In 1960, the city unveiled with great fanfare Modesto Children’s Park in what is now known only as Beard Brook Park.
Along South Morton Road and across Dry Creek from the E.&J. Gallo Winery, the park is a remnant of a family-friendly era when kids climbed everything, jumped high, landed hard, got dirty, got up, brushed themselves off and then did it all over again. They picked from the plane, train, rocket, monkey bars, animal shapes and other contraptions.
But of all the park’s features, none challenged the imagination more than the abstract play structure just a few yards from the old locomotive.
Born of the mid-century modern art movement of the late-1950s promoted by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a sculptor in Oakland designed it to resemble whatever the child envisioned, from a spaceship to a dinosaur to a skeleton and more. The park, according to a 1962 story in The Bee, drew nearly 6,800 people in just one month.
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Bob Barzan, founder of the Modesto Art Museum, remembers climbing on it when he arrived in Modesto as a child in 1963, and did so again Wednesday for the first time in about five decades. Barrett Lipomi also grew up in Modesto and used to play on it as well. He is now an architect and the museum’s president.
Nearly six decades later, though, now what? As Modesto changed, so did Beard Brook. The all-but-forgotten abstract structure merely represents another piece of a decaying park that likely is the last place parents would take their children to play in Modesto. Liability concerns long ago changed the designs and materials used in modern-day play structures.
“Parents won’t let their kids play on it,” said Kevin Cole, a mental health worker who regularly visits the park to contact some of the transients living there. Which brings us to the biggest reason parents don’t take their children there.
Beard Brook Park long ago became a campground for the homeless. Tents, transients and trash. Most of the park benches are damaged. The sign prohibiting camping is ignored, except when the police enforce the code, only to have people return literally hours later.
Nathan Houx, Modesto’s parks planning and development manager, played in the park as child in the 1970s and ’80s. He told me the city is looking at ways to take back the park, which abuts the Tuolumne River Regional Park.
Regular and expansive cleanup efforts, horse and hiking trails, bird-watching and other activities make transients uncomfortable and they move on from the regional park, Houx said. The same tactics could be applied to Beard Brook, though that would merely push the homeless somewhere else and do nothing to address homelessness.
“What can we do to get more possible (recreational) activity there?” he said. “It’s not a neighborhood park. There are no neighborhoods around there anymore.”
Hence, the best way to reclaim the park is to treat it like it is part of the regional park.
As for the abstract, Barzan had forgotten it existed until he rediscovered it last week. He sees it as more of an art form than play structure. He researched its history, contacted art experts in the Bay Area who verified that it is, indeed, a valuable piece, and on Monday sent a report to the city urging that it be restored in place or moved to a more suitable location. He worries that it might go the way of some other Modesto landmarks and simply vanish forever.
“I don’t want to see it bulldozed,” Barzan said.
No bulldozers scheduled, Houx said. He knew little of the history behind it until reading Barzan’s report and is interested to learn how longtime Modestans remember it.
Barzan and Lipomi said the museum folks would be willing financial partners in saving it. If it no longer belongs in the park, so be it.
“It is an amazing piece,” Barzan said. “It needs to be restored either here or moved to another place. I would love to see it move to the grassy area in front of the Gallo Center, or some place like that.”
Both – the park and the art/play structure – are worth saving. And like the abstract itself, that will require some imagination.