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Monday, May 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Park And Pride -- Neighbors Make Madrona Talk Of The Nation

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When Madrona neighbors tackled a long-neglected vacant lot, they dug up a grab bag of modern artifacts: Credit cards. Shoes. Drug needles. Ammo.

"We've got a nice collection of bullets on our kitchen windowsill now," said neighborhood resident Marcia Appleton.

In converting the debris-strewn lot at 29th Avenue and East Columbia Street into a park, the volunteers also turned up a nomination for the nation's top neighborhood. The park is the linchpin of Madrona's entry for the 1999 Neighborhood of the Year award, which will be handed out this weekend in Madison, Wis.

Madrona, which made the cut of 11 national finalists for the annual award, is up against neighborhoods from Coral Springs, Fla., Long Beach, Calif., and Tupelo, Miss., among others.

At the heart of Madrona's entry is Nora's Woods, a 1/3-acre park in the neighborhood's southwest corner that was a tangled mess of blackberry cover and rubbish when volunteers began cleaning it up in spring 1997. Neighbors said the lot was long a den of rampant drug use and sexual activity.

Now dotted by ferns, Indian plum plants and big-leaf maple trees, Nora's Woods is a botanical sanctuary with more than 50 species native to the Pacific Northwest.

"It's intended to be a natural species showcase," said volunteer Amanda Sargent.

Regardless of how the contest turns out, volunteers say they consider the Nora's Woods project a victory, because building the park helped bring the neighborhood together.

In the year and a half it took to construct Nora's Woods, more than 60 volunteers played a part in cleaning up the site. Neighborhood residents from all over Madrona - some of whom had never met - were suddenly side-by-side, pulling weeds, planting new trees and forging trails.

"It did give a common way to focus," Sargent said.

The constant presence of volunteers also seems to have hindered crime in the area. In 1998, Seattle Police recorded a 36 percent drop in the number of disturbance calls in the block compared to 1996, the year before neighbors began work on the park. There were no assaults reported on the block in 1998, down from three in 1996.

The lot was an eyesore for as long as anyone can remember. The first effort to rehabilitate the area came in 1987, when the lot was purchased by Nora Wood, a longtime Madrona resident and former president of the neighborhood's community council. Wood, who died in 1989, hoped to preserve one of the area's last remaining patches of green space.

In 1994, the property was deeded to the Trust for Public Land, and an anonymous donor pledged enough money to hire a landscape architect. Neighbors gathered for "design parties," and organizers spread word of the project throughout Madrona.

Then, in early 1997, the group began clearing out the lot - no small task, considering the fertile overgrowth of blackberry and ivy, and decades of garbage-dumping and neglect.

"The trash that we pulled out of there was unreal," said Rich Appleton, who will make the group's presentation to judges at the Neighborhoods USA conference on Thursday.

In addition to finding a potpourri of drug and sex paraphernalia, the neighbors also uncovered a car wheel attached to an axle. The rest of the car presumably is buried somewhere underneath the park.

Which raises the question: Is there anything the neighbors didn't turn up?

"We didn't find any bodies," said Marcia Appleton, only half-joking.

The park is one of four finalists in the Neighborhood of the Year contest's beautification category. Another seven finalists will compete for top honors in two additional categories: social revitalization projects, and multi-neighborhood partnerships.

The three category winners then square off for the grand prize, which will be announced Saturday and carries a $1,000 cash award. Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood won that honor in 1986, and local real-estate agents still cite the award when pitching homes in the area.

Neighbors say the award would be a distinct honor. But even if Madrona's entry falls short, Nora Wood's widower, Dr. Francis Wood, said the neighborhood camaraderie created by the project is a legacy in itself that his wife would have been proud of.

"The thing that has made this marvelous . . . is neighbors coming out of the woodwork and helping out," Wood said. "I think Nora would have been extremely delighted with how this whole thing has turned out."

Jake Batsell's phone message number is 206-464-2595. His e-mail address is jbatsell@seattletimes.com

---------------------------- Nora's Woods, by the numbers ----------------------------

60-plus Volunteers who helped construct the park between spring 1997 and summer 1998

50-plus Types of native species of trees, shrubs and ground cover planted throughout the park

36 percent Drop in crime reported to Seattle police between 1996, the year before work began on Nora's Woods, and 1998, the year the park opened

4 Bullets recovered by neighborhood volunteers cleaning up the park

1 Car presumed to be buried somewhere underneath the park

0 Number of assaults and threats reported to Seattle police in 1998, down from 6 incidents on the block two years before

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company

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