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Difference Maker How a forlorn playground became one of America’s most innovative public spaces

Toody Maher is an urban visionary who helped residents in Richmond, Calif., collectively transform a deserted spot. She believes that the most beautiful and enlightened public spaces belong in the most disadvantaged communities.

Roger Cohn

From their windows in the Iron Triangle section of Richmond, Calif. – a place synonymous with violence and urban blight – Rita Cerda and several other longtime residents watched as a crazy-seeming woman in pigtails poked around the then-deserted playground in their midst. Day after day in this heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood, she’d come to this sorry spot ridden with hypodermic needles and gin bottles, its swings shredded by pit bulls trained to improve their jaw strength by hanging from the seats.