Lessons Learned. Lessons Shared.
Chris Staab is an optimist.
When other people in his Rivoli Park neighborhood saw an uptick in vandalism, and when a vacant lot slowly turned into a weed-filled swamp, he saw an opportunity for building community.
When he learned some valuable lessons about which paving stones worked in the new pocket park—and which didn’t—he didn’t shrug his shoulders and move on. He met with folks at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), and shared his findings, so that future neighborhood park projects might benefit.
Staab, an HVAC technician, has lived in Rivoli Park (off East 10th Street) for 30 years. When he moved in, the neighborhood was stable and well kept. Then the mortgage crisis of ’08 hit, and some of his neighbors lost their homes. Houses stood empty, and the crime rate rose.
Staab realized that if he wanted a safer neighborhood, he would need to get involved. “I was meeting my neighbors only when the news cameras were showing up,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know their names, even though I lived across the street from some of them.”
So he joined the neighborhood organization (Rivoliparkneighborhood.org), and agreed with other members that something needed to be done about a vacant lot where a burned-out house had been razed. The ground was sinking, so every time it rained, there would be standing water for days. Invasive plants and trees had grown tall; trash accumulated. It was an eyesore.
Another neighbor, Eric Scott, had personal ties to the family that still owned the property. He persuaded them to donate it to the neighborhood organization for a park. The family had one request: they had a granddaughter, Paige, who had died at age three from a congenital heart defect, and never had a chance to enjoy a playground. So they asked that the park be named for her, and be made into a place she would have enjoyed.
Scott and Staab teamed up with KIB, which provided support in designing the space, plus materials and volunteer labor. The Paige Linn Booker Memorial Park (858 N. Parker Avenue) was one of the first IPL Greenspace projects, started in the spring of 2007.
The first challenge: deal with the standing water. “We ended up putting tons of mulch in place to fill in low spots,” said Staab. “Every two or three years, we bring in 2-3 truckloads of playground mulch, which deters insects but is safe for kids to play in.” They also removed lots of invasive plants and small trees that had grown up in the soggy ground.
Then came the gazebo, which anchors the rear of the park. Volunteers used beautiful flagstone to pave the area under the gazebo, as well as a path that leads to the playground equipment. “It seemed like a good idea,” recalls Staab. “But we discovered pretty quickly that kids loved to lift up the stone to look for bugs underneath. Once they’re loose, they crack more easily.” And, he added ruefully, “a few folks decided the stone would look even better in their own yard.”
So the flagstone had to be replaced with something that was more permanent, and yet just as functional. Staab and his fellow volunteers visited other KIB parks, to explore their options. They settled on a lime-and-gravel mix that is used as a base on many patios: water drains through it, and it’s less likely to be stolen.
Another lesson that Staab has learned from the project: know who you’re building the park for. The Rivoli Park neighbors had been encouraged to build something that 3-year-old Paige Linn Booker would have enjoyed. And because they hoped the new park would attract young families to the area, they chose toddler-sized playground equipment.
But after the park opened, park planners realized that the neighbors who were actually using the space the most were the teenagers, who would have preferred more benches and tables for socializing, rather than slides and baby swings. Staab says that if he were to do it over again, he would have included more “big-kid” features such as a climbing fort.
The last lesson that Staab has shared with the KIB Greenspace team: make a plan for how a park will be maintained. He lives closest to Booker Park, so he patrols it once a week for litter. That works better, he says, than installing trashcans. “Trash cans tend to get full and make more litter,” he says. “Or they get stolen.”
Other volunteers mow and weed the flowerbeds. “But make sure the guy who does the weed whacking knows what a hosta is!” he advises. An episode of over-enthusiastic mowing turned into what Staab calls “an educational opportunity. It was a learning curve for all of us,” he recalls.
Now, the Paige Linn Booker Memorial Park is the site of neighborhood birthday parties and church cookouts. “This is a great community meeting space,” says Staab.
He hopes to add a few more amenities in the spring: a large chalkboard, where aspiring poets can share their work, or neighborhood organizers can announce the next meeting.
Staab is hoping to replace some of the trees that have been damaged, and at the same time, create a teachable moment by hosting a workshop on tree care for local youngsters. When he’s not picking up litter at Booker Park, Staab also volunteers as a KIB Tree Tender, has been a leader in the Great Indy Cleanup, and has been an Adopt-A-Block Captain for a dozen years. “I use the supplies we receive—such as door-hangers and flower giveaways—to reach out to my neighbors to help them keep their houses nice.”
The work that Chris Staab does in Rivoli Park improves that neighborhood, for sure.
KIB benefits as well: lessons learned, and lessons shared.