Worlds of Whimsy, Westways Magazine, June 2013

Photo by Kevin Knight

Photo by Kevin Knight


Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park, Torrance
Photo by Kevin Knight

These old-school playground help imaginations soar

Remember carefree days outdoors as a youth, spinning until dizzy on a merry-go-round or rubbing waxed paper on a metal slide for a zippier ride? Public playgrounds have long held a special sway, delighting children and filling the rest of us with nostalgia.

With their roots in 19th-century Germany, playgrounds encourage exercise, good manners, and healthy competition. In 1837, German education specialist Friedrich Fröbel founded the precursor to the modern kindergarten and paved the way for children to connect with the outdoors through play.

The trend arrived stateside at a time when immigrant families were crowding into urban neighborhoods. Social reformers advocated playgrounds as a way to curtail delinquency and provide a safe place for children to play. The first American playground was built at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1887.

Early playground equipment resembled gymnasium apparatuses that were meant to appeal to kids of all ages. However, artists and architects in the post–World War II period brought a new aesthetic to play structures. Spurred by a growing movement of experimentation in the 1950s and ’60s, they saw playgrounds as untapped territory for expression using unusual forms, materials, and themes, says Paige Johnson, who blogs about playground design at

Many playgrounds from that era have disappeared and been replaced with prepackaged plastic modules. But remnants of these fantastical worlds still can be found in Southern California. Here, on any given afternoon among whimsically formed concrete, steel, and wood, imaginations take off and lifelong memories are made.

Torrance Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park

  • Best for ages 5-12
  • Playtime: Plenty of lawn space for blankets; be mindful of little ones near the unfenced slope. No restrooms, few picnic tables, and street parking only.


In the 1960s, following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, rocket ships were blasting off at playgrounds all over the United States. These classic conical metal structures whizzed children into the vastness of outer space from the comfort of their neighborhood park.

Today, most metal ships have gone the way of the scrap yard, but some, including the Rocketship at Los Arboles Park, have found a permanent launch pad.

Installed in 1964 and then restored in 1992 (residents complained loudly when park officials removed the structure earlier that year), this four-level spaceship provides one of the best views of the entire L.A. basin and now features an official plaque from the Torrance Historical Society.

You’ll lose count how many times you hear “4, 3, 2, 1, blast off!” as astronauts in training scale a ladder inside the ship from bottom to nose top. The metal slide is long, fast, and best for older kids. Nearby, a metal replica of a lunar module, with firefighter poles, ladders, and controls, is ready for battling aliens and saving planet Earth. 5101 Calle de Ricardo, Torrance. 1-310-618-2930.

San Gabriel La Laguna de San Gabriel at Vincent Lugo Park

  • Best for ages 1-12
  • Playtime: Bike paths, with bridges over a dry creek bed, surround the playground. Restrooms, picnic areas, soda/water machines, and bike racks. Park in the east lot for closest access.

Slide through a snail’s mouth, climb sea serpent spires, and cavort with wild dolphins at La Laguna de San Gabriel, which has been inspiring children to play since 1965.

Located in a hidden corner of Vincent Lugo Park, this aquatic-themed fantasyland was handcrafted by then-72-year-old Mexican concrete artist Benjamin Dominguez (see sidebar).

Despite its charms, La Laguna was slated for demolition in 2006. Local residents rallied to save the park, and in 2009 the California Register of Historical Resources welcomed the entire menagerie.

Today, the city, along with the Friends of La Laguna, is working to preserve the landmark. Visitors will find repaired structures (the dock, Lookout Mountain slide), as well as pieces awaiting renovation, including the currently off-limits Ollie the Octopus. Bring sand toys for toddlers, and expect older kids to invent story lines about a treasure chest, a sunken pirate ship, seal-shaped islands, and a whale. 300 W. Wells Street, San Gabriel. 1-626-308-2875.

Atlantis Play Center. Photo by Kevin Knight


Garden Grove Atlantis Play Center

  • Best for ages 1-13
  • Playtime: The cash-only snack bar and water play area are open June–September. Restrooms and shaded picnic areas. Operating hours vary. $2 (cash only) for ages 3 years and older, free for ages 2 and younger.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this June, the Atlantis Play Center is a fully enclosed oasis of imagination that’s filled with oversize concrete sea critters and bucolic rolling greenery.

Let the kids loose in this 4-acre play preserve to discover what lives around the corner, up the hill, or under the bridge. The park is often crowded in summer with children from camps, so weekends are better times to visit.

Concrete artist Dominguez fashioned many of his signature aquatic creatures here—sea serpents; dolphins; a shark; and the all-time favorite, a sea dragon shaped into a slide that gently swirls riders down from atop a high peak.

While young children endlessly race up sloped stairways and grassy hills, older kids can enjoy extreme hide-and-seek in the shrubbery. Walkie-talkies would be perfect for spy games, but leave bikes, scooters, and roller skates at home. These items, along with dogs, are not allowed in the park. 13630 Atlantis Way, Garden Grove. 1-714-892-6015.

West Covina Sabre Jet Fighter at Palm View Park

  • Best for ages 3-10
  • Playtime: Two play areas (one enclosed for toddlers) and some exercise equipment for teens and adults are nearby. Restrooms, a shaded picnic area, and soda/water machines.

This playground’s star attraction is a U.S. Air Force F-86D Sabre Jet. Plopped on its belly atop wood chips, the sleek, shiny silver aircraft is the real deal: The plane never saw active combat, but it was flown by the Air National Guard and at various military bases in the 1950s.

The West Covina Junior Jaycees and representatives of aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation worked to transport the flying machine to its current home in 1961. Since then, it’s been covered with plaster so little hands and knees won’t burn on the hot metal. Nearby water misters provide relief on hot summer days when kids have missions to fly.

Enter the plane from the tail via a makeshift rebar ladder and walk across the top to the cockpit for make-believe aerial encounters. Be sure to photograph your pilot in the red front nose. 1340 E. Puente Avenue, West Covina. 1-626-939-8430.

Benjamin Dominguez Trained in “trabajo rustic” (making concrete to look like wood) at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (National Academy of Visual Arts) in Mexico City, Benjamin Dominguez achieved fame at the city’s Chapultepec Zoo with his elaborate cement lion and tiger caves.

After immigrating to the United States in the 1950s, Dominguez created concrete items for golf courses and open spaces (bridges, tree sculptures, etc.), but he quickly became known for his fantastical concrete playlands throughout the Western U.S. Sadly, many of his rebar-and-cement structures have been demolished. Today, Dominguez’s fanciful creations are found locally only in Garden Grove, San Gabriel, Coldwater Park in Beverly Hills, and Legg Lake Park in Whittier Narrows.

As a child, Eagle Rock freelance writer Brenda Rees was always hopeful to swing so high that she’d touch the sky.

Back to the Land, Arroyo Monthly, June, 2013

City folk reconnect with their roots at bed-and-breakfasts that offer farming experiences.

If your dream vacation involves hands-on, can-do activities, consider a new industry buzzword — agritourism. That encompasses vacations on a farm where you can roll up your sleeves and help with chores or simply enjoy the bounty of an organic garden. “The trend of locally produced organic foods and living off the land has expanded into the bed-and-breakfast arena,” says Mary White, founder and CEO of, a guide to B&Bs around the country. “People are hungry for an authentic experience of what ‘back to nature’ means, and they want to explore that in a peaceful retreat setting.”

Indeed, B&Bs and inns are no longer just rest stops for collectors of antiques. Today, some offer city folk the chance to participate in and learn about life beyond freeways, mini-malls and high-rises. White stresses that these comfort-minded inns still provide luxury lodgings (you won’t end up sleeping in a hay-filled barn), and no one is required to participate in farm activities. “If they want to join in, they are welcome to,” she says. “[That involvement] just adds to the whole package.

“We see B&Bs offering fruit-picking in orchards, grooming animals, milking cows and helping with harvests,” White continues, adding that these activities are not just family-friendly, but also a way for adults to connect with the land.

One Southern California B&B has been luring weary guests to rejuvenate at 4,800 feet above Yucaipa. Located in the hamlet of Oak Glen, the Serendipity Ranch Bed and Breakfast is nestled in a scenic valley known for its apple orchards. The seven-acre ranch boasts trees from an orchard originally planted in the early 1900s. And when fall landscapes the property with colorful leaves, guests are encouraged to pick the fruit which may then be used in the hearty breakfast. Nina Foster, who owns the B&B with her husband, William, says she often sends people home with fresh squashes, tomatoes and onions from her two large garden beds. “Fresh vegetables are a perfect parting gift,” she says.

Wildlife is also abundant around Serendipity as the ranch, itself a Certified Wildlife Habitat, abuts a wilderness area. Weasels, chipmunks, coyotes, bobcats, bears and mountain lions have been seen on or near the property, and ducks, quail and rabbits are regular visitors, Foster says. Every morning she fills an enormous bird feeder which another regular visitor, Judy McInnis, says draws a flock of “the most beautiful birds.” Foster says she has counted 47 different bird species at her feeder.

Guests are also welcome to interact with the domesticated critters that live on the ranch. Brea resident McInnis, who has visited Serendipity with family and friends for years, recalls that when she and her sisters groomed and walked the miniature horses, she felt like she was “12 years old again. It was so special. We were so giddy.” McInnis is one of many guests delighted by the inn’s stable of miniature horses — animals that have been there for many years, Foster says. “Big kids, little kids, everyone is welcome to take them for a walk,” she says, adding that visitors can also take part in a special guided tour of the ranch’s other fauna — llamas, goats, geese and deer — and get hands-on experience feeding and grooming them.

Serendipity’s natural beauty has brought McInnis back year after year. “I’m a nature freak, and this place is so charming with the flowers, apple trees, ponds and all the animals,” she says. McInnis’ sisters and parents recently joined her in taking over the entire B&B for a weekend get-together (there are only four guestrooms in the entire place). “My mom uses a walker and we like the fact that it’s all flat walking here,” she says. “We really feel like it’s our home away from home. When we all sit at the table, we are it!”

Northern California’s Stanford Inn by the Sea, an eco-resort on the Mendocino coast, bills itself as the country’s only vegan resort so, not surprisingly, the freshest produce is high on its list of amenities. The source is Big River Nurseries, sandwiched between coastal forest and ocean, where the inn’s owners, Jeff and Joan Stanford, have been practicing organic and sustainable farming for more than 26 years. In addition to supplying the B&B’s award-winning Ravens’ Restaurant, the garden also provides herbs and other produce for a few other restaurants and grocers in the area. The Stanfords are happy to explain their gardening techniques to their guests; the garden also welcomes interns from around the world who are studying agriculture and sustainable practices.

In addition to having guests help with the weekly harvest, the Stanfords offer gardening and cooking classes (all presented with a vegan beat), as they share their philosophy of the sustainable lifestyle, which has transformed the area. “When we first came here in the 1980s, there were no birds here,” says Jeff Stanford. ”The grasses died out until the next season; there were no seeds, no insects, no birds.” Now, having worked the 10-acre property without pesticides or fertilizers, the resulting lush green meadows and landscape have created a haven for wildlife. “We are on the top of bird counts for the coast,” he says.

Bay Area resident Margaret Miner has been coming to the Stanford Inn for more than 10 years; in fact, she was married there two years ago. Miner says she was initially drawn to its popular vegetarian restaurant but has since returned numerous times, not just for the landscape (“It’s breathtaking”) and the owners’ company (“Joan and Jeff don’t just talk [sustainability], they live it”), but because pets are welcome and she can bring her dogs with her.

“Jack [a mixed breed] was in our wedding party and the best man held his leash,” she says, adding that her new collie, Jerry, has joined the family on vacations there. In addition to relaxing by the fireplace with her dogs and hubby, Miner walks the nearby trails, watches folks kayak and bike, relaxes in the indoor pool and spa (which is cleaned with natural enzymes instead of chlorine) and enjoys the other guests she meets at the daily happy hour (yes, vegan wine is on the menu).

When Miner lost both parents and a brother a few years ago, she found solace at the inn. “It’s a wonderful haven that is welcoming and comfortable, and I honestly think of it as an extension of my own home,” she says.

That kind of testimony rings true for Stanford, who came to the area with wife Joan to raise their extended family on the land. “I hope when people come here they remember who they are, because so often we get lost in the everyday world,” he says. “We want them to fall in love with life again and to remember the optimism of their youth.”


How to Get There

Serendipity Ranch at Oak Glen Bed & Breakfast is located at 11520 Green Lane, Oak Glen. Rates range from $139 to $239 per night. Call (909) 797-0253 or visit

The Stanford Inn by the Sea is at Coast   Highwayand Comptche Ukiah Rd., Mendocino. Rates range from $211 to $555 per night. Call (800) 331-8884 or visit


Everyone Into the Water! The EastsiderLA, May, 2013

L.A. River to open to kayakers, bird watchers, anglers and hikers this summer

Here Come the Kayakers…Maybe? | Martha Benedict

Rangers will help manage river recreation area./Brenda Rees

Story By Brenda Rees
Photos by Martha Benedict This weekend, the L.A. River will no longer be something to contemplate from only the shorelines, bike paths and freeway bridges.

In an experiment that could change Angeleno’s perception of the river, The L.A. River Pilot Recreation Zone officially kicks off on Memorial Day, Monday May 27, allowing the public to walk, watch birds, kayak and fish (with permits) on a 2.5 mile stretch of the Glendale Narrows waterway in Elysian Valley.

The summer-long program runs during daylight hours until Labor Day (September 2) and anyone can access the river free of charge for a Class I river rapids ride that will take about 2 ½ hours. (Note: organized groups will need a permit and that can take up to five days to secure.)

Only non-motorized, steerable boats – like kayaks and canoes – are permitted on the river. Sorry inner tubes and inflatable rafts, back to the pools with you.

Vendors offering guided excursions are hoping that Northeast Los Angeles gets bitten by kayak fever and sign up for an upcoming tour (most vendors will start their tour season on the weekend of June 1). Indeed, many challenges face individual kayakers who want a L.A. River experience:

  • You’ll need two cars – one at the put-in location at Rattlesnake Park and one at Confluence Park near the take-out.
  • There are only 40 parking spots at Rattlesnake Park that stretch from Ripple to Riverside off of Fletcher Avenue. You may have to portage your kayak across busy Fletcher.
  • The trail from Fletcher is narrow and steep, especially when you are carrying a kayak.
  • Kayakers must pull-out at Steelhead Park on Oros Street. You’ll have to walk up a steep trapezoidal slope, cross a bike path, pass through the small parklet and down a block to reach Oso Park.
  • From there, you will leave kayaks to board a shuttle bus – which runs every 15 to 20 minutes – that will take you to the parking lot at Confluence Park (near the Home Depot parking lot on San Fernando Road). You will pick up your car and then drive back to Oso Park where you will load the kayak into your car in the five-minute loading zone.
  • The river itself can be difficult. The flows are between Class I and II but water conditions can change overnight. You might have to walk kayaks over low flow areas. Other spots can be 6-feet deep. Even if you scout ahead – or study the river map – there are no guarantees the river will be flowing the same way the next day. Rain cancels all river activity.

With such a complex and exhausting process, river kayakers may consider signing up for a guided tour which should eliminate many obstacles. Just a heads-up: you may still have to do your share of portaging.

Ducks will have to share the L.A. River with people this summer./Martha Benedict

For two years, summertime kayaking on the L.A. River was offered at the Sepulveda Basin area and kayak organizers there  seeing kayak opportunities in the Elysian Valley section of the river.

“The first year we had a few hundred people, but once people realized what we were doing, we sold out tours that second year,” says George Wolfe of L.A. River Expeditions. “Between our group and Paddle the L.A. River [another kayaking organization], we had close to 3,000 people kayaking on the river last summer.”

For Wolfe, exploring the Glendale Narrows section of the river will be a treat because of the moving water. “It’s going to be sportier and not just flat water,” he says describing most of the run at Sepulveda.

“This will have more rifts and rapids with more obstacles. It’s going to be a longer ride also. I think people are going to love this,” says Wolfe. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and a great way to spend a summer day.”

Wolfe’s experiences at Sepulveda Basin parallels the build-up to opening day, with community members worrying that the river program would bring in more traffic, trash and parking problems. “We did encounter a bit of NIMBY but we sought to find a way to make a solution to make everyone happy.”

The Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) – the organization administering the Glendale Narrows pilot program in cooperation with city and county of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers – has, in Wolfe’s opinion, been very “sensitive to the issues of safety and security [in Elysian Valley]. In the end, this program can only be a boon to the area.”

In addition to potentially more traffic in the area, Elysian Valley residents are dismayed that dog walking down by the river won’t be permitted in the recreation zone during the pilot program. “People will still be able to take their dogs alongside the bike path and into the parks,” says Fernando Gomez, chief ranger for the MRCA. “But we can’t have them bring the dogs into the water or five feet of it.”

Gomez says that the MRCA will be monitoring the recreation zone from sunup to sundown daily once it is opened to the public. One MRCA ranger as well as up to a dozen  MRCA volunteers will be on patrol duty either on foot, bike or boat. “The LAPD will have the initial authority and city police will respond to any calls, but we will also be on hand to assist if necessary,” he says.

Oso Park sculpture./Martha Benedict


The extra security should be welcomed in the neighborhood where recently a biker was attacked on the bike path.

Still, the question remains: Will Anyone Kayak the River?

“Everyone that I know is excited about it,” says Steven Appleton, president of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council who, along with being a professional artist, will soon be adding kayak guide to his resume.

Appleton, along with fellow Elysian Valleyite Grove Pashley, will be leading L.A. River Safari kayak tours, an operation that will give Appleton a chance to introduce people to the history, nature and community of his neighborhood. “There are some places in the river you really have no idea you are near downtown L.A. Herons, egrets, carp jumping up. It’s mind-boggling.”

Appleton intends on employing and training local youth to help with the operation. In addition, he plans on reaching out to community and youth groups, offering them river trips at reduced rates. (Both L.A. River Expeditions and L.A. River Safari trips will run about $60-$70 per person.)

Both vendors will employ a novel way for kayakers to return to their parked cars at Rattlesnake Park. Once they are back on land at Confluence Park, participants will jump on bicycles and cruise the river route from a different perspective.

All in all, opening day of the recreation zone will write a new chapter in the continuing saga of the L.A. River.

Like many, Appleton is an optimist that a river experience can be radically energizing.

“I think once we bring people to the river and show them what it is, they will fall in love with it,” he says. “It really can be a river for all of us.”

Click here for more information about the L.A. River Pilot Recreation Zone.

Sorry, no dogs will be allowed in the river. Dogs will be allowed on path at the top of the river channel./Martha Benedict
Bird watchers will have plenty to look at along the river./Martha Benedict
Kayakers will have to navigate around some urban obstacles./Martha Benedict
L.A. River path runs along the Elysian Valley side of the waterway./Martha Benedict
Steve Appleton at the River Access point on L.A. River Recreation Zone./Miguel Luna

Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock. Martha Benedict is a photographer and resident of Montecito Heights