Mercer partners with local neighborhood to help rebuild destroyed playground

The Village Green playground was burned by a gang two years ago, neighbors said.

Image: Frank Austin

The Village Green playground was burned by a gang two years ago, neighbors said.

Sarah Pounds, News Editor

Austin developed the plans for the new playground with Macon-Bibb, pictured above and below.
Austin developed the plans for the new playground with Macon-Bibb, pictured above.

Melted playgrounds belong in horror stories, crime scenes and war zones. So, when Frank Austin came across one last fall in the Macon subdivision of Village Green, he was shocked.

“My first feeling was just a feeling of despair,” he said.

Austin is the founder and executive director of the Austin Smith Center for Community Development, and he has been volunteering in the Village Green area for over three years.

According to neighbors, the area was first set ablaze years ago by a gang. The city of Macon partnered with the community, and the playground was rebuilt.

However, the area still wasn’t well lit, making it easy for groups to meet there.

In 2013, the same playground burned again. Neighbors have told Austin that they believe the second fire was connected to a gang-related death in Bloomfield.

This time, though, the playground wasn’t rebuilt.

When Austin saw the playground a year later, the graffi tied tags still stood in sharp contrast to the twisted, melted plastic.

“Kids do still play on the playground,” Austin said. There are about 170 kids who have access to the space, he said.

“Seeing (the condition of the playground), I just think it was a direct reflection of the low community pride,” he said. “But I saw it as an opportunity of, if we can address that issue, and then it can start with the children in [Village Green]. We can go in, and with the community’s help, we can restore it.”

Village Green, located in the Bloomfield neighborhood just north of where I-75 and I-475 meet, once made headlines for its violent crime rate and the amount of blighted property in the community.

Now, it’s going through a transformation and residents are stepping up to address issues in their neighborhood.

The project to restore the playground is one of many that Austin has set in motion in Village Green, in addition to the introduction of a community garden and a mass planting of new cherry blossom trees last spring.

Austin approached the playground project like he has every other, reaching out to residents first to establish what they want in their neighborhood. He initially took to his Facebook page last fall.

“What do we do as a community? Do we rebuild ? Anyone know how much it costs?” he wrote.

Those questions turned into door-to-door canvassing in the neighborhood so that Austin and his team could get a good idea of what residents wanted to do with the space.

They want a new playground.

Plans are now in place to apply for funding to cover the cost of playground equipment. Austin has teamed up with Carrie Ingoldsby, Director of Campus Life at Mercer University, to work on grant opportunities for various projects, including revamping the playground. Ingoldsby will be assisting with this effort outside of her role at Mercer.

Austin said that he is also working with the local government to develop long term plans for the space.

Once those materials and plans are put in place, various organizations have already committed to provide the manpower to bring everything together.

That’s where Mercer really comes in.

Hannah Vann, the coordinator for Mercer’s Center for Community Engagement, said that the group worked in Village Green around once a month in the last school year on various service projects.

“We’re not officially a part of anything involved with getting the playground, but because we have a partnership with the Village Green community through service and volunteerism … when they do get their equipment ready to install, we’ll be there,” Vann said.