Friday, February 4, 2011

Giant Concrete Animals

The entrance to Penguin Park sits at the corner of Norton Avenue and Vivion Road, across the street from a small, unremarkable building that houses American Family Insurance, and another, slightly larger, but still unremarkable building that houses Planned Parenthood. Scattered through a haphazard collection of ordinary swingsets, seesaws and rusted monkeybars, are prodigious, concrete animals — static, smiling, Transformer-sized versions of childhood zoo favorites. This pocket of Kansas City was once a nice place to play and picnic. Now, though, Penguin Park and the area surrounding is not a recommendable destination for playgroups or field trips.

Once my mother me took Penguin Park. She thought it would be as oversizedly magical as it once was. I remember walking inside the bottom of the Penguin and looking up at its concrete, hollow insides. The soft ground smelled of damp and stale urine. I can conjure the memory now — that dark hole, with just a beam of light sweeping through the top and the realized stench of how I imagined the undersides of highway bridges to smell. But I wanted to climb to the top and slide down. Knowing I would cry and not stop if I wasn't allowed just one slide, my mother climbed up with me. I remember the ascent — the putrid air that slowly faded to something fresher as we neared the top. I don't, though, remember the slide down and out of the penguin.

Later, to no avail, I would try to convince my mother to let me swing on the swing whose corroding metal chain was held in the mouth of an enormous giraffe. And then I wanted to climb into the Kangaroo's pouch.

Penguin Park should compose the impossible material of those dreams that rapidly become traumatic, sweat-induced nightmares. Why does anyone want to climb a ladder inside a dark, concrete penguin?

I was catapulted back to the bird's belly when a suggestion was made to visit Crystal Palace Park. Among the regular playgrounds, walks and wintry vistas of the South London grounds is the Dinosaur Park. We didn't know anymore than this, and the thought of research never crossed our minds. On the train to Crystal Palace, I recalled a few years ago — when, one day in June, we found Dinosaur World in Beaver, Arkansas. At the entrance were turtles made of decaying plaster that chipped away to reveal broken skeletons of wire and mesh. We considered trespassing, but turned around and left.

These visions of empty marsupials and broken clay reptiles haunted the train ride and walk into Crystal Palace. I know a thing or two about parks that feature giant concrete animals as an attraction. I was skeptical.

The dinosaurs of Dinosaur Park aren't any less bizarre than the animals of my childhood. But the overall feeling of disquiet that comes from staring at a 3-story kangaroo for too long doesn't exist here. Crystal Palace Park is an active park. There are no creaking, lonesome swingsets. There is laughter. And ice cream cones if you want one. There are a lot of dads too, and save for the one who loudly barreled down a pathway with his daughter's wrist in one hand and a Carlings in the other, they are doing normal dad things: pushing strollers; jogging in grey sweatsuits; taking photos; relinquishing dignity for the small delights of their spawn.

Everyone likes the dinosaurs. I liked them too. Maybe it's because, unlike Penguin Park or Dinosaur World, the presentation is tactful. They are, of course, gargantuan, but the painted, iron beasts are well camoflauged under cute bridges and well kept, artificial marshes. Oddly, the scenes are not contrived. The dinosaurs are where they should be — on that island looking into the distance. Their swelled chests exude majestic, Jurassic pride. Despite their iron builds, they are clustered into graceful dino-cliques. They are lovely. They are not true depictions, but interpretations that incite points, laughter and a genuine appreciation for tasteful novelty (if there is such a thing). The dinosaurs enchant the grown-ups too, and everyone is relieved there are no slides coming out of the Brontosaurus.

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