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Taking Back Richmond One Park at a Time

I heard Toody Maher’s presentation on taking back parks at the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council meeting on September 26. I was particularly struck by her observation that literally thousands of children live within walking distance Elm Playlot but seldom use it. Located in the heart of the Iron Triangle at 8th Street and Elm Street, the Elm Playlot had brand new equipment installed recently, but it was covered with graffiti in no time, and even with weekly cleanups, the park is littered with trash, broken glass and needles.

With the support of the Richmond City Council and the superintendent of parks, Toody is raising money and designing a new kind of park coupled with a program that is intended to return the park to community use. The Richmond City Council adopted Resolution 26-08 on March 4, 2008 (“Approves the effort to pursue foundation funding as aforementioned to renovate Solano and Elm play lots according to plans approved by Public Works and Parks and Landscaping staff with input from interested residents, community based organizations; and Directs the City Manager and/or his designee to prepare a letter of support to be provided to the interested foundations articulating the City of Richmond’s intent to renovate Solano and Elm Play lots.”) and contracted with Urban Ecology for a $30,000 redesign.

Following are stories from the West County Times and the Chronicle describing what Toody is doing:

A better, safer way to be in Richmond

By Dave Newhouse
staff writer

Article Launched: 09/27/2008 03:51:11 PM PDT

The playground in the heart of Richmond's Iron Triangle neighborhood sits across the street from drug houses with boarded-up windows. At night, playground visitors fire guns into the air and allow dogs to attack the two swing seats to strengthen their jaws.

This is the scene at the Elm Playlot at Eighth and Elm streets, and explains why most residents won't come near the playground day or night, or allow their children to use the park's giant play structure that's tagged with gang language.

There are 54 parks in Richmond, including eight children's playlots, many of them unoccupied because of fear. Last year, Richmond was ranked as the ninth-most-dangerous city in the United States — Oakland was No. 4 — by a private research group.

While Richmond's politicians and police try to put residents' minds at ease, an outside crime fighter has stepped in to make city parks safe.

Toody has reported for duty.

Susan "Toody" Maher, 47, is a five-year resident of Richmond, which she has adopted as her home after living around the world. She is a visionary with a vision of better community living in Richmond.

"Who else is going to do it?" she said. "It might as well be me.

Forty-two percent of crimes in Richmond occur within the Iron Triangle. But when Toody feels motivated, keep an eye on her.

"I am an inventor-entrepreneur," she said. "I can basically take an idea and make it happen. I've had a series of businesses that I've started from scratch. Part of my thing with parks is my parents took us to parks every single day. Our whole social fabric, all the connections we made, was at the park."

Toody was born in Canada, one of five children, and got that nickname at 2 when a brother couldn't say "Susan." After her family moved from Montreal to Pacific Palisades, she attended UC Berkeley, playing volleyball and majoring in history.

Then, while playing pro volleyball in Switzerland, her life changed. A teammate had a cousin who invented the Swatch Watch. Maher decided she wanted to import the watch to the United States. She studied how to write a business plan, then she persuaded the company's president to make her the West Coast distributor for his product.

She next came up with the all-clear Jelly Fish, the No. 1 Swatch Watch seller to this day.

"What I realized," she said, "was that I had good instincts on what people wanted."

She took the money from her Swatch Watch experience and started the first all-clear telephone that flashed when a call came through. Her company reached $5 million in sales, then people copied her invention, effectively stole her business, and she went broke at 30.

Her next venture was a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that created businesses that provided jobs for at-risk youths. The program remains successful, but Maher left after five years. She put on her inventor's hat once more and made money for others — and herself.

Thus, she had enough capital to launch her Richmond parks concept. The city's development agency fell in love with the idea and agreed to fund the first park, the Elm Playlot, at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maher predicts this project will be completed by spring. Additional funding for other parks, she added, will come from businesses and foundations.

"Parks are the energetic hub of community life," she said of her vision.

She studied European park designs and settled on a spiked, 8-foot iron wall with a front gate that would enclose the parks, which would be locked at night. A "park host" would be assigned to each park, although security guards might also be needed.

"There is a tipping point," Maher said. "If we can just make this first park safe ..."

She has met with numerous Richmond families about "reclaiming" the parks in their area. Some parents told Maher that her vision offers them a "beacon of hope."

"Richmond is an interesting city, a city struggling to emerge," she said. "There are a lot of people in the positions of power who have the vision that this could be a better place."

Reach Dave Newhouse at 510-208-6466 or dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com.

How to help
For details or to be a part of Susan "Toody" Maher's vision for Richmond parks, call 510-215-5500 or e-mail toody@pogopark.org.


Revitalizing parks means new life for Richmond neighborhood

Monday, October 8, 2007

In Richmond, salvation may come with swings and a sandbox.

By overhauling some of the city's most neglected playgrounds, Richmond officials - led by a determined volunteer - hope to transform the city, at least for young children and their parents.

"Can you revitalize a neighborhood by revitalizing a play lot? I think so," said Toody Maher, a Richmond resident who has spent eight months working with city staff to clean up a few of the city's most dilapidated and crime-ridden playgrounds and turn them into places where parents will feel safe bringing their children.

"The middle class is going crazy for these new, fancy playgrounds," Maher said. "But lower-class kids come to play lots, too, and they deserve to have the same shot."

Starting with the Solano play lot in the North and East neighborhood, the city has agreed to spend $500,000 repaving adjacent streets, installing traffic circles, planting trees, building sidewalks and putting electrical wires underground around lots throughout the city.

Maher is trying to raise $250,000 through grants and private donations to build a state-of-the-art playground at the Solano site, like Koret Children's Corner in Golden Gate Park and play places found in Europe. It would have all the usual accoutrements such as slides and swings, but also a child-scale village with yurts, teepees and igloos, big piles of mulch for kids to play in, plenty of benches, a kiosk selling healthy snacks, and visiting bookmobiles and health clinics.

It would also have a rotating collection of costumes, art supplies and hands-on exhibits that teach children about nature, ecology and weather.

But the highlight would be a full-time attendant to play with the kids and keep the park safe. The city has agreed to fund several park ranger positions and recruit volunteers to staff the play lots as they get upgraded.

Safety is the biggest impediment to children enjoying the city's 28 play lots, Richmond parks Director Tony Norris said. Many of the play structures, even the new ones, are covered with obscene and gang-related graffiti, and the lots are hangouts for drug dealers and prostitutes.

They are so dangerous, in fact, that few parents let their children go there. On a recent afternoon visit to the Solano and Elm play lots, only one child showed up, and she didn't stay long.

Crime was so bad at two play lots in the Santa Fe neighborhood that residents asked officials to condemn and sell them, which the city did last year.

"It's very frustrating," Norris said. "We just put in five new play structures (in play lots throughout the city), and they're tagged heavily and repeatedly."

Maher and the city hope that if the play lots are safe and imaginative, they'll become neighborhood sanctuaries where children can get exercise and make friends, parents can socialize, and the community can reclaim its public space.

To measure the success of the new play lot, Maher is recruiting UC Berkeley's School of Public Health to do a long-term study of obesity, test scores, delinquency and other risk factors in the North and East neighborhood.

Jahmal Hutson, 14, is ready for a change. He lives across the street from the Elm play lot in the Iron Triangle, where kids haven't played in years.

"Nobody comes here," he said after school last week. "Just some grown people hang out here. There's too much trash and broken glass. People used to come here, but it got messed up."

Nick Traylor, a parent in the North and East area, doesn't let his 1-year-old daughter play on the equipment at the Solano play lot because it's rusty, covered with graffiti and unsafe. The dented, metal play structure dates from the 1960s.

"Usually we go to the swings and then leave," Traylor said. "It would be really nice to have a park here that's attractive and nice. I think it would uplift the whole community."

Maher, 46, a former nonprofit director and businesswoman, decided to take on Richmond's dilapidated play lots after reflecting on the role that parks had in her own childhood in Southern California.

"Parks were a fundamental part of my life," she said. "I know that parks can be a center of community life, especially for kids. And I've always said that what I really want to do with my life is get rich and run a playground."

Maher found willing cohorts in Richmond. The Parks Commission and city staff embraced her idea to raise money and rejuvenate the parks and their environs - projects the city has wanted to do for years, but for which it has lacked money and staff, Norris said.

"We're very privileged to have folks like Toody help us out," Norris said. "This is one thing Richmond's really good at - finding imaginative partnerships with the community, which is essential because government can't do it all alone."

City Councilman Tony Thurmond agreed. Richmond's playgrounds suffer from decades of deferred maintenance due to city budget deficits and inadequate staffing.

But in a city where children under age 6 make up nearly 10 percent of the population, revamping play lots can make a huge difference, he said.

"It's a key issue to the overall quality of life here," Thurmond said. "I really see this is part of the big picture for revitalizing this city. Revitalization has to start with a spark."

How to help

For more information about the Solano play lot project, call Toody Maher at (510) 215-5500 or e-mail toody@pogopark.org.

E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f= NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Richmond City Council hereby