Neighbors Park turns 20

// Blight transformed into beauty thanks to neighbors’ power

The playground and gardens at South Eighth and ‘I’ Streets may be the only Tacoma park inspired by a chainsaw murder.

That's how bad that slice of Hilltop was 20 years ago when neighbors vowed to save it from the druggers, drunks and predators who had made it their own.

Saturday, Oct. 26, they celebrated that anniversary with memories and milestones of – and plans for – Neighbors Park.

Today, the park is a magic mix of play structures, gated gardens, open space, picnic spots and an arbor on streets calmed by a traffic circle and a dead end. Each element is the product of decades of cooperation among residents, landlords, Metro Parks, Tacoma police, public works, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Starbucks, a litter posse, the State Liquor Control Board, a brave postal worker, a picnic table and a fire-starter.

Before 1993, the intersection of Eighth and ‘I’ was a zombieland of drug users staggering around dangerous apartment buildings, a convenient liquor store and a vacant lot. One apartment was so bad, what with the killing, the indoor goat roasting and the marijuana grow op, plus the feces in the lobby, that the U.S. Postal Service deemed it too dangerous to deliver mail there. The postal worker was no wuss, either. When neighbors offered to give her a picnic table so she could eat her lunch on that lot, she agreed. Her uniformed presence repelled bad guys.

So did the work of the Litter Posse, a bunch of neighborhood kids rallied by apartment owner Judy Quackenbush. They collected trash, mostly fortified beer, wine and liquor bottles, and Quackenbush paid them a bounty per item. Tacoma Police Community Liaison Officer Greg Hopkins, Herman Diers and Jeanie Peterson of Hilltop Action Coalition assembled data on arrests, crimes and the brands on the bottles. They would use that to persuade the Liquor Control Board in 2001 to create the state's first Alcohol Impact Area, banning sales of cheap, high-octane booze there.

But it was a murder in 1993 that mobilized the good people of the Hilltop to clean up that pestilent lot.

Seventy of them met with Hopkins and Diers at the Open Bible Church on Oct. 3, 1993, and made a plan.

“We closed that meeting asking people to create a mind picture of what they wanted there,” Quackenbush said. “We agreed to meet the next Saturday to clean it up.”

The grateful lot owner agreed to lease it to them for $1 a year.

They put up a volleyball net.

“We started to create clean and positive activities for all the wonderful Cambodian children,” Quackenbush said.

Those were convincing kids. When the neighbors asked the city, parks and health department for funds to buy the land and put in equipment and gardens, the children testified to the dangers of its dereliction. They spoke up for playground equipment and materials to build gardens. They wrote thank-you notes to Starbucks when it sent money and a volunteer crew for that playground. They cheered when city engineer Curtis Kingsolver suggested building a traffic circle and dead-ending a street.

One of those children wrote to Quackenbush when she heard about the anniversary celebration. Sarah Chak DiMichelle lives in New York, where she is married to a police officer and has two fine sons.

“Thank you for bringing our neighborhood together again after so many years of being divided due to the high crime rates, drugs and gangs,” she wrote to Quackenbush. “I was blessed with a wonderful childhood full of great memories because of the park we built and restored together...It gave me and my siblings freedom and a sense of security back. I remember waking up each morning looking forward to going to the park to meet my friends and work on our gardens. It was such a great experience to see the neighborhood transform into such a tranquil place.”

Check the photos of the community's work on the park, and there's Di Michelle working in the children's garden in 1995, romping on the playground in 1996, planting trees for Arbor Day in 1997, creating tiles and paintings in art projects, and always keeping it clean and litter-free. She watched, too, when one blighted apartment building burned and another met a better-late-than-never demolition, freeing land for the developing park.

In 2005, voters approved a Metro Parks levy, and Neighbors Park earned its place at the head of the line to be equipped and established as an official park. Metro Parks established and equipped it as an official park in 2006.

It all just gets better.

Jo Davies and Lynn Lomax are writing grants to rebuild the Children's Garden, and to pay for recreation programs. Glynda Palmer-Jones watches out for the kids, and keeps an ear open for problems and needs. A gentleman named Stanley shows up to work on the grounds. Barb Van Haren bakes cookies with the kids. Intervarsity, a faith-based bunch of college students, adopted the park as their service project, Pat Van Haren and his musical friends hold band practice there, and the neighbors celebrate with barbecues.

These days, thanks to persistent neighbors, if anyone is going to roast something, use a chain saw or tend a personal garden at Eighth and ‘I,’ it is no longer for evil, but for the good of Tacoma.

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