Preserving Knoxville's Fort Kid

Citizens charge in with pruners and plants to prolong the life of the aging wooden playground

Armed with a shiny gold shovel, mini bulldozer, clippers, brooms, sentimentality, and urban greenspace ideals, a group of adult volunteers met at Fort Kid this past Saturday morning to refurbish.

Not to be confused with the new Kidz Zone Play Systems-designed playground going up on the north lawn of World's Fair Park, with its primary-color synthetic slides and swings already awaiting the ribbon-cutting ceremony July 8, this is the "real" Fort Kid. The workers have come to minister to the original: 12,000-square feet of sun-bleached wooden play tunnels, mazes, slides and bridges built by 3,000 locals in 1991 in Knoxville's largest volunteer construction effort ever.

The Saturday morning group, assembled by Mahasti Vafaie, co-owner with her husband Scott Partin of Tomato Head restaurant, is not against the new playground; the volunteers are just not willing to let a one-of-a-kind collective effort lapse into oblivion due to neglect.

"It has a kind of spirit because it was built out of wood—it has a little more soul, it's not plastic," says acclaimed Knoxville sculptor Preston Farabow, one of the early-rising volunteers. "It's easier to get connected to something that's wood than something that's plastic. It's special because it's handcrafted."

The layout of the playgound also sets it apart, says Christos Christopoulos, co-owner of general contractor Christopoulos and Kennedy. He was one of the original volunteers who constructed Fort Kid, and the firm also donated labor and a mini-bulldozer for the reclamation effort. "The many levels, the different spaces, the vertical steps, the cubby holes—they all allow children to pick anything their imagination really wants and carry it out," he says. "Compared to most other play areas, where the structures are more minimal and spaced out, a child at Fort Kid can really get absorbed into the surroundings, really own this and be creative with it."

Vafaie's band of volunteers were initially concerned that the city might be imminently tearing down the structure, and their goal was to "fix it up and show the city that it was still valuable," says Vafaie. By Saturday morning, she said she'd heard from City Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh that the city didn't have immediate plans for demolition nor did it intend to do more than minimal maintenance as it phased the playground out.

A few days later, Walsh verified the city's loose plans for the structure between World's Fair Park and the Victorian houses on 11th Street.

"What I told her, our plan is not to tear down Fort Kid," he says. "Our focus is the new playground on the north lawn of World's Fair Park, but Fort Kid has been viable. The thing is, it's made out of wood and shows signs of wear. We're not going to invest more time and effort in anything but minimal maintenance. As it wears out to the point where it's no longer safe, we'll phase out various components."

As the volunteers work at the playground, it becomes evident just how minimal the maintenance efforts have become. A mound of branches pruned from trees that were bowing over wooden playhouses and a bridge mounts up in the parking lot, growing as large as the boarded-over ice cream and sandwich stand nearby.

"This is just kind of embarrassing," says Vafaie. Some wooden lattice is loose and can be ripped out by hand, while dirt and debris overwhelm a small seating nook near the edge of the playground. Claire Jamieson, who's 30, attacks it with gusto. "People my age helped build this playground," she muses. "It would be such a shame to lose it."

Nostalgia is inextricable from any pragmatic reasons for salvaging the park. "I have enjoyed playing here as a college student; we'd come swing with our friends," remembers Sarah Bush, the founder of Knoxville's Slow Food chapter. "It's good for big kids, too. And any urban greenspace is important."

Spirits are high at the work session; people are pleased and hopeful, if sweaty, and a handful of pre-K and elementary age kids joyously demonstrate how the old hand-over-hand rings and metal-and-wood sliding board can still delight. "It's just sort of been ignored, and we don't want to let it go," says Shannon Ernest, straining lean, tanned, tattooed arms to clip some overgrown flower beds. "I'm just trying to help clean it up, because it's always good to have another playground."

Jimmy Cheek, in shorts and a cowboy hat, patiently explains to a young boy, over and over, that he won't be able to drive the small bulldozer. "I just can't let you do that, son," says Cheek, and soon the boy is distracted by climbing on the gleaming sliding board with some other preschoolers.

Farabow, who likes to describe himself as "Knoxville's poorest philanthropist," is pulling weeds. "I'm reliving the memories of bringing my son here when he was very young," Farabow says. "He's 11 now."

The playground, though, is 18, which is old by modern standards, says Walsh. "I was out there last week looking at it. It's the last wooden structure under the city parks department. It doesn't meet any current recommended safety standards. But as long as it stays safe, we will continue to keep it in operation."

Bush, who also solicited some fellow "greenies" for the volunteer day, would like to take the effort further than keeping the playground one step ahead of the wrecker ball. A landscaper by profession, she helped plant native perennials and herbs donated by Riverdale Nursery. "We were going to do some other edible landscaping, like tomatoes, but first I'd like to see if anyone in the Fort Sanders community would be interested in the upkeep," she says. "I'd really like to create some raised beds on the site."

Walsh is cautiously supportive of the idea of community members sprucing up the park on their own initiative. "We're always concerned about aesthetics," he says. "But any efforts need to be cleared through the Public Building Authority, which manages and operates World's Fair Park. They're responsible for anything that happens on the site. We don't want people willy-nilly coming in."

For her part, Vafaie would like some reassurance that the city might open the bathrooms that are on the edge of Fort Kid. Bad news there, says Walsh. "The bathrooms are part of the Victorian houses, and they have been sold, and resold recently," he says. "To my knowledge, there is no plan to reopen those bathrooms. But there are very nice restrooms in World's Fair Park, down next to the Court of Flags. They're just not right next to Fort Kid."

But they're fairly close to the new playground equipment...