A Park Grows in Richmond 

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

Page 4 of 4

So when UC Berkeley doctorate student Joe Griffin approached Maher with an idea for a project to document the decay and danger of park's immediate neighborhood, she leapt at the chance to participate. Griffin, a native of Richmond, initiated his Photovoice project as a way to reach out to the community he grew up in. The project put cameras in the hands of Triangle residents and asked them to photograph what they liked and didn't like about their neighborhood. The photographs were paired with their recorded observations to create a valuable illustration of life in the Triangle.

Many photographed the houses: "It's not a good look for our daughters and sons to walk through and see where they live at. And when their teacher asks them, 'Can you just draw us a picture of your neighborhood?' they're just going to draw old, rusty, broken-down, or undone houses that, you know, we cannot explain why this is happening."

Others depicted the trash: "You look at a model of another neighborhood, and then you see your neighborhood. You see it as being hopeless. I mean, it's not spoken, it's just implied. Every day. But, we should just refuse to live like, you know, with something like this."

Still others captured the Nevin Community Center: "I like this picture because these are all of my family members and ... everybody's in here doing something constructive. Just showing that people actually come here and do something, you know, it's people that try to better themselves."

Another celebrated a local community garden: "This is a beautiful community garden that the Iron Triangle has. I'd really like to see more gardens, more flora, in the city of Richmond."

Maher used the project as a tool to bring more city officials over to her side. After Photovoice, she had a new bottom line: the park could only be safe if the immediate neighborhood was safe, too. The Redevelopment Agency agreed, and city Housing Director Patrick Lynch responded by pledging a portion of the city's $3.6 million federal grant under the Urban Development Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) to buy the abandoned houses that surround the park and remodel them into affordable housing.

"The NSP components will purchase and rehab blighted, foreclosed and abandoned properties and demolish blighted structures all in order to stabilize our most economically challenged neighborhoods," Lynch explained. "Pogo Park is an excellent example of a neighborhood reestablishing families' lives by merging supportive services with real property rehabilitation."

There's no magic wand to turn a vacant park in the middle of a low-income neighborhood into a safe haven for children and their families. The Pogo Park plan acknowledges what's happening in Richmond and answers each challenge with a solution. For safety, install an attractive fence that will be open during the day and locked at night. For organization, build an office that will stock play supplies and healthy snacks. For meaningful play, provide children with a park host. To bring people together, schedule activities for children and exercise classes for parents.

"What started from a critical need to provide children with a place to play has turned into the catalyst for transforming the neighborhood," Maher said. "My job is to create a safe place for kids to play and to become a link in this long chain of efforts by folks devoted to Richmond to make this a better place for everyone."

Maher envisions the park as a gathering center for parents, and plans to offer outdoor exercise classes and monthly health clinics. She imagines it as a community hub, with visits from Richmond's public bookmobile. She plans to work with teachers at Peres School to create activities that mirror and support what kids are doing at school.

"We want to have readings of books at the park that kids are reading in school, bridge some of the education through music that starts in school," she said. "By tapping into the existing network at Peres, activities at the park will help get kids ready for school."

With funding secured for the design and construction of the park, Maher is still seeking funds to develop, and operate Pogo Park. Chief among her needs are funds to support the play leader program and newly formed Elm Playlot Action Committee. The committee will consist of six neighborhood parents who will approve goings-on at the park, from the selection of the play leader to the choice of park activities.

Once Pogo Park is finished, Maher hopes to apply the same model to the city's seven other playlots. She wants Richmond to prove that parks can be a catalyst for change and thus serve as an example to other cities with the same problems. To possibly justify the rehabilitation of more parks after this one, UC Berkeley's School of Public Health will use a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to conduct a study that measures the impact of the revitalized playlot on overall community health. Maher hopes that the result of the study will eventually influence government policy surrounding funding for public parks around the country.

Nothing is fixed overnight, but if you obliterate the trash, drugs, and blight that stains a neighborhood, perhaps at least one corner of this troubled city will be on its way up. Groundbreaking for Pogo Park is on track for August, and with Maher's heavyweight army of supporters to fall back on, all signs point to success.

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