"It’s just a happy place, whether it’s raining or it’s sunny or it’s storming or it’s cloudy," says 14- year-old Shakira Johnson. "Everybody is there because they know what the event has to offer."
Johnson refers to Parkridge Summer Festival and Joe Dulin Community Day, commonly known as Summer Fest, which will mark its eighth year on Aug. 25 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Parkridge Park, 791 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti. The all-ages event features free entertainment, food, and giveaways, including performances by local musicians and activities for youth, like face painting and tie-dying. There will be at least 20 merchant vendors selling food, artwork, crafts, and other goods, and 60 nonprofit vendors sharing information about their organizations.
Summer Fest is an event created for and by Ypsi's South Side, with a legacy that stretches back far longer than its eight years. Washtenaw County commissioner Ricky Jefferson, a founding member of the Parkridge Summer Festival Steering Committee who grew up on the South Side, thinks the event gives neighborhood residents of all ages something to look forward to every year.
"That’s why we wanted it free and we’re keeping it free for entrance, so they can afford to have something in the summer to do on this side of town and be proud of it," Jefferson says.
The inaugural Parkridge Summer Festival was held in 2011 in an effort to inform residents that Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., was still open and offering programming for all ages. The center has been a hub for the neighborhood since it was built in 1943, but its funding was cut in 2003 when Ypsi's parks and recreation department was eliminated. Ypsi residents including Thomas Frye and John Barfield stepped in to fund programming in an effort to keep the center open. Washtenaw Community College launched a summer camp at Parkridge in 2006 and took the lead on all the center's programming in 2010.
In 2012, Parkridge Community Center and the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (Washtenaw County OCED) joined forces to host the first Parkridge Summer Festival and Joe Dulin Community Day. Washtenaw County Joe Dulin Community Day, an event designed to showcase local nonprofits and community resources, was held on the same day as Summer Fest in 2011. The community center and the county decided to merge the two events, given their similar goals.
The idea for Summer Fest evolved from conversations that Parkridge Community Center community development manager Anthony Williamson had with residents who shared fond memories of the annual Black Arts Festival held in Parkridge Park from the late '60s to early '80s. The three-day festival was held during the last weekend of August as a celebration of African-American culture, including music, dance, and art.
Lifelong South Side resident Bryan Foley recalls performing at the Black Arts Festival with some of his neighbors in a band called the Young Circles. He says playing the festival was "the highlight of our summer" and a primary objective for any local band.
“It was just the greatest thing I had ever attended really, up to that time," Foley says.
A group of residents who organized or attended the Black Arts Festival, including Jefferson, got together to help plan Summer Fest. They were excited to be part of a new neighborhood event because everyone missed the Black Arts Festival. Some people still refer to it as "the Black Festival," a common shorthand for the Black Arts Festival.
“Everybody just assumed that (the Black Arts Festival) was coming back and that’s what they really were looking for," Jefferson says.
Spencer Lewis was in charge of entertainment for the Black Arts Festival. He was involved in planning efforts for the first Summer Fest and conceived the event's name to reflect that it was open to everyone, regardless of their race.
Lewis thinks Summer Fest has captured the spirit of the Black Arts Festival. He sees it as a "family-oriented" event where people can pull up a chair and enjoy some great entertainment.
"You just sit back, relax, let your hair down, and just enjoy life with some good people," Lewis says.
Summer Fest also provides an opportunity for former classmates or neighbors who haven't seen each other in a while to reunite every year. Some people who moved away after growing up in Ypsi come to Summer Fest to reconnect with their hometown.
"We all haven’t seen each other in years because we’re so busy and we know we can see each other here, so we kind of look forward to that gathering place," Jefferson says.
Lifelong Ypsi resident Lynnette Jordan-Burrell believes it's important to have a big annual event on the South Side. She thinks people can come to Summer Fest regardless of their race, religion, or creed and partake in the event's "clean fun" together.
"We can still get together in love and unity and have fun and help one another," Jordan-Burrell says. "That’s very important."
The event also holds deep meaning for local performers, just as the Black Arts Festival did. Shakira's 12-year-old sister, Briyana, performed at Summer Fest a couple of years ago. Shakira was proud to see her little sister on stage because music is her way of expressing herself. Shakira says Briyana loves the spotlight and was even "hungrier for making music" after performing in front of her family, friends, and neighbors.
As the steering committee's entertainment chair, Foley is responsible for booking the performers. He admits that he has a hard time saying no to musicians who want to perform.
“I want everybody to have the opportunity because this is their community, this is their festival, and sometimes it’s the only opportunity that they have to perform in such a huge venue," he says.
Jefferson says Summer Fest wouldn't be possible without the volunteers who pitch in before, during, and after the event. He says "people in the community volunteer without any question." Jefferson and Foley believe that residents' willingness to volunteer shows how much Summer Fest means to them.
When Foley and some other volunteers were building a stage for the event two years ago, several men who lived in the neighborhood saw what they were doing and asked if they could help. Foley thinks the residents who help prep the park for the event by cutting grass, pulling weeds, and sprucing up the area "just come out here because this is their park."
"It’s that community flavor of having something of our own and making it from the beginning to the end," Jefferson says. "To see people respond like that is worth it."
Summer Fest is open to local vendors offering food, artwork, crafts, homemade wares, and similar items. Nonprofit vendors must provide social services within Washtenaw County. Booth space is free for nonprofits, $75 for non-food vendors, and $100 for food vendors.
Merchant vendors should contact Cherisa Allen at email@example.com and nonprofit vendors should contact Washtenaw County OCED communications and policy specialist Oke Agahro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in volunteering at Summer Fest can contact either Allen or Agahro for more information.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.