By Heather Tirado Gilligan
Toody Maher’s charge to renovate the Elm play lot in Richmond is a testament to perseverance. The small park sits on a corner in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, a low-income area that sees much of Richmond’s street violence. The play structure is a primary-colored island surrounded by grass and sidewalks with no pedestrians. On a recent sunny fall afternoon, the yellow and blue slide, built to beckon children, stood empty, the swings hung still. The only sign of life was an ice cream truck that drove by slowly, with a song playing hopefully from its loudspeaker.
Maher has fought for two years to change this small corner of a poor city’s poorest neighborhood through an organization she founded, Pogo Park. She’s learned to embrace the series of never-ending challenges involved in making a play space for the youngest residents of Richmond’s Iron Triangle.
“I call it a slow park,” Maher said. “You know, like slow food.” Maher spent two years securing money to renovate the park. Initially, Pogo Park won a city grant, money that was quickly lost when redevelopment funds dried up during the state budget crisis. Recently Maher’s perseverance was rewarded when the park won $2 million from the state for renovations in November.
Despite the infusion of money, however, Maher plans to stick with what she calls her slow park philosophy, developed over the two years she spent collaborating with residents to develop a vision of the park that worked for them.
Initially, Maher had a hard time adjusting to the slow pace. She lives in one of Richmond’s more affluent neighborhoods, sixteen blocks and a world away from the Elm play lot. Maher made her mark in business with knack her for spotting innovation, bringing Swatches to the United States in the 1980s and the clear telephone to the market in the 1990s. She was dismayed that Richmond parks didn’t encourage that kind of innovation in the low-income kids who are least likely to see their individuality and creativity fostered at school.
“They learn how to do testing in kindergarten,” Maher said. Better-off parents have the money and know how to supplement their children’s education if they feel it’s too rote or test-oriented, but low-income families don’t have these choices.
Parks can fill in this gap, Maher said. She wants Elm park to become a model for what she calls “super play,” a phrase that Pogo Park has trademarked. Rather than building more static play structures with slides and swings, Pogo Park has developed equipment that allows kids to experiment and imagine. The plastic slide will be replaced by multiple slides built into a huge hill of dirt. A tepee and a grizzly bear are just two of the play elements that will be placed around the new play lot, designed by the Pogo Park team of five Richmond residents.
Resident involvement will make the Elm lot different from Richmond’s other parks, Maher said. The city has about 50 of them, mostly underused. Nevin Park, also in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, underwent a $3.7 million renovation in 2009 but is frequently empty. “Renovations don’t increase use,” Maher said.
The delays proved invaluable to understanding why renovations don’t translate into more people in the park, Maher said. She initially underestimated the depth of the problems facing the Iron Triangle. That’s a mistake would-be reformers sometimes make in Richmond, Maher said, describing residents as understandably cynical when she approached them with her ideas. This is how she describes residents’ initial response to her: “Nothing here has ever worked. You are a person selling dreams.”
Trust slowly accumulated, as Maher started working with residents on problems around the park. One of their first challenges seemed simple at first, removing the tennis shoes that hung from utility lines. The shoes told would-be buyers that drugs were for sale around the park. To residents, they were a reminder of the bleak underside of the neighborhood, a symbol of menace. Maher thought getting the shoes down would take a phone call to the city, so she made it. The city told her to call the utilities, and the utilities directed her back to the city.
“It was like a comedy of errors to get those shoes down,” Maher said. The process showed her that making even the smallest changes was difficult and required a lot of time, along with nimble and persistent responses to bureaucratic stonewalling.
Maher is good at that kind of work, but she never would have figured out on her own that tennis shoes would keep people away from a carefully crafted park.
So a working partnership evolved from these early experiences, one that Maher illustrated by drawing a Venn diagram of residents and experts on a sheet of scrap paper. Experts don’t know enough about the neighborhood to make a successful park in Richmond, Maher explained, and residents don’t know enough about early childhood development. So the middle of the diagram is the sweet spot, a sacrosanct place for change.
That spot has already shaped the lives of people who are renovating the play lot. Maher’s making sure they are trained in the job skills they’ll need to build and sustain the park. Pogo Park’s team of five has learned basic skills like typing, but they’ve also built every bit of the models and prototypes of the park by hand. Pogo Park outreach worker Daniela Guadalupe says that the childhood development training she got through her job also helped her become a better parent. Guadalupe recently graduated from Richmond high school and is a mother of a three-year-old son. “I’ve become more aware,” Guadalupe said, especially of the importance of play to children.
The play lot will be built in two years, but Maher and the Pogo Park team have big plans for the little corner. They want to block off streets on the weekends and hold a weekly farmer’s market. And they plan to make the park a center that links residents with resources, so local moms will have a place to go the next time they want tennis shoes removed from wires.
Some of this work is already underway, like a partnership with Richmond’s Urban Tilth to create gardens for the park. Richmond resident and Pogo Park collaborator Joe Griffin said that these intermediate outcomes make Maher’s work unique. Richmond has no shortage of people who want the city to change, but Maher is bringing both resources and patience. “She provides real tangible results and points of celebration,” Griffin said “where people could say, I feel like something is happening.”
Even after Elm play lot’s renovations are finished, the benefits of Pogo Park’s work will take time to unfold, Maher said, perhaps as long as twenty years to turn this little corner of Richmond around. She’s planning to stick around in the sweet spot until the transformation is done.