The elongated, oval-shaped Days Park has adorned a block of Allentown with green space since the mid-19th century.
But when the park and the area around it fell into disarray a century later, it took a concerted effort mounted by residents to bring the park back.
Earlier this month, the City Park Alliance, an independent, nationwide organization dedicated to urban parks, named Days Park a "Frontline Park." The designation is given to "inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship across the country."
It's the latest honor to come to Days Park and the Days Park Block Club. The restoration effort earned the City of Buffalo's Civic Empowerment Award, Preservation Buffalo Niagara's Stewardship Award, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy's William Dorsheimer Community Award and a finalist placement for Project for Public Space's Great Parks/Great Community Place Award.
"It represents the efforts from a lot of people over many years," said Mary Simpson, who moved onto Days Park in 1986 and helped found the block club in 1987.
"The care that people have for the park is fabulous," said Ellen Dehoff Nicometto, who moved onto the street seven years ago. "It's a beautiful little pocket neighborhood."
The 1.5-acre property was donated to the city in 1859 by Thomas Day, making it the second piece of private land given to the city for a park after Johnson Park. Days Park was redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1887.
The park began falling into disrepair after the Great Depression, along with the houses and apartments around it.
In the 1950s, the City of Buffalo announced plans to use half the park for a playground and parking lot. But a descendant of Thomas Day fought back. Warren Day Ferris produced the original deed that said the land was donated with the stipulation it be kept in the same state and shape, or else it would revert to Day's heirs. When the city's planning agency balked, Ferris sued and took the case to the State Supreme Court, which ruled the space had to remain whole.
"That's why we still have a park today," Simpson said.
But the decision didn't convince anyone in City Hall to take care of the park. Making matters worse, the mature elm trees were removed in the 1960s due to Dutch Elm Disease.
In the mid-1970s, David Urgo, a college student living on the street decided to do something about the absence of trees.
A friend of his living in a commune in Trumansburg, near Ithaca, got a farmer nearby to donate 60 wild maple, ash and oak trees. City forester Ed Drabek went there to pick them out, and commune members dug up, balled and burlaped the trees. Then they drove the trees to Buffalo in a truck named the White Buffalo.
Children from Buffalo Public School 36, at the western end of Days Park, helped plant the trees.
The neighborhood during this period was still continuing to slide downhill. When the block club formed, more than half of the one- and two-family houses around the park were vacant or owned by absentee landlords.
"For many, it was a very scary place," Simpson recalled. "We had open-air drug dealing in front of the school and a lot of loitering on the vacant properties, and the police response was not adequate. People were afraid to live there."
And the park? "It was just basically dirt with some larger trees," Simpson said.
"I remember talking to a guy who had bought a house on the street at tax auction. I said, 'We're here' – meaning the Days Park Block Club – 'and we really care about our park,' and he said, 'What park?' He didn't realize it was a park because it was that bad."
But over time, the block club mobilized. Maples, London plane and oaks were planted, including along the street and sidewalk. Funds were obtained to re-create the original working fountain, wrought iron fence and Victorian lampposts.
Improvements to the eclectic homes surrounding the park became a common sight, and the group helped put an absentee landlord guilty of code violations in jail.
"The feeling was, 'Let's take back our park, and return it back to what it once was,' " said Dolores Murphy, another block club co-founder who grew up on the street and has lived in her current home for 50 years.
Murphy said the recognition from the City Park Alliance was "a reward" for all of the group's efforts.
"It's our lost treasure," she said.
Jonathan White, a longtime Allentown resident and vice president of the Allentown Association, said he's watched people move onto the street over the years and care about the park with the same level of commitment.
"Many of the original people who worked to beautify the park have moved on, but others have stepped up and taken their place," White said. "The spirit of community that was fostered has been passed on and picked up by others."
But there also have been changes that some residents lament. Gentrification has meant that the Days Park community is now less heterogeneous in race and income.
The park's biggest challenge is overuse. Whole sections are frequently fenced off to regrow grass, a problem made worse by the trees' dense canopies. The charter school's use of the park for recess – sending hundreds of kids onto confined areas, which the public school before it didn't do – is a big factor, residents say.
But that's a much better problem to have than what the block club was first faced with.
"I love living across the street from the park," said Deb Ellis. "It's my front yard, and I feel very protective over it, too.
"I love watching the kids play, and the Somalian kids play soccer," she said. "I love watching the school kids and the people walking their dogs, I like the hula-hoopers and the tightrope walkers, and the violin guy who sits out there and plays his violin for hours that I hear from my porch and bedroom window."
It's clear by the active involvement of residents that the days of Days Park being reduced to an unkempt field of dirt are long gone.
"If there is a lesson, it's that people working together as a community can make great change," Simpson said.