When LinkSTL in North St. Louis City’s Hyde Park neighborhood began planning their second annual Spooktacular Halloween event this year, they set sights on a higher turnout than they’d had in 2015. Last October, Spooktacular drew about 150 registered attendees and over 200 by the end of the day’s event. As a part of their aim to grow Spooktacular this year, LinkSTL set its 2016 attendance goal at 300 people.

So even they were surprised when the event drew over 500 registrants—and even more neighbors who stopped by unexpectedly on the day of the event.

For Timetria Murphy-Watson, LinkSTL’s Executive Director, this was a signal of the passion Hyde Park’s residents have for their community. “It’s one thing for people just to come in the park because they see other people, they hear music,” she said. “But they actually took the time to go to the office and get registered and follow protocol, so they can stay in contact and stay engaged.”

LinkSTL faced a slightly different response when pulling together their first Spooktacular event last year. The place-based community organization was met with skepticism from residents as they began announcing the event in 2015. “It wasn’t until the day of the event that I think people really took it seriously,” Murphy-Watson recounted. “We passed out flyers, we had meetings. But the day of, we ordered orange balloons and we put them up along the neighborhood to light a route.”

Those balloons caught the attention of neighbors. Murphy-Watson described residents’ reactions as the President of LinkSTL’s Board of Directors, Michele Duffe, helped to place the balloons: “People are looking at her, and she’s smiling, and people are smiling back. And it was something as simple as one orange balloon that made people smile.”

LinkSTL didn’t start out intending to host a Halloween event. “Our purpose in the neighborhood is to bring the neighbors to different things that already exist,” Murphy-Watson explained. Communities First, a nonprofit agency that serves children and families primarily in North St. Louis City and County, had already been holding Halloween parties in the neighborhood for several years. But in 2015, as LinkSTL began convening community meetings to draw out residents’ thoughts about what they wanted to see in their neighborhood, it quickly became obvious that neighbors wanted to create opportunities for trick-or-treating.

As Murphy-Watson pointed out, trick-or-treating is a natural fit for community-building. “We wanted to provide an opportunity in the neighborhood where people felt like they would in any other neighborhood. People trick-or-treat. That’s how you get to know your neighbors,” she said. “But if you don’t know your neighbors, you’re less likely to trick-or-treat in your neighborhood.”

That type of isolation can dampen residents’ perceptions of their communities. “The kids in this neighborhood always described other neighborhoods with more positive thoughts and emotions,” Murphy-Watson recalled. “So the whole purpose of Spooktacular was to bring the neighbor to the neighborhood and to provide a positive experience through trick-or-treating and going out.”

When the event started that first year, LinkSTL’s office filled up more quickly than the team was expecting. Attendees were clustered into groups of about 15 with adult volunteer chaperones for each group. The trick-or-treating route, which had been planned in advance, consisted of about 30 homes and 5 organizations that had opted in to participate as safe stops along the way. Group leaders were given residents’ names beforehand to allow families and kids participating a chance to meet their neighbors and remember where they lived going forward. LinkSTL created maps to accompany the route and provided candy for homes that volunteered to participate as handout locations.

Once groups started making their way through the neighborhood, other residents came outside to join in. “People were just sending their kids outside, and kids were running to get along the route,” Murphy-Watson said. “They talked about what school they went to and things of that nature.” Trick-or-treating was followed with a party at Clay Elementary, where the team received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Many longtime neighborhood residents shared that they had never taken their children trick-or-treating in Hyde Park before. “It was an awakening moment for us all,” Murphy-Watson shared. “Because we just thought, ‘Let’s just do trick-or-treating. People say that they don’t trick-or-treat here; I think that that’s a positive way to move the community forward. Let’s do it.’ But we didn’t know that all those little things would happen in-between.”

This year, LinkSTL set out to make Spooktacular “bigger and better,” Murphy-Watson said. Part of their efforts dovetailed with an initiative that had grown out of LinkSTL’s community development work groups: a desire among residents to rebrand both the neighborhood and park. The LinkSTL team had also heard from residents that they wanted the celebration to feel more like a festival, so Spooktacular this year incorporated a handful of new features: a haunted house, face painting, a bounce house, a game area, and stations to make caramel apples and decorate cupcakes.

Many of these new elements were entirely volunteer-driven. “We had a resident volunteer to make 250 cupcakes, and she did it,” Murphy-Watson said. “She’s a really good baker. And the kids just came in and decorated the cupcakes.” Residents also volunteered to build the haunted house, which was a huge hit among kids and parents. “That was a lot of kids’ first time being in a haunted house,” Murphy-Watson said. “Kids were really running through screaming with their parents. It was good.”

LinkSTL invited local businesses to take part in Spooktacular too. One resident’s company, Creative Balloons, crafted balloon sculptures to display in the park and at event starting locations. Other businesses were invited to set up a table at the event, and many who didn’t opted to send a donation instead.

Spooktacular also held a costume contest for kids. And for families who volunteered to hand out candy along the route, LinkSTL had a special thank-you gift this year: a pumpkin to carve and enter into a pumpkin-decorating contest. “Everything happened so fast last year, and my regret was we didn’t have a culminating time to say ‘thank you’ besides the thank-you letters that we sent out later,” Murphy-Watson said. “So I wanted to give the families something.”

LinkSTL conducted a survey after the event to gather resident feedback. Again, the results were incredibly positive: “The only complaint that some people had was that it ended early,” Murphy-Watson noted.

Spooktacular’s success has done a lot to raise the visibility of LinkSTL and the community-building work it’s been encouraging in Hyde Park. Murphy-Watson, who has led LinkSTL for almost two years and owns a house in the neighborhood, acknowledged that Spooktacular has helped draw many residents in to participate in some of the organization’s longer-term programming, like its summer camp, community work groups, and Youth Council. That movement will ultimately help bolster LinkSTL’s core mission, which focuses on acting as a link between residents and the community’s opportunities. “I think we have to prioritize the things that are smaller, and the things that you do more consistently,” Murphy-Watson said. “We really see ourselves as just the facilitator to community-building, and allowing the neighbors to really take ownership and pride in what they’ve become, and could become.”

So while events like Spooktacular and this spring’s Earth Day celebration provide positive reinforcement, Murphy-Watson wants to “change the ownership dynamic” as neighbors get involved: “I want them to feel like this is something that has been done so we know it’s possible—and now, how can we do it together?” she said. “People are happy; people want to help; people want to be involved. And you know, that’s all I can ask for. We set the example with the community for the things we want to see, and for the goals and the priorities we want to have.”

When asked what makes her proudest about her work at LinkSTL, Murphy-Watson circled back to this theme, reflecting on the connections that the organization’s programs have developed to involve residents in building community. Many participants in LinkSTL’s summer camp, for example, came from different schools. But Murphy-Watson said she now sees many of those kids spending time together in the neighborhood. LinkSTL has also been working with residents on economic development and financial literacy initiatives, helping them to see how opportunities like homeownership might be within their reach, even if that had never seemed possible to them before. “We’re just providing them with the encouragement,” Murphy-Watson said. “We’re saying, ‘You can do this.’ Because some are thinking, ‘Why me? This isn’t for me.’ But no, it’s for you if you want it to be.”

That type of empowerment is at the heart of what LinkSTL hopes to continue building in Hyde Park. “It starts with the people, and it will end with the people,” Murphy-Watson said. “That’s simple, but I think it’s underrated. The more work and energy and time people put into people, the better we will be as a society.”

For Murphy-Watson, that mission is deeply personal. “I’m proud of the neighborhood, and I’m proud of the people in the neighborhood,” she said. “Which is why I made the decision to move into the neighborhood. I think that Hyde Park is a hidden jewel. I really believe that.”

To view photos from Spooktacular, click here.

Written by Jenny Connelly-Bowen, CBN Graduate Research Assistant