Alumni remember a different Kent, reflect on today’s city

Cameron Gorman

The landscape of Downtown Kent has been shifting for years, metamorphosing dive bars into empty lots and other streets into blocky retail strips. Its identity, to those who have watched it change, however, is more contested. 

Acorn Alley, a draw for many college students, didn’t open until 2009. The Esplanade — the brick-paved pathway that connects front-campus area shops and streets downtown — didn’t guide students and pedestrians until 2013. The changes current and past students have seen, however, seem small compared to the changes university alumni have witnessed.

The Kent of 2017 may look different than the Kent of 2010, but the transformation throughout the years, as alumnus Phil Soencksen noted, goes far deeper than the city may let on.

“Downtown was kind of gross,” said Soencksen, ’89. “Really, there weren’t really good places to eat. There was the Pufferbelly, but that was the kind of place you went with your parents when they came in from out of town. But there wasn’t really a lot of stuff to take your parents to, and the places were gross.”

Soencksen, who became a marketing writer for Kent, recalled living in a Kent full of dive bars and slapped-together buildings — but it didn’t keep him away from downtown. 

“Back then, the drinking age was 19. So yeah, there were a lot more younger students down there. We didn’t care, as long as we had a place to drink and dance, and if there was broken glass on the dance floor, we didn’t care much,” Soencksen said. “There were places that served buckets of beer. There was the drink and drown promotion that actually got Robin Hood in trouble — it was kind of an all-you-can-drink thing. Some of the laws in Ohio, they might have been passed because of those things that happened at those bars.”

The drinking age in Ohio was raised to 19 in 1984 and wasn’t raised to 21 until 1987 — something Soencksen feels has changed the culture of Kent.

“There’s a lot less emphasis on drinking than there was back when I was in school,” he said. “And there’s so much more to do downtown now without drinking, which is nice. You can actually go down and have a good time and not drink.”

The drinking age may have changed downtown Kent’s culture, but so has construction along with the addition of businesses, shops, restaurants and bars. Alumna Margaret May, ’96, remembered a time before those changes.

“I can remember maybe three or four bars that people would really go to, and now, you know, there’s a billion — which I think is probably why a lot of the party scene was kind of in fraternity and sorority houses rather than the bars,” she said.

May recalled a significantly emptier downtown during her time at Kent, especially without the connection of the Esplanade.

“It was incredibly different,” she said. “There was no pedestrian walkway to get you downtown, so that meant you had to cross at least one pretty busy street. Sometimes two depending on where you were coming from on campus to get to anything downtown, and there was just a lot less stuff there.” 

Alumni Matt Busser, ’02, agreed.

“Once you’d get past the fraternity houses, I remember there being like a gas station, a movie theatre, a bunch of shops that would close at four or five o’clock, some places not even having any business in there — I know like Huntington was on the corner — but you walk past all that to get over to where (Ray’s Place) was, and it was almost like a ghost town when you would walk past that,” Busser said. 

The “revitalization” of Downtown Kent — stringing lights across shop corridors, new buildings, repurposing old buildings — has not gone unnoticed by active alumni.

“Every time somebody goes there for the first time since I’ve been there through all the years — people go back, and they don’t even recognize that area of campus,” Busser said. “They’re just blown away because it’s all so new, and I probably think it even helps with enrollment.”

In fact, the transformation, a case study out of ULI Cleveland noted, was an investment of more than $100 million in downtown redevelopment.

“(You have), you know, music and ice cream and cookies and good places to eat,” Soencksen said. “It’s a different experience, which is great. Lots of places to take your parents, of course, which is nice … It’s a more adult thing, but I think it’s maybe students are wanting to be a little more adult.” 

Not all alumni, however, are pleased with the changes to places that impacted their college experience, like alumna Leatrice Bard Tolls, ’92.

“What occurs to me is there are so many new restaurants and stores. There’s too many of them to actually be supported by the people that live here, and so none of them are given enough audience, if you will, to sustain them,” she said. “I’m seeing too many things that (have) just opened gone already — in (pre-fabricated) buildings that don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy when I come home.”

Though Bard Tolls graduated from Kent in 1992, she also attended in the 80’s.

“It’s changed the feel of the downtown area considerably … it feels like a corporation, not a town anymore,” she said.

Tolls remembered a Kent that was “not developed at all,” she said, where people in the community sat on their lawns and local stores were more frequented.

“When I was in college, you know, bars were gritty. There was live music. There was a sense that there was a community of musicians here that I still organize a reunion for, for all the punk rockers. We had like a thousand people in 22 bands — and that was the reunion five years ago. But now it feels like there’s not that sense,” Bard Tolls said. “There’s (chain) bars and strip malls that students will just go binge drink in and not have any kind of experience other than alcoholism coming out of their college experience, and we had more of an opportunity to create culture and friendships that have lasted my lifetime.”

As an example of the change, Bard Tolls recalled the coffee shop, which resided near Kent’s front campus before it became the local Starbucks.

“My friend Bonny used to rent that building. For years, it was a coffee shop, and prior to that it was owned by somebody else, and it was a coffee shop. And a coffee shop that’s owned locally has poetry readings,” Bard Tolls said. “A coffee shop that’s owned locally, people come in and they get to know each other after hours, listening to poetry or music or studying — and now you walk into Starbucks, in a place that used to be educational and cultural, and now you just walk in, get your coffee and leave. Or you sit with your headphones on at your laptop, and you don’t talk to each other, you don’t build community, you don’t have good, local food to eat — you have crap to eat, and nobody talks to each other. I mean it’s a completely different experience in Kent and society in meta.”

The changes are positive, Soencksen said, and may foster a “mature, healthy kind of way of going to school.”

“If I were a parent of a student, or just an adult or an older student coming to Kent, thinking about coming here for school and saw the old downtown, I’d be disappointed. Very disappointed,” he said. “Because when I was a student I didn’t really know about downtown because I was underage and everything else, and it was fun because I was a dumb kid, but I think students are a little different now, and I think parents are a little different now.”

Soencksen described a feeling of “two sides” of Kent: one of the older “townies,” trying to preserve historic Kent, and newer residents, trying to build upon the city’s foundation.

“Well, the identity of Kent is — it’s kind of a dream. It’s a dream. It’s fake, it’s not real,” he said. “I mean, they talk about preserving the identity of Kent, but then they let a tattoo parlor go in the corner where there used to be this historic drugstore that everybody loved, but it hasn’t been a drug store in 50 years,” Soencksen said. 

The nostalgia felt by some alumni had more to do with age and perspective than the actual value of the buildings, he said.

“This nostalgia is misplaced,” Soeneckson said. “They’re missing the same things that were never really good. Even the Kent police station that’s downtown — that’s not any architectural marvel.”

Still, those concerned with development, like Bard Tolls, feel the identity may be slipping through the city’s fingers. 

“The students added a lot of energy here, too; There was always useful enthusiasm, and now, it’s just, instead of useful enthusiasm and shared ideas — now it just seems like everybody is a customer instead of a co-participant in their experience,” Bard Tolls said. “These things stick with you. There used to be live music there, there used to be all kinds of things that are missing now, and even when they provide them, they don’t feel the same … there’s something just human (that’s) missing.”

Others see a more middling approach to the changing topography of Kent — a need to both preserve and develop the area with the changing times while preserving the feeling of the city. 

“I think we’re keeping some of the things that are good and preserving some of the things that are good and actually historic and worthwhile keeping, but we’re also making new things. We’re also building new things,” Soencksen said.

May said she understood the concerns of those who felt the modifications removed downtown’s identity, however, she feels the concerns are “just not realistic.”

“If it were full of Applebee’s and chain restaurants and a huge Wal-Mart … that would bother me, but to me the feeling is still very much boutique-y, cool little places, college town,” May said. “It still has the sense of Kent, Ohio, to me, so I don’t view it as a negative thing at all. I think it’s a very positive thing for the students that are there as well as for the community because it makes — like I said — it makes that division seem less of a thing.”

As Kent’s downtown and Kent State’s campus continues to grow and change, as it has throughout its lifetime, its identity — the feeling of the quintessential Kent — may depend on the feeling of its residents, students and alumni.

“I can still walk along front campus and see the rock and see the facades of all of the buildings that I had classes in, but I can see the new stuff too and know that, ‘Okay, so there’s students here now, and they’re having the same academic experience that I did, and they’re having the same experience as far as being away from home for the first time and making new friends and meeting new people, and they’re doing it on the same grounds that I was on, but there’s all this new stuff here now too, to kind of keep up with the times,'” May said. “And I think that’s great. I think the only way a place survives is if it keeps up with the times.”

Cameron Gorman is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected]