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History in the Common

In San Gabriel, a tribute to the Tongvas shares green space with trees and picnic tables.


These days, a stroll through San Gabriel's oldest public green space isn't just a walk in the park. Sure, Smith Park has trees, grass and picnic tables--all the things you'd find in any park in Anyplace, USA. But what's with the thatched roofs on stilts? The dry stream bed winding past the barbecue grills? The sea creatures "swimming" across the lawn?

Thanks to a $3-million improvement project, Smith Park has been transformed into a unique outdoor setting that combines the usual recreational amenities with a history lesson on the little-known Tongva Indians. The Tongvas inhabited the region long before the late 18th century arrival of the Spaniards, who established the San Gabriel Mission and renamed the indigenous population the Gabrielinos.

"The city emphasized it really wanted this park to be special, to have an identity that set it apart," says landscape architect Anna Armstrong. "We felt the Gabrielino theme was most appropriate because the site of the park was almost the exact location of Sibangna, the Indian village that preceded the mission."

At the most fundamental level, a city park is a public place intended to serve as a refuge from the frenetic pace of urban life. But the past few years have seen the emergence of a new kind of park that's more than mere oasis.

"There's no hard data, but we're hearing about more parks being designed and created to establish a strong sense of place," says Jane Adams, executive director of the California Park & Recreation Society in Sacramento. "This kind of design allows communities to distinguish themselves from others, whether the focus is on a park's natural geographic features, some historical or cultural significance of the site or the neighborhood itself."

As it turns out, Smith Park isn't the only park to pay tribute to the Gabrielinos, a tribe that, because of sketchy records, remains relatively obscure even in the vast Los Angeles Basin where about 15,000 of its ancestors are believed to have lived more than two centuries ago. Descendants, whose numbers have dwindled to about 2,000, have petitioned for federal recognition as an Indian nation that, if granted, would translate into health, education, housing and other benefits.

Heritage Park in Santa Fe Springs, in fact, had already constructed a historically correct tribal village for educational purposes. Smith Park fulfilled a different demand. First opened in the late 1920s on three acres along Broadway a block west of Del Mar Avenue, the old park had been popular for its numerous sports facilities. In 1994, city leaders decided to expand it to create a so-called passive park for picnicking and other family-oriented activities.

To design the open space, the city hired Armstrong and her partner, Richard Walker. Their firm, Armstrong & Walker Landscape Architecture in Monrovia, designed the woodland demonstration garden at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia and the Hawthorne Boulevard streetscape in Torrance.

Collaborating with city officials--most notably the Park and Recreation Department's George Kotchnik (now retired) and Bob Harris--the designers met with residents to brainstorm possible park themes. The consensus was that Smith Park should pay homage to the Gabrielinos.

But as Armstrong and Walker began their research, they hit a snag. "We realized there was information on the local Indians, but the emphasis was on their life after the mission was founded," Walker says. "We thought it was important to communicate what their life was like before the change."

To learn more about early Gabrielino culture, the designers consulted Mark Acuna, the cultural liaison of the local Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council, who helped plan the replica village in Santa Fe Springs. "I realized this had to be much more stylized than Heritage Park," Acuna says of the need for Smith Park to function primarily as picnic grounds, not a museum exhibit. "My role was helping to make sure things were as accurate as possible, even if it was just a plaque."

The city eventually bought a three-acre parking lot west of the existing park and eliminated the intervening street to form six contiguous acres. Then the designers went to work, skillfully weaving Gabrielino references into the landscape.

They dreamed up those unusual-looking thatched structures as picnic shelters to echo the true shape of the Gabrielinos' domed huts. Built of prefab gazebo parts, the shelters form a village along boulders arranged to suggest the arroyos at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Nearby, cast-concrete dolphins, sea lions and a whale allude to the Gabrielinos' literal and spiritual connections to the ocean. "The Indians looked on these animals as holy creatures," Armstrong says. "We wanted to bring them in as something kids could climb on."

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