CINCINNATI (AP) — Andrea Hall had never set foot in Kennedy Heights Park until her 22-year-old son was fatally shot there in June. She went to see the spot where he died and never expected to return.
That homicide, and another that occurred two weeks later near the park, sent shock waves through the side-by-side Cincinnati neighborhoods of Kennedy Heights and Pleasant Ridge, which share the park’s western boundary. Such violence is uncommon in those communities, police say.
And yet, even before the homicides, police say the park had become a haven for people shooting dice and making drug deals. The killing of Dominique Hall on June 12 escalated fears that the park was a dangerous place. The shooting of Christopher Burroughs, 52, on June 26 raised more concerns. No arrests have been made in either case, which police say were not random acts of violence.
It would have been understandable if people began avoiding the park. Instead, what happened could serve as a blueprint that other neighborhoods affected by violence might want to follow, said Cincinnati Police Capt. Jeff Butler, commander of District 2. Indeed, he said, it could be a “game changer.”
Every Wednesday evening since July 24, dozens of people have come to Kennedy Heights Park between Kennedy Avenue and Robison Road for an event called Play in the Park.
It’s simple, really. While kids run and jump and play on the park’s playground equipment, their parents chat, make new friends. A couple of Cincinnati Police officers serve as low-profile chaperones.
There’s also a special event each week. One Wednesday kids made a craft with the help of an artist from the Kennedy Heights Arts Center. Another week a percussionist brought hand-made drums and the park reverberated to the beat of dozens of enthusiastic drummers. A couple of weeks ago a Mister Softee truck doled out free ice cream thanks to an anonymous donor.
“The beauty is that people are coming to the park,” said Susan Wade Murphy. “This is a beautiful park. This is what neighborhoods are made of. This is saying, let’s not allow fear or violence keep us from experiencing something that’s really beautiful in our community.”
Wade Murphy was among several hundred people who on July 1 – less than a week after the second homicide – attended a prayer vigil across the street from the park. She listened as a boy from Kennedy Heights said he was no longer able to play there because his mother told him it wasn’t safe.
Wade Murphy, who has lived in Pleasant Ridge for 13 years, couldn’t let that go. She’s the married mother of three grown children and a nurse who now works in health care administration at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
A couple of weeks after the vigil, she pitched her idea for Play in the Park at a meeting of the Kennedy Heights Community Council’s safety committee.
People loved it. The community council agreed to sponsor it, and many people have pitched in.
Capt. Butler sees it as a small step, but an important one.
Society, he noted, has changed in recent decades. “We don’t sit on the front porch anymore. We don’t know who our neighbors are. This is kind of a way to reinvent that.”
When neighbors get to know each other, and they unite on a common front, they have the power to make positive change. They can, for example, take back their park.
“If we can get (more people in the) city to do that, just think how much we can take back. Criminals don’t go where they’re uncomfortable.”
Police, too, are doing their part to make criminals uncomfortable in the park. Walking patrols have shut down the dice games and drug dealing, neighborhood officer George Engleman said.
The Aug. 21 event reflected the diversity of the two neighborhoods linked by the park. Kennedy Heights is 71 percent black; 26 percent white; Pleasant Ridge is 60 percent white; 37 percent black.
Holly End said the mix of races, incomes and ages fosters “a very ardent loyalty to the community here.” The Pleasant Ridge resident, who stopped coming to the park after the spate of violence, said she was “thrilled to hear (Play in the Park) was happening.” She brought her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
Nearby, Justin Wilkey watched his 4-year-old daughter play, and said: “I want to send a message to folks that are up to no good. This isn’t the place to be, because we care.
“This is what our two neighborhoods are about, right here: Families, neighbors getting together and having a good time,” said the 14-year Pleasant Ridge resident.
Someone else was taking it all in – a Kennedy Heights resident who never expected to return to the park.
“Then I heard what they’re doing on Wednesdays, for the community and for the kids,” Andrea Hall said.
The first two times she came, Hall sat in her parked car at the edge of the park. She watched as families walked past her to the playground.
“This is my first time coming all the way up,” she said, standing next to Officer Engleman with the playground in view.
“I knew there were lots of kids out here,” she said. “I’ve not seen so many kids out having fun in a long time.
“I want this to continue.”
It will, Wade Murphy promises. With the school year starting and evening daylight waning, Sept. 4 will be the last Play in the Park event this year. But it will resume next June, she said.
In the meantime, the hope is that people will populate the park at other days and times, and momentum will build.
“It’s not just about a park. It’s a neighborhood,” Butler said. “The enthusiasm, the energy from that will spread onto the streets.
“I always say, the pebble rolling down the hill can start an avalanche.”
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com