7/14/2008

Rocket Space Ship Park


photo by REX C. CURRY/Special Contributor Dallas Morning News

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Today's Dallas Morning News reports that a beloved park located in Richardson , Texas and known technically as "Heights Park", but colloquially to children all around the north Dallas and Richardson areas as "Rocket Spaceship Park" , was to be closed today and the old space age jungle gyms town down. This is such a momentous local event that the actual demolition made the six o'clock evening news. Various tearful moms with tots were interviewed, and news footage showed a few aging baby boomers with video camcorders, taking a last little bit of footage of the small neighborhood park as the bulldozers did their work. The roving news reporter explained that this park, built in the early 60's, chose the space-themed jungle gyms in honor of Texas Instruments, a local employer famous for computers and technology, and also also to tie in with the "Let's Put A Man on the Moon" NASA space missions of that era. The roving reporter went on to explain that the park did not meet current safety standards, and had to be torn down. City officials promised to save the rocket ship and turn it into art, "some day".
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It's a sad day for all of us who grew up in the shadow of this park. I spent my young childhood in Richardson, living near Heights Park , before my parents moved a few blocks away to Dallas when I was six . I remember Rocket Spaceship Park as a very special place. As a little kid, my mom would take us here on hot summer afternoons, after swimming lessons . My sister and I licked ice cream cones while climbing the 4 story rocket ship jungle gym , dangling off the dangerously tilting Jupiter , or swinging hand-over-hand along the yellow submarine - you had to finish your cone before you tried that feat -and somehow survived without impaling ourselves, choking, falling off, or breaking a bone. As a teenager, the place still lured us . My friends and I often ended up here late on Saturday nights, climbing around again, pairing off with dates and making out in the very top level of the space ship, or swinging in the swings in the nude. ( Sh ! Don't tell the park police ! ) I loved that park so much that when Son # 1 was born, I took him there several times as a toddler, and let him play, too. He probably doesn't remember it, but even at the time, I felt it was an important place that needed to be experienced. I took his picture there, and put it in his baby book. Sort of a one generation, passing something of itself on to the next, sort of thing.
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All things are impermanent, someone once said. New England has its famous author's homes, historic churches and town halls. In Texas, well, we've got the Alamo, and that's about it. So we tend to get a little sentimental over inexplicable things sometimes. Below is the news story from the paper, for anyone who wants to read it :



After 40 years, playground equipment at Heights Park in Richardson to be removed
12:00 AM CDT on Monday, July 14, 2008
By IAN McCANN / The Dallas Morning News
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RICHARDSON – The Heights Park rocket ship will close for good this week, more than 40 years after children here first climbed aboard.
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Because of safety concerns, Richardson city officials will have the outdated but beloved playground equipment removed and put into storage.
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Michael Massey, the city's parks and recreation director, said city leaders knew the equipment had outlasted its expected lifetime, usually considered to be about 20 years. But until a safety audit was conducted this spring, the extent of the problems wasn't clear.
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The Heights Park equipment is by far the oldest in Richardson; the city's emotional and historical attachment kept it in use for more than 40 years, an official said. Much of the equipment presents serious dangers, including head entrapment, impalement and entanglement hazards. In addition, the equipment doesn't meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
"The detailed audit really explained the depth and breadth of the problem," Mr. Massey said.
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Though it's unusual for a city to have equipment that's more than four decades old still in use, ever-evolving safety standards often mean that playgrounds don't meet current guidelines.
But several North Texas parks officials said that regular inspections, maintenance and replacement can keep playgrounds free of most hazards.
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"Some cities may be more aggressive than others," said Doug Evans, Grapevine's parks director and president of the Texas Recreation and Park Society. "We're all in it for the safety of our children."
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In Richardson, Mr. Massey said a few pieces meet current standards and will remain. The city is working with a consultant to design new playgrounds, but there isn't a firm construction timeline. "What we don't want to lose is the play value in the park," he said.
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The rocket ship and other technology-related pieces will eventually be made into art pieces as reminders of the city's deep ties to the tech world. They'll be reinstalled as the city completes an overhaul of the park as envisioned in a new master plan. At least part of that work is expected to be funded by a bond proposal anticipated for 2010.
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John Crosby, a spokesman for the National Recreation and Park Association, said the level of maintenance and frequency of playground inspections varies city to city. In most states, he said, there are no required safety standards to meet – only guidelines. "It's absolutely in a municipality's best interest that it not only meets the guidelines but that they're doing regular maintenance," said Mr. Crosby, whose organization certifies inspectors. He and others noted that no matter what standards equipment meets, parents must play a role in keeping their kids safe.
"By nature, kids are a little more risk-taking," said Kristen Beckworth, a health educator for the injury prevention program at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "We always recommend supervision."
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Mr. Evans, the Grapevine official, said his city replaces equipment at its 30 playgrounds every 12 years, which helps to ensure that they're current without being prohibitively expensive. And in much larger Dallas, where there are 216 playgrounds, the goal is to replace equipment every 20 years, said Leong Lim, manager of site development for the city's park department.
Mr. Lim said that once projects from the 2006 bond proposal are finished, Dallas will meet its goal.
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"We have replaced more than 150 playgrounds in the last 15 years, and there were 50 more included in the 2006 bond," he said. "That should complete our cycle, then we'll go back and do it again."
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The Heights Park equipment is by far the oldest in Richardson. Mr. Massey said the city regularly replaces its playgrounds, but the emotional and historical attachment to the Heights equipment kept it in use. "Heights Park is a special place," Mr. Massey said. "We maintained them to the best of our abilities. The question is, how long should a piece of playground equipment last?"

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Behind all this official blathering, the question I ask myself is, If they plan to return the rocket spaceship to the park, someday, as art- why not just close up the opening, leave it where it is, and call it " art" - NOW ? When the park official said they were taking it to storage, I couldn't help but think of that final scene in the first "Indiana Jones " movie, where the Ark of the Covenant is taken to a giant government warehouse , lost in the stacks, never to be seen again.

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