Neighbors' hands lift up Walla Walla park

A project in Washington Park aims to claim the space for local residents.

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The stage plays host to live music, and builders intend it to continue to do so for years to come.

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Bree Delgadillo of the Pomegranate Center carves designs onto posts for a stage being built by nonprofits and neighbors in Washington Park.

WALLA WALLA -- What would an organization with a name like Pomegranate Center be doing camped out at Washington Park, an area notorious for crime and gang activity?

Beautifying a neglected piece of the park, it turns out, was the task at hand, though uniting people within the surrounding community was the greater objective.

After seven months of collaboration with local entities, Pomegranate Center, a non-profit organization based in Issaquah, Wash., spent nine days fulfilling neighborhood requests by constructing a stage, dance floor, walking path and picnic shelters for the park.

But both the process and the product differed meaningfully from typical building initiatives. What sets Pomegranate Center apart is that they don't simply "show up, plop something down, and leave," said managing director Katya Matanovic, daughter of executive director Milenko Matanovic.

"Our expertise is around bringing communities together in meaningful ways to make some decisions about what a space should look like, what they want, determine what their priorities are. And then, we design with them and build with them instead of for them," said Matanovic.

While Pomegranate Center provided part of the funds and the professional corps of architects, fabricators, and structural engineers, they were only one piece of a greater partnership that made the project possible.

The local group Commitment to Community, or C2C, laid the foundation for the project. C2C, in its fifth year, undertook community outreach through intensive grassroots efforts.

"There's a philosophy: go to where the people are, meet them where their interests lie, don't do for them what they can do for themselves. And we really do follow that," said C2C Coordinator Nancy Carter.

By knocking on the doors of 480 households, holding potlucks, meetings, and other neighborhood events, C2C was able to learn and then convey to Pomegranate Center exactly what community members wanted from a gathering place.

The expertise of Pomegranate Center, along with the insight of C2C, was complemented by contributions from the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

According to Carter, developing the space had not even been on the department's radar, but once the project was proposed the department was an enthusiastic supporter and contributed significant in-kind donations.

"The more we can involve the neighbors, the less we have problems and the more they get to enjoy it," said Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont.

The new tables and benches were all constructed from black walnut trees, salvaged from the city golf course by the Parks and Recreation Department after the 2008 windstorm. Asphalt spoils from paving projects around town have been stockpiled by the department and will pave the park's walking path.

And then, of course, there was the neighborhood involvement. Neighbors contributed everything from a handmade pi?±ata to home cooked meals to art for the decorative banners. And they got their hands dirty, too, tackling tasks like sanding, staining, and carving.

"We had a lot of problems in Jefferson Park before the neighborhood got involved, now we have virtually no problems with vandalism. It's a real positive way to make people feel part of the community and create ownership," said Dumont.

Each year, Pomegranate Center chooses a project for its Dig Fund. After the fun and success of Pomegranate's first Walla Walla project in the Edith-Carrie neighborhood -- which won Washington state's 2009 Evergreen Award for groundbreaking collaboration -- the group decided to devote this year's Dig Fund to a second project.

Shirley Kern, resident of the Edith-Carrie Neighborhood, volunteered for that park project.

"When they came in, I didn't know who they were. They told me what they were going to do and I thought, 'Yeah, right.' I'd lived there 27 years and hadn't seen anything," Kern said.

"They showed us what we could do. They're wonderful people, and I hope there's more that they can do here. They do a beautiful job," said 66-year-old Kern, who joined the Washington Park project, cooking breakfast for the crew, painting banners and also sanding all day.

These projects don't end when Pomegranate packs its tents and returns to Issaquah. Two years after the Edith and Carrie project, that space now boasts playground equipment, newly planted trees and a basketball court, and the neighborhood has set its sights on a community building.

Milenko Matanovic, executive director of Pomegranate center, explained to volunteers and community members gathered Saturday evening to celebrate the space that, just like cathedrals, which required the talents of diverse community members, this was a collaborative effort.

Milenko likened the Washington Park gathering place to a "mini-cathedral," hoping that it too would be "honored, celebrated and added to through time."

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