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One big happening family

If you don't see someone you know at the Roots & Heritage Festival, you aren't looking hard enough.

"You see old friends. It's sort of like a big family reunion." said Kimberly Henderson-Baird, festival chairwoman. "If you don't see somebody the rest of the year, you will see them at the festival."

In the 20 years since the African-American heritage festival began, the northern downtown neighborhood along Elm Tree Lane and North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard where it occurs has seen dramatic changes, Henderson-Baird said.

An original goal of the event, which celebrates its 20th year this weekend, was to revitalize an area that was once a thriving social and cultural center. A marked increase in new houses in recent years and the opening this year of William Wells Brown Elementary School are a reflection of the positive changes in the area, she said.

"It started as a way to uplift the area when it was down," said Urban County Councilwoman Andrea James, who can enjoy the festival from a lawn chair in her driveway. "There is a lot of energy around the festival."

But community improvement aside, the festival is also a party of note, said Henderson-Baird. Roots & Heritage has been honored recently as one of the Top 20 events in the Southeast by Southeast Tourism Society.

The draw of old friends and good food is always a highlight. For James, her favorite memory revolves around the "five funnel cakes and four fish plates" she believes helped push her into labor when she was pregnant and resulted in the festival celebration coinciding with her son's birthday.

There will be 200 vendors at this year's street festival along Elm Tree Lane, including a voter registration booth and representatives from the state Republican and Democratic parties.

Although the streetfest is the centerpiece of Roots & Heritage, there are other events this weekend and through the next month.

This year, the Affrilachian poets group scheduled its reunion to coincide with Roots & Heritage. They also are offering a poetry workshop in conjunction with the festival.

"If you don't come you will truly miss it," said Henderson-Baird. "It's an educational, cultural, learning experience for everybody."

A calendar of events appears on Page 5.

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