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Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Accidental Community Celebration

It is December in the Southside and time for the Catfish Fry. This is an accidental celebration that occurs the last Friday before Christmas unless that date is Christmas Eve. The origins of the Catfish Fry go back to the mid 1990s when my friend Judge Pamela Gutierrez purchased a home from me—when I worked for a local homebuilder– at 16th Street and Baseline and became my neighbor. We would both have Christmas parties and decided, since we lived so close to each other and because we were invited some of the same people, why not combine our events. We did, and decided to make the mess at my home. Every year it grew and grew. We were entertaining about 40 or 50 guests. Our guests helped out with side dishes, but we were still serving ribs, shrimp, wings, meatballs, etc.
Judge Pam and I realized the party was starting to get a bit expensive. So we thought, “what would be fun to serve but not break the bank?” Catfish seemed to be the perfect answer. So, about 1998 we introduced catfish to our combined Christmas party. By 2000 most people stopped calling it a Christmas party and simply called it the Catfish Fry. We had about 70 attendees.
In August of 2007, family, friends, associates and community leaders celebrated the passing of Judge Pamela Gutierrez. A great leader and supporter of the Southside was gone.
That year the Catfish Fry had reached 200 guests, had live music and was still at my house–and still cost a small fortune. Some years, it seemed like the reason I was selling houses was to give away catfish.
At the same time the Catfish Fry was growing, the City of Phoenix was beginning to clean up the Salt River between 24th Street and 19th Avenue. This effort would become the Rio Salado Restoration Project: $100 million dollars would be spent to return the river to something the entire community could visit with pride. And no catfish…
The city hoped the Rio Salado Restoration Project could have a positive impact on our community in terms of access, ambience, education, employment and economic development, history, housing, public participation, recreation, safety and transportation.
After a meeting concerning the project, having spent a couple of hours pondering the ponderous, I suggested: “Why don’t we start a yacht club to promote the project and the community.” I was thinking that we might flip the problems from trying to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles, to having fun. A yacht club with no water or boats might promote the area by encouraging the use of the restoration area for fun. My thought was that if we could encourage people to visit the park, bring their kids (or have their kids bring them), visit local businesses and become aware of the potential of what the restored river could mean to them, we would be able to engage our friends and neighbors to help us to achieve our goals. This idea went over like a lead catfish.
But the Yacht Club idea did not die. It reappeared in 2009 as way to organize the Catfish Fry when we started to hit 300 guests. The Yacht Club (formally, the Rio Salado Yacht Club, LLC) is growing and last year assisted in promoting two community events: the Villages in Transition and the South Mountain Counts.
This year the Catfish Fry will be taken by the Yacht Club down to the river. We will be at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center on South Central. Hopefully this will help introduce the Restoration Area to a whole new group of folks. If you would like to join us, visit www.riosaladoyachtclub.com for more information.
No water, no boats just the best accidental community celebration in the city.

Written by Greg Brownell

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