La Laguna de San Gabriel
La Laguna de San Gabriel Playground, San Gabriel, CA: Preservationists, Parents, and Children Save Monster Park
Architect: Benjamin Dominguez
Year Built: 1965
History and Significance
Where can you find a herd of joyful children and ferocious monsters playing harmoniously? For San Gabriel residents, the answer is the La Laguna Playground, endearingly called "Dinosaur Park", "Monster Park", and "Dragon Park" by visitors young and old for decades. Designed and constructed by Mexican concrete sculptor Benjamin Dominguez in the 1960s, the playground's fourteen fantastical creatures are colorful landmarks for visitors of all ages and a vital reflection of the area's Chicano cultural movement.
This movement advocated increased visibility for Chicano art and heritage alongside efforts to improve conditions for farm workers and improvement of civil rights. La Laguna was the capstone of Dominguez's long career of public artistic contribution in Mexico and the United States and serves as a playful reminder of San Gabriel's rich social history.
In 2006, the city of San Gabriel proposed a new 'master redevelopment plan' for Vincent Lugo Park, the home of La Laguna Playground. This plan called for the demolition of the play structures, partially due to 'safety and accessibility concerns.' Having been well-used and loved for over forty years with inconsistent maintenance, some of the park's structures were also in need of emergency rehabilitation and repair.
The potential destruction of this community resource and gathering place incited public action to advocate and educate officials and locals about the historical significance of La Laguna Playground. With the rallying cry "Save Monster Park," local San Gabriel residents opposed demolition with numerous advocacy efforts. One couple, Eloy Zarate and Senya Lubisich, led the charge by working with their neighbors to organize rallies, write and circulate petitions, and in 2006, to found a non-profit preservation organization called Friends of La Laguna.
Community involvement was key to Friends of La Laguna's efforts. They reached out to local media in multiple languages, including Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese, as they searched for support. The powerful education potential of Monster Park was central to the Friends of La Laguna's campaign. The Friends conducted oral history interviews with Benjamin Dominguez's children and community members who had worked on the park, collecting information about the Dominguez's life and career, as well as the continued community relevance of the playground in San Gabriel. Recently, the Friends have also started a docent program for visiting school groups in partnership with the San Gabriel Mission, exposing school children to both colonial and modern Latino history. Local college students from the Pasadena City College have also been engaged in playground maintenance projects through service learning and Historian's Craft courses.
Friends of La Laguna's efforts garnered over 2,500 petition signatures and support from other preservation organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Los Angeles Conservancy. In 2007, Friends of La Laguna presented its findings about the history and continued relevance of the park to the City and the playground's demolition was removed from the master park plan. The Friends entered into a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city to indicate an intended common line of action to preserve and protect La Laguna. Friends of La Laguna also commissioned a preservation plan for the site using a gift from the Annenberg Foundation and a grant from the California Cultural and Historic Endowment. (The Memorandum of Understanding and the Preservation Plan will also be available on the Friends of La Laguna website in the future). Thanks to the Friends' efforts, La Laguna Playground was placed on the San Gabriel Register of Historic Places and is under review for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources.
The ultimate responsibility for restoring La Laguna Playground now lies in the hands of Friends of La Laguna. They are currently looking for grants and community support to raise $2.2 million for the park's rehabilitation and integration into the larger park. Friends of La Laguna hopes to raise awareness about the historic value of playgrounds in order to spearhead a more flexible process for their preservation.
In 2009, Friends of La Laguna was awarded both the Los Angeles Conservancy's Advocacy Award and a California Preservation Foundation President's Award. With the help of these advocates, the silent roars of monsters will continue to remind San Gabriel residents of the artistic richness of their Chicano heritage.