As a child, Lloyd Holiday ran through Grand Crossing Park's sprinkler and can still remember the feel of cold water on the cement. Brad Redrick played deck hockey with his friends on the park's tennis courts.
And CeCe Edwards bolted out of high school after class to watch boys play baseball, as old ladies looking on lectured her on staying out of trouble.
This weekend, the residents of the neighborhood on Chicago's South Side -- who proudly call themselves "Park Rats" because of childhoods spent playing in the community space -- will return to the dilapidated park by the dozens to re-create their former hangout for children in the neighborhood now.
It's a project that has gained resonance after Thomas Wortham IV, a police officer trying to do the same for a park nearby, was shot and killed May 19.
The group says this weekend's playground rebuilding, for which they worked years and collected more than $200,000, is the first of many plans to take charge of the neighborhood's future.
"That park saved my life when I was a kid," said Edwards, now in her mid-50s, who went on to college at Northwestern University but never moved from the neighborhood.
To prove she meant business, Edwards stopped five unsuspecting young men cutting through the park minutes after the project's kickoff on Friday. When they said they'd just been dismissed for summer vacation, she handed them shovels.
"They're mulching trees now," she said.
In recent years, residents in Greater Grand Crossing on Chicago's South Side have watched in frustration as they've seen drug dealers on street corners instead of seniors on porches, kids loitering on the sidewalk instead of taking classes in the park's historic field house.
Those scenes starkly contrast the memories of adults whose families moved into the neighborhood in the 1960s, as new areas of Chicago opened up to black professionals who bought homes here and in nearby Chatham, Avalon Park and Park Manor.
The park, a 17-acre oasis designed by the Olmsted Brothers in the early 1900s, was a natural meeting place with its swimming pool, playground, baseball diamonds, sports fields and field house.
Redrick, 52, now a Chicago police sergeant who lives in Greater Grand Crossing, remembers neighbors packing the field house for the "Gym Show," a lively showcase of local kids' talents, with costumes hand-sewn by parents.
"It would be absolutely, totally crowded," Redrick said. "We used to have a really good break dancer from this neighborhood and everybody thought he was going to be famous."
As public housing closed in other parts of the city in the 1990s, newcomers arrived in Greater Grand Crossing, igniting tension with some longtime residents who believed they didn't have the same sense of community. But a larger group believed the new residents deserved a chance, said Andrew Walton, who served as the Grand Crossing Park supervisor from 1991 to 2004.
In 2002, Redrick approached a circle of teenagers gambling for quarters in front of his home. When the two most intimidating teens explained that they loitered because had no other options, Redrick started a free football team that met on Saturdays at the park. And the intimidating pair?
"They ended up being the two doggone best kids in the neighborhood," Redrick said.
Still, the Park Rats knew their efforts could only go so far with the park's severe disrepair. The sprinkler at the playground hadn't been replaced in decades. By the pool, kids were hosed off with a garden hose because there is no poolside shower.
Chicago Park District officials say the park is one of 300 parks that hadn't been renovated since the early 1990s, with some original equipment from decades earlier.
In 2005, Edwards decided to take action. She typed up fliers saying "Join Us" and asked neighborhood children to help distribute them.
Within days, she heard from people eager to help: William Mitchell, whose 5-year-old son lived with his mother near the park; Holiday, a security guard at Hirsch Metropolitan High School and lifelong Grand Crossing resident who strolled the park every day after work.
Together with Walton, the former park supervisor, the group lobbied local politicians, recruited new members and befriended leaders at Friends of the Parks, who helped them to navigate the bureaucratic process.
"They were very persistent," said Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks. "We were always impressed by how much time (they) gave of themselves."
In time, the Park Rats secured $100,000 through state Rep. Marlow Colvin's office and another $120,000 from the Kohl's Cares for Kids Safety Network, which partners with Children's Memorial Hospital. They persuaded local businesses to donate hot dogs and bottled water, and nearby neighborhood groups to send groups of volunteers.
"We have to create the community that we want," said Charissa Jones, 45, beads of sweat dotting her forehead after helping to install a playground slide.
With more than 150 volunteers expected over two days, the playground is to be completed by 2 p.m. Saturday. If Grand Crossing Park's playground effort goes well, Friends of the Parks hope to begin work on a similar project at Cole Park, to be named after Wortham.
Park Rats say after the playground is up, they'll continue raising money to rebuild a walking path, create a computer room and give scholarships for Park District classes.
"If this park can be utilized like it was years ago, it would keep a lot of kids off the corners," Holiday said. "I worked hard because this is my park. My neighborhood park. It'll be my park until I'm long gone."