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Where Kindness Is Catching

An L.A. park is not just a playground but a place where, for a brief moment, the innocence of children extends to adults.

February 12, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The quintessential L.A. moment--one parking space, two waiting cars. Technically, it should go to the white compact that just pulled up behind the car that is backing out, but the blue minivan, though stationed on the side of opposing traffic, was clearly waiting for it first. For a moment, tensions rise as two sets of turn signals blink proprietarily and then, with no visible instructions from God or Della Reese, the driver of the white compact waves to the driver of the minivan. And moves on.

This is a city not particularly known for its acts of random kindness, and yet there is a place here where those acts have become de rigueur. Sheltered by the hills of Griffith Park, it is called a boundless playground, and that is what it has become. Shane's Inspiration was built last year a few hundred yards from the merry-go-round near Riverside Drive. The 2-acre parcel was created by Scott Williams and Catherine Curry-Williams in honor of Shane Alexander, their baby son who died in 1997. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Shane would have been severely disabled had he lived, and so his parents helped create a playground he might have used, a playground for children with all levels of physical abilities.

The swings are large enough to accommodate children with cerebral palsy, the various towers and forts are connected by wide, wheelchair-friendly ramps. Close to the ground, there is a stationary train, several dinosaurs and a sprawling castle surrounded by sand. There is no other playground like it in the city, and perhaps no other like it in the world.

Because the boundaries it dissolves are much more than physical. It has become the new weekend hot spot. Drawn by its size and amazing array of features, families from all over the city come together here in a demographic assortment that would make any pollster salivate. Hiperati from Silver Lake, Los Feliz and all the Hollywoods; extended families from Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Echo Park and Eagle Rock; Aprica devotees from Glendale, Pasadena and Altadena--here they all are passing out sippy cups and Blue's Clues fruit snacks with an air of benevolence and camaraderie that is almost weird.

Here meticulously groomed Latino men in button-down shirts and cowboy hats stand shoulder to shoulder with white guys in baseball caps who talk about Sundance. Here Armenian grandmothers in black dresses and shawls talk through gestures and smiles with willowy white mothers in Pucci knockoffs and white capris. An Asian couple offers juice boxes to a black family, a family with two dads chats with a family of two moms, while bewildered first-time parents watch the old-timers ride herd on broods of half a dozen.

It's a we-are-the-world scene that you couldn't get away with in a movie--L.A. as envisioned by Benetton.

Oh, sure, there are minor frictions--a few eye-rolling comments by moms in sweatpants when a pair of Pilates-slaves with cell phones lashed to their hip-huggers stroll by, a grimace or three directed at a dad hunched over his cell phone while his son stands behind him, passing a football from hand-to-hand. Over by the little kids' swings, a woman has parked herself at one end of a low balance beam, where she pointedly ignores the loud to-the-sky admonishments of two other moms who feel she should sit someplace else.

But in general, everyone is so nice it's a little scary. They nod and smile at each other, offer tissues and graham crackers to strangers. Perhaps it is the beauty of the playground and what it stands for--even for those who don't know the story of Shane, this is obviously a labor of love for a child with difficulties, and it's hard to be snarky or ill-tempered when reminded of children with troubles.

Or it could be the music that fills the air here--the bleat of the balloon lady's horn, the zipping silver ring of bicycle bells, the whoosh of scooters, the timpani percussion of running, sneakered feet. And above it all, the symphony of children's voices, raised in laughter and challenge, shouts and giggles and inevitable tears and tantrums. Words fly too; children asking to take off their shoes, to get on the swings, to stay five more minutes while parents, in English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, tell the babies not to eat sand, warn the older ones to slow down, to take turns.

Close your eyes and it is the sound of a perfect world. Keep them closed and now you can smell it too--hot dogs, barbecue chicken and carne asada sizzling on nearby grills, the powdery spice of the eucalyptus trees, the syrup of sweet mango served up in plastic cups.

Around the playground are islands of blankets, still-lifes of strollers, groves of bicycles. Pinatas dangle like fluttering fruit from several trees, bouquets of birthday balloons bloom from picnic tables, and food is everywhere.

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