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Days Park never had a swing set. And for much of its life, it had no future, either.

But the Allentown community celebrated the park's 150th birthday Friday, inviting neighbors and more than 300 pupils from adjacent School 36 into the warm sunshine of a park once riddled with crime and the effects of poverty.

"There were people drinking in the park, lurking in the park; there were open-air drug deals in the park," said Mary Simpson, president of the Days Park Block Club, as she glanced at the lawn now teeming with children and balloons.

The lush 1.33-acre nationally recognized park provided the perfect setting for its own birthday party, and for the annual school-sponsored Community Unity Day. Game booths and an inflatable "moon bounce" were set up for the students under the shade of towering oak trees while food vendors and clowns dotted the pristine landscape.

The park's 150-year history is a tale of civic victory. Community members, school officials and volunteers who never had heard of Days Park joined to fight the decline that often plagues urban parks and return it to the 19th century marvel of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted's vision.

Buffalo settler Thomas Day donated what was once a cow pasture to the city in 1854. In the early 1970s, Dutch elm disease wiped out the park's trees, transforming the park into a barren "dusty field," according to Simpson. Crime and depreciation ensued.

But in 1974, community members convinced an Ithaca farmer to let them dig up his wild oak trees to replace park trees that had been removed.

"It's really symbolic of how this whole park got restored," Simpson said. "There's been so many volunteers. We have people mowing the lawn, we've got people weeding the garden."

Students from the school, which uses the park for recess and science classes, submitted crayon design plans for the park's restoration to then-Niagara Council Member Joel A. Giambra in 1988. He maneuvered a new sidewalk into the city budget. Later, gardens and a fountain -- which would be stolen by thieves masquerading as city workers -- were added. A new fountain arrived in 1995.

The park's revival stimulated widespread improvements in the neighborhood. Property values have soared as much as 600 percent -- the result of what event organizer Darren Strickland called "sweat equity" and "community grit."

Last year, the park was one of six finalists for the national Great Community Place award. Strickland and school Principal Wanda I. Schoenfeld said they likely will coordinate with the community to make the birthday event annual.

The party was the first of several events planned to celebrate the park's birthday. A family camp-out will be held Aug. 28, and a homecoming is scheduled for Oct. 2. Anyone who has ever lived or worked by the park is invited and asked to bring a dish and photos of the park.


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