On a late afternoon a few weeks ago, Washington Square Park on Syracuse’s Northside was hopping. Children of all ages played on the playground as parents watched, basketball players shot hoops, and some kids delighted in playing with the fountain. This kind of activity is exactly what the Washington Square Neighborhood Association likes to see, and they’ve been taking a number of unusual steps to help make it happen.
Along with holiday parties and park festivals, and the traditional soccer, football and basketball games, the Park Association has organized game nights, bowling and a color guard. Many of these neighborhood-building activities were made possible with a $4,485 “What if…” mini grant from the Gifford Foundation. “What if…” mini grants foster growth in neighborhoods, strengthen the capacity of Syracuse residents who seek to make positive changes, and increase community participation, awareness and partnerships. Sheila Depew of the Neighborhood Association implemented the grant, which supported the color guard, bowling, a music event for seniors and a holiday party.
If you’d visited last summer, you would have seen Lydia and Corinne Charland, along with 14 other girls, training for the color guard with instructors from the Syracuse Brigadiers. “I really liked throwing the flag,” said 10 year old Lydia. “But it was funny when I dropped it.” “I liked passing the flag behind my back,” added her sister Corinne, 11 years old. “I also liked seeing my sister drop the flag!” Maureen Dore of the Washington Square Neighborhood Association coordinated the color guard training because there weren’t a lot of programs for teens, especially teen and pre-teen girls. There is soccer and basketball, but the color guard offered a unique activity and opportunity for both youth and parents to gather on summer evenings. “We got the word out by Facebook, texts, emails and door to door,” noted Dore. “We walked up to people at bus stops. You can’t rejuvenate a neighborhood without walking the neighborhood to reach out to the residents.”
Dore and the other members of the Neighborhood Association have been working for several years to improve the park and make it more comfortable for residents and visitors. Karen LaCross, Corinne and Lydia’s mother, has lived in the area for 12 years, and seen some improvement. “It’s been even better and safer since they put in the cameras,” notes Karen, who regularly watched her girls practice color guard. “The police have been more vigilant.”
The Park has been undergoing some other recent changes. A Home HeadQuarters block blitz last September brought not only cleanup efforts and attention, but picnic tables. About 50% of the residents surrounding the park are tenants, and there are a number of refugee families as well. “You never saw as many people come here as on game night,” noted Dore. “There were people of all ages and several refugee families.” A Lego activity had 25 kids playing together even though not everyone spoke English. “Through playing with Legos the kids could communicate with each other,” she reported.
Improvements to the park are continuing. The association members plan on more shade, a larger pavilion, a renovated basketball court and a new spray fountain. But it is in community building that they see the strongest, most gratifying results. The park activities, from Legos to color guard, are important steps. “We’re constantly building lists of names and organizing activities like an upcoming Festival, and a holiday party,” said Dore. “This takes a lot of time and patience.”