Sometimes, removing blight can transform an entire area.
A crumbling, graffiti-covered pool and an overgrown fence have been removed from Woodlawn Park to reveal an airy, sunlit place. Children have flocked to the site, which they could not even see three years ago.
“We developed a cleanup crew and it just grew from that,” resident Spero Zoulas said as he greeted dozens of visitors to the unveiling of the much-improved Woodlawn Park.
The evolution of the old park was three years in the making. Neighbors banded together to clean up the park themselves, held spaghetti dinners to raise money and persuaded friends to build the equipment they wanted.
Eventually, they even persuaded the city to fill in the pool, which they city had closed in budget cuts years ago. The pool had dominated the park, with a fence that blocked sight of the entire area and encouraged vandals to do whatever they wanted in the hidden playground.
Some residents had lobbied for the pool to be reopened, but city officials made it clear that it was too costly. So neighbors planted a cherry tree on top of dirt-filled pool and covered the rest of the space with a material that could be flooded in winter to make an ice rink.
4 benches, 4 plaques
Around the tree they placed four benches, each with a plaque memorializing an important leader in the neighborhood. They named the meditative space the “Area of Reflection.”
In a solemn ceremony, volunteers stood to reach each plaque and describe the leaders.
They remembered John King, who wrote a column for the neighborhood newsletter called “Man On The Street.”
He was persistent, they said, never relenting until city officials fixed the problems he had identified.
From CDTA bus shelters to the paving of Kings Road, he led the charge, they said.
“John King will always be our man on the street,” volunteer Kathi Rapisarda said.
They also remembered Carol Gillman, an ever-present force from the very first day of the neighborhood association. She had a hand in everything, large and small, from the neighborhood garage sale to the picnics.
“Carol ran those picnics and she made money on them! I can’t figure out how she did it,” said volunteer Lou Grasso.
They memorialized Art Howenstein, one of the founders of the neighborhood association. In the early years, he personally delivered the newsletters.
“He worked to make his community a better place for as long as he could,” said volunteer Maureen Obie.
Last, but not least, they remembered Courtney Erickson, whose memorial service was held later in the day.
Erickson worked on the park until he died.
“He was a man who led with his heart and his passion,” said volunteer Chad Putman. “He was taken from us too soon.”
Family members cut the ribbons to the Area of Reflection — four ribbons set up to remember all four departed leaders.
But they weren’t the only ones to be honored with a plaque.
Woodlawn Park Day
Mayor Gary McCarthy brought a plaque of his own, to give to Zoulas for organizing the park’s redevelopment.
“This is a classic example of what people can do by working together,” he said. “People standing up and taking ownership of their neighborhood and their park. It sets a model and an example for other neighborhoods to follow.”
He proclaimed the day Woodlawn Park day and told Zoulas that “Schenectady is a better place” because of his leadership.
But Zoulas and the committee aren’t done yet.
They’re talking with Community Gardens about the possibility of a garden plot. They want to build the ice skating rink, resurface the basketball court and put up a new park sign. They also want to add more playground equipment now that children are actually using the park.
“We’ve got a lot more to do,” Zoulas said. “But we’ve come very far.”