MEMBERS of Friends of La Laguna (www.friendsoflalaguna.com) flagged down passers-by at the city of San Gabriels recent birthday festival. It was part of their continuing effort to raise about $500,000 to save a historic portion of a city park.
They were told by City Hall that if you want to save whats known as Monster Park, aka Dinosaur Park, a childs playground made up of 14 cement sea sculptures, you need to raise all the money. Youre on your own.
San Gabriel residents Eloy Zarate and his wife, Senya Lubisich, jumped at the challenge. They formed a nonprofit organization and almost immediately got a $70,000 grant from Annenberg Foundation and are approaching $110,000 in total donations, Lubisich said. They started last fall and, despite the obstacles, are not about to stop now.We are here until we do this. We cant back out, declared Zarate.
Involved citizens. A community rallying to save a historic city resource. Private money flowing in. It all sounds good. But theres something wrong with this picture. The city is not in it.
Why does it take private residents to see the beauty in art, especially as unique an installation as La Laguna, the last work of Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez?
Why do cities, especially San Gabriel, the oldest in the San Gabriel Valley, struggle so much with saving historic structures?Zarate says he understands the citys plight. They are so desperate for dollars, any dollars, that they will do anything. It is a post-Proposition 13 world, where cities get most of their funding from sales tax revenues, not property tax.
Hence, the city was hoping to get grants for park improvements, and the collection of cement sea sculptures in a 19,000 square-foot corner of Vincent Lugo Park was seen as in the way.But like so many other cases of historic preservation, from oak trees in Monrovia, to old Craftsman homes in Pasadena and Covina, to grove houses in the once-agricultural expanse of Glendora, the public sees it differently and time and again votes for preservation.
Today, the public often sees the value in uniqueness, in designs that no longer exist, in what once was and still is part of what makes their town special.
Zarate, who teaches history at Pasadena City College, said the parks movements in the 50s and 60s and before that were used to distinguish one city from the next town of repetitive roofs and tilt-up strip malls.Lincoln Park. MacArthur Park. These are places people feel are cultural, special to their communities, he said.
Dominguez imagined sea serpents, light houses, a sinking ship, an octopus and then sculpted them out of cement. He did not work from blueprints. The color was mixed into the concrete, not painted on, another unique feature. The University of Mexico-trained artist and father of 13 children gave the La Laguna to San Gabriel in 1965, where it became part of the memory-scape of thousands of residents and Southern Californians who played on them as children and now bring their own kids to the park.
Other works of Dominguez are scattered: in Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area; in Garden Grove and in El Paso, Texas. Others in Montebello, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas have been demolished.
Restoring these playground sculptures will take money and painstaking effort. Zarate hopes to soon have art historians devise a restoration plan that will breathe new life into the chipped and faded artworks yet continue their original purpose: as an imaginative playground for young children.
But this is more than just art preservation. It is nostalgic, but it also plays a function, Zarate said. He gets e-mails from former Little League players who after a loss on the adjacent ball field, would play on La Laguna.
Did you know that Head Start and other preschools use this as their field trip?It is a resource, not just for the neighborhood but for people from surrounding communities that use this place, he said.
New things might be easier and cheaper to do, but to keep historic resources is expensive, he said. It is a different mind-set.
To contact Friends of La Laguna, go to their Web site at www.friendsoflalaguna.com