5th annual Simpson Street Neighborhood Reunion
Bringing people together for family fun
by A. David Dahmer
Nobody is more excited about the 5th annual Simpson Street Neighborhood/Finest Family Reunion than long-time resident and reunion organizer Diane Small.
“We are trying to get as many people as we can out to this reunion. It’s important that we all see each other,” Small says in an interview with The Madison Times in the Genesis Enterprise Center on Madison’s south side. “I’m organizing this reunion and trying to give back because I think a lot of people did things for me when I was first coming up here. I think a lot of people did things for my kids, too, as we were coming up.”
The Simpson Street Neighborhood/Finest Family Reunion will be held at Dream Park in Monona’s Winnequah Park on Saturday, Aug. 23. The annual event will feature great food, family fun, socializing, music, swimming, softball, horseshoes, volleyball, basketball, softball, Frisbee, and more.
Small has been in the Simpson Street neighborhood since she and her family first moved there in 1988 from Chicago. She has seen her neighborhood go through many ups and downs. But the feeling of family and togetherness has always been there.
“When we first came to Madison, everything just seemed so different. Everything was so pretty,” Small remembers after seeing the parks and lakes and green grass of Madison contrasting with the gloomy projects of Chicago.
But then the gangs starting coming into the area and Simpson Street began to take a turn for the worse. In the early ‘90s, Simpson Street was one of the most dangerous areas of the city. There was plenty of crime and several people had gotten shot in the area.
“It was like we were repeating history because we had just left all of the drug activity and seedy people and gangs,” Small says. “They were trying to hook kids into their activities. A lot of us had come from all of that in those projects. We were trying to find ways to escape.”
The Simpson Street neighborhood area is bordered on the north by Lake Monona, south by West Broadway, east by Bridge Road and west by the John Nolen corridor. In the 90s, the Broadway/Simpson/Waunona neighborhood was primarily African American and had high concentration of low-income families living in the large complexes along Broadway and Simpson Streets. Small remembers that even in the worst of times, there was a group of mothers who fought against all of the bad influences. The Mothers of Simpson Street often organized and marched against the shootings and drug activity in the area.
“We were some powerhouse women. We were like, “You ain’t going to get into none of that!’” Small recalls. “We wanted to know what our kids were doing. We were involved in the neighborhood center.”
The city of Madison came in and redeveloped some of the problem properties. The Community Development Authority (CDA) purchased the troubled apartments and renovated them in phases so that residents could relocate to other units during construction. Percy Brown, deputy executive director of the CDA at the time, headed up a team that worked with police, building inspectors, public health specialists, and others to put together a revitalization plan for the area.
As part of that revitalization plan, the name of Simpson Street was changed in an effort to change the image. As a long-time resident, Small says she wasn’t excited about the decision to change the name of Simpson Street to Lake Point Drive. “I wasn’t happy. Why would they do that?” she asks. “I don’t think we had much input on it.”
At The Madison Times office, Small proudly displays her Simpson Street Neighborhood Reunion T-shirts and her petition to change Lake Point Drive’s name back to Simpson Street.
Former Madison radio host Mike "BigMMike" Bell was one of the first people to talk to Small about having a neighborhood reunion. “Mike came to me right after my mother passed in 2009 and he said, ‘Ms. Diane, we ought to have a reunion. Let’s have a picnic for the neighborhood,’” Small remembers. “Linda Hoskins and Shelia Stubbs were doing things in the late ‘90s and we had some get-togethers before. We’ve been doing things like this in the community since day one but then it started to die. We were like, ‘What’s happening?’ So, we put that first Simpson Street Reunion together five years ago.”
Today, the Lake Point neighborhood is pretty diverse with a combination of renters, condominium owners, and seniors along with a substantial Latino population. Police activity has significantly decreased since the ‘90s.
“We have a big Simpson Street family. We’re talking about people who are grown up now and have children and whose children have had children,” Small says. “We have so many families. I would love to see a big turnout for this event.
“We are going to have a ton of activities. We will be out there early in the morning and we will be cooking and grilling,” Small adds. “People will be bringing dishes to pass. We have some great cooks. The whole idea is to bring together everybody. People that live in the neighborhood; people that used to live in the neighborhood. Come down and have a hot dog or a brat and listen to some good music. We’re going to play some softball with the Madison Police Department. It’s gonna be fun.”
The 5th annual Simpson Street Neighborhood/Finest Family Reunion will be held at Dream Park in Monona’s Winnequah Park on Saturday, Aug. 23, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
For more information, call Krystal Washington at (608)279-6051, Kevin Hutchinson (608)957-2697, or Billy Cowart (608)712-2184.