TAMPA — This past Christmas we bought for my middle child something called a Spooner Board, which is marketed as a toy for gifted children but is really just a sort of a curved plastic skateboard without wheels. She dragged it to the front yard and tried to scoot around, and was bored in about two minutes.
"We need a hill," she said.
"Get in the car," I said. To save Christmas, we drove downtown, to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, home to the only hills I could think of.
The park is unkempt, no doubt. My wife calls it Condom Park because she found a used prophylactic near the slides the first time she visited. Our oldest daughter got stung by a hornet while playing there a few years ago. An entry on urbandictionary.com refers to a used-to-be sunken promenade there as the Hobo Death Arena, based on the claims of one rowing team in 2005 that said it witnessed several to-the-death bum fights.
Nonetheless, we trekked to the top of the tallest mound, positioned the Spooner Board on the hot-as-hell slide and had a blast taking turns riding gravity toward the sand pit.
I sensed it then. Despite the neglect, there's something special about Riverfront Park. Among the ubiquitous, boring, plastic playgrounds around the city, Riverfront stands out. You can tell, still, that someone had an interesting idea about park design. But it took Mayor Bob Buckhorn's insults to get me really interested.
In the past few months, Buckhorn has taken every opportunity to deride the park. He calls those hills "alien space mounds" and talks about how they block the view of the river. He wants them gone, bulldozed to make way for a redeveloped public space. Maybe including a beach. Maybe including a boathouse. Maybe including some other boring idea.
One man stands alone in opposition, and I tracked him down. Jordan Miller, 32, who owns Vélo Champ, a cycle shop in Old Seminole Heights, hasn't really had the time to get too angry about the rush to make plains of the mounds, but he has done considerable research into the origin of the park. And what he's found should dump sugar into the bulldozers' fuel tanks. Or at least make somebody tap the brakes.
The park, originally called Bicentennial Riverfront Park, was opened in 1977 to incredible fanfare, and for good reason. It was designed by Richard Dattner, and you have to know a bit about his story to understand why that's important.
In 1956, a mother in New York City found blueprints left behind by a parks department employee that foretold the destruction of a playground on West 67th Street, just inside Central Park, to make way for a larger parking area for the Tavern on the Green restaurant. Long story short, a "baby-carriage brigade" of activist mothers halted the destruction. Ten years later, in the same spot, a young architect named Richard Dattner built New York's first stand-alone adventure playground.
His "playscape" design was a grand departure from the city's other playgrounds, where kids interacted with utilitarian equipment: a slide, a teeter-totter, monkey bars, all planted in asphalt. Dattner's playground, which kids called "the dangerous playground," included "massive timbered ziggurats and stepped pyramids with wide undulating slides, the vertiginous fire-pole plunging through tiered tree houses, the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge, the zip line, the Brutalist-Aztec water courses, and tunnel networks," as James Trainor described in Cabinet magazine a few years ago. Dattner's design — or thinking, at least — was inspired in part by British landscape designer and child welfare activist Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who developed junk and rubble playgrounds in Britain and once said, "Better a broken bone than a broken spirit."
Dattner's playscape remains in Central Park and is celebrated to this day.
A few years later, in the mid 1970s, the city of Tampa had swapped some former state fair land for 23 riverside acres with the University of Tampa, and it hired Dattner to design a park.
Dattner's original park was brilliant. It included an earthen amphitheater, a promenade with office space and classrooms inside an earthen mound, several other mounds connected to one another by wooden play gear and ropes courses, tree forts, tennis courts, handball courts, a shuffleboard court and a public swimming pool. The year it opened, thousands of people attended full-day events at the new civic jewel.
Now, few of the original features remain. The shuffleboard court is gone. The swimming pool is gone. One of the mounds was bulldozed. The geodesic domes are gone. The wooden forts built around bare climbing trees have been replaced by the boring plastic play equipment you see everywhere.
Few use the park now. But who cares?
Just Jordan Miller, evidently.
Miller says of the mayor: "He's just blissfully unaware of the significance of this park. I'm just a design-oriented person, and I've watched public spaces change, not necessarily for the better."
When I decided I wanted to try to slow Tampa's plans to redevelop Riverfront Park, I took my daughter and her friend there to see if they'd interact with the playscape. It was hot atop the mound. The slide was buckled and dimpled, and didn't provide any fun. We wound up sitting on a bench, in the shade of an oak tree, talking. I told them about the history of the park and the significance of the mounds. About adventure playgrounds and how we've robbed them of fun because we're so risk-averse.
I showed them pictures of the park in its heyday, and they perked up. We'd play on that, they said. Both seemed to recognize something the mayor is missing. These hills are something. There's significance here. There's history.
"If they try to bulldoze them," my daughter said, "we could just sit on top."
Contact Ben Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.