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Reinvention of urban reinvention

Barbara Tannenbaum | June 17, 2011 | Story Best of the Bay

Four years ago, Toody Maher, an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur living in Richmond, started a quiet revolution that’s about to hit the ground this fall. She decided that a neglected, crime-ridden park in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood desperately needed renovation—“By day it was empty, and by night it was the site for drug deals, gun sales, and dog fights,” she says—and succeeded not only in mustering a legion of followers, including design firms, UC Berkeley and UCSF professors, and hundreds of local residents, but also in inventing a whole new type of urban reclamation. It wouldn’t do, she theorized, to just pretty up the park and add some new play structures; the surrounding neighborhood had to be refurbished too. So, with money from her 401(k), she hired local parents and teens, who researched, lobbied, scouted, and held 163 community meetings to figure out the right approach. Eventually, Maher and her team convinced the city of Richmond, affordable housing advocates, and other investors to fix up the 20 foreclosed homes that were sitting empty around the park and come up with a plan for the playground itself. It’s an open question whether Richmond’s Pogo Park is a replicable model, given that it involved thousands of hours of volunteer effort plus one woman’s retirement fund. Still, “she’s not done yet,” says Ron Holthuysen, founder and creative director of Scientific Art Studio, which lent out office space to Maher and her team to create a project model. “The next step is to make sure the community participates in the actual construction.”


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