by Ari Robin McKenna
Following an early afternoon shooting in October 2020, where almost 70 shots were fired and five people were hit with bullets on the dead-end street between Hutchinson Park and Emerson Elementary School, neighbors were on edge.
For some, it set the tone for the nervy pandemic months that followed, the violence echoing across Hutchinson Park and its playground. Community members in this slice of Rainier Beach pined for a playground and park that reflected their hopes for public, communal space to ease the isolation of the pandemic. The Hutchinson Playground is also the playground for Emerson Elementary School students and neighborhood children, a place for play and learning.
But for much of the past two years, the park and playground have been neglected or unused due to broken and worn parts on the playground. Or, as one neighbor called it, “a dead playground,” taking her grandchildren to another park to play.
In one way, this is just a story about fixing playground equipment. But in a larger sense, it is a story of grassroots advocacy about South End neighbors within a historically under-resourced community taking their frustration with government and making it “walk the walk” in regards to racial and socioeconomic equity.
The site of the uninspired Hutchinson Playground became the site of an inspired push for neighbors to be seen and heard by City government, and City government in the form of the Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR), at first a seemingly distant and indifferent authority, is one the neighbors have recently begun to hope will be their partner in building community.
A Primary Site for Community Recreation
Initially built to be Seattle’s first preschool in 1910, Emerson Elementary School currently serves a student population that is 93% Students of Color. It is one of only three Seattle Public Schools that doesn’t have space for an adequate playground, and therefore uses an adjacent SPR site as its primary recess yard.
Located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood between Kubota Garden and Lake Washington, Emerson has a history of not being properly resourced, and it is often unable to meet the 25-person requirement needed to form an official Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA).
On one hand, most working families who send their children to Emerson have limited time and energy to spare, and on the other hand, when Emerson does have a PTSA and receives donations beyond the roughly $3,000–5,000 raised annually by its fall and spring carnival events, those funds are often absorbed by the pressing needs of students, as opposed to being used for enrichment activities.
For example, an anonymous donor gave Emerson a significant amount of money during the pandemic. While the PTSA would normally allot 29% to teachers, 29% to the general fund, 29% to families in need, 4% for operating costs, and the rest for savings, the PTSA chose to allot 50% of this money to its Family Emergency Support Fund, because the 47 students who attend Emerson, who are either experiencing homelessness or do not have permanent housing, took priority — especially during the pandemic.
Last year’s Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance Move-a-thon fundraiser provided the Emerson PTSA with almost $15,000 — an unheard of amount — but to put things in perspective, the District 5 Student Council PTSA director and advocacy and policy manager for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), Vivian van Gelder, provided data showing that in 2018–2019 (the most recent IRS reporting year), 35 Seattle Public Schools north of the shipping canal raised over $100,000 dollars each.
Tiny Tots’ Hutchinson Hawks preschool and after-school program students also utilize Hutchinson Park, as well as people from the neighborhood and numerous formal and informal sports teams that practice and play games on the park’s two baseball fields, its makeshift soccer field, or its basketball courts. Though SPR doesn’t keep usage statistics, for its size and function, Hutchinson Park is a highly used community recreation site.
A Network of Community Support
When Emerson Principal Erin Rasmussen heard about cracks forming on the slide near fastening points with protruding screws, she reached out to SPR in November 2020 to have it boarded up and then fixed.
After the slide had remained boarded up for months, neighbor and Emerson PTSA President Roisin Huang complained about it on a neighborhood Facebook page. Chukundi Salisbury, 37th Legislative District representative candidate and the current SPR sustainability and environmental engagement manager, chimed in, suggesting Huang start a Facebook group. Huang did just that, starting “Friends of Hutchinson Park,” intent on “building a network of community support to advocate for our beloved park with the Seattle Parks Department.”
Stewart Bowerman, another neighbor, put up a poster with a QR Code for a survey and got 81 responses within a week — including many suggestions of neighbors’ hopes for the park. Neighbors wanted: outdoor dance classes for kids, pick-up soccer and basketball for adults, morning exercise classes, Vietnamese language classes, a farmers market, an annual community barbecue or block party with music, a community garden, and an outdoor movie night.
One of the survey’s main takeaways was that the community wanted a better playground. The Emerald asked community member Marcella Lyons what she thought about the current playground on a sunny day in March. She responded that even though she lives around the corner, she brings her grandchildren elsewhere to play.
“It’s a dead playground,” Lyons said. “There’s nothing to do here. All you can do is run around, and there’s two slides. The slides are not safe for anyone under 5, because they’re off the ground. There needs to be more to do here.”
Though happy to get such a strong survey response from his community, Bowerman, who is the program coordinator for Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s unique, community-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports initiative, admits being frustrated with the City’s lack of responsiveness.
“From a public safety perspective, it’s maddening that the playground got boarded up in the aftermath of a major shooting,” Bowerman said. “When something like that happens, the City should be showing its support for the community by making investments, not sending the opposite message by boarding things up and leaving them in disrepair for so long.”
William Hanson, who brings his oldest son to baseball practice at Hutchinson Park, spoke with the Emerald after leading his two younger kids, Sho, 8, and Rei, 4, to the playground. After they played for a few minutes on the playground, they noted the boarded-up bridge and ran off toward the trees beside the baseball field. Hanson wasn’t surprised, and said kids tend to “focus on the thing that’s broken.”
Before walking off to continue supervising Sho and Rei under the tall trees, Hanson added, “If this is the primary playground for the school, it should take priority. A lot of kids come down [from Emerson]; they gotta have something to do.”
Grassroots Advocacy Leads to Genuine Commitments
Four months from the time when it was boarded up, and three and a half months since the genesis of the Friends of Hutchinson Park Facebook group, the slide was replaced — though it is still strikingly steep for a playground located between an elementary school and a preschool, and the monkey bars are notably high.
Neighbors say several children have broken their arms after losing their grip and falling to the ground off the monkey bars. The dramatic slope of the unlined basketball courts and the weeds growing from cracks in the tennis court also catch the eye as aspects of Hutchinson Park worthy of someone’s attention.
When community member Karen Uffelman emailed SPR, they eventually received a reply from Oliver Bazinet, a senior planner, about where repairs that matched their own requests would happen within SPR’s six- and 12-year plans. Bazinet estimated the repairs were to begin being conceived of in 2024.
Then, this school year, the bridge in the playground (installed in 2000) rusted out, and Emerson Principal Rasmussen quickly emailed and called SPR about it in February. Yet after she hadn’t heard back from them at week’s end, she grew concerned students could get seriously hurt and reached out to the PTSA — which organized a Find It, Fix It blitz. Using the City’s app designed to empower citizens to report damaged city property, they flooded it with complaints about the dangerous bridge that weekend, and it was boarded up by early the next week.
As the weeks began to pass without the boarded-up bridge getting fixed, the neighbors’ frustrations started to compound, along with their list of grievances: the crooked, unlined basketball court; the cracks growing weeds on the tennis court; the uninspired, dangerous playground that seemed to always be boarded up; the lack of a park bathroom; unmowed baseball fields during the pandemic where the grass reached almost 3 feet tall; and that a group of neighbors had weeded and SPR hadn’t come through to deliver the wood chips they’d promised, so the weeds quickly returned.
Hutchinson Park, meant to be a place where the community could relax and exercise, was instead an anxious proxy for feeling ignored by the government.
By late March, Huang and Bowerman took their grievances to the SPR Board meeting and testified as much.
Bowerman brought his survey data, but Huang decided to hold off on sharing the Change.org petition that currently has over 600 signatures — thinking it might antagonize SPR. Both Huang and Bowerman left spirited public comments. Bowerman sent his comment in advance, and Huang also resubmitted her comment a week later — as a reminder.
Huang recalls that during the public comment portion, she became aware that though acting Superintendent Christopher Williams was relaxed and personable, he was “vigorously writing” notes. Then, she admitted to being shocked when Williams took the time to address every single person who had spoken. She said Williams “made it very clear this type of advocacy was so important. … It was just such a different experience than I’ve ever witnessed, a level of government leadership I haven’t seen before.”
A little more than a week after their testimony, Andy Sheffer, SPR director of planning, development, and facilities maintenance, reached out. In an email, Sheffer said that a “comprehensive plan to improve the site” based on a “shared vision” would start in 2023. Sheffer, Huang, and Bowerman have since met and have been emailing back and forth, beginning to build rapport while rebuilding community trust; they’ve looped in Emerson Principal Rasmussen as well. SPR has also sent workers to the site of Hutchinson Playground at least three times in as many weeks to remove bushes, lower the monkey bars, and assess the slide.
In an email, SPR spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said they are using a Racial and Social Equity Index in their discussions about prioritization of projects up for renewal — especially when there are limited resources. Schulkin said their Equitable Development Fund is “designed to increase the capacity of underserved communities in hopes of improving SPR facilities in historically underserved neighborhoods.”
When asked about the speed of repairs to Hutchinson Park’s bridge and slide, Schulkin pointed to playground parts being “slow to procure and ship during the pandemic.” Schulkin also emphasized, “Partnering with community and other government agencies is critical to maximize opportunity and create and maintain parks that reflect the communities they serve.”
While these same words may have rung empty just a few weeks before, Bowerman was now hopeful. “Andy [Sheffer] and SPR have given us every reason to believe that they are going to do what’s in their power to make it happen, and work with us in the process. There are budgetary things they don’t have complete control of, but I think there is a genuine commitment there.”
Huang praised Sheffer’s personable, responsive approach, and hinted that SPR depends on the type of advocacy she, Bowerman, and their community drummed up to know that their efforts will match its needs.
“It’s really exciting to feel like you’re not just working with the government anymore, but that you’re working with a person who also cares about what you care about. … The parks department wants to make sure that any changes they make are approved by the community,” Huang said.
“The community members, everyone who has signed the petition or filled out the survey, everyone who has joined the Friends of Hutchinson Park Facebook group, the people I’ve met at the park,” she said, “… It’s been amazing to connect with the community, and hear about how we can turn the park into something really wonderful that everyone can enjoy.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: Caution tape is woven into a play structure at Hutchinson Park. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)
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