The first message came at 1 in the morning: “Jen, it’s all gone.”
Next thing Jennifer O’Brien knew, her phone was blowing up with texts. The news was heartbreaking. Our Space Park, a playground in Binghamton’s Recreation Park, designed as an accessible place of joy for people of all ages and abilities, had burned to the ground.
“About 85 percent of it was damaged,” said Paul Palmer, director of the Binghamton Parks and Recreation Department.
That was on June 1, 2020. But you can’t keep a much-loved play space down for long. “By 8 the following morning, we had a rebuild plan,” said O’Brien, community coordinator on the original Our Space initiative, and on the project to resurrect the playground.
Built in 2016, Our Space Park was a collaborative effort of Binghamton Parks and Recreation and Life is Washable, a nonprofit that O’Brien founded to serve people with special needs and their families. Binghamton University’s Price Waterhouse Cooper Scholars were also involved in the initial planning of the park.
“The park is the only one of its kind in Upstate New York, and it’s a destination for thousands of people across the Northeast,” said Binghamton’s Mayor, Richard David. Hundreds of volunteers helped to build Our Space, with support from New York State, in-kind donations, and contributions to a fund administered by the Community Foundation.
Designed by Ithaca-based Play by Design, Our Space included ramps, a fully accessible merry-go-round, a swing made for wheelchairs, an accessible treehouse, and structures that looked like familiar Binghamton landmarks such as the county courthouse.
The community loved Our Space, and once they heard about the fire, people wanted it rebuilt as soon as possible. “In the days and week that followed that fire, mothers and grandmothers would show up with children and grandchildren, and they would be in tears,” David said. “They just couldn’t believe that somebody would do this intentionally.”
So the community went to work. The city got its insurance company to expedite the claim, and it hired a demolition company to clear the debris. The Community Foundation reopened the Our Space Fund. And donations poured in.
While support for the rebuild included some large contributions from individuals and corporations, much of the money came from everyday people who clearly loved the playground. “There were thousands of donations that were under the $100 mark,” O’Brien said. “There were thousands of $20 donations. These are people who didn’t have much to give but cared.”
In all, by September, the project had received about $284,000 in monetary gifts, $157,000 worth of in-kind services and the equivalent of $78,200 in donated labor, said O’Brien. Together with the insurance money, those contributions funded the rebuild.
In August, employees from Binghamton Parks and Recreation and a crowd of volunteers assembled in Recreation Park to start rebuilding. The plan was to recreate the original Our Space, but with some additions and improvements, O’Brien said. The new courthouse looks more like the actual building in downtown Binghamton, for instance, and the playground has signage and features designed for people who communicate in a greater variety of ways.
The Parks Department did the biggest jobs, starting on a Monday by installing about 150 posts. On Tuesday, the volunteers arrived.
“If you had been there you would have seen a huge tent with saw tables and construction tables set up underneath,” Palmer said. “If a volunteer wasn’t actually out in the playground, they would be building and cutting pieces that the other folks would use.”
Mayor David joined in, helping Palmer install a climbing wall. “It’s great when you are able to do physical work and have some sweat equity into a project that you know is going to have a huge benefit for kids and families,” he said.
“I loved watching the volunteers who came to the build bring their talents to it,” said O’Brien. And the Parks and Recs employees are incredible, she said. “The heavy lifting they did to get it done was heroic.”
Our Space Park reopened on October 22, less than five months after the fire, bringing gifts that defy measurement. “You can’t quantify the smiles, the laughter, the giggles of children who are excited to be back at the park and had been looking forward to this for months,” David said.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and in a season of widespread protest, Our Space also emerged as a sign of hope and unity.
“It doesn’t matter who burned it down. It just matters who it was built for,” said O’Brien. “This time I truly believe that the community built its own legacy. This wasn’t one person driving the ship. This was the community saying, ‘Yes, this is part of who we are, and we want this.’”