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Newtown Day unites Gainesville's traditional African-American community
Marquez Bush, 28, gives an opening prayer at the Newtown Day festival at Desota Park in Gainesville’s historic African-American neighborhood.

Aaron Christopher said he and his basketball teammates play “for love of the game.”

But the hoops life is about giving back to the local community, too.

“Just be there,” he said.

That message was honored Saturday during the Newtown Day festival in Gainesville’s historic African-American neighborhood.

Sponsored by the Gainesville Heat, a traveling basketball squad of mostly 20-somethings that competes in the American Basketball Association, hundreds of parents, children and friends enjoyed music, food, games and prizes.

Standing on the basketball courts at Desota Park in Newtown, Christopher said it was so important for him to “represent this community” that he drives from his home in Douglasville twice a week to compete for the Heat.

The Newtown neighborhood in Gainesville has seen its share of tragedy and triumph over the years. Noise and air pollution from neighboring industry, slumlords and substandard housing conditions, lead-based paint poisoning and other health risks are just a few of the recent challenges residents have faced.

The neighborhood has long had rich traditions, however, and generations of family roots and spirited gatherings have sustained a proud community.

This explains the recent rise of the Newtown Beautification and Restoration Project, which is aimed at cleaning up the neighborhood grounds and mending the dilapidated housing stock.

Specific projects include beautifying the main entrance points to the neighborhood off Athens Highway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

It also includes finding ways to purchase abandoned lots to develop affordable housing, and improving rental housing by expanding rehabilitation assistance to property owners and landlords.

Spearheaded by the Newtown Florist Club civil rights organization, volunteer members hope to soon acquire a sign to properly mark the historic neighborhood that reads: “You are entering Newtown, a proud community and nice place to live.”

Newtown Day coincided with ongoing efforts between local law enforcement and the black community to proactively address gun-related violence, excessive use of force and other challenges.

Prayer services and roundtable meetings have been held in recent weeks.

That message continued Saturday, just as the bouncing of basketballs and laughter of children showed off the alternative to violence.

“Stop the crime,” Christopher said. “Stop the violence.”

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