A Park Grows in Richmond 

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

Page 3 of 4

People want to help Richmond, and people are helping Richmond. Community leaders, city leaders, and a few people with inexhaustible passion fight the good fight against a tide of crime and despondency. By infusing funds into schools and community centers, more and more good has been etched out against the city's patchwork landscape. But as Maher would learn, there's a long way to go.

When Maher first presented her concept of park hosts and play elements, she was met with cynicism. Her vision seemed like a big pipe dream for a place often so devoid of hope. At a community meeting on January 24, she got some skeptical looks and snickers at the mention of butterflies and bubble machines.

But in spite of all the snickers, it didn't take Maher long to begin mobilizing people. She has gotten nothing but support from city officials, who already wanted to rethink their playlots but didn't know where to start. They immediately agreed to her pilot plan, and she dived head first into meetings with city council members, budget analysts, the city manager, and anyone else who would talk to her.

"I started to see how the city was working and how things connected," Maher recalled. "And when I went outside that circle of leaders and talked to people in the neighborhood, I really realized that so many people were in their own little bubbles. But I saw how we could work together if we all collaborated."

In March of last year, Maher presented a 31-page park prospectus to the city and won approval to begin work to improve the park. After the city endorsed the reinvention of Elm Playlot as Pogo Park, Maher turned to the monumental task of fund-raising.

The city's Redevelopment Agency took care of one major hurdle when it pledged 100 percent of the capital costs necessary to renovate the playlot, estimated at $400,000. Meanwhile, City Manager Bill Lindsey is committed to having the city's Public Works Department coordinate street improvements around renovations of the playlot.

To redesign the park, Maher raised $37,750 from individual donors — an amount that was matched by the city and awarded to Urban Ecology, an organization dedicated to building ecologically and socially healthy cities. Many talented playground experts are lending their eye to the design of the park; including Ron Hothuysen and his Scientific Art Studio, which is responsible for the play elements at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and the huge baseball glove towering over left field at AT&T Park. As luck would have it, Hothuysen's business is located in the Iron Triangle. With the help of Richmond residents in his employ, he is creating unique play elements for the new Pogo Park.

In fact, the city is seeking out local businesses to contract and build each and every park element, from the fence to the office. "We are right at the crest of doing something so different, in such a better way," Maher said. "Everything will be local; people who live in the neighborhood will get the building contracts, bringing the money back to them. It is an instant economic stimulus plan."

Urban Ecology has involved the community in the design of play elements and park layouts. Community members also will be hired for the park's construction. Maher believes that the more threads that are weaved back into the neighborhood, the more chance the park has to succeed. If the park is designed by the mothers living down the street, built by teenagers whose little brothers will play there, and watched over by the grandmother who lives next door, the collective assumption is that people will be less likely to mess it up.

Playground designer Jay Beckwith, who is based in Sebastopol and is one of his industry's most respected figures, is acting as Pogo Park's advisor and planner. The California Endowment awarded $25,000 to the urban design and land planning experts at MIG, who are considering how to make the biggest possible impact on public health in the park's design. To support educational programs at nearby Peres Elementary School that will mirror the programs at the park, the Irene S. Scully Family Foundation granted the project $20,000. And she convinced Kaiser Permanente to award $20,000 to support development of the play leader program.

But even if she managed to create a utopia among parks, Maher soon realized that Pogo Park alone couldn't solve all the community's problems.

During Maher's many visits to 8th Street and Elm Avenue, she began to realize that the desolation of the surrounding neighborhood fed the problems afflicting the Elm Playlot. After all, the neighborhood surrounding Elm Playlot was a far cry from the one where Maher spent her own childhood.

Eight out of ten houses immediately surrounding the park sit unoccupied, serving as magnets for vandals and drug users. No one bothers to clean up the waste piled behind low front-yard fences. Keep-out signs and bright yellow auction notices are tacked over the plywood on windows and doors. The park's shiny jungle gym is just a tempting beacon in a dangerous landscape.

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