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What Happens When 500 People Share a Feast on the Highway

In 1970, Akron, Ohio's Innerbelt Freeway began construction with the hope of revitalizing downtown, only to, in practice, chop up entire neighborhoods and incite tremendous social tension. With the Innerbelt growing ever unpopular, the city has finally made plans to close it for good next year. It's with this momentous backdrop that a remarkable event transpired this past weekend, ironically turning the turning the very vehicle of division into a place for coming together. On October 4, 500 Akronites from various neighborhoods gathered around a 500-foot-long table set up on a traffic-free Innerbelt, forming an astonishing sight, whether one knows a thing about Akron or not.

500 Plates is the brainchild of San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks, whose community building organization League of Creative Interventionists currently has volunteer-led chapters in eight cities, including Detroit, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, plus overseas locales like Cologne, Germany. Franks came to Akron by way of a $96,200 Knight Foundation grant awarded in January, through which he would use "public art and creative placemaking" to enliven the city. So for the last year, Franks has been traversing Akron's 22 neighborhoods, getting to know locals while seeking out leads on suitable "Neighborhood Ambassadors" who would be invited to share a favorite family recipe. As revealed on the day of the feast, these recipes ended up on the plates themselves, which were custom-designed by local ceramic artist Eva Kwong and free to keep for the 500 guests who managed to snag a (free!) meal ticket beforehand online.

This was what it all looked like:

While the event surely gave participants a meal to remember, it also came with some takeaways for the the city. As it turns out, a paper runner was placed along the entire length of the table. And with guidance from volunteer hosts, guests were encouraged to jot down what they would like to see happen with the space once the freeway closes next year. As seen in the below video documenting the event, one woman talks enthusiastically about "mixed-use retail," "incubators with affordable rent," "food trucks," and "maybe even a year-round farmers' market."

In the short term, though, the spirit of 500 Plates will propagate via community tables distributed to individual neighborhoods. These 22 smaller, custom tables—to be produced by local fabricator Dominic Falcione of Rubber City Fab—would ideally create opportunities for more intimate neighborhood meals in public spaces like gardens or parks.

Though 500 Plates became a spectacle that engaged with an Akron-specific infrastructure issue, the foremost mission was merely using food to bring people from different neighborhoods together, a goal Franks says is "applicable in any community." He's currently working on a toolkit that will be available to everyone and hopefully encourage similar projects in other cities.

· 500 Plates [official site]