Opinion: Village Matters

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Haven’t These Parks Always Been Here?

ann christoph

Watching Ken Burns’ history of national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone made me realize that even though their value is so obvious to us today, their value was not obvious to politicians when preservationists were working so hard to save them. 

It seems to take intense volunteers, devoting much of their lives to the cause, to make that value clear to decision-makers. Creation of parks doesn’t seem to happen without a struggle, often over many years, and it’s not without compromise. Perhaps not as much is saved as would be ideal, or some of the beauty and natural systems are sacrificed in order to provide public access. Sometimes the creation of a park happens only because another important community asset is lost.

We have Fred Lang Park only because Aliso Elementary School was closed. Perhaps few remember as they drive their kids to El Morro that we once had a neighborhood school right next door.

Several hundred residents lost their homes in order that the Montage and Treasure Island park could be built. Our environmental contingent battled for a larger park through that whole process. Our own city wouldn’t require that the park include picnic tables saying that the hotel owners would want people to buy food in their restaurants. Fortunately, the Coastal Commission agreed with the idea that we could bring our own lunch and sit at a table to eat. The Commission required picnic tables and added five feet to the width of the park along the bluff. These were small but important concessions.

In 1959, the Woman’s Club and Junior Woman’s Club began the creation of Bluebird Park. Beverly Longfield describes the street dances, rummage sales, book sales and fashion shows sponsored by civic organizations that raised $10,000. The City purchased the property for $60,000 and put in the watering system, with the landscaping and play equipment coming from those community donations and volunteering. “The project is a monument to what can be accomplished when Lagunans work together toward a common goal,” Longfield wrote.

South Laguna Village Green was just vacant lots when Fred Lang and I worked on the General Plan for South Laguna in the early 70s. In September 1973 I was driving past what I had drawn on the plan as a “park” and saw construction underway. Dean Whitaker had just gotten permits to build the first of three houses in the four-lot “park.” How exceptional—he agreed to stop construction while we worked with the County to arrange a purchase. By October the county parks department recommended buying it to the Board of Supervisors. They were not convinced, and our supervisor Ron Caspers sent out a postcard asking if residents wanted their taxes raised to pay for a park. With only 13% saying yes, in November the Board said no. Whitaker resumed construction—only 3 lots left for the park. “People for Parks” organized a petition drive that was impressive enough for the Board to reconsider and in April 1974 they agreed to purchase the remaining lots. In June 1974 tragically, Caspers was lost at sea. The final vote in July to purchase for $80,000 was taken at the recommendation of his aides, “Ron would have wanted that South Laguna park.” Now we have a little park that seems to have “always been here.” Not simple or easy.

The South Laguna Community Garden Park is part of this continuum. It should be easier, but it’s not, just like all the others.  But step by step, meetings, petitions, fundraisers, naysayers, more and more appreciative comments, always moving forward, the Garden Park will someday be looked at as having “always been here.”  Beloved, just like all the others.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

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