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Pioneer Park was oasis for kids of all kinds

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When people write about Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City, the best part is often left out. Pioneer Park was my oasis and my universe when I was growing up. It was the international playground where Mexicans, Greeks, Italians, blacks, Anglos, etc., showed up to play, learn how to get along and to become socialized — as much as possible. It is a part of Salt Lake City's history that writers always miss. It's the part in between the pioneers and today's yuppie gatherings.

My hope is the city will respect, and capture, the great memories of that era as they consider rebuilding it.

Pioneer Park was the "international entry point to the east side." Second West (now misnamed Third West) was the border that we crossed only to go to Chris' grocery store, across the street from the Greek Orthodox Church, or to get watermelons from the old Farmer's Market on Fifth South and Second West.

Chris' store was a major institution on our side of town. He had a running tab for all the people. Once a week, my dad pulled a little wooden wagon to carry groceries from Chris' store. His store was heaven — candy, fresh fruit and oiled wooden floors. He always gave my dad "el piln," which was a little extra something. Every two weeks, on payday, my dad showed up to pay his tab.

Pioneer Park was also an employment center. It was the place where the Centerville growers picked us up in trucks, with wooden slats, to go pick cherries in the summer. Somehow, we made it without seat belts or child labor laws. Our pay was about 50 cents a day, depending on how many buckets we filled. Half the time, we would come home with stomach cramps since we ate more cherries than we picked.

Pioneer Park had everything any kid, or family, needed. We had a swimming pool, a bandstand, a craft house and a big slab of cement with a stage where families (all kinds) came to watch black and white outdoor movies just to get out of the summer heat.

We had a volleyball court. Swimming was the big thing. And while we mixed the races, we did not mix the boys with the girls. We had our summer routine down pat. Boys' swim plunge at 9, girls' at 10; and, in between, we would have crafts and an occasional stray across the border to the Farmers Market to see if we could con someone out of a watermelon or two.

Going to "the park" was a daily summer custom for us kids. Part of the "on the edge stuff" was hitching the slow freight train that ran on Third West from Seventh South to the park. Sometimes, two of my Mexican friends and I took a break to go play football against the Anglo kids on a small diamond-shaped piece of grass at the old flourmill. The boundaries were tough. On the one side you had the tracks, and on the other you had the sidewalk. I got a chipped tooth to remind me I got out of bounds. Since we only had one old football helmet, the guy that got the ball was the one that wore the helmet for that particular play. Talk about telegraphing a play.

Pioneer Park was where I met Andy, one of my heroes, and a role model for me. Unlike today, where we think we can learn only from our "own," Andy was the recreation guy who was white, Nordic, 10 feet tall, skinny, wore a bright white shirt and pants and always had a happy face. He taught us how to play volleyball, softball and even helped in the arts and crafts building that looked like an old army barracks.

We had a swimming team and, at summer's end, all the city parks had a swim meet at "Muni" (Wasatch Plunge) on the north side of town. I still have the blue ribbons from those races, though no one in my family realizes how special they are. Andy gave us the most important thing one can give to a kid, or anyone for that matter. He made us believe in ourselves. He had expectations that we could accomplish things. And he did it with a smile and encouragement. When we messed up, he just kept on telling us to move on. He was a peacemaker referee, taught us how to box, and cleaned us up when we got bloody noses.

It's troubling to see many well-intentioned people putting the west side down, when in fact, for many of us, it has always been the heart and soul of our city. The park was the center of our neighborhood. As I drive by, I still imagine the unheated swimming pool that was ice-cold every Monday morning; and the bandstand, where they had weekly marching band concerts. I imagine the slab of cement with the kids running around and the adults fanning themselves and acting like they are watching the movie.

Like Mark Twain said, I still remember things that never happened, but they are so very much a part of who I am — a kid who grew up in the best city in the world and met Andy.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net