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New London - Looking around Riverside Park Sunday afternoon, Phyllis Wiggins liked what she saw.
On the basketball court, a belly dancing troupe from Jewett City shook and spun in sequined costumes to a Middle Eastern beat. Up the hill, Jason Simpson and Akbar Starkley showed a group how to play "skip stick," a game Simpson invented with a weighted 5-foot length of PVC pipe. A few dozen yards away, children clustered around Felicia Stevens, waiting for their turn to offer their face as a canvas for butterfly, snake and Spiderman designs.
"OK, let me put some silver around your eyes," said Stevens, dipping her brush as she spoke to the 5-year-old boy whose face she had just painted with a deep red Spiderman mask.
Near Stevens' face-painting booth were vendors selling jewelry and dreamcatchers, original artwork, photography and baked goods, along with other tables manned by representatives of local organizations eager to share information about their groups.
"I used to come here years ago with my kids, and I'm glad to see they're building this back up, because we need it," said Wiggins, a city resident. "We used to have our cookouts right over there, and we'd send the kids down early to get the best spot."
She had come to the shady park on this delightful spring afternoon with friends Daphne Knight and Sylvia Potter for the second annual Neighbor Day festival. The daylong event featured performances by 13 local bands and four dance troupes, along with vendors, bubble blowing, moonbounce inflatable play equipment and other activities.
"Most of the bands asked me if they could play today," said Lorain Ohio Simister, the resident who organized the event. "This just grew legs and started taking off without me."
Simister and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio organized the first New London Neighbor Day last year at Bean & Leaf coffee house, when Finizio was campaigning for office. They patterned it after an event the two first became involved in 18 years ago, when both were Westerly residents, as a way to bring that community together after the fatal stabbing of a teenager there. New London needed a similar event, the two decided, after the fatal stabbing of Matthew Chew in October 2010. Shortly after taking office, Finizio said, he officially declared the third Sunday in May as New London Neighbor Day.
"It's an organic celebration of community, with the theme of 'Love thy neighbor' and the arts and peace," Finizio said, talking over salsa music playing while dancers Leopoldo Navarro and Elizaldy Hilario taught a dozen or so others their moves. "This showcases the real positives in New London, the diversity and the culture."
No city funds were used for the event, which was paid for entirely with private donations, he said.
"I hope 40 years from now this is still going on," he added.