Are Jefferson Park and its new mural helping a Hamilton neighborhood turn a corner?

Pastor Aaron Simpson of Freedom House Ministries loves the Hamilton neighborhood where he grew up and still lives so much, he named his 2-year-old daughter, Hensley, for the street where he grew up.

Still, the Jefferson neighborhood, also known as the Fourth Ward, and the city had major struggles during his youth, said Simpson, 39. The neighborhood and city still are struggling with economics, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, he said. But the 2-year-old Jefferson Park has brought new hope and fun community gatherings to the neighborhood, just as new development in Hamilton is transforming his native city’s image and outlook, he said.

Simpson was a speaker during Tuesday’s dedication of the colorful StreetSpark mural, Garden Parade, designed by Cincinnati artist Lizzy DuQuette, which Simpson believes has added further vigor to the neighborhood. Some 14 StreetSpark murals have been created in Hamilton in five years since the program was launched.

It was an empty lot with patches of gravel, sometimes used for parking, until two years ago That’s when Hamilton natives Frank and Joanne Pfirman, owners of family business Matandy Steel, donated the 1.2-acre property for the park.

“I always remember, this was just a gravel lot,” Simpson told the dedication audience. “Every now and then we would play baseball here on the rocks, and it was tough that day if you had to slide, ’cause you never knew what you were getting into. You may have left with cuts and bruises and things like that, but for the love of the game, we did it.”

Now, the park hosts family movies and other gatherings. The Jefferson Alliance neighborhood organization meets there monthly. It’s also a place where families with children meet and get to know others in the neighborhood.

Simpson loves the mural’s garden-parade theme, “because just as this was once an empty lot, full of no life and mere rocks, now it’s become a park, and now it’s entertaining families, now it’s entertaining the community, and bringing people together.”

“What once was desolate, now has been brought to life,” he said.

“I am so glad that my daughter is growing up in a different Hamilton."

- Pastor Aaron Simpson of Freedom House Ministries

Simpson urged the neighborhood and city officials to not be satisfied with the park’s success.

“The best days of Jefferson are yet ahead,” he said.

Mayor Pat Moeller said he was impressed by “just the imagination of a child riding a grasshopper.” Also, he told Simpson, “Pastor, you’ve inspired us to say ’this garden is great, we can make this whole area a much better garden.”

Jennifer Acus-Smith, leader of StreetSpark, said one fun thing about the murals was “the kids that see this and run up like, ’Ooh, this is in our neighborhood,’ and they’ve been loving it.”

DuQuette, the mural’s designer and lead artist, said of the whimsical mural, “I hope this mural creates a shared sense of community solidarity, and identity for this neighborhood.”

Already, that happened during the mural’s painting, she said: “It was a really great experience to have folks from the community come and visit us as we were painting. Kids would come up and tell us that they love our sunflowers. It was so joyful and happy. It was just what we hoped and expected.”

The neighborhood has changed since Simpson’s youth. He graduated from Hamilton High School in 1999.

“When I was younger, it was still very much at the end of that blue-collar, industrial age of Hamilton,” he said. “I remember my grandfather, who I called Dad, walking home from Mosler (Safe Co.). You still had the neighborhood factory feel.”

Companies closed or moved away, and home-ownership declined.

“But also now, seeing the hope that’s being poured into it, and not just Jefferson itself, but the city as a whole,” Simpson said, as his daughter played on a three-level playground equipment. Hamilton Parks Conservancy Director Steve Timmer bought the playground at a deep discount after an Indianapolis convention where the equipment was displayed. The company didn’t want to transport it back to its facility, and sold it for about a quarter of its value.

As Simpson and his family visit new restaurants and award-winning Marcum Park in downtown Hamilton, he said he thinks to himself, “I am so glad that my daughter is growing up in a different Hamilton.”

“Instead of a place that people are wanting to get out of, it’s a place people are wanting to move to,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing in Jefferson is a reflection of what we’re seeing in the city as a whole.”

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