There’s a new scene at Richmond’s Elm Playlot, a half-acre renovated "pocket park" in the heart of the Iron Triangle, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
Inside the park’s fence, kids are everywhere. Toddlers ride tricycles along brightly painted paths. Older kids patiently wait for a spin on the popular zip line. And teens gather in the center for a quick game of dodge ball.
This is a far cry from what the park used to look like just two years ago. The playground was littered with empty liquor bottles, gun shell casing and an occasional needle. Parents didn’t take their kids there.
“Nobody used to come in here and now people are here to take care of us,” says 10-year-old Jose Anaya while taking a break from running around the playground. “[Now] it makes me feel safe.”
His sister Dulce chimes in.
“The first time I walked by it, it was so amazing I couldn’t help myself,” she says. “The next day I came and seen all the exciting things that was here at Pogo Park. I got to meet some of my friends. I want to thank whoever made the Pogo Park and the workers who are here to help us.”
The siblings make a dash to the ice cream truck stopped in front of the park. They share ice cream before Dulce gives Jose a big push on the zip line.
“We have a lot of fun,” he says.
The park’s renovation is the brainchild of Toody Maher, a UC Berkeley alumna who previously helped launch the trendy Swatch watches on the West Coast.
The Richmond resident is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park, the nonprofit that is renovating parks throughout Richmond. In 2007, she visited each of the city’s 56 parks, and it was the tiny "pocket parks," like Elm Playlot, that captured her attention.
“When I first came to visit, every single house surrounding the park, but one, was boarded up,” Maher says. “You drive up and think, 'Oh, this is a nice park.' Then you get in and realize there is nowhere to sit, there’s no water fountains, there’s no bathroom.”
Maher used funds from her 401(K) as the initial investment. Since then, she’s managed to raise $8 million dollars from private and public sources.
“My whole life I’ve always dreamed, if I had a million dollars and I had all the time in the world, I would go and build like great little children’s parks and playgrounds,” she says, smiling.
But Maher knew she needed to gain the community’s trust, which was hard since the neighbors were fed up with broken promises.
“This is a neighborhood where, despite millions of dollars of investments and urban renewal projects, nothing works,” she says.
Maher decided to hire workers from the community to design, build and now manage their own park.
“I knocked on people’s doors that live around the neighborhood, and we worked for years to figure out what we wanted to build,” says Maher. “By empowering local residents to make the change themselves, it’s really been a transformative project for the whole neighborhood. It’s like a mini stimulus plan in the neighborhood because all these folks are getting jobs and training.”
One of those employees is Karina Guadalupe. She's worked for Pogo Park since 2008.
“Before the park, people knew they had someone living next to them, but it really wasn’t a sense of community,” says Guadalupe. "Now the neighbors know each other, they look after each other’s kids and it’s a place to come meet each other and feel safe and comfortable."
She's not the only one who has noticed the change.
“We live here and are really invested in this," says Doris Mason, a longtime Richmond resident who works the afternoon shift at the park. "Every day, I wake up I know I’m making a difference, so I don’t mind coming to work."
She says Elm Playlot has changed the whole atmosphere of the neighborhood.
“You can look around and you can see the kids, you know, they're just happy,” Mason says. “There’s no play structure; they’re creating their own type of play.”
Maher is already working on renovating two other Richmond parks and has plans for many more.
“There are thousands of inner-city parks all over the country that are just lying there -- unused, dormant, uninspired -- and all you have to do is transform it into a Pogo Park,” Maher says. She adds, “All I set out to do was just build a far-out, fantastic, great children’s park. It’s such a great feeling; it’s indescribable to see a dream come true.”
Elm Playlot, Pogo Park’s first renovation, is at Eighth Street and Elm Avenue in Richmond.