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Viewfinder: Five Years Ago, Residents Built City's Biggest Playground

Patch looks back on Birmingham's Booth Park project, which drew hundreds of volunteers for 'an amazing experience.'

This week marks the fifth anniversary of a hands-on project that turned hundreds of amateurs into construction workers. In Birmingham's version of a communal barn raising, donated labor turned lumber, paint and bolts into the award-winning playground.  

For six days during Labor Day week, volunteers of all ages — elementary youngsters to senior citizens — worked alongside experienced builders to follow a professionally designed plan for land donated by the Booth publishing family during the 1940s. In a similar spirit of giving back to the community, families and businesses loaned tools, gave money and invested labor to supplement a portion of city revenue from a 2001 recreation bond issue.

The three-acre site now draws a crowd virtually every weekend and many weekday afternoons during most of the year. Youngsters enjoy elevated walkways, dark passages, a sliding hill, tire swing, two-story enclosed slide, rock climbing, crawling tubes, fort-like towers, a full-size Woodward streetcar replica, slides and sandboxes. Three tables have umbrella-style metal awnings. Flat lawns and hillsides are ideal for running, games, sports practice, picnics and winter sledding.

"We did it," said Bob Fox, parks administrator at the time, in a Sept. 11, 2006 email thanking the building blitz participants "for the hard work you put forth last week."

Fox, who was assistant director of public services, added: "If the children's excitement and laughter is indicative of success, you hit a home run." (His full note is archived at Birmingham Buzz, a past blog that spread news of the effort.)

A widely acknowledged "hero of the build," as Buzz creator dubbed him, was fund-raising leader and work organizer Ross Kaplan. A year later, city commissioners appointed him to the Parks and Recreation Board, where Kaplan still serves.

"The impressive redevelopment of Booth Park cost the city less than $1 million," Baller said, commenting on "the extraordinary power of our community" in a Sept. 20, 2006 post. "Kaplan was instrumental not only in mustering the community to help build the playground, but in helping to raise more than 15 percent of the cost from private sources."

Baller, now a Patch blogger, described the volunteer effort as "an amazing experience" on his Buzz site five years ago. "For many of us," he added, "it turned out to be so much more than expected. It was community-building at its best. Hundreds of people took part, and dozens committed to working every day of the six-day project.

"Side-by-side, doctors worked with firemen worked with students worked with architects worked with moms worked with city officials, and what we built — much, much more than a gorgeous play structure — will stand the test of time."

Playground access officially opened Nov. 29, 2006, when the city took down construction fencing. A dedication ceremony took place in June 2007.

Clinton Baller September 07, 2011 at 11:59 PM
Ross Kaplan would be the first to acknowledge that Tim Page was the primary force behind the playground. Too many people contributed to name them all, but also worthy of note was the contribution of Jim Page (no relation), who designed the playground, and Michael Dul & Associates, which donated his time.

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