Category Archives: Pop culture Americana play

Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

So, you want to go play in a lagoon with monsters? Have I got the place for you. It’s not on the bayou, no endangered mangrove swamps at risk and no flora or fauna about to die off though the playground itself was threatened with extinction in the very recent past.

As for the ‘monsters’, well they’re of the friendliest aquatic variety – whales, dolphins, sea serpents and an octopus are amongst the cast of starring anthropomorphic beauties. They’ve been lapping up adoring caresses from kids for over 45 years.

The idea of historic playgrounds isn’t something that’s discussed much at all. It’s really interesting in the preservation community to try and talk about protecting a resource that’s so heavily used by children and is being climbed all over. You still have to make sure it’s safe and that nobody is coming in harm’s way. By seeking a historic designation for La Laguna, we are trying to find a way for playgrounds that are inherently non-compliant, because they were built before the current standards existed, to be as safe as they can be.

Senya Lubisich, President, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

Back in the mid-1960s Frank Carpenter knew how to pick a winner. As San Gabriel, California’s Parks and Recreation Director, Carpenter took the road less traveled by. In doing so, he likely assumed a little professional risk, a risk that continues to bring joy a couple of generations down the road.

On Carpenter’s recommendation, the City of San Gabriel contracted Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez to create a playscape for the city’s children in a new municipal park. Carpenter was familiar with Dominguez’s work in two other California locations and believed the distinctiveness of a sculptured public play space would become a valuable community asset.

The rest is history. La Laguna, aka Monster Park, aka Dinosaur Park officially opened for play on May 16, 1965. The kids haven’t looked back. Late boomers, gen Xers and gen Ys all had a chance to graze knees and elbows while learning to climb and balance on the creamy, pastel coloured sculptures. The magic of play lives on through today’s kids. Their imaginations animate La Laguna paying tribute to Dominguez’s artistic vision.

I do not have a memory of my childhood without La Laguna. I’ve been going there since I was one, all my life. This place is amazing, it’s an experience that transcends. People just stand in awe. I always try to explain to adults okay you’re 30, or you’re 40, or 50. Now, just imagine for a moment that you are five and you’re here in the middle of all this.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, FoLL

All was well in this sculptured paradise until the City decided in 2006 that La Laguna had outlived its best before date. Plans were made to replace it with a more modern playground to be built to current safety code specifications. Enter the dynamic husband and wife duo of Eloy Zarate and Senya Lubisich, two local history professors, who made it their mission to rally public opinion, build a team of concerned citizens and lead the charge to save and preserve this playground as a unique cultural landscape.


The Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) was formed in the fall of 2006. In January 2007, the City and FoLL agreed to work together through a Memorandum of Understanding entitled “Assessment and Conservation Proposal for La Laguna de San Gabriel”. This MOU was the cornerstone of ongoing collaboration to ensure the preservation and protection of the existing La Laguna play area for continued use.

We learned that Monster Park was going to be removed so we decided to make some noise. We gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition. It was really heartening to see how the community responded.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Senya and Eloy are passionate about their commitment to protecting this living history. Their excitement about the cause is infectious. They are so familiar with the subject matter, so immersed in the strategies to present a winning case that speaking with them is like having a tag team conversation – where one leaves off, the other picks up.

The city was looking at the playground and its viability and thought it would be easier to just demolish it and build something new that was compliant. It never occurred to them that it was anything other than a playground – that it could be art, or that it was unique, or rare in terms of the experience it afforded. So there was a lot of different battles that we had to fight.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Four years and thousands of volunteer hours later, the Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) have championed their cause with the City of San Gabriel and the State of California. There has been a stay of execution and a renaissance of community spirit.

Both Senya and Eloy see their commitment to La Laguna as part of the broader civic engagement and service that college professors are encouraged to bring to their communities. Eloy’s students now have an internship possibility to work at the park and to help the community do things it doesn’t have the funds, or resources to do itself.

Lots of help has been offered along the way – students who participated in door-to-door awareness campaigns, contractors who have helped unravel the mysteries of safety codes, conservation and preservation professionals who examined historic playgrounds as a new concept, public sector officials who opened doors, sponsors and of course kids who wanted to play.

FoLL succeeded in reversing the demolition plans through a combination of research, community engagement and advocacy. Senya has written an article outlining their approach that will appear in an upcoming issue of Forum, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Key elements of the strategy include:

1. Be prepared – do your homework, do your research, understand the subject matter. Leave no stone unturned;

2. Mobilize public opinion and demonstrate that community support can make a difference;

3. Build a strong and duly constituted organization with board members who possess a broad range of skill sets;

4. Define the key challenges and offer solutions. Frame the solutions, not the challenges, as the reference points for discussion and debate;

5. Identify your allies and seek their support, draw on their knowledge and strengths.

The Historic Structures Report and Preservation Plan and Appendices are FoLL’s key research pieces. This is ground zero in the ‘be prepared’ category and they’re really worth a read for anyone interested in playground conservation. The report and appendices cover a lot of territory – historical overview, architectural evaluation, conditions assessment and project objectives along with photos of all Dominguez’s pieces. They are the reference documents for FoLL’s ongoing La Laguna campaign.

When the fight to save La Laguna got out of the starting blocks, it pitted a small non-profit organization going head to head with the local government. Hard work, creativity and community support brought city hall on side.

Once we were able to figure out what their arguments were, we were able to offer solutions. We would hold them accountable so that they had to answer to the solution not to whatever barrier they had thrown out. They can’t sit there and say safety when we’ve provided all these alternate ways to mitigate the safety issue. They have to respond to what we’ve proposed. That keeps the dialogue going and it really holds them accountable to work with their community.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Safety, safety standards and liability are recurring issues that FoLL continues to address. These issues make legislators and elected representatives nervous. Part of FoLL’s strategy has been to distinguish between safety and liability. FoLL’s assessment and the safety record indicate that the pieces are safe. They were built for children with safety in mind and are not inherent hazards.The fact that they don’t comply to modern standards is what increases liability.

This is the most difficult argument that we’ve had to make and it’s still comes up in every talk that we have. We always have to say that something being unsafe by code doesn’t make it dangerous or hazardous. Then eyes glaze over because people don’t make the distinction between those things. But they are legal distinctions between something being unsafe, being hazardous and being risky. We have to say wait a second – nobody has been hurt here for 40 years.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

There are no records of injuries at any of the playgrounds created by Benjamin Dominguez. From FoLL’s perspective, it’s critical to separate out what is a hazard and what is a risk. FoLL is committed to eliminating hazards. There are skills that children have to master to be able to play on some of the equipment and sometimes that requires supervision. In the absence of supervision risk may increase but it is a parental responsibility to be there to help children test and learn their limits. That should be part of every park experience.

FoLL and the citizens of San Gabriel have plenty to smile about these days. In 2009, La Laguna was entered in the California Register of Historic Places – a first for a playground. In early May of this year, FoLL hosted a picnic as part of the L.A. Conservancy’s The Sixties Turn 50 series of events. It was the perfect opportunity to celebrate their $250,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE). Prospects are also looking good for Bill AB 2701 to be adopted into State law over the coming year. The intent of the bill is to place playgrounds that are designated to be culturally, or historically significant under the jurisdiction of the State Historical Building Code. This would provide for greater flexibility while still addressing safety concerns.

La Laguna was the last playground Benjamin Dominguez created. Through concerted community action it will now be a going concern for years to come. The preservation of this asset has struck a chord across the nation. Other communities are consulting FoLL for direction on saving their own ageing playgrounds. Bravo to FoLL and San Gabriel for leading the way. Hopefully more playscapes will be saved from the wrecking ball.

Saving, and now restoring, La Laguna has become a real family affair for Senya, Eloy and their four children. The project has touched many lives and the family just keeps on getting bigger. Witness the growing Friends of La Laguna Facebook page.

Dinosaur Park is a creative experience without rival for our children. It’s a whole different type of play. You really do feel like you’ve crossed into another world, you’ve sort of left a park and gone into a fantasy lagoon. It’s really evident in the way that they play.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

The Friends of La Laguna are in the midst of a $1.2 million capital campaign for their ongoing restoration and preservation work. Information on donating is available here.

If you can’t get their yourself – I’m looking forward to the day that I can – you can get an idea of what FoLL has been fighting for in this community perspective video.

Photo credits

1. Stella the Starfish and Sammy the Snail Slide, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

2. Sea Serpent, Friends of La Laguna

3. Minnie the Whale, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

4. Dolphin Family, Friends of La Laguna

5. Lighthouse Dragon Slide, Friends of La Laguna

6. Ozzie the Octupus, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

7. Lookout Mountain, circa 1966, photo by Ron Brown, City of San Gabriel Archives

8. Friends of La Laguna Facebook photo album

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

A Brief History of Slides

Thanks to Stephen Hawking, a great theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, for inspiring the title of this post. My knowledge of physics is less than rudimentary but I do know that there are underlying principles at play each time kids launch themselves over the precipice and into the descent. We’re talking about the speed demons, acceleration and velocity getting out of the gate with a little pull from gravity.

Now in more simplified terms that the mathematically disinclined like myself can grab hold of, this is what we’re really saying when we try and quantify the slide experience. It’s pretty much whee to the power of three when screaming down the slide at whoosh factor nine, or in unorthodox mathematical notation
where ‘whee’ is the squeal of unbridled release and ‘whoosh’ is the air flow required to have a full head of hair pluming up from the nape of the neck.

I’ve done some wondering about the antecedents of the slide family. More specifically, I have tried to trace its origins. Not much luck using my standard research tools – Google and interviews with primary sources.

There does not appear to be anything in the ancient visual record that can pinpoint the slide’s birth. There are no paintings on the Lascaux caves, no hieroglyphic whisperings from the Nile delta. I have not come across any evidence-based materials that go back earlier than the beginning of the 20th century. Consequently I have had to rely on broad speculation which I introduce to you the readers as theoretical surmise.

I believe the slide originated in the northern hemisphere, in areas with hilly terrain. Long, cold winters were the norm. Sliding down snowy embankments was great organic entertainment. In North America, this was happening before the Europeans ever arrived on the scene. However, with the introduction of the horse, it’s entirely possible that aboriginal peoples of the northern plains tried to replicate sliding fun in warmer weather. When the family was taking a rest on the trail or setting up camp, it’s plausible that the younger kids would get to zip down a makeshift slide constructed with travois poles.

Before dismissing this musing as completely out of hand, listen to Corn and Potato a wonderful song by singer David Campbell that speaks to a few things that came about via the ‘Indians’. David, an Arawak from Guyana, was world beat in the late 70s and early 80s before the term was coined. He incorporates Caribbean and aboriginal rhythms in his compositions. This was one of the artist’s most requested tunes when he toured schools.

Of course, it may not have happened like this. However, in the absence of empirical evidence to the contrary, I’m sticking with the northern plains Aboriginal Nations as the innovators who brought us what we now know as the slide. If you have other theories, please send them in as comments.

Thanks to the US Patent Office for archival materials dating back to the early 20th century. A few of the illustrations below are from this period. Click here for the photo gallery. There is no indication as to how many of these patents actually went into production. Some are fanciful, some outright funny. All were designed with the intent to elicit squeals of laughter in kids and, after a second look at selected drawings, maybe some mild terror tremors.

Once experienced, whoosh factor 9 is addictive. That’s why we see kids climbing up, zipping down, climbing up the ladders, zipping down again, trying to catch that ephemeral boost. They will even wait in line for minutes on end to slide away in a burst of whoosh.

Size isn’t everything where the thrill of the descent is concerned but it can add a certain cachet. Each of us has our own particular preferences. I’m more a fan of the steep incline than the interminable ride. I want to know is my heart stopping as I look over the precipice anticipating a roller coaster scream?

The Around the World in 18 Slides gallery is a sampling of the ordinary and extraordinary. There isn’t one slide among them that I wouldn’t want to try myself (the dump truck might be a little outré). There is a little bit of everything here including a selection of animal slides – giraffe, elephant, dinosaur… Thanks to all you flickr photogs.

Around the world, 18 photos – a bit of exaggeration on my part. The math just doesn’t add up. I have noted though that Japan seems to have a love affair with slides. Octopus slides and roller slides have captured the popular imagination. Take a look at this Octopus’ Garden and the journey down Japan’s longest slide in western Kyushu.

As it turns out, there is still ample room for scholarly work on the origins of the slide following this minor dalliance with the subject. Will a true historian or anthropologist be able to unravel the mysteries of the slide’s origin, or perhaps confirm the conjecture offered here? Only time and research will tell. In the interim, just keep on slip, slidin’ away…

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Image Credits

1. Sharon K – Teardrop Park Slide, NYC

2. Veronica Gomez Castaneda – Sea Serpent Slide at La Laguna, San Gabriel, California

3. US Patent Office

4. maureenld

5. unknown Japanese photograper

Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis

Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace isn’t really dead. That lovable imp’s mischievous adventures are immortalized in syndicated comic strips around the world.

There’s a Facebook paean to a Monterey, California playground that bears his name – I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived! Nearly 7,000 members extoll the heart pounding excitement and traces of terror they associate with this unique and creative play space that opened in 1956. Through photos, discussion groups and the wall, they share their memories of fun, fear and folly. (Note: October, 2018 – the Facebook Page has been shut down)

Daniel Annereau created the Facebook group after some some childhood reminiscing at the playground during a visit home over Christmas 2008. He was in mourning at the passing of virtually all of the playground’s original, read ‘fun’ play structures. They had been removed and replaced with more anodyne fare.

After asking his mother and a quick Google failed to turn up much in the way of visual images of the playground’s heyday, he put the Facebook group together with a call to action:

Does your mother have a shoebox in the attic with pictures of those terrible contraptions that have been removed and are probably now in some Monterey City Official’s backyard?

Yes? Then this group is for you!

Find those photos! Scan them! Post them! Show the world how EXTREME your childhood was!”

The playground has inspired a loyal and devoted fan base that spans three generations. For the kids of Monterey and envrions, this was the playground. It was synonymous with derring-do, high jinks and a dash of danger. “It was a scene,” recalls Daniel who grew up in nearby Pacific Grove . “It was kind of like a theme park. Right next to it there was a ball field and there was a snack shack with things like hot dogs, nachos and snow cones. It was the place to be all summer long.”

It was a playscape like no other. What set it apart was the customized equipment and Arch Garner’s design. Like its namesake it had a bit of an edge – let’s call it that Dennis je ne sais quoi factor. If someone were looking for a blueprint for an extreme playground, this one, in its original state, would have been a good model.

“My parents took me all the time,” remembers Daniel. “We’d have birthdays there. It was a treat, like a personal amusement park. There were quite a few places where you really could hurt yourself too. There was an element of danger. I kind of respect my parents just for taking me and letting me figure out the physics of it all.”


The adrenalin charged ‘helicopter’ ride gets frequent mentions on the Facebook page. From all accounts it was not for the faint of heart. The pulse quickening ride that fueled narrow brushes with bodily injury was a favourite for many of Dennis’ acolytes.

“…the one that spun around on an axis as fast as the big kids could make it go, & to catch a ride you had to be able to jump up way high & grab a metal bar of some kind while ducking the numerous arms, legs, heads, & various other body parts (mostly still attached) of successful riders holding on for dear life– that was sposed to be a helicopter ?? ….Whatever it was, god it was irresistible; I know I left more’n a drop or two of my own blood at its feet, & couldn’t wait to go back for more punishment….”

Marie Dubois

There were other pieces of equipment – like the roller slide – that might look more at home on a factory production line. Whether they were hair raising, or just a little tamer, this is the kind of stuff that most kids can only dream of playing on.

In addition to uncovering some photos of the playground with its original play structures, Daniel was interested in making some social commentary on the changing nature of play. “There’s an element of learning for kids to understand their limits and a responsibility for parents to make sure the kids are okay while still giving them that freedom to learn. It seems now that there is a lot of litigiousness in our society with parents suing over things that are just life,” says Daniel. “I’m sure that one of the driving forces for taking out all the equipment was for the city to feel protected, so they can’t be sued.”

Daniel, is one of tens of thousands who have fond and vibrant memories of the Dennis the Menace playground that was. He laments the fact that kids today don’t have the same kind of opportunities for play. “I learned so much about my limits from that park. I was just as scared of getting hurt as anyone. I didn’t feel invincible or anything. It’s great for kids to play like that. I thank my parents for taking me.”

Winding up our conversation, Daniel asks if there are any movements afoot to provide kids with more creative opportunities for play, He’s happy to hear about Adventure Playgrounds and Imagination Playgrounds and recalls hearing about an Adventure Playground in the San Franciso Bay Area where he currently lives.

As I’m writing this post it dawns on me that I’ve forgotten to ask Daniel about his favourite play structure and his most terrifying moment in the old playground. So Daniel, how about it, were you another ride of death aficionado? Post a comment and let us know.

Thanks to Daniel, Dennis, Hank Ketcham and Arch, I now know that there’s been a lot more happening in Monterey than John Steinbeck.

The Dennis the Menace Playground is still a going concern run and operated by the City of Monterey. According to those who lived and breathed the excitement of the original play structures, the current version is a pale comparison. For kids who never knew the original, they’re sure to have a lot of fun even if it’s less edgy. The city put together a YouTube presentation for the Prak’s 55th anniversary in 2012 that can be viewed here.

Image sources

Top image

    • – The official website for Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace

Bottom image

    • – City of Monterey website

All other images

    – I Played at the Dennis the Menace Park and Lived Facebook

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.