Olmsted-Planned Park in Inland California Lives On

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

On hot summer days, they gather at the edges of Lake Evans: fishermen, serious and casual, in their folding chairs, with their lines slanted into the water at their feet, waiting for carp or catfish; lovers holding hands on a bench, and a long-married couple sipping on iced coffees; a young couple having that early conversation that might lead to love; platoons of kids on bikes circling around the road under the ancient cypress trees that were chosen by the famous Olmsteds, New Yorkers who designed the park in 1911.

Fairmount Park, in Riverside, is one of the great parks of the nation. People might laugh at that, but we can claim Olmsted heritage, and the grand democratic principles that led Frederick Law Olmsted to design America's most famous urban landscapes, including New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the park jewels of Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Detroit, Montreal, and yes, Riverside.

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In the 1920s | Photo: Courtesy Steve Lech/Riverside Historical Society

This is not just a city lake and areas of grass beside it. The 275-acre grounds included elegant boathouses, a bandshell, an amusement park with a carousel, a lawn-bowling club, and arched bridges over the water. When I was a child, in the 1960s, all those elements made this exactly the everyman's heaven Olmsted wrote about.

"Consider that the New York and Brooklyn Park are the only places in those associated cities where, in this eighteen hundred and seventieth year after Christ, you will find a body of Christians coming together, and with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose, not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none, each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each. You may thus often see vast numbers of persons brought closely together, poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile...I have looked studiously but vainly among them for a single face completely unsympathetic with the prevailing expression of good nature and light-heartedness," he said after designing those places. Olmsted had travelled the world, noticed that most grand European gardens began as private grounds attached to royal residences, and he felt that they never attained true commonality.

The plunge in the 1940s | Photo: Courtesy Steve Lech/Riverside Historical Society

He died in 1903, but in 1911, his sons Frederick Jr. and Robert carried out his design principles for the "wasteland" near a quarry that was offered for a large park in Riverside. This is our history of recreation and beauty, and if you come down at early dusk, even on a random Tuesday in July, you will find generations of us here. This week, I saw the sabots in the distance, small white-sailed boats circling and tacking around buoys, captained by several older men and being directed by an instructor in a kayak. The young man near the dock, cruising in his own kayak and keeping an eye out in case someone went into the water, was Bradley Terrell. He told us his father, Dave Terrell, learned to sail in sabots from the historic boathouse behind us, back in 1967, when he was nine years old. He learned to love sailing and boats here on this city lake, formed when the park designers dammed up a creek and made a concrete rim around the bowl where the water collected.

At 7 p.m. on a day that reached 105 degrees, the lake is golden and olive, not blue. Shimmering like an Impressionist painting -- not France or England, but here in Southern California -- the water is dimpled with fish leaping out to catch insects. The sabots lean and swerve in the breeze. Dave Terrell took those first lessons from the legendary Lanny, who actually founded the sailing program at Fairmount Park in 1957, and who resurrected it last year. (This summer, there are hour-long lessons in the morning for kids, and evening lessons for adults.) Terrell found the sabots, neglected and damaged, in the boathouse, and restored some of them for the program. As a young man, he restored a 32-foot schooner and kept it at the San Pedro Harbor, but Lake Evans was the beginning.

Fairmount Park was one of ten public places named in 2011 to the American Planning Association's great places in America. The boathouse with its arched entries into the water and the lovely room above remains elegant. Our family hosted a baby shower for a nephew there this spring. A renovation of the amusement park area -- where the old rides and carousel I remember so vividly were removed years ago -- was careful and attentive, and now colorful play equipment is always swarming with children. In the middle of the lake is the island -- the shaggy mound covered with palm trees and dense bushes, where my siblings and I always imagined shipwrecked people lived. Hey, we were only five and six and seven at the time, and the island seemed out of Huck Finn, a dangerous and secret place. Really, we always wanted to sail a boat and make our way there, but we had to be content to feed the geese and look for minnows at the edge of the water. There were kids everywhere around us, back then in the 1960s -- my future husband was catching crawfish with his brothers and cousins, I found out later, and it seems that Dave Terrell was probably the guy we watched wistfully on the sabots.

For years, my own three daughters came here with their father and me. Riding bikes around the lake, picnicking, and always feeding the geese with day-old bread we bought just for them, as my mother had for us. I was terrified of the aggressive white and gray geese, and so were my girls; in fact, they love best the Canadian geese, black-headed and brown-bodied, because their father called the Canadians "the brothers."

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

We still ride bikes here, the youngest, her father and me, quite often. And on this hot twilight, I make sure to visit the unofficial mayor of Fairmount Park, as we always do. Jimmy Ward, a high school classmate of mine, is fishing as always in his place beside the World War Two tank mounted on concrete, overlooking the water. (Soldiers trained amphibious vehicles in the lake during the war.)

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Jimmy is always surrounded by visitors at the picnic bench where he holds court. Tonight is no exception. There are three lines in the water, and six people here, and countless more stop by to say hello. Greg Wilson, Wayne B, Doug Fresh, Ben, and Frances -- some of the regular crew, eating tacos and chilling. Jimmy says, "When I worked at Thermodyne in Ontario, I would work from 5 a.m. until 3:30, and then I'd come by here and fish until dark."

"He hasn't missed a day for thirty years!" Frances calls out, and Jimmy laughs.

"You know, we came here from Montgomery, Alabama. My brother and I were born back there -- by midwife. My father was in the military. My mother brought me to this park when I was four years old, in 1962, right when we came." Ward looks out over the water. "See that muscovy duck? She's got 13 babies." We spot the white duck with the red mask-like beak, and her brood. "Every night, she's gotta wait until all the cars go, just after dark, and then she gets every one of those babies up the curb and they cross the street." On the other side of the road that circles the lake is the wild area of riverbed, where her nest must be.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

She stepped up the bank, into the tangle of cypress roots, changing her mind when she saw kids on bikes, men holding fishing poles, and the rest of us waiting for her. Jimmy and I sat beside the tank. His mother ended up with five sons and three daughters, and we talked about our school days, and football. This spring, he brought the oldest of his four grandkids to fish here. "Samont is 7," he said. "I was teaching him to fish, and he had a carp on the line, about a pound, he was reeling it in, and then he saw the fish, threw down the pole and ran!" Everyone laughed, and waved as another car stopped to visit.

The sabots' sails were turning blue in the darkening sky while they came into the boathouse. The white geese headed toward the island in a precise line. The Muscovy duck still hesitated in the shallows, and the lovers settled onto benches.

Photo: Douglas McCullohLike every grand urban park in America, dusk has its own quiet sociability, after the children leave. Olmsted would have been happy, I thought. He said this about the essential importance of beauty and landscape for everyone: "[Such] circumstances are all favorable to a pleasurable wakefulness of the mind without stimulating exertion; and the close relation of family life, the association of children, of mothers, of lovers, of those who may be lovers, stimulate and keep alive the more tender sympathies."

His plan for Prospect Park: "several thousand little family and neighborly parties to bivouac at frequent intervals throughout the summer, without discommoding one another." And here, 101 years later, the lawn-bowlers still come. Family reunions of two hundred, and embraces of two, happen at Fairmount Park. I look across the water, indigo now, the cypress trunks immense beside us. Dave and Bradley Terrell, Lanny, every child bending toward the water, every parent hooking a finger into a collar to keep that child from falling in, every human here, and Jimmy Ward, heading back to the crew at the picnic table -- all keepers of Olmsted's legacy.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published in September. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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