We Built a Playground! (or What it Means to Live in a Co-op)

If you wanted to see the true cooperative spirit in action, all you had to do was to be in our courtyard this weekend for a glimpse of a functional community doing what it was designed to do. All it took was a project.

In case you didn’t know by now, I live in a co-op. A cooperative community. Many people don’t know what that means, and to be fair it means different things in different places, but what it means here, in our resident-owned property, is that everyone who lives in one of our 28 units is both tenant and landlord to all the other members. Everyone serves on a committee of some sort, doing work ranging from mowing the grass to filing legal documents, and we all live and work together.

The best part about living here is that we know all of our neighbors. My kids know the names of 50 people that live in the adjacent apartments, and the kids all play together, the adults chat outside and get to know each other a little better, and there is a connection that I have never felt anywhere else that I’ve lived. It almost feels like what the media tries to convince us the 1950’s were like.

The worst part about living here is that we know all of our neighbors. Isn’t that always the way? The hardest thing in life, as you may have noticed, is dealing with other people. Even people you like! Working with a wide variety of opinions, styles, needs, and desires can often be challenging, and sometimes co-op life can be frustrating. For instance, I wanted a new playground.

Now, to be fair, the old play structure was literally falling apart. The wood was cracked and splintering in places, it was gray and ugly, and most of it had lived its prime ages ago. The climbing net was ripped and loose, the swing was unable to hold the weight of anyone larger than a baby, and the mulch padding around it had long since migrated to the parking lot and then, probably, the lake. It was in rough shape. It was also designed for a small number of children, but over the years our apparently romantic membership has increased that number, to where we now have around 25 kids living here. I didn’t just want a new playground; we needed one.

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Our Old Playground

As the board chair here at the co-op, it is my responsibility to push through my pet projects and force my agenda on my friends and neighbors run fair and balanced meetings with impartiality. I did bring up the playground, however, and last year, with the blessing of the board, I organized a playground task force. We surveyed our residents, asking what type of play structure they might want. We asked if people would be willing to help build it. We asked them many things, and with this data we designed our ideal structure. Nevermind that it was completely unrealistic in a Salvador Dali kind of way; it was awesome.

Nevermind that the swings were directly under a bridge and the thing would be 40 feet tall...

Nevermind that the swings were directly under a bridge and the thing would be 40 feet tall…

It was nice to see some unity in regards to the fact that we all agreed the old structure was terrible, but then came that hard “working with people” part. You see, here at the co-op we are all amateurs. None of us has much experience with running an apartment complex. We learn over time, but mostly we are just regular people trying to make things work. We had no idea how much a playground should cost, and there was contention around that issue (we pay for everything here ourselves, via our rent, or “Carrying charges”). We had different ideas for timelines, contractors, materials, and pretty much everything else. I was determined to have this thing built by the spring, so that we could enjoy it all summer long, but when our architect fell through it was clear that it was not going to happen.

When we had finally found a new playground designer, and settled on a design that we all thought was acceptable, we decided that it was not in our budget to have it built for us. 16 people had signed up on the survey, saying they would be willing to help build it! We could do it ourselves! And after weeks of missed deliveries, missing boxes, confusion, and consternation, we were finally ready to sit down and build this thing on Saturday morning. 3 people showed up.

To be fair it was freezing cold and pouring rain, and the people who were going to level the ground had not leveled the ground, and the people who were supposed to be in charge (me) had to go to two soccer games and a jamboree. Instructions were all over the place, and it was looking more and more like this was going to be a very expensive disaster. After 2 hours of work, I came home from soccer to see that they had managed to screw one piece of wood into another. Sure, it was a big first step, but we had 39 more huge boxes of wood to screw together. It didn’t look good.

The power of screws!

Ha ha! We’re screwed!

And then, a miracle happened. A few more people came out and joined the others. The rain stopped, and we now had two teams of people screwing wood together, while a third team organized all the parts and pieces by item and box number, so that any time someone came in needing something, they got it right away. I led the leveling team, and we grabbed some shovels and hoes and starting moving dirt around. By lunchtime we had a very, very small but recognizable piece of the playground put together. The day was half over, we were 5% done, but we had hope.

Hey! We're almost done!

Hey! We’re almost done!

The more we worked, the more people came out to help. People who had been upset about the budget. People who hadn’t loved the design. People with no kids that didn’t necessarily think this was the most important thing to them. They all came out, grabbed some wood, and started working together. By the end of the day, the thing was up, with only the details left to finish. I couldn’t believe it.

This might actually work!

This might actually work!

Even the sudden giant hail storm couldn’t stop us!

Aw, HAIL snow!

Aw, HAIL snow!

The next morning was Sunday and I had church. I was preaching on the movie “Fight Club,” so I couldn’t stick around to get the project started again. I didn’t need to. By the time we got home, an entirely new group of people had taken up the charge and were stabilizing the roof, adding telescopes, buckets, and steering wheels, attaching slides and swings, and picking up where the other teams had left off.

Ruby helps out.

Ruby helps out.

I joined in again, and by early afternoon it was really done. The children were playing on it, more excited than I had seen them in a long time, and none of them were (mostly) fighting! These kids were making up games and stories with plenty of room for all of them to co-exist, and the adults I spoke to were all still energized from the process. Our place is a better place now. It is safer. It is more beautiful. And our kids watched a bunch of adults come together and make something wonderful happen. If they remember nothing else from our time here at the co-op, I hope my kids remember that.

First Slide!

First Slide!

First Swing!

First Swing!

Chillin' in the lounge.

Chillin’ in the lounge

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