For years, Michelle Dupree-Gaines lived across the street from Kennedy Park in the south side of Richmond. Yet every time her grandson came over for a visit, she eschewed the seven-and-a-half acre park a stone’s throw away, to drive across town to Clinton Park.
“Right now it’s just seven-and-a-half acres of empty land,” Dupree-Gaines said of Kennedy Park. “This park has just been sitting here idle.”
The park was created in 1968, and from the look of things, hadn’t been updated since. The basketball court had been co-opted by weeds which poked through the cracked asphalt. Rust devoured the metal backboard. The vast, barren fields were only occupied by grazing geese. The few park benches and a small storage shed were crumbling.
“Physically it doesn’t have an appealing look,” Dupree-Gaines said.
But she did allow the park was appealing to some — the groups of aimless people who hang out in the amphitheater day and night, drinking and occasionally scrapping.
“The only people around here are people that are lost and don’t really have a place to go,” she said, warily eyeing a group gathered nearby.
The park was so absent infrastructure, neighbors said, it barely attracted the 1,500 students attending the adjacent high school and elementary school. But that long silence was about to be broken. On a recent day, Jeanine Strickland of the Trust for Public Land bounded across the park, leading several dozen community members and leaders on a tour — of Kennedy Park’s future.
“We are building a victory garden in that circle,” Strickland pointed out. “We’re going to have a new fitness trail.”
Since the spring, the Trust for Public Land along with the city have been carefully sculpting a plan to revamp the faded park into a community magnet — while seeking out donations to fund it. On October 24th, several hundred volunteers are expected to turn-out for a barn-raising-like work day, where the bulk of Kennedy park’s transformations will take place.
“We will actually build it with many hands on build day,” Strickland said. “One of the amazing outcomes is the neighborhood gets to see how much support.”
The work will add a children’s play area complete with swings, a climbing wall and a skate park. A small gazebo will be whipped-into a community gathering area, with barbecues, picnic tables and an area for an outdoor classes. The shed will be rebuilt. The gazebo will get an actual roof.
Strickland said the group was still trying to raise the funds to redo the beleaguered basketball courts. She said if the money can’t be raised by work day, she’ll hang a banner saying “coming soon,” which given the park’s gruelingly long comeback, isn’t necessarily a killjoy.
“This community grew up with this park,” Strickland said. “It was really special to a lot of generations, but nothing’s changed.”
Bendrick Foster grew up in the neighborhood. He attended the elementary school but never it made it across the street to Kennedy High School. He got caught up in the world of crime and drug dealing - the park serving as his de-facto office.
“We did what we had to do at them times to make money,” Foster said. “For me it was real rough, lost a lot of friends to violence, guns.”
But Foster cleaned himself up before the legal system could get a hold of him. After founding a program he calls New Life Movement, he plans to once again set-up shop in the park — only this time to provide job training and counseling to the area’s lost souls.
“You could have a pretty park with no solution,” Foster said. “We’ve got to have a solution here.”
Foster said a fully activated park will help attract neighbors who withdrew to their homes long ago due to the park’s unsavory activities. Now there would be a reason to come out. To gather for barbecues. To bring their children and their grandchildren to play.
“I think it’s going to give us a chance to not to stay in our house all the time,” Dupree-Gaines said. “We’ll come out now, we’ll come over to the park and sit and read a book.”