LA MIRADA — For many years, a 10-acre swath of Creek Park stayed the way local children have always remembered it: a muddy creek winding past stands of bamboo, blackberry bushes and fig, pepper and eucalyptus trees. It has been an overgrown, weed-ridden haven for 12-year-olds seeking a place to jump bikes, catch crawdads and disappear from adults.
Three weeks ago, when workers arrived with chain saws and bulldozers, neighborhood children and their parents feared the unkempt park would be paved over, rudely civilizing the city's last undeveloped, unmanicured play place.
Not to worry. A $29,000 cleanup by city officials has tamed the park only slightly, eliminating low tree limbs and overgrown brush to reduce security and fire risks. In a Southern California without much space for unsupervised children to roam safely, youngsters living nearby will still have something children used to take for granted--land to play on.
"When I grew up, there used to be vacant lots in the neighborhood," said Bill Kent, 58, director of recreation and community services in nearby Pico Rivera, a city without an undeveloped park. "When I was growing up, there was a place to build a fort, and it would stay as long as you wanted it to stay. When it rained there would be lots that would flood and you could make a raft.
"When I grew up, I didn't know what a developer was."
Children playing in a vacant lot now risk trespassing charges or perhaps exposure to toxic waste.
Kent recalls recently passing a green patch near a freeway ramp that would have made a perfect play spot, if there had not been about 40 homeless people camped there. "I don't think they're causing any problems," Kent said, "but that'd be a place where kids used to build forts. Now people are living there."
"Empty land?" asked the more youthful Ralph Aranda, 30, who lives in Santa Fe Springs and grew up in Pico Rivera. "I'm trying to think. I can't recall any. Maybe if you spoke to somebody that was around when the area was orange groves."
These days, Kent said, Southern California seems like "one continuous line of concrete and asphalt."
Somehow the "wilderness area" of Creek Park survived, even though it sits on land potentially worth millions, land a developer would term "unimproved." In less crowded days, the land was the neighborhood's storm-drainage area.
"This part was never developed," said Steve Loven, La Mirada parks supervisor. "This is what this park has always looked like."
There has never been a park ranger or strict rules to abide by. So preteens erected bike ramps, sneaked in BB guns and tunnelled through thick stands of bamboo.
Three weeks ago, when a dozen workers arrived armed with earth-moving equipment, dump trucks, machetes, rakes and brooms, the youngsters had to scram--along with the ducks, polliwogs and jackrabbits.
The following weekend the children returned to survey the "damage." The dead trees and fallen logs were gone, the bamboo trimmed to the ground, the tree branches cut to a height of 10 feet. Workers cleared away numerous bushes along with the trash and dried grass.
"Everybody used to come down here," reminisced 12-year-old Angelo San Paolo, with perhaps slightly overstated nostalgia, considering that the park would not meet the fate of Ebbets Field or the original Brown Derby restaurant.
"I found a water turtle here before," said Jeremy Millan, 13. "It was about a foot around."
"I caught 12 crawdads," San Paolo said.
A group of five boys, ages 11 to 14, had spotted no more than a crawdad claw so far that afternoon. The terrain lay more barren than they had ever known it. Truck tracks led away from the creek's edge. "There used to be a whole bunch of better bike jumps," Millan said. "And there were forts and huts and tunnels and stuff."
Landscaper Leonard Apple directed the cleanup. "Every one of these bamboo piles has been on fire," he had said several days earlier, as the buzz of weed eaters forced him to raise his voice. "We're getting rid of the fire hazard from the ground up. A eucalyptus won't burn easily if it's trimmed up."
There had been a fire on the park edge last Christmas, and a larger fire inside the park just more than a year ago.
For security reasons, city officials also were concerned about poor visibility into the park from the street. The neighborhood children say they have seen graffiti on a cement tunnel through which the creek passes. And they say they have observed teen-agers smoking marijuana. The debris that workers cleared away included cigarette butts, bottle-rocket sticks, firecrackers and beer cans.
Although the children recently discovered a moped rusting in the creek, no one has uncovered anything that would suggest the movie plots of "Stand By Me" or "The River's Edge."
On the Saturday of the children's return, they found a ball of string, a perfect tool for tying up captured crawdads. The string had been stowed in a hollowed-out den of a bush.
If the park were not there, said Joey Schlaht, 11, "we'd feel we'd have nothing to do. We'd be bored in the day."
"We'd miss it," Millan agreed.
"Hey, let's catch crawdads," someone shouted. Schlaht and Millan scampered off to join the search, running past the green shoots of a bamboo stand that was already growing back.