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Gibson Park: A burst of optimism

A mural unveiled Tuesday in Overtown’s Gibson Park depicts the past, present and future of a changing community through artist Addonis Parker’s eyes.

The 12-by-6-foot painting, titled “And a child shall lead them,” shows the faces of black leaders Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama etched on the same canvas as Parker’s son, Amir. Parker painted his son, gazing up with a look of optimism, to represent the generation of young people who will profit most from a positive environment in a community that has struggled with poverty and crime.

Multitudes of children frolicked in what seemed like an oasis in Tuesday’s heat: Gibson Park’s brand new water park and Olympic-size swimming pool. Other amenities of the newly renovated recreational space at 401 NW 12th St. include a baseball and football field constructed with the inner-city neighborhood’s potential for athletic glory in mind.

The renovation was a collaboration of the city of Miami, the Community Redevelopment Agency and Overtown community members who participated as much in the planning as they did in the reopening of the park.

Emanuel Washington, known as “Pops” to some, was a key motivator in the project — for two decades, he has coached and mentored youth in the area.

“If people are here, you know they’re not out on the streets doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” Washington said.

He runs an after-school sports program for 500 children with the Overtown Community Optimist Club. By his side Tuesday were two former NFL football players, Ben Hanks and Duane Starks. Hanks will be running the new facilities at Gibson Park; he was 9 years old when Washington, a recent graduate of the University of Miami, coached him in the very spot where he will now coach a squad of young potential stars.

The new football field at Gibson Park was named after Duane Starks, who was born in Miami, and said he was raised not only by his family, but by a park.

“This space means life to these kids,” Washington said Tuesday after the park’s opening ceremony. Mayor Tomás Regalado stood beside City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones as she cut the ribbon to enter the park’s new building.

In 2008, Spence-Jones, who represents Overtown, proposed a plan to renovate the park to the City Commission. The pace on the project slowed while Spence-Jones was temporarily suspended from office. A city budget crisis added to the hesitation.

But Washington met with commissioners face to face to show that the park was an investment that wouldn’t break the bank.

A tax-increment financing plan started in 1982 had specifically set aside funds for redevelopment in the area. Any revenue from tax increases over the years would be devoted to the community redevelopment agency. Loans backed by this program funded the project.

In 2010, all five city commissioners, with Spence-Jones back on board, agreed to a $10.9 million project to renovate Gibson Park.

The park was designed to last, said city Parks Director Juan Pascual. Maintenance costs will be reduced by the choice of construction materials: the baseball field is made of artificial turf instead of grass. The main recreation building is certified for energy efficiency.

“No corners have been cut here,” Pascual said.

Parker signed printed copies of his mural for children, their parents and grandparents, who have all seen different visions of Overtown. The community was devastated by the construction of downtown expressways during the 1960s, and it was beset by crime and urban blight.

Parker said Gibson Park’s renovation is the first of many changes to come in Overtown.

“Every building can be new and clean, but if the inner man isn’t changed, it’s a waste of time,” the Georgia native and Miami transplant said. “If it’s changed one person, for me, that’s enough.”