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Volunteers Build Playground, Garden in a Single Day at Grote Street Complex

By Jeanmarie Evelly | September 18, 2012 7:41am

BELMONT — In the 16 years Lillian Hernandez has lived in the Grote Street Apartments, she has seen the complex's lone playground — a fenced-in concrete area with a basketball hoop — transform from a play area for children to a hangout spot for trouble-makers.

"I wouldn't bring my kids back here," Hernandez, 49, said.

But last week, it took just eight hours for some 200 volunteers to give the site a long-overdue makeover. The team built a brand new playground and community garden — all in a day's work.

The project was sponsored by the nonprofit KaBOOM!, a group that develops playgrounds in underserved areas across the country — and builds them fast. KaBOOM! partners with other organizations to sponsor "builds," where volunteers come out and assemble a playground over the course of a single business day. 

KaBOOM! teamed up with Disney's Magic of Healthy Living Initiative, local gardening nonprofit GrowNYC and Omni New York LLC, the real estate group that has owned the Grote Street apartment complex since 2010, and set the project in motion. 

Volunteers from the four organizations and tenants from the Grote Street Apartments, near Southern Boulevard and East 183rd Street, began work early Thursday morning. They spent the day moving mulch for the playground base, assembling play equipment, painting colorful murals and planting flower and vegetable beds. 

Plans for the project began in July, when the nonprofit groups met with local children and community members to design their dream playground. The final playground design — which includes a miniature rock-climbing wall, several slides and a jungle gym — was based on drawings done by children who live in the building.

"I think it's awesome for the kids," said Carmen Santos, 46, who has lived at Grote Street for 33 years.

The complex, which has more than 200 apartments, never had a proper play space, she said. 

"We just had one basketball court, and the kids would be playing in the parking lot," Santos said. 

GrowNYC helped design the new garden beds, made of recycled plastic lumber on a space that was previously just a scrappy patch of dirt and grass. Now, tenants have fresh herbs, flowers, and vegetable plants, like lettuce and beets — and even a raspberry bush. 

"Everyone needs a healthy space to live," said Gerard Lordahl, director of GrowNYC's open space greening program. "I think the garden can really lift people up, bring people together. It serves as sort of a gathering space."

Longtime tenant Elizabeth Thompson, 40, said she was thrilled to have a place close to home where her grandchildren could play. 

"I was so happy. I've been asking for a park or something for years," Thompson said, adding that she'd always envied the playgrounds and gardens of other complexes. "This is a real park now."