Its name and proximity to UC Irvine are the most obvious indicators that University Park is an education-oriented neighborhood, but the selection of used books for sale at the local library illustrates the point best.
The small, one-room annex, called Friends' Bookstore, at University Park Library, is crammed with local residents' discarded reading material. Large volumes on history, medicine, art, law, physics, and philosophy far outnumber the paperbacks and romance novels. The small shop is staffed by volunteers and was established to financially supplement the library through sales of donated books. The shop receives a steady supply of donations from UCI faculty and students who live in the area.
University Park was Irvine's first residential development, which is south of the San Diego Freeway and bordered on the west by Culver Drive. University Drive winds around, forming what are more or less the southern and eastern borders.
Built through the mid- to late-1960s, the assortment of homes, town homes, condominiums and apartments was unusual at the time. Miles of greenbelts and walkways wind through the neighborhood, which is bordered by thousands of trees, including mature Brazilian pepper, California sycamore, coral and eucalyptus. The area lacks the flatness and uniformity of other parts of Irvine. The terrain slopes gently, and there is more variety in the colors and styles of houses, contrasted with the more recently built Westpark area located across the freeway and just up Culver.
A focal point in the neighborhood is University Community Park, where University Park Library is. A tour of the library reveals the multicultural aspect of University Park, where nine different languages are spoken in the local middle school. The library has the largest Chinese-language book collection in Orange County and also has books and videos for adults and children available in Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Farsi and Spanish. On Saturday afternoons, about 20 children gather at the library for instruction in Farsi (the Persian language spoken by Iranians) sponsored by the Iranian Cultural Center of Orange County.
The after-school and weekend academic rigors taking place at the library and nearby schools is balanced by unstructured outdoor activities offered at the park. Just outside the library is Adventure Park, an area described by Park Supervisor Dave Sutor as "a 2 1/2-acre dirt pit with a drain in the bottom." After completing a safety course, children are turned loose to play in the mud, climb on rope ladders and romp on old truck tires, "just the way most of us who grew up in Orange County played before so much of it was developed," says Sutor.
Children can build forts using lumber and tools provided by the park, but even the kids can't escape Irvine's strict rules governing what gets built. Five or more children can form a group and get a leased building site that allows them to occupy the space indefinitely, as long as they continue to add to the structure. The fort is inspected each day by park employees and a written notice posted if it does not meet established fort-building codes.
Adventure Park also has a gardening area where children can learn horticulture. A pet area is inhabited by turtles, rabbits and guinea pigs.
Just outside Adventure Park are 16 more acres of space devoted to multipurpose centers, tennis courts, racquetball, volleyball, roller-skating and playing fields for Irvine neighborhood sports leagues.
One of Irvine's two year-round schools is in University Park. Vista Verde serves 570 students in kindergarten through eighth grade on a cycle of nine weeks in session followed by a three-week break, including time off for holidays and a four- to five-week break in the summer. "I think it's fun having vacation while other kids are in school," said Joanna Thomas, a fifth-grader at the school. "I like the computer classes that the PTA teaches after school too."
The relative safety of University Park is best sensed around Vista Verde, which is not enclosed by a fence. Even younger children in the neighborhood ride their bikes to and from school.
Judy Cunningham, principal of Rancho San Joaquin School in University Park, said utilizing student interns from nearby UCI adds to the innovative atmosphere for the faculty and its 740 seventh- and eighth-graders. Students are rewarded and evaluated not only through grades, but also by a work habits/effort honor roll program. "We want students to leave here with the proper tools to succeed in whatever it is that they are good at," says Cunningham. "Ability and knowledge must be supplemented with essential attitudes and habits."
University Park has Lutheran and Methodist churches and an orthodox synagogue, Chabad of Irvine. The synagogue was founded in 1982 by a group of mostly South African Jews and now includes many Iranians and Israelis. About 300 families attend the synagogue, which operates its own school for preschool pupils through 6 years of age.