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Tot Lot--Not

Go play somewhere else: Bruce Grimm says the Park Board wants to turn the urban oasis near his house into a "Disney-sized Legoland"
Craig Bares

A block away from Shirley Ricketts's house, sweaty athletes clog the paths around Lake Calhoun. But Ricketts needs neither bike nor blade to work up a lather: Two three-letter words are enough. Her powerful New York accent ramps up to full fervor as she recalls her 39th birthday, spent urging a neighborhood gathering to approve funds for a "tot lot," a playground for toddlers. Her daughter was three at the time, so Ricketts took a keen interest in the matter.

"People here don't like kids," she fumes, recalling the discussion. "That's what it really comes down to, honey. I don't want anybody telling me New York stinks--it may, but they have playgrounds for kids. In Italy, in Mexico City, they have playgrounds for kids. Not here."

Ricketts has blown out "cake upon cake upon cake" of birthday candles since that meeting. She is now 73; her daughter is going on 38 and lives nearby with kids of her own. For much of the intervening 34 years, both women have participated in what many say is the longest-running neighborhood crusade in Minneapolis: the quest for a tot lot for East Calhoun residents. Now, playground supporters are, in Ricketts's words, "as close as they've ever come" to seeing their dreams realized--and the argument is as bitter as it has ever been.

On the surface, the rationale for the lot seems plain: The area bounded by Lake and 36th streets, Hennepin Avenue, and East Calhoun Parkway is one of only three city neighborhoods without their own playgrounds. "Right now I have to drive to a kids' park," says Michelle Klein, a mother of an infant and a toddler who lives near 36th and Humboldt Avenue. "I would love to be able to walk to one."

The problem is that lots of other people like to walk and lounge around Calhoun's shores--and that the proposed playground would eat up a chunk of what little grassland remains along the waterfront. "Everybody gets territorial about places that they use a lot," says Judith Martin, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. "The issue of who gets to use a hugely overused resource like Lake Calhoun is a really contentious one. There's a finite amount of lakeshore and a lot of claims on it."

To get an idea of how passionately those claims are staked, it helps to take Bruce Grimm's quick, but meticulously annotated, walking tour of the proposed site, a few steps from his doorstep. On a sunny weekend, the spot--a long, narrow swath of grass near 32nd Street and the parkway--will swarm with sunbathers, picnickers, Frisbee players, and gabbers, he explains. But on this Wednesday evening it's nearly empty and almost preternaturally peaceful.

"Listen," Grimm says, looking up from the sheet on which he has noted the dozen or so arguments he wants to make against the tot lot. The grassland sits several feet below the parkway, allowing the traffic noise to fade overhead; only the screech of a lone gull punctuates the rustle of wind in the cottonwoods. "This is worth preserving," Grimm says softly, so as not to disturb a man and a woman who sit on the grass, holding hands, watching the sunset.

Then he glances at his talking points. That couple, he explains, would be displaced by the tot lot, but they probably don't know it: Planning for the project took place mostly at meetings of the East Calhoun Community Organization (ECCO), leaving out throngs of lake users who don't live in the area. Gays in particular have long gathered on this little grassland, Grimm noted in a recent letter to the community publication Lavender: "In fact, the Pride parade used to start from this spot."

Area resident John Thew concurs with Grimm, adding that gays aren't the only ones ever to face the loss of a favorite lakeshore spot: A few years back, he notes, the Park Board removed the Thomas Beach parking lot on the lake's north side, a gathering place for African Americans. The parkland that replaced the asphalt "is a beautiful spot," says Thew, "but I don't know if the end justified the means. I'm wondering if there's a Minnesota way--the words may not even be spoken, but it's something that goes on without people thinking what they're doing."

Ricketts, though, has little patience for such fears. "The opponents bring up all these stupid things--like that it's a traditional place for gays to sun," she scoffs. "Well, move your tushies over and give the kids a little space. For God's sake, this is not a small lake--there's room for everybody."

On that score, Thew agrees: "It's not the kids I object to," he emphasizes. "If the kids want to come down with toys they bring from home, that's great. It's the [playground] structure itself--it's a blight on the landscape. Development here is disruptive to a rare, serene, natural retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Uptown area."

Most other tot-lot critics seem to agree: Kids are welcome, they say, but an actual playground is unnecessary in a neighborhood filled with childless urbanites. At the time of the last census, in 1990, children ages 13 and under made up less than 6 percent of the area's population (compared to 17 percent citywide)--too small a segment, Grimm says, to justify a "brightly colored, Disney-size Legoland" with a taxpayer price tag of $300,000.

Not so fast, says Rachel Ramadhyani, the Park Board landscape architect overseeing the project. The lot's size--about 280 feet by 60 feet--is "below average," she says, its budget is "not lavish," and the style "modest."

"It's two play containers--one for kids under five, the other for six and twelve--with tunnels, slides, monkey bars. Plus plantings, to make it feel softer, and seating for adults in the shade of the existing trees." Colors will run toward muted browns and greens, with the only splash of brightness provided by "a couple of free-standing pieces that seemed perfect for the location that spills onto the edge of the beach. One has little buckets and tubes and pulleys that can be used to bring buckets of sand up, like a Rube Goldberg machine. Even for adults it would be fun."

Whether lakeshore visitors will get to play with sand buckets anytime soon, though, is uncertain. After three decades of failed attempts to secure funding, tot-lot supporters (some of whom have come to dub themselves the "Ten Rabid Moms") seized on the Neighborhood Revitalization Program planning process, which in East Calhoun began in 1994. The playground proposal survived a series of meetings, mail-in ballots, and assorted other procedural loops; a number of sites were considered before the neighborhood group settled on the grassy spot near 32nd Street. By the end of 1998 an agreement was struck with the Park Board under which ECCO would fund construction of the lot, and park crews would maintain it. Groundbreaking was scheduled for this fall.

And then, this spring, the tot lot's progress ground to a halt. More than 70 people showed up for a Park Board planning meeting in March, reports Ramadhyani--many clutching anonymous flyers that showed "play equipment out of scale, superimposed on the lake. It looked like the Eiffel Tower would be built there." The critics' complaints went unheeded, says Ramadhyani, because they came too late in the process. "They wanted to reopen all the issues--site, equipment--that had been decided prior."

But Bruce Grimm was convinced that those prior decisions--and the process that had led to them--were flawed. On April 8 he filed a grievance charging that planners had failed to properly involve residents. The neighborhood board denied the complaint in June, and Grimm says he'll now take the matter to the NRP's citywide policy board. NRP specialist Robert Thompson says a decision might not come until November, and that construction cannot begin until the grievance is resolved.

For now, supporters of the lot say they're willing to compromise--making the playground smaller, perhaps altering the design. But they also hope, says Klein, that the NRP board will reject Grimm's grievance and start building next spring. "We're not talking about building an airport, a prison, or a toxic-waste dump on the lake," she says. "It's a swing or two, c'mon."

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