Residents Unite to Save Concrete Animal Park Two generations of children in the Los Angeles suburb of San Gabriel have played in a park featuring concrete structures built to look like animals. As the city remodels, some locals are organizing to save Ozzie the Octopus, Stella the Starfish and others.
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Residents Unite to Save Concrete Animal Park

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Residents Unite to Save Concrete Animal Park

Residents Unite to Save Concrete Animal Park

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Childhood is a lot safer these days. There are astronaut-ready child safety seats for cars, 50-point restraints in strollers and cushy, comfy, playgrounds.

Well, not so in one playground in a Los Angeles suburb of San Gabriel, some people there say the park is just too dangerous for kids.

But as Jennifer Sharpe reports, plans to remodel the site have been met with organized resistance.

Unidentified Group: Save Monster Park. Save Monster Park. Save Monster Park.

JENNIFER SHARPE: With the eye of the giant cement snail peering over his shoulder, history professor Eloy Zarate stood at the edge of a rally he'd organized to save his childhood playground.

Professor ELOY ZARATE (Pasadena City College): It's no longer about my memories, about Benjamin Dominguez - he finished this place when he was 70.

SHARPE: Having driven 45 minutes into outer suburban Los Angeles, I was now immersed in a gargantuan sea creature landscape of La Laguna de San Gabriel, also known as Monster Park.

Built by an unaccredited cement artist named Benjamin Dominguez, the park was considered cutting edge when it first opened in 1965 but now strikes some as a potential safety hazard that might better serve the community as an athletic field, and yet others see it as a masterpiece.

Prof. ZARATE: There's a sea creature coming down, and you get in it and you go down the mountain. I mean, that is the culmination of everything that he was trying to do.

SHARPE: Had it not been for the day Zarate brought his own children to the park and spotted a man photographing the structures.

Prof. ZARATE: He turned to me and said, my father did these.

SHARPE: The Zarate and Dominguez families might never have galvanized four years later into the force now fighting to save the park.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Ms. MARTA DOMINGUEZ: It was not a mere coincidence, I think, because God's hand is in this.

SHARPE: Marta Dominguez and her siblings surrounded me, sketching out moments of their father's career: the cement tiger caves he built at the Mexico City Zoo, his series of now mostly demolished creature parks throughout the Western United States and the huge cement Coors waterfall logo that Dominguez and his son, Rene(ph), built onto a Texas warehouse.

Unidentified Man #1: It's about 50 feet high and covers the entire building.

SHARPE: Now that La Laguna was one of the last survivors in this body of work, Zarate stood before the crowd and delivered a speech that was so impassioned he broke into tears.

Prof. ZARATE: I am not going to let Benjamin Dominguez be forgotten. We're not going to let that happen.

SHARPE: By the end of the rally, nearly 40 volunteers have lined up to canvas the now predominantly Asian area.

Prof. ZARATE: For the people who are going to petition, come on in so we kind of know who's going to do walking. You walk for as long as you can…

SHARPE: Meanwhile, screenwriter Gideon Brower cut through the crowd cradling an open laptop, anxious to show me a part of a short film he'd shot at the whale structure.

Mr. GIDEON BROWER (Filmmaker): And you see that he's sitting at this sort of giant mouth that's a slide.

SHARPE: What's it about?

Mr. BROWER: It's kind of an aquarium heist picture.

SHARPE: Three weeks later, Brower would be one of the familiar faces I'd see marching into a San Gabriel City Council meeting, where the Friends of La Laguna officially presented a petition of over 2,000 signatures.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

SHARPE: Deputy Mayor Steve Preston thanked Zarate for bringing La Laguna's rich history to the city's attention. And quoting Mark Twain, he assured the crowd that the renovation plans for the park were still only in the early design stages.

Mr. STEVE PRESTON (Deputy Mayor, San Gabriel, California): The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.

SHARPE: But when I caught up with Rebecca Perez, head of San Gabriel's Parks and Recreation Department, she explained that even though the city is now committed to working with the Friends of La Laguna, the cement creatures' ultimate fate will be determined by safety codes.

Ms. REBECCA PEREZ (Parks and Recreation Department, San Gabriel, California): You know, I used to play on merry-go-rounds when I was a kid, but you can't have merry-go-rounds anymore. So all those things that were great and fun have changed now.

SHARPE: When I asked Perez where she thought I should go for dinner, she pointed me to a small Mexican restaurant down the street. Inside, I found Eloy Zarate befriending a table full of strangers who were listening attentively as he continued his crusade to save this one tentacled piece of a vanishing world.

Prof. ZARATE: How can you take it away?

SHARPE: For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And you can see pictures of some of those concrete animals of Monster Park at our Web site, NPR.org.

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