Chevy Chase Playground today. Photo by the author.

Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his “Play DC” project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That’s a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.

The District is allocating $1 million  for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.

I’m truly happy for today’s young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District’s largesse. But I can’t help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn’t quite as vigilant, or as generous.

I hadn’t intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.

But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn’t something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.

Well, of course, I told her. That’s when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.

Little help from DC

Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn’t possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion’s share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I’m not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other’s living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.

We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don’t always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.

We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)

Looking back, it’s amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn’t rely on the District to provide certain basic services.

You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn’t expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of ‘96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.

The Wild West

It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.

Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn’t afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.

But frankly, I’m willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.

I’m not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to “encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds,” and that’s great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.

True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.

No doubt it’s human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren’t around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.