A Park Grows in Richmond 

How one dedicated woman is trying to improve life in a tough city, playground by playground.

Bitch bitch I ♥--%$#@ — hot bitch" is scrawled in white spray paint on the jungle gym at Richmond's Elm Playlot. Used condoms and empty gin bottles lie beneath a slide, and two swings are frayed from canine tooth marks. The jungle gym is a sad focal point of the playground's current role: as a gathering spot for pit bulls, drug dealers, and junkies.

Piles of broken glass and kitchen trash blight the adjacent neighborhood. Many nearby houses sport sturdy iron fences and grates or plywood on the windows and doors. People walking by contort their faces into guarded masks, and small children soon become authorities on needles and guns. More than 1,500 children under the age of six live within ten blocks of this corner at Elm Avenue and 8th Street, but they and their parents typically avoid this tiny park in Richmond's notorious Iron Triangle.

It's a rare person who can look at such desolation and see a patch of light. But Toody Maher is such a person. The tall, square-shouldered Richmond resident has assigned herself the seemingly hopeless task of rehabilitating the playground and resurrecting the community. Armed with an unwavering belief that every child deserves have a safe place to play, Maher hopes to revive Elm Playlot and renew the surrounding neighborhood in the process.

Maher's own Canadian childhood was marked by long days at the neighborhood park, a safe, thriving centerpiece of her Montreal community. "Even in the middle of winter, my mom would give me and my three brothers and sisters breakfast, dress us in our snow clothes, walk us two blocks to the park," she recalled. "Everyone who had children went there. It's where friendships were formed, where parents met their closest friends. So much of our growing up was play, and we were never bored. I think that's why I've always been magnetized to parks. Parks are power spots to me, and when I see them not reaching their potential, I can't stand it."

Today, at Elm Playlot, Maher is trying to create a similar space for thousands of deserving kids to play meaningfully. Her vision revolves around a radical idea she calls a "park host" or "play leader." In thousands of European parks, a park host is a full-time job for trained professionals who create play opportunities for children while watching over their park. Studies indicate that play increases any time someone staffs a park, she says.

Maher vowed long ago that if she became wealthy she'd build a community playground and serve as its park host. "One day my partner said, 'Why are you waiting to get rich?'" Maher recalled in an interview. "And I didn't have an answer. My consulting contracts had ended, I had the time, and I thought, 'Why am I waiting? I'm going to start building this playground, right now.' It was the light-bulb moment."

So in January 2007, she took action. For four months, she immersed herself in the city's parks. She did some research and discovered that 22 percent of Richmond's land area lies in 54 separate parks and eight playlots. The parks were there — but, by and large, the people weren't. Maher learned where the new play structures were, and discovered how infrequently kids used them. She also went to parks that worked, and watched children play among groups of seniors gathering for tai chi classes. She began to imagine the mix of fixed and varied elements that she would build into her park: a bubble machine, an herb and butterfly garden, running water for streams.

"Everything in my work life has been about one thing: take an idea and make it happen," she said. "So that's what I'm doing: taking a run-down, seldom used, little neighborhood park and attempting to transform it into an outdoor play space where kids want to come to play every day."

But can a well-intentioned white lady who lives across town from a tough inner-city park really make a difference? After all, Richmond's own park improvement efforts had failed to make any real progress in many troubled neighborhoods. And ideas as radical and costly as a full-time park host or kid-sized teepees and streams were received with understandable cynicism when Maher first shared them. The money alone was daunting. She would need at least $400,000 just to think about her project.

But as Maher's persistence slowly proved her mettle, the community's initial skepticism began to melt. Little did neighbors know that making things happen is Toody Maher's specialty.


Maher describes herself as an action-oriented, connect-the-dots kind of person. She is brimming with ideas and inspiration; words tend to spill out from her with a breathless quality made more endearing by her mild stutter. She's the kind of person who instantly responds to e-mails at 10:30 p.m., and squeezes long thoughts into her text messages.

Yet straight out of UC Berkeley, she spent four paralyzing months climbing the walls in the backroom of a soulless Los Angeles office that sold bonds. Terrified of spending her life squeezing her size-twelve feet into stiff leather pumps and breathing recirculated air, she reached for an idea that would help her escape.

One year before, while playing pro volleyball in Switzerland, Maher had met the originator of Swatch. She saw potential in the plastic watches with bright wristbands, and believed they would take off in the United States. She began spending nights at the library reading up on how to craft a business plan, and eventually convinced the president of Swatch to meet her in Los Angeles to hear her pitch. In a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Maher pitched her plan. Her earnest passion didn't entirely sway the blunt Swiss president. "Your plan is bullshit," he told her when she was done. "But I like your chutzpah."

And so, at age 23, Maher had won the right to distribute Swatch in eleven Western states. Within three years, her sales had topped $30 million. Maher later moved on to start Fun Products, a Berkeley company that created the world's first clear telephone. That emblem of the early 1990s, with its colored innards and flashing lights, was named Fortune magazine's 1990 Product of the Year, and Maher was honored by Inc. magazine as its Entrepreneur of the Year. "I realized I was good at product sensing," she said. "I knew what people wanted."

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