When you picture a playground the image of swings and slides and monkey bars comes to mind. But a playground can be much more than that. Crystal Chan has this story of just such a place, Little Oshkosh.
There is a magical place. It is located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and I helped build it.
In 1997, the city decided they would build a playground for children in the heart of Menominee Park. This playground would have turrets and wooden sculptures for kids to climb on and through. The city also decided that this would be built by us, its residents – people like you and me who perhaps don’t often pick up hammers.
And so, the city came together – thousands of volunteers and even more thousands of hours of volunteer time, including donations from corporate and local sponsors, with volunteer carpenters, engineers, and crew leaders leading the way.
I was in high school at that time, and the whole city buzzed with excitement. This was going to be a playground by us, for us. Even as a teenager, I thought that this was “very cool”. So I showed up, and, under the direction of a volunteer carpenter, I hammered and painted alongside people who I didn’t know but who I knew were my neighbors. Neighbors in Oshkosh.
That was in 1997, and since then I moved to Chicago. Recently, I was visiting Oshkosh, along with my aunt who lives in Indiana. That night, my mom offered to give me a tour of Oshkosh – what has changed, what hasn’t, and I invited my aunt to come with us. We went to the places that I used to visit as a kid: Ardy and Ed’s for their root beer. South Park. And of course, we headed to the magical playground of Little Oshkosh. As Mom drove us around, she said that Little Oshkosh was going to be taken down due to its ageing status and the upkeep that all of that wood required.
Heartbroken, I said, “Let’s go see it then.”
So the three of us – three grown, adult women – drove to Menominee Park. Little Oshkosh stood in the gold lamplight, its familiar angles and shadows sticking out like nothing had changed at all. My aunt, who is Colombian American, breathed a sigh of wonder when she saw the expanse of the park. “It’s so big! I had no idea this city would have such a huge playground!” she exclaimed.
As we approached the official entryway, we studied the little, hand-painted tiles that residents had designed twenty-one years ago. Somewhere, there was a tile that I had painted. When we passed through the entryway, a voice cried out, “Arrg! Who goes there?”
“It’s just us,” I said to the invisible teenager. “With my mom and aunt.”
The pirate promptly disappeared, in the way that I myself, as a teenager, had played pirate and guarded the fortress.
The three of us wandered the wooden staircases, nooks and crannies, and in that lamplight, we entered into wonder. Possibilities. Before you knew it, my mother – a retired teacher – aunt, and I started playing on that same playground. We were transported to our childhoods as we explored Little Oshkosh, in the way that those thousands of volunteers twenty-one years ago were hoping and dreaming people would. In the way, they knew people would.
I’m not sure if Little Oshkosh will be standing the next time I came home. But that evening, my mom, aunt, and I wandered the turrets and felt the spirits of those who had gone before us. The playground had created a space of magic for countless people in a way that would be unreproducible.
It was a reminder that when communities come together with a common goal and vision, not in spite of but because of their different backgrounds and different skills, you can make magic.
And I helped build it.
Little Oshkosh is slated to be replaced with new playground structures later this summer.