Vacant lot in Codman Square re-born as Playground

Mayor Tom Menino had to squeeze his way through a small crowd to reach the gates of the new Elmhurst Street playground on Saturday morning. Standing between him and the inaugural ribbon were dozens of children, many ready with scissors, who had waited through the hour-long celebration for this moment.

A few feet behind, their families smiled as the countdown finished and the children poured through the gate into the swings and playhouse, enjoying the result of ten years of work.

The playground, described by the Mayor as a “beautiful oasis,” replaces a 10,000-square-foot vacant lot near Dorchester’s Codman Square. Equipped with a slide, swings, benches, and a water play area, it was designed with the close input of the neighborhood’s residents, who have longed wished for a space for their kids to play.

To create the playground, the residents worked closely with the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit dedicated to creating urban parks. The trust targeted the Codman Square area because of its high number of children and lack of play areas. According to its Regional Director Whitney Hatch, the neighborhood only has two acres of parks for every thousand residents, compared to five in Dorchester and ten in all of Boston.

Starting as a mere dream shared by a handful of residents in 1998, the project grew to involve more than forty community members, young and old, who raised money, designed the park, and planted seedlings. Securing the funds to both build and maintain the playground — an estimated $260,000 — was a challenge that delayed construction for years. Now that it is finished, the city’s Parks Department will take control of the space and run it with an endowment provided by the community and its partners.

Edith Pegues, a resident who has been involved in the project from its earliest days, marveled at the difference from just a few years ago.

“This was a dumping ground and I’ve seen a huge improvement because the community got together,” she said.

Marcos Beleche, a Community Organizer for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, agreed, cautiously adding that the work isn’t finished: “This is a newborn child. It’s fragile. We have to continue to support it and protect it.”

Even as the community celebrates, residents and activists are preparing to continue their work. Just a few blocks away an even larger vacant lot remains unused. As he addressed the neighborhood, Beleche reminded them that the Elmhurst Street playground is only “half of their dream.” In reply, the crowd cheered and clapped, confident that their collective effort will continue to change their community.