The holidays are associated with that Norman Rockwellian image of our country, where families are warm, loving and together; and where everyone lives in one of those villages with the clustered cottages, quaint stores, and lights in the windows; a community with that small-town feel. A place where you can walk to “town,” where you can find everything you need, where you meet people you know at every turn. We struggle to encourage that, and Hospitality Night is one event that helps reinforce that small-town feel here in Laguna.
Yet when I think of days gone by, I think of some of those parts of that small town we have lost. Perhaps they are so long lost that today’s residents don’t even know we had them.
Aliso Elementary School and the South Laguna Library are the two I most regret losing. How can you replace the feeling of community that comes with being able to walk to school or to the library? Or for parents to be able to dash over with a forgotten homework assignment, or to easily be there for their child’s special school event. But both school and library were closed in efforts to support bigger and “better” facilities elsewhere.
Children from the south end of Laguna were not always bussed all the way to El Morro school on the opposite side of town. No, from 1948 until it was closed in 1981 Aliso School was a conveniently located neighborhood school. That campus is now occupied by Fred Lang Park and the Vista Aliso senior housing complex.
They said we had declining enrollment, that the housing prices were rising so much that people with small children wouldn’t be living in the school district any more. The district needed funds to remodel the high school. The answer? Close Aliso School to save money. Objections to the closure were passionate and well organized, to no avail. But don’t worry, “We won’t sell it,” they promised. They would evaluate the situation in five years, the board said. Two years later they sold the school. Then ironically the enrollment went up and additions had to be made at El Morro to accommodate the uncalculated children.
What is the consolation? In 2041 the school district can buy back the property for $1. Perhaps our kids’ grandkids will be able to go to school in our neighborhood again.
South Laguna’s first library was started in 1938 by a committee of dedicated women. Housed in the studio of artist Daisy Kearns, it had 600 donated books and was open every Wednesday afternoon. Committee members took turns serving as librarians.
Then in 1958 the county opened a branch library at the corner of Second Avenue and Coast Highway. There was a thriving commercial “downtown” area with the fire station, the water district offices, the village store, pharmacy, and the post office. The library became an important part of community life. One could pay a water bill, mail a letter, and check out a book all on one walking trip. (I know, now we can do all those things online, without leaving our homes.)
In the mid 1970s the county started rumbling about closing the South Laguna library. Laguna Niguel and Dana Point were developing and the county built them a brand new Dana Niguel Library. They thought South Lagunans should just drive over there. Residents, led by Skip Hinchman and the South Laguna Civic Association, told the county how we valued our neighborhood library, so convenient to use, especially for children. Petitions were signed and submitted and that delayed the closure for a few years. Still in 1979 we had to hold a funeral for the South Laguna library at the downtown Laguna Beach branch. Arnold Hano read “The Crate at Outpost One,” his short story about a society where books were kept from the people.
Now there’s a beauty salon where the library used to be, the village store and pharmacy are gone. The water district office is relocated up the hill and may even move to Dana Point. We still have the fire station and the Post Office, but the feds threaten that too. The businesses struggle in the shops along the highway. Part by part we have lost the components that make for a viable downtown.
No wonder we treasure our restaurants, the Village Green park and the South Laguna Community Garden. These are places were we can still go and meet our neighbors and envision that maybe the ghost of Norman Rockwell might like to do a painting here someday.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph served on Laguna Beach’s City Council.
Library photo by Birgitta and Ron Yeo
Aliso School photo courtesy Judy Michel Neeves