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First-time festival encourages positive change in park marred by crime, violence

ST. LOUIS – Residents near O'Fallon Park spent the holiday trying to combat crime. Organizers of the first-ever Taste of Africa Festival hope this will be the beginning of a positive change in the area.

It brought more than 500 people over the course of three days, something organizers they hope they keep as a tradition for years to come.

It was just the taste but the sights and sounds of Africa brought to life in a park that organizers said was desperately in need of a boost.

“You gotta do what you gotta do for the community to help the community,” said Bobby London, a north St. Louis resident.

It’s a community that 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammed said continues to deal with constant crime and violence.

In the past, the alderman has threatened to shut down the park or change its hours if the city—along with its residents—didn’t step up to help make it better and safer for everyone.

“It’s changing the perception of the community and that’s about doing events like this,” Collins-Muhammed said. “It’s about promoting to people that you can have a good time in your park, you don’t have to go to Forest Park or to a St. Louis County park that’s 10 miles away.”

Festival-goers hope this becomes a long-standing tradition and helps create a path that invites a positive reputation to the neighborhood. The festival was a first-time experience in the park for many people, including Nadir Shibaz, who was seen helping to pick up trash.

“If you care about the future of our generation, then you will care about what it is that we are trying to do here because it’s something we are trying to carry on and hopefully next year is even bigger and better,” Shibaz said.

The three-day event also helped open the door for some young entrepreneurs and vendors looking for other avenues of networking and spreading the word.

“I am the community; most of my support comes from people who are in my community, so I didn’t think twice about it,” said Crystal Brown, owner of Caramel Cakes by Crys. “I’m grateful they tasted it and told me my cake melts in their mouth, so it makes me feel wonderful, makes my heart smile.”

Collins-Muhammed said there were some park remodeling projects slated to start at the end of this month, as well as a clean-up day on Friday.