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Harold's Playlot: with a lot of work and a little luck, Hyde Parkers reclaim a neighborhood resource

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One Saturday late last month the rain clouds went away and a dozen or so little kids lined up to use the swings at Harold's Playlot in Hyde Park. A bunch of kids waiting to use some swings may not sound like much, but a few years ago that play lot, in East Hyde Park just north of 53rd Street and east of Hyde Park Boulevard, was filled with debris and rarely used.

It took almost two years of local fund-raising and planning to transform the play lot, and now it has been renamed for the late mayor Harold Washington, who lived in the apartment building across the street. Irene Sherr, one of several locals who led the drive for the new play lot, says, "Our effort was about community involvement, and that's what I think Harold Washington's movement was all about."

The effort to fix up the play lot began in the fall of 1990 at a meeting of the East Hyde Park Committee, a neighborhood group. "A lot of us were tired of the condition of the play lot," says George Kotnour, chairman of the committee. "It was underutilized, at least by parents and kids. If we didn't do something, it might never have been done."

In those days seedy-looking panhandlers and drifters occupied the play lot. "The only equipment was a freestanding slide, some dilapidated swings, and a jungle gym," says Sherr. "There wasn't much grass, and there were broken bottles and trash. The sandbox had two concrete areas buried beneath the sand--a child could easily crack his head. It wasn't a very friendly place."

The committee decided to take advantage of the Park District's soft-surface program, a five-year plan to resurface the city's 550 or so play lots with wood chips. On November 20 Sherr wrote a letter to Park District superintendent Robert Penn, and two months later Penn promised to resurface the play lot in 1991. "The soft-surface program is intended to make play lots safer for kids," says Natalie Gongaware, a landscape designer for the Park District. "We put in about 15 to 18 inches of wood chips, which compacts to 12 inches. That will cushion the fall if a child falls from any equipment."

The Park District allots $40,000 per playground, but Sherr quickly realized more money would be needed. "Once I called around and started seeing what other areas had done, I realized that $40,000 would go fast--especially if you wanted to bring in new equipment. We decided that we wanted to do more than add the wood chips."

So she wrote another letter to Penn, and in April the district responded by doubling their allotment. "The Park District decided to give us $80,000 because the play lot is part of a regional park, which means it serves more than just the immediate area," says Sherr. "There are tennis courts nearby, and it's just off of Lake Shore Drive, so people come here from all over."

The Park District also wanted to make the new play lot the chief facility for disabled residents in the area. "This play lot is completely accessible to people who use wheelchairs," says Gongaware. "That means kids who want to use the park and parents in wheelchairs who should be able to enjoy a day in the park with their children."

Knowing that extra money was coming, Sherr, Kotnour, and their neighbors began devising new ways to spend it. "It was an exciting position to be in--to actually have some money to design a good park," says Sherr. "The Park District was very cooperative, especially Natalie and Al Neiman, another employee. We held regular meetings--maybe 20 people would attend. And we asked ourselves, what do we want?"

The suggestions ranged from basketball courts and a putting range for golfers to swings and slides arranged so that it would be easier for parents to watch and supervise their children. "We talked about the pros and cons of all of these things and decided that we should stick with basic play-lot features," says Leigh Breslau, Sherr's husband and the architect who drew up the original play-lot scheme. "Based on what the parents told me they wanted, I tried to create a series of play areas--or outer and inner rooms--with equipment arranged by age group."

A tricycle path would ring the play lot, and a pirate's ship would sit at the center. There would also be four sets of swings, as well as a new sandbox and an elaborate jungle gym.

But when the residents brought their plans to Gongaware, she brought them down to earth with the price tag. It would cost at least $165,000 to do all the things they wanted--and more if they were going to repair the play lot's broken spray pool. That meant the residents would have to come up with another $85,000.

"We never imagined how much work this was going to take when we started," says Kotnour. "We figured it would take a couple of meetings and that was it. But once you get started you don't want to quit."

The residents took different tasks. Sara Fishman was put in charge of publicity, Julie Zeftel and Allison Zucker in charge of neighborhood outreach. Kotnour and Sherr were given the main fund-raising chores. "I went to the Donors Forum and looked up every foundation that gives money to activities involving children, parks, or recreation," says Sherr. "I must have written to 20 or so foundations. We called ourselves Plan for Play. We put together a brochure, printed 5,000 copies, and distributed them throughout the neighborhood. Julie Zeftel was in charge of soliciting money from residents, and she made many presentations to condo committees in the area."

The group got a big break when it received a grant from Regents Park, a nearby high-rise complex. "It was a three-to-one matching grant," says Sherr. "They gave us one dollar for every three dollars that we raised, with $20,000 being the maximum that they would give. Their offer gave us credibility. It meant we had the potential to raise as much as $60,000."

They received another $10,000 from the Illinois Humane Society, an organization that funds children's programs. In October 1991 they raised about $7,000 by sponsoring a trike-a-thon. "About 300 people showed up, and it gave us a major burst of momentum," says Sherr. "We had about 120 kids riding their tricycles in the park. All of the nursery schools in the area were involved. We had clowns and mural painting and bubble blowing and environmental groups sending the kids looking for different kinds of leaves. Sara Fishman got us coverage in the Tribune, and Channel Nine sent out a crew and we were on the news. Most important, it made us feel good about what we were doing."

Despite their efforts, they were still about $35,000 short of their target. Then in the spring the Park District came up with a new idea. "They suggested that we make the play lot and the larger park around it a memorial to Harold Washington," says Sherr. "The Park District always wanted to make a memorial to the mayor, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity." Both the play lot and the park were to be renamed after him.

"The commitment to making it a Washington memorial meant the park district was willing to spend an extra $100,000 for the play lot," says Sherr. "The new money allowed us to do more landscaping, plant more trees, and repair the spray pool." The total cost of the play-lot project was about $270,000, of which the residents raised roughly $70,000.

The July dedication ceremony featured honchos from the Park District as well as some of the late mayor's friends and family. "The ceremony was nice, but the real gratification came afterward when we saw how many kids use the park," says Sherr. "It's packed with kids of all races and classes. Everyone uses it, including a lot of the day camps and nursery schools. It only underscores the need we have for clean, safe parks.

"I know Hyde Park has some advantages over a lot of poor neighborhoods when it comes to projects like this. But I think our results can be emulated elsewhere. The most important thing is to have perseverance. You'd be surprised what you can get done with a central core of hard-working, relentless people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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