outfitters, and Mediterranean-must-eat Laziza. Davey Tree, ranked as one of the Top 20 largest companies in the United States, highlights recent renovations with a brand new world headquarters facility that sits just off Rt. 59 as you come into the city East over the Cuyahoga River. Also located in the Davey Tree building is a brand new Panini's and a cookie shop called Insomnia offering fresh-baked temptation until 3:00am. As if college students needed any more distraction from studies or temptation to eat at odd hours.
Davey Tree World Headquarters, Downtown Kent, Ohio (Kent Ohio Development)
Phase II of Acorn Alley as seen from Erie St. (Lutz 2013)
Already abuzz with old mill-town charm, Kent looks to further its appeal with the addition of new stores and eateries and provide students and year-round residents as well as visitors a truly unique college-town experience. Non-profit outfit Main Street Kent works to revitalize the Downtown Kent area and has assisted in the renovations by implementing a four-prong approach of organizing local groups, encouraging the arts, marketing to new markets, and enhances existing businesses in the area. Local stores like Last Exit Books, Midnight Oasis, Second Sole, and Einstein’s Attic highlight popular retailers in the area, along with larger retailers like Gabriel Brothers and (damnit) Walmart. Kent calls home to an almost endless array of locally owned restaurants and bars, some of which even predate May Day, like Ray’s Place, where I’ve spent many a splendorous nights that I doubt I’ll soon forget.

It seems like every time I’ve driven through Kent the past couple of years some drastic change or another has taken place. But every time a change does take place, it appears to be for the better, and in the true sense of the community, which has forever been a waterfall of social, academic, and artistic currents. Odds are, with the university in tow, Kent will never truly lose its footing and fade into the backdrop of “Towns Once Was”. The partnership between the City of Kent and Kent State University, along with several other non-profit organizations, seems to be as strong as ever. And even despite College St.’s best efforts every April to bring Los Angeles 1992 to the Tree City with the annual College Fest parties, Kent seems to withstand and reinvent. All it takes are a few changes to make something old new, and the collective consciousness of a community like Kent to bring it all together; forgive me, there have been a lot of changes. But changes great or small, Kent now sports a more modern look for the 21st century. This isn't your daddy's Kent, Ohio.