Richmond nonprofit tackles new approach to urban renewal
on December 10, 2015
James Anderson has a habit of peeking out of his house, day or night, constantly checking on his unofficial front yard. From his front door or upstairs window, he can scan the half-acre park known as Elm Playlot, just to make sure there’s no trouble.
He grew up in the Iron Triangle, a notoriously high-crime neighborhood in central Richmond named for the train tracks that create its distinctive borders. More than year ago Anderson started working at Elm Playlot, located on Elm Avenue and Eighth Street, steps from his home.
Watching over the park is one of Anderson’s job duties. Nor is he the only Iron Triangle resident with a stake in what happens outside his door. Anderson is part of an 11-person community development team for Pogo Park, a nonprofit in the Iron Triangle that’s transforming Elm Playlot and challenging typical methods of urban renewal.
He visited Elm Playlot as a kid, and he said the park where his children now play is drastically different.
“You had to be a really tough cat to be able to come to this park and leave this park and want to come back,” he said. “It’s a safe environment now. It gives the kids something to look forward to.”
Toody Maher, Pogo Park’s executive director, launched the nonprofit in 2007. She said originally she wanted to build a park on Solano Playlot near her house, not embark on a community development project. But after visiting all the parks in Richmond, she ended up at Elm Playlot.
Maher said she knew this park would only work if Iron Triangle residents felt connected to it. Instead of contracting firms outside of the neighborhood, Pogo Park hired people from the Iron Triangle and trained them to design, build and manage their own project.
“People have such deep needs to participate to work to lift their skills up to be part of something,” Maher said.
Paying an outside contracting firm to come into the Iron Triangle and build this park wouldn’t fix the neighborhood’s deeper issues, and Maher said it would be, “…part of the failed system of urban renewal.”
Implementing this neighborhood-based model of urban renewal has been a slow-moving process.
Maher said Richmond officials were skeptical of Pogo Park’s plan to employ Iron Triangle residents. Some considered it a “radical thing,” she said, before eventually agreeing to give it a shot.
It took about seven years to officially open Elm Playlot. Maher spent much of that time, trying to convince city officials to remove plastic play equipment. She wanted to turn the neighborhood residents loose on a blank canvas.
The prefab play structures were “bought from a catalog” by someone with no connection to the families who would be using the park, she said, adding that everything in Elm Playlot now was “built by hand by the people.”
Maher promised her staff she would pop open a bottle of champagne when the plastic equipment was removed. It took a few years. Then, one morning, Maher watched as the old equipment, which had been vandalized, was relocated about four blocks away to Lucas Park. She opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
The state awarded Richmond and Pogo Park a $1.9 million grant to build Elm Playlot. In 2014, the nonprofit brought in about $1.3 million in revenue from grants and other contracts; roughly triple what the group made in 2013, according to Pogo Park’s tax form.
Richmond’s partnership with Pogo Park and other nonprofits is becoming more crucial as the city’s financial instability increases. In an October city council meeting, Richmond city officials suggested partnering with nonprofits as a way to maintain and revitalize parks.
Elm Playlot, located in the heart of the Iron Triangle, reflects the neighborhood and people who give this once-desolate area life. Silhouettes of local faces are carved in the fence surrounding the park.
Anderson watched the park being built from his doorstep. He was hired as an ambassador for the park’s opening, escorting guests to their vehicles. The self-described “gentle giant” said this job boosted his confidence because people trusted him.
“It wasn’t just a job—it did something to me, made me feel a part of something good,” he said.
Anderson dealt with an unstable living situation while growing up, and sought emotional support as a result. He ended up “turning to the streets,” he said, getting caught up with crime and eventually going to jail.
Now he sees his job with Pogo Park as an opportunity to offer that care and support he searched for as a kid. He said this park is about giving someone the love they need and showing you care.
“When a kid comes here, it changes their train of thought, their mind,” he said. “If they came in a bad way, they leave smiling.”
Elm Playlot remains a work in progress. There are plans for a picnic and barbeque area, a public announcement system and flagpole. Maher said her team also wants to offer more activities, like arts and crafts.
The organization’s second park, Harbor Way, is about a third of the way done. That project is stop-and-go, however, while organizers await funds to continue construction, according to Maher. But parks aren’t the only thing this nonprofit is working on.
Richmond, in partnership with Pogo Park, received a $6.2 million grant in October for the so-called Yellow Brick Road, a project to create safe walking and biking routes in the Iron Triangle. But Maher said Pogo Park isn’t counting on receiving any of the funds because it’s a federal grant with contracting restrictions. Instead, Pogo Park plans on using this grant to leverage other funds.
Maher said Pogo Park plans to finish Elm Playlot, Harbor Way and the Yellow Brick Road by 2020. The organization wants to be an example for urban renewal in other inner-city neighborhoods.
“What we want to do is really model this and communicate our model to the world so it’s like a demonstration project. This can be done,” Maher said. “It’s not just here in Richmond.”
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