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School bids adieu to its iconic play structure

NORTHAMPTON — Twenty-four years ago, Jackson Street School Principal Gwen Agna was among thousands of volunteers who, as she puts it, “lived” on school grounds for five days to build the wooden playscape that has become one of the city’s iconic structures.

And on Wednesday, Agna was among hundreds of parents, children and school staff who gathered on school grounds to say goodbye to the legendary playset, which is to be demolished this summer due to structural problems that have made it no longer safe for use, she said.

At the time the structure was built, 24 years ago, Agna’s own children were students at the school.

“I think we all feel wistful, and a little sad,” she said. “I think it’s a feeling that the community has a loss.”

The playscape opened on Sunday, June 3, 1990, the result of two years of fundraising and the carpentry efforts of 2,300 volunteers. Outside of school hours, the playscape has been open to the public, becoming a community center for residents.

When the structure was built, Agna said, she was told it would last 10 to 15 years. Since then, she added, there have been many efforts to sustain it, including the replacement of much of the wood with the wood alternative sold under the brand name Trex. Recently, however, the structure has been unable to hold up, and some parts, including two sets of swings, have been removed for safety reasons, she said.

Looking forward, back

Picnickers sought shade under trees at Wednesday’s sunny gathering, which was put together as a way to say goodbye to the structure, and also to raise money for improvements to the other play area — called the “Ms. Agna Playground” — through a “Hoop-a-thon” featuring Jackson Street students, said parent and event organizer Tom Nields-Duffy. Dozens of students gathered pledges from family members and friends for the amount of time they would hula-hoop on the school lawn Wednesday evening and raised what organizers estimated to be hundreds of dollars. The event also featured a performer on stilts who helped keep the mood celebratory.

Parents looked back fondly on the play structure’s history.

“It’s been a special and stable part of this school community for a long time,” said Sonia Molina, who was there Wednesday with her daughter, Navaya Molina, 10, a fourth-grader at Jackson Street. Navaya raised $225 for improvements to the other school play structures through a “read-a-thon,” in which she raised money through pledges for how much she could read.

Molina has another daughter, Angelí, who is now in the eighth grade and also went through Jackson Street School, as well as nieces and nephews now in their 30s who played on the structure when they were children, she said.

For current Jackson Street students, it was a mystical place to play.

“It was just a miniature castle that we lived in,” said Lizzie Brodeur, 10.

Meghan Carbery, 11, and Priya Wunjo, 10, spoke fondly of the structure’s many “hideout” spaces. Carbery recalled one part — now removed — she used as a space to read.

“It’s been there the whole time I’ve been here,” she said.

Emma Fallon, 10, said she wished her younger sister would have been able to use the structure.

“A lot of us have spent our whole lives here,” Priya said. “It’s kind of hard to let it go.”

For school staff, it has become a meaningful part of the landscape.

“When you pull in the parking lot every morning, it’s there,” said Janis Totty, physical education teacher at Jackson Street School. “When people drive by, it’s there.”

Totty was among those who helped paint the playscape’s towers red.

“It’s just beautiful,” she said. “Many of us have photographed it in different seasons.”

After everyone in attendance finished posing in front of the structure for a final photo, Garrett Adams, an English language learners (ELL) teacher at the school, said he found himself having to linger for a moment. His family moved to the city 14 years ago, and his three children, the oldest now 21, have gone through Jackson Street School.

“That was our first connection to Northampton,” Adams said.

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