The Wonders of Westwood

Published on February 10th, 2020 by Molly Brind'Amour

Nobody knows Westwood Playground like Tammy Rose.

As the playground supervisor and co-leader of the Friends of Westwood Playground, it’s Tammy’s job to know the ins and outs of the place. But as a Laburnum Elementary School teacher and a longtime neighbor of the park, it seems like Tammy knows not just everything, but everyone.

As we chat at the playground on a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon, Tammy spots people she knows everywhere, from the woman taking a lunch break at a picnic table to the family walking their dog. 

And when Tammy’s eagle eye spots graffiti on the building’s wall, she recognizes exactly which neighborhood kid is guilty. 

“I’m gonna get him…I know exactly who that is,” Tammy says, chuckling. 

Neighborhood Know-How

This kind of knowledge comes with the territory for Tammy. Her family has lived in the area for 53 years and Tammy spent her own childhood playing in the Westwood park. Located in the West End, a little west of the Willow Lawn neighborhood, Westwood is a hidden gem not many in Richmond know about.

Today, the playground looks spiffy, clean and new. But Tammy Rose can see it as it was decades ago, when she played in the park as a little girl.

A playset with a slide.
Westwood’s recent play structure sits on a bed of wood chips.

Having spent her childhood just down the street from the playground, Tammy recalls a much smaller sandbox, a different basketball court, and no playset where the current one stands. But though the Westwood Playground of Tammy’s youth wasn’t as decked-out as today’s, her memories of it are as fond as can be.

Westwood used to be a place where kids from all around the neighborhood would play together.

 “When I was growing up, we all knew everyone,” Tammy explains. She remembers the days when the neighborhood kids would play hide-and-seek, which they called “possum,” against other streets — Stokes Lane had the most kids, Tammy recalls. 

For the neighborhood kids, the center of that community was the playground. 

“Every child in the neighborhood was here,” Tammy remembers. The kids would stay there all day, return home around lunchtime, and come back for the evening til 8 or 9 p.m. 

A Different Time

In those days, she recalls, there was no growth on the fences, meaning that neighbors could see right through to each other’s yards. It was a neighborhood grapevine — with just one phone call, your parents could call a neighbor near where you were playing, who could shout over the fence that you needed to get home.

With that kind of community, Tammy recalls, your parents could keep an eye on any kind of trouble you got into. “If you did something…somebody saw it,” she adds. 

As a mom and a teacher, Tammy knows about kids and trouble. And she’s always thinking one step ahead.

A set of playground swings.
Westwood’s swing set looks out onto the quiet neighborhood streets.

“I’m a mama. What you’re not gonna do is mess up what we’re cleaning up,” Tammy explains, referring to the graffiti scrawled on the park wall. That is, she says, unless the playground is doing some kind of mural project.

“That might be an awesome thing,” Tammy muses, the wheels already turning in her head. But she’s firm with her stance on keeping the park beautiful.

“If we’re not gonna do that, we’re not gonna deface what we have,” she adds. 

The trajectory of Westwood’s play area hasn’t been a straight line of improvements since Tammy’s childhood. 

In fact, Tammy remembers when her own daughters — now in their 30s — were growing up, she rarely let them play at the park. Her daughters told her that they could count on one hand the number of times their mother had let them play there. 

Back then, Tammy explains, the area had been a place for questionable activity. Without a park supervisor, the area was host to gambling, swearing and drinking — a far cry from the quiet oasis it is now. That took a lot of work to change.

Onwards and Upwards

“We had been trying to work to get it straight and it took a long time,” Tammy explains. She’s been involved with the playground for a while, but the real work began in 2014, when Tammy and Jeanette Brown connected with Chesapeake Bank, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and Enrichmond. 

“Chesapeake Bank has been helping us since the beginning of time, actually,” Tammy explains. Kristie Smith, business development officer with Chesapeake Bank, helped found Friends of Westwood Playground. 

The Friends – with the help of Chesapeake Bank, the City of Richmond, and Richmond Community Toolbank – have put in a new grill, picnic tables, benches, restrooms, and running water. They’ve enlarged the sand pit, moved the basketball court, and elevated the swings.

A sand pit volleyball court and a bench.
An enlarged sand pit is one of the recent improvements made to Westwood Playground.

They’ve brought in electricity, painted buildings and awnings, dredged the sand, and set up frequent mowing. The Friends even received a playset as an in-kind donation from the City’s Parks Department, after Parks recognized how hard the Friends group was working.

Big Changes

But this is all just the tip of the iceberg. Earth Day spring cleaning events have continued for the last five years to touch up the park with weeding, cleaning the park building’s facilities and fixtures, and bench repainting. 

A recent fall cleanup included the usual cleanup activities, plus watering, staining, graffiti removal, and cutting back trees and bushes.  

What’s more, last fall brought the installation of a new rain garden, thanks to a Love Your Block grant. According to Tammy, the park had a problem with water settling behind the grills after a lot of rain, making the ground too soft to walk on or mow. 

Grills and a play structure
During rainy days, Tammy explained, water would settle behind the park’s grills, pictured.

During these rainy periods, some of the houses backing up to the playground had standing water. Last October, grants made it possible for the Friends to install a rain garden, as well as specific trees that love standing water, helping to mitigate the rain issue for both the playground and its neighbors. 

Back to its Roots

For Tammy and her co-leader Jeanette Brown, the work on the playground has focused on bringing it back to its former glory, with an emphasis on preserving the local history and culture. 

Descendants of slaves and freedmen founded the Westwood neighborhood in 1870 and Friends of Westwood Playground has lobbied to receive a historical marker commemorating the site. The marker was approved by the Virginia Department of Historical Resources earlier this month. 

What Tammy wants to give back to the neighborhood is that sense of community she felt growing up, to create a place for families to come out and live. 

A swingset on a playground
Swings for small children are another kid-friendly feature of the once-hectic park.

August’s National Night Out at Westwood drew a crowd of over 80 to the playground. Neighbors mingled with Henrico’s leaders and law enforcement, enjoying a cookout, lawn games, a DJ, ice cream, and even a dance floor. 

Tammy appreciated how neighbors could pick up on the changes the Friends had made to the park, even little ones from the past year or so, like new sand and rubber siding for the sandbox.

“They could name the things that we had done,” she explains.

Another way the Friends gave back to the community was the summer meals program. Through a Parks and Recreation summer camp and the USDA, young people under 18 qualified for free summer meals at the playground.

The summer’s successes are in the rearview mirror, but there’s still lots of work for Friends of Westwood Playground to do.

“Now that we’ve cleaned it…and that kind of thing, it’s always that betterment piece,” Tammy says.

Westwood Playground is located at 5409 Marian Street.