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A Welcome Urban Oasis : Culver City: At The Plunge, the rules are simple--no running, no rough stuff, no diving from the shallow end. The tough realities of life stop at the gate.

July 28, 1993|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

East side, west side, all around the town, the swim-suited set splashes away the summer hours to the shouts of "Stop running!" and "No diving!" While the Board of Supervisors ponders closing 24 of Los Angeles County's 55 pools as a cost-cutting step, in the city pools of Pasadena and Culver City, the water remains relatively calm in the storm. Here, two View staff writers report on a day at the cement shores. . . .

*

"Build it and they will come," the young man told his bosses, who weren't sure an Olympic-size public pool was needed in a sleepy hamlet so near the sea.

It was 1945. Culver City was relatively rural. Kids could safely hitch rides or pedal bikes to the beach.

But they built it anyway--the Westside's first public pool--dubbed the Culver City Plunge.

The grand opening, in the summer of '45, starred Esther Williams and the cast of Billy Rose's Aquacades. Who remembers such things? Sid Kronenthal, for one. He's the same guy who originally suggested the pool--and who's stuck around ever since. Now director of human services for Culver City, he's also the one who'll tell you just how much Plunge rites have changed in the past 40 years: "To tell the truth, not that much."

You find that hard to believe?

Park your car on Overland, pay your buck (50 cents if you're under 15) and you, too, will get sucked in.

*

It's a hot summer afternoon. Elsewhere around Southern California, the muggings, drive-bys and bank heists are adding up. But at The Plunge, you're in a time warp where the rules are simple and the world is safe. No diving off the shallow ends. No running on the concrete deck. No rough stuff at all, at all, at all.

And if you get in too deep, there's always someone strong and friendly to pull you out. Six someones, to be exact. One lifeguard at each end, two lifeguards on each side. (There are 14 lifeguards on staff and they rotate in half-hour shifts.)

*

"This place is the greatest," says Nichole McClure, 8, of Culver City, who swims three times a week because "it's the place where I make friends."

Nichole's mother, Monique, one of the few adults at the pool this day, is a waitress who works nights. She says The Plunge is so well-managed and the atmosphere so upbeat that it gives her children "the feeling they're on vacation even though they haven't gone away."

What's more, she says, it's better designed than other pools because the deep part is in the middle and both ends are shallow, so there's twice as much space for little kids to play.

*

"Sure, the parents love us," says Jennifer Duncan, one of two Culver City High School students who tend the girls' locker rooms, a summer job that pays $5.16 an hour.

"They trust us so much that they drop their little kids off in front and leave them here the whole afternoon."

Fat kids, skinny kids, pale kids, dark kids, silly kids, shy kids--most there without a parent, most under the age of 15, all splashing in 550,000 gallons of highly chlorinated water beneath the sun-bleached sky.

Who knows what these kids do when they're out on the street. At The Plunge, they seem to want to behave. They stand patiently in lines, hands at sides, waiting for turns on the diving boards and the water slide.

How come you're so well-behaved at this pool? 10-year-old Jason Brown is asked. "Because the lifeguards make me want to be that way," he says.

*

"Lifeguards here may be a cut above the rest," says Kronenthal, proud of the tradition that he says lures "top-notch" local high school and college students to compete for the job, which pays $8.19 an hour.

Erin McBreen, 23, swam competitively at Yale, from which she graduated this year. "I grew up in Culver City, swam here when I was a kid and I've been a lifeguard here for six summers," McBreen says, her eyes scanning the water while she talks. "This is a community pool in the best sense. The same kids tend to come here every day, and we get to know and care for them."

Lifeguard Ronny Scott, 16, of Ladera Heights, is on the water polo team at Harvard-Westlake school, where he is a student. "These kids are fun, and--at least while they're here--they're well-behaved."

Adam Gallagher, former water polo player at Culver City High and now at USC film school, says, "The kids are hilarious. We have a board, on which we usually pin the best kid's quote of the day."

His favorite? "The kid who walked up to me and asked if I was a pimp."

Kronenthal says things are not always as peaceful as they look. Kids sneak in without paying, dive off the shallow end, run on the concrete deck and fall. Sometimes gang members or other ruffians appear. "We're right near . . . some areas with very high crime," Kronenthal says. "But we have a reputation here. We don't screw up, we don't let anyone else screw up."

*

Because no one is allowed to wear street clothing or street shoes on the deck, the lifeguards say, there isn't really much that can go wrong. "Everyone's pretty equal when they have nothing but a swimsuit on," says one guard. "And the older, tougher teens don't like to come here anyway, because there's a stigma attached to being with all these little kids."

Budget cuts have taken a toll, Kronenthal says. But the basics are still preserved. Weekday-morning swim lessons cost from $15 to $25 for a two-week session.

Entry fees have risen by 25 cents. "If we bump it up any more, it won't be affordable," Kronenthal says. "We have a lot of single parents and people on the financial edge. We don't want to price them out of the picture. After all, kids don't have too many options these days. It's not safe to bike ride or hitch to the beach."

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