Most people wouldn't look at an illegal dump site and think, "What a perfect place for a park."
But most people aren't Steve Wood, founder and executive director of Concrete Couch, a nonprofit that blends the creative forces of kids and adults across the city to build community through creative projects and programs.
The up-and-coming Hillside neighborhood park, dubbed Concrete Coyote, is a community-designed park, the first of its kind in Colorado Springs, built and paid for by the community with free programs open to all. And it will be home to the Concrete Couch office when it opens in April.
"The data says giving kids and adults the chance to brainstorm and learning the skills to do it while reaching out to the community is incredibly valuable," says Wood. "It happens at private schools all the time. That’s great if you have the money. Concrete Coyote and Concrete Couch try to make those experiences available to the city, especially the Hillside neighborhood."
About 18 months ago, Wood gazed out over the wasteland at 1100 S. Royer St., along the train tracks near South Royer Street and Las Vegas Street, and saw the potential for greatness. The Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department had already been offered the property for free, he says, but turned it down, saying the 5½-acre property had too many issues, including homeless folks who had set up tents. Concrete Couch doled out $100,000 for the property and dug in.
"It was a horrific site when we first bought it," says Wood. "We pulled out five gallon buckets of batteries, human waste and needles. It was an old industrial site. They were dumping old concrete and asphalt."
Susan Davies, executive director of Trails and Open Space Coalition, remembers her disbelief when she stopped by for a look and listened to Wood describe his vision for the property.
"(It was) an urban jungle," she says. "Thank heavens for people like Steve. They can look at a piece of ill-kept, mean, little land and turn it into a place to relish and enjoy and recreate. That’s such a gift."
A year and a half later, that once toxic slab of earth is in the process of transformation. The park isn't yet open to casual visits, but those who sign up for a program or to volunteer will get the lay of the land. Visitors are greeted by a giant metal hammer sculpture overlooking the entrance. In the distance is an oasis for kids — a homemade playground under a giant shady tree that was built and designed by teens and preteens. Beyond a metal spider climbing gym is Shooks Run, a creek surrounded by stacked slabs of concrete. While volunteers work to make the area safe for future visitors, this is where Concrete Couch classes come to learn about the water, ecosystem, habitat and stormwater pollution prevention.
"You couldn’t ask for a better organization or neighbor for the Hillside community," says Jerry Cordova, stormwater specialist for the City of Colorado Springs. He regularly teaches classes at Concrete Coyote. "The principles Concrete Couch talks about are community engagement and being involved. They walk the talk. They lead by example. They're building multigenerational programs and making an investment in the community."
Wood is no stranger to beautifying the world around him — he's been at the forefront of more than 800 community art projects in the region over the years. Concrete Couch became an official nonprofit in 2004, but the organization has done the same work for a decade longer. "The Great Pumpkin" sculpture that's mostly made from recycled materials near Vermijo and Nevada avenues downtown? Concrete Couch. "Alan's Odd Duck," the large mosaic duck sculpture near the Uncle Wilbur Fountain in Acacia Park? Concrete Couch. The group's work not only decorates the Pikes Peak region, but the whole of Colorado.
A walk around Concrete Coyote reveals many works in progress. There are the hints of hiking and biking trails; what is planned to be a climbing wall mosaic; the planting of native gardens, demonstration gardens and a rock garden; giant sculptures; art projects and more. It's all thanks to 30 community groups, volunteers and the hundreds of kids and adults who have taken part in the nonprofit's numerous year-round programs, such as Citizen Science Night and Tuesday Trails, where people help build the park's trails.
"Spending time in nature is valuable," says Wood. "We've worked in the Hillside neighborhood, and for the kids here and around the city to have a community park that’s a little wild and has the hand of kids on it is a great asset."
Cordova sees the current project as addressing many of the Hillside neighborhood's needs. It's breaking down socioeconomic walls and creating an affordable and accessible place to go.
"Everyone is welcome," he says. "They're (Concrete Couch) engaging and a great group to be around, but also they (the kids) are learning life skills. It's very tangible and hands-on, and they can take those skills and do something with that. That's not offered a lot in public schools or even at the university level."
Davies also was impressed when she made a return visit to the site several weeks ago.
"I can see now that vision," she says. "It's neat to see so many people and groups embrace it. You walk the grounds and run into people volunteering. He’s one of the pied pipers in our community. People want to follow him. They want to hitch their wagon to his vision because it's so exciting."