By Sophie Giffin and Audra McClain
Over 100 years ago Kent had a bustling and thriving railroad industry that brought immigrants looking for work. The Germans, Italians, African-Americans, Irish and Poles created communities in harmony that made up the city.
In 2020, Kent had a population of 28,215 that had a majority, 79.7% white population. However, each section of the city has its own unique characteristics that have changed over time.
Kent is broken up into six wards, each having unique neighborhoods that bring life to the city as a whole. Wards are usually created to ensure that there is direct enough representation for different areas of a city.
Today, Ward 3 is going through a revitalization. Walking down the streets near Franklin Ave, there’s construction signs and fresh pavement that stand as symbols of improvements being made to the communities just as much as they are necessary infrastructural updates.
Kent’s poverty rate was 29.6% with a per capita income of $21,485 in 2019. Census data doesn’t narrow down as far as wards, but councilman for Ward 3 Robin Turner expressed that some of his ward has been low income and is beginning to improve.
“One of the more economically challenged areas,” Turner said of the South End, which is beginning to see infrastructure improvements. “Our engineering, central maintenance and community development departments have targeted this end of town, which has been slumping over the years,” Turner said.
The diversity and history of Kent are prominent in Ward 3 as well and part of what makes it so unique. The ward is home to Ben Anderson, the first African-American elected official of Portage county and Albert Peoples who helped the formation of Kent’s chapter of the NAACP. Now, Anderson’s family continues to have heavy involvement in the community.
Doria Daniels is a 70-year-old woman who has had a residence in Ward 3 her entire life. She is the daughter of Anderson and a self-titled community advocate in Kent.
An association she made along with other community members, started as a Facebook group called Kent South End Friends of the Village. Here the community comes together to discuss the history of the ward, concerns they have and practice a community watch. “We look out for each other,” Daniels said.
The history of their ward, going back to Black communities living in old boxcars that were welcoming and caring to each other, was something of great pride to the group. “We all got together and decided we wanted to do something more formal.”
The group met with the community development director who aided them in presenting their plan to formally recognize the South End historic district to the council and it was ultimately approved in 2019.
The designation as the Historic South End stretches from Mogadore Road and Summit to Franklin Ave and Cherry St. With the council’s approval, the designation came with a few small signs to denote the entry to the region, but the group was able to raise over $14 thousand in partnership with local business partners, which allowed them to add additional larger monuments of recognition around the region.
Having the designation brings a great sense of pride to people like Daniels who explained that many people in Kent have roots in Ward 3, even if they no longer live there.
“The South End is like the mother of a lot of communities because a lot of people came out of the South End,” Daniels said.
Since their formal designation, the group continues to improve community involvement. They are a huge part of traditional block parties. “There are several sections of Kent that have their neighborhood block parties,” Daniels said, “South End block parties has been going on for over 70 years.”
Down on the same streets that are being repaved, they will host a party during the summer. Daniels explained that the origin goes back to a way for community members to interact with the city and get things done in the South End.
The community of the South End has also made the addition of a garden that is rooted in history.
Located on Walnut St. the Thomas-Anderson Memorial Garden was founded in honor of Anderson and Rev. Fred Thomas Sr. who was a minister at Kent’s Union Baptist Church for 42 years.
The garden brings greenspace to an area that was previously vacant, while paying homage to the community’s elders with several sections dedicated to significant members of the community. The space has gotten a wide range of recognition and received the Edith Chase Conservation Award of 2021 thanks to the habitat for pollinators the garden created.
Many community members have lived in this area of Kent for generations.
Lo Lofter is a 73-year-old man that lives in Ward 3 in the home that his father grew up in and his mother raised him in. He’s lived here for a better part of his life and says that he enjoys the quiet neighborhood and appreciates that they’re starting to make improvements.
“They’re fixing some of the streets around here,” Lofter said, “I wish they’d get over here to Elm St, there’s no curbs.”
Lofter was a little familiar with the history of the neighborhood and had seen the signs posted about the historic South End. He called back to when he was younger and shared, “this used to be a predominantly black neighborhood but now I’d say it’s 50/50.”
Another resident of Ward 3 is musician Timothy Koehler who says he loved the small-town feel that Kent had when he moved here 25 years ago. He came for the music scene and stayed to become a student at Kent State University and raise his daughter.
“It’s a historical town. I like it here. It’s cozy,” Koehler said.
Unlike college students who enter and exit Kent in just a few years, Koehler has seen the city change over the past couple of decades. He says that most of this change was for the better. In addition to opening up the historic Kent Dam located downtown and cleaning up the river, Koehler enjoys that, “there’s way more wildlife than there used to be.”
Kent, especially in many parts of Ward 3 house shopping areas and bussing options for residents to get around. Lofter mentioned decent shopping areas adjacent to the ward and resident Robert Wiseman said, “everything’s convenient and a walking distance.”
Unlike Koehler and Lofter, Wiseman is new to the area. He moved to Kent so he could spend more time with his children. As a person who walks most places, Wiseman finds his neighborhood accessible. The post office, University Hospital and Holden Elementary School are all located in Ward 3.
Most residents we talked to had very minimal complaints about their ward, but Daniels did say she wants to see more jobs for Ward 3. “We need industry jobs in Kent,” Daniels said.
Employment for any member of Kent has been more complex since the pandemic hit in early 2020.
26-year-old Joe Henderson of Ward 3 had to stop his independent landscaping business because of the pandemic. “One of my employees got it,” Henderson explained.
COVID and the impact it can have is very apparent to the councilman for Ward 3, Robin Turner. Turner had caught COVID early in 2021 and has yet to recover, sharing that he’s considered a long-hauler of COVID.
Turner has struggled with not being able to see his constituents face-to-face or to be able to go door-to-door. “It’s been really difficult to determine whether or not we really have our finger on the pulse of the neighborhood,” Turner said.
Although Turner hasn’t had direct connection with his residents, he’s aware of the burden that the pandemic has had on businesses within his ward.
“Kent State University would pretty much make us recession proof,” Turner said of his previous stance on the economy of the ward. However, when the University shifted to remote instruction, many students began to return to their hometowns, leaving Ward 3 with fewer residents and fewer shoppers for the city’s businesses.
Lately, Turner holds hope for the future. “We do see some glimmers, some light at the end of the tunnel with a lot of our business community,” Turner said.
Ward 3 is rich with local businesses. Restaurants, a movie theater, a bowling alley, ice cream shops and more line busy streets of the area like that of Cherry and South Water. One business that found its perfect fit within Ward 3 has come into the light, embracing the strong diversity of the ward and reopening of businesses since quarantine.
Skullz Salon, owned and operated by Amanda Boyd and Angelique Manns, relocated to a property in Ward 3 in January 2021 after several years in the downtown area. Near University Plaza off of South Water St., the pair feels as if their business gets just as much recognition as it did in their previous location. “I think University of Plaza areas is very recognized. I think it’s as recognizable as an area as downtown,” Manns said.
While downtown is home to many businesses, co-owner Manns explained that the location was not friendly to their business type where clients would struggle to find parking or would have to continuously go back out to their paid meter to add more money during their service.
“We discussed things like that with the city,” Manns said, “but it was never a priority for them.”
In the heart of the pandemic, before vaccines were available to the general public, the couple found their new space on Cherry St. Together the pair dedicated their time to redecorating the space and making it uniquely theirs. Art created by Boyd hangs from the walls and skulls are placed throughout. Hanging right near the entrance is a rainbow pride flag.
The salon always had strong community support from LGBTQ clients that found the salon to be a comforting place for them. “We’ve always had lots of trans clients that are comfortable coming here because they say I don’t know how to tell anyone else what’s happening in my life or where I want to go with my image,” Manns said.
“And that’s important to the community too,” Manns said, “that diversity that we attract.”
There is no one type of person in Kent or in Ward 3 and there is not one type of person who gets their hair done at Skullz Salon. People from all walks of life come to the salon for a new look. “You could literally look out there on any day of the week and you’re going to see an 80-year-old woman next to a 21-year-old college student next to a soccer mom,” Manns said.
Along with their core clients, they have noticed an influx of people coming for their stringent COVID practices since reopening.
“We have always taken our sanitization really serious,” Boyd said. “Even now, having mandatory masking for clients and staff is something people are looking for someplace safe to go.”
Ward 3 is rich with people of all backgrounds. The people you can see at a salon, walking down the street or making a stop at the post office have their own connections to the city of Kent and Ward 3. Some are students of Kent State University, spending their last few years as an undergraduate in one of the many apartment complexes located in the ward. Others are people who were born and raised here. This eclecticism is what makes Ward 3.