June 2011 Issue
My Ohio: For the Children
A South Euclid playground was a visible symbol of the community’s commitment to its youth. After a tragic fire, residents vow to rebuild.
On a chilly morning last November, I stood with a couple dozen residents of South Euclid — my home for 11 years — around the charred remains of a playground that had gone up in flames the night before.
It had been called the Playground of Possibilities — built just two years earlier at Bexley Park, a recreational hub at the end of my street that includes a public pool, baseball diamonds, tennis courts and a picnic pavilion. The playground was designed for children of varying degrees of ability and disability. The money to build it had come from a community fund raiser rather than a tax, and the equipment had been assembled by a group of residents and city workers with power tools, strong backs and a willingness to volunteer their time and muscle for the sake of the children — their own, their neighbors’ and the ones they didn’t even know.
But that was all gone on the morning of November 2, as fire inspectors picked at the charred remains while speculation about arson was already making its way through the small crowd that had gathered on the other side of the yellow tape. It didn’t take an expert to connect the dots. Panels and boards made from recycled resins don’t catch fire by themselves.
I kept an eye on the news over the next couple days, half expecting to read about some sociopath with a can of gasoline and a twisted agenda. I almost would have preferred that to be the story. It would have made more sense than the absurd tale that did emerge: three bumbling adolescents getting their kicks with a road flare until things got out of control and the playground was engulfed and then consumed by a tower of flame.
But somewhere amid the devastation on that chilly morning after, I saw another story start to unfold. One of the onlookers in that small crowd was the mayor. You might have missed her if you weren’t looking closely, or if you didn’t know her personally (I don’t) or recognize her from her picture in the local community newspaper. After a few minutes she sighed and said, to no one in particular: “Well, get your power tools ready in the spring. We’re going to rebuild it.”
Less than a week after the fire, more than 100 people gathered for a rally at the park and vowed to rebuild. A page dedicated to raising funds to rebuild the playground went up on the city’s website. In March, a $35-a-head fund raiser helped sweeten the pot. Nineteen high school kids from neighboring Cleveland Heights organized a fund-raising campaign and came up with close to $1,000 to help the reconstruction efforts.
Apparently, a fire of a different kind had started.
The city vows to have the playground rebuilt by this summer, although by the end of April, there was still a ways to go. Another $100,000 is a tall order in a town where many households and small businesses — however supportive they might be — have been hammered by a protracted and debilitating recession.
Regardless, I’ve seen enough in the past few months to know that, sooner or later, the Playground of Possibilities will return to the landscape of Bexley Park. I may see a lot of tired faces in my neighborhood, but I’m also aware of a strong sense of community here. I see a lot of families who are invested in their children and their children’s future, and that investment starts with providing them with opportunities to enjoy the present. That commitment was the reason why the original playground was built in the first place.
One of those tired faces is admittedly mine, but this summer I’ll be hauling my circular saw and a few other tools down the street to the park and lending my meager carpentry skills to the cause. I owe it to my two kids, my neighbors’ kids and the ones I don’t even know.
And I owe it to my community — a place where there are still possibilities.
John C. Bruening is a freelance writer based in South Euclid. His two children were frequent visitors to the Playground of Possibilities. They will be again