By Mary Helt Gavin
It did not seem to matter to the scores of children that adults were gathering on the sidewalk to officially open their beloved park. They were too busy swinging, climbing, laughing and exploring their beloved park to care that in a few minutes a ribbon would be cut and the park rededicated, ending months of construction and, before that, a year or so wrangling about the design.
On May 27, Parks/Recreation and Community Service Director Lawrence Hemingway, Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson and several children cut the ribbon.
“I’m so happy to give this park back to the community to enjoy for the next 40 years,” Mr. Hemingway said. “Penny Park 2014” is spelled out in pennies at the entrance, a reminder that children of Dewey School, as well as others, brought their pennies to the effort to create a park from a junk-strewn and abandoned parcel of land.
Ald. Braithwaite gave a brief history of property that had been abandoned then saved from development by neighbors who envisioned a park there. The park was built 25 years ago with a significant amount of community labor, under the supervision of Leathers, a company that often designed and oversaw the construction of community-built parks. A brief video, “The Making of Penny Park,” can be found at http://evanstonroundtable.com/main.asp?Search=1&NewsVideoID=71&SectionID=30&SubSectionID=74&S=1.
When time came in 2014 to rehab the park, representatives from Leathers conducted workshops for children at Dewey and at Cherry Preschool, with the plan to incorporate at least some of the ideas into the new design of the park. Neighbors balked at much of the new design, which allocated separate play areas for older and younger children and eliminated the castles and other areas where children loved to hide. Moreover, the playground would have been constructed of a plastic composite that “resembles” wood.
Much of the wood used in playground equipment, including the original turrets, swings, etc., at Penny Park was treated with copper arsenic, which accounts in many cases for the later preference for plastic materials.
Discussions of the future of the park shuffled among neighborhood, Parks and Recreation Board, and City Council meetings for nearly two years. In December 2016, the City executed a contract with Elanar Construction of Chicago to remake the park.
The new design would be similar to the original but would incorporate ADA elements and would also in some cases have two similar pieces of equipment – one suitable for older or at least taller kids and one for younger, smaller children.
The wood in the new Penny Park playground is treated, but not with copper arsenic, said Environment Bureau Chief Paul D’Agostino. “There is now a more environmentally friendly way of treating the wood,” he said.
A crew from the City’s Forestry Division oversaw the planting of a hop hornbeam tree, also known as an ironweed tree. Kids shoveled dirt around the tree and helped pile mulch on top.
With kids scurrying around the playground and adults enjoying the spectacle and the camaraderie, the refreshments – though quickly and appreciatively consumed – seemed almost superfluous.
“Here we are 25 years later,” said Ald. Braithwaite, “ready to hand the park off to the next generation.”