City Park Playground once memorialized Dustin Redd, a five-year-old who died while at a Denver Parks and Recreation summer camp. Three decades have passed since he drowned in Ferril Lake.
The 1996 tragedy, according to a lawsuit Redd’s family filed against the City and County of Denver and then-Parks and Recreation head B.J. Brooks, happened like this:
“After lunch, Redd played cards in a lakeside pavilion with a counselor until 1:30 p.m. At that time Redd walked twenty-five yards to the lake edge where two other counselors were supervising a group of children who were fishing. The first counselor saw him walking toward the other counselors, but apparently turned her back prior to Redd actually reaching the other two counselors. When DeAnzona arrived at 2:15 p.m. to pick up Redd, he could not be found. The next morning Redd’s body was found in Ferril Lake.”
Redd’s death stunned the city, bringing the parks system and its programming under scrutiny.
Not long after, Mayor Wellington Webb, in his State of the City address, announced the new wooden playground at City Park would be named after the child.
Doing so, Webb bucked a city policy, at the time, that public spaces could only be named after people who had been deceased for more than seven years. (More recently, this policy has changed to allow Parks and Recreation property to be dedicated to people who have been dead for at least three years.)
Webb and parks manager Brooks had made the decision together, avoiding the typical committee-based dedication process. Members of the Denver Parks and Recreation Board of Advisors took issue in the press, arguing they should have been consulted.
“We were left out of the loop on this one, and I think that if it had come before us we wouldn’t have approved it,” Royce Forsyth, the former president of the Parks and Recreation Board, told Westword in 1997. “It was a tragedy how the boy died, but [the dedication of the playground] still should have been approved by the board first.”
Not long after the playground was named after Redd, his family sued the City of Denver and Brooks.
While some parts of the lawsuit were thrown out, the family successfully proved that Denver Parks and Recreation was negligent and was awarded $600,000.
For the city, the playground’s name became a constant reminder of Denver Parks and Recreation’s failure to keep the child safe and the Webb administration’s decision to shrug off the rules.
Over the years, not just neighbors but the City of Denver itself continued to refer to the playground by Redd’s name with a plaque that honored the child.
The playground’s wooden structure was in rough shape and gave children splinters for years. A modern, more accessible design would replace it. Construction started in 2020, and the playground opened to the public to much fanfare in late October 2021.
Parks and Recreation leadership wanted Redd’s family’s approval to continue to use the name and decided to reach out.
“The family doesn’t live here anymore, and it’s been incredibly challenging to get a hold of them,” said Gilmore. “We’ve tried to reach out to them, and there is not a consistent communication stream.”
Denverite was also unable to reach the family.
Without Redd’s family’s consent, the city decided to quietly change the name to City Park Playground.
Scott Gilmore, deputy director of Denver Parks and Recreation, told Denverite that because the playground had never gone through a formal naming process, the Dustin Redd Playground name was never actually official, and so it was subject to change — despite former Mayor Webb giving it the title.
“That was something he did with his administration,” said Gilmore. “When a mayor comes in, heads of departments change out.”
New leadership means sometimes old decisions don’t stick in a strong-mayor city, explained Gilmore. And Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration opted not to carry on dedicating the playground to Redd.
“Sometimes the mayor makes decisions, and we have to adjust to and honor those decisions,” said Gilmore.
Because naming and renaming are such politically charged and emotional issues, the City has developed lengthy guidelines about how dedications should be made and when they should be revoked.
Parks and Recreation can name property after three categories of people:
- Exceptional individuals such as city leaders and others who have supported Parks and Recreation.
- Historic events, places and persons, and ties to other cities around the world.
- Philanthropists who have made significant donations to the parks system.
The name needs to “engender a strong and positive image,” according to Parks and Recreation’s renaming rules.
Another policy makes renaming the Dustin Redd Playground tricky. It suggests the playground should continue to memorialize Redd because that is how the playground is known.
“Names that have become ingrained or widely accepted in the community should not be abandoned unless there are compelling reasons and strong public sentiment for doing so,” the policy states. “Historical or commonly-used placenames should be preserved whenever possible.”
In this case, there was no public movement to change the dedication.
Gilmore said Parks and Recreation is looking for other ways to memorialize Redd.
The city has other mechanisms for remembering those who have died, and the agency is considering putting them to work.
Denver Park Trust, a nonprofit that fundraises for Denver Parks and Recreation, has a program that allows people to make a $2,500 donation in a deceased person’s name to secure a bench with a memorial plaque for ten years.
Another idea: dedicating a tree in Redd’s honor.
“We still have the plaque,” said Gilmore. “We want to think of a way to honor the name.”