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South Bend will host end-of-summer festival to share world's cultures

 Aerial photo of the Ethnic Festival in 1986 when it was held in downtown South Bend. It moved to Howard Park in 1997.
Provided by city of South Bend
Aerial photo of the Ethnic Festival in 1986 when it was held in downtown South Bend. It moved to Howard Park in 1997.

Cathy Dietz has fond memories of walking with her three children, then ages 1, 3 and 5, from their home in the Sunnymeade neighborhood to the Ethnic Festival in South Bend’s Howard Park.

They made that walk for the festival’s final three years, before Mayor Steve Luecke ended the event in 2004.

Her kids are grown now and she lives a bit closer to the park, on Jefferson Boulevard. Dietz, vice president of the Howard Park Neighborhood Association, was excited to hear news on Tuesday that the city is planning a “reimagined Ethnic Festival” at the park called Fusion Fest in September.

The two-day festival will be filled with food vendors, music, demonstrations, and artisans from every region of the world. It will take over the entire park and surrounding streets and will be separated into global regions with stages and vendors located at each corresponding region: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia/Australia.

It’s a throwback to the original festival’s mission: for the community to learn about and experience different ethnicities and cultures.

“I remember it was just a really nice way to kind of discover the different cultures in the area and some of their traditions, try all the different foods,” Dietz recalled. “We’d see people dancing and see people selling different things. It was just a very fun and relaxing day. I loved it.”

Many longtime residents have fond memories of the Ethnic Festival. For decades it drew massive crowds, starting downtown in 1972 and moving to the park in 1997.

Mayor Luecke didn’t end the event because he disliked it. Rather, the city had grown tired of all the fights among youths, whether they be gangs or just groups of kids with disputes, and vandalism at the event. Especially as police tried to disperse crowds at the end of the night.

For its final two years, the city had tried to rebrand the event as Summer in the City. In its last year, it cost the city’s parks department more than $100,000, which included overtime costs for police officers providing security.

Fights among youth in the park already have been a problem since the park was revamped in 2019. Police have responded to the park six times for fights so far this year.

Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski says police will maintain a strong presence at Fusion Fest.

“I will tell you, from the police perspective, zero tolerance,” Ruszkowski said. “The tomfoolery and some of the things that occurred before, nobody’s getting breaks. You start arguing, you’re out.”

Unlike the past events, Ruszkowski said you’ll only be allowed to enter and exit the park at designated points, where police will be posted and watching for signs of trouble. Police also will have a tool that didn’t exist 20 years ago: social media. That weekend they’ll expand staffing of their Real Time Crime Center, where they can monitor social media chatter and video camera surveillance of the park and other areas of the city.

Ruszkowski said it looks like guns won’t be allowed in the park for the festival, a policy that he says is legally sound since festival sponsors have asked for it. He said he’s strongly considering having a metal detector at the gate.

“People have already questioned, like, well, you know, it’s my Second Amendment right, public property, etcetera,” Ruszkowski said. “However there are vendors and there are sponsors who are paying to sponsor this. Whoever’s sponsoring that venue, they can decide whether they want firearms, weapons, etcetera, or not. To my knowledge right now we have some of the vendors or sponsors who are saying we do not want weapons on the premises, and we will enforce that if that’s the case.”

Jordan Gathers, interim executive director of the city’s Venues, Parks & Arts, said the city is aware of the past problems and will continue to consider any community concerns in the coming months. But he’s not focusing on the negative.

“I think community gatherings and community events is a long part of South Bend’s history,” Gathers said. “We’re going to do our best to be able to bring back as much as possible. The streets being filled with happy crowds and the family-friendly atmosphere, I think that’s really the focus. The need to be able to gather and share stories and celebrate in a familiar place is one that’s going to be beautiful to see.”

Dietz, with the Howard Park Neighborhood Association, agreed. She recalled how earlier this month the U.S. Surgeon General released a new advisory calling attention to a public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in the country.

“I think right now it’s important to do things like this, with people losing connection or having lost connection over the last several years,” Dietz said. “These types of things are just a fantastic way for people to get out and see their neighbors, learn more about other cultures in the area. I think you just need to do it.”

Vendors and performers who want to share their culture through food, art, storytelling, music, dance, and more can learn more and apply to participate in Fusion Fest by visiting