Playland's memory brought to life in new book


Even on a cold day, Ocean Beach is calm, quiet and mostly empty. How surprising that would have been in this very same spot, half a century ago.

"I miss it. I can see it here now," says James Smith.

Smith remembers those days through the eyes of a child. They are visions of how the place looked before the condos and busses, when San Franciscans knew it as Playland at the Beach.

"There was just so much to do. You couldn't do the whole park in a day," says Smith.

Playland used to be two and a half blocks long and two more deep. It was a place where a kid could go, get lost and his parents wouldn't worry because he would stay safe.

Playland's fun house was legendary and it had a roller coaster, too. It's clackety, wooden, big dipper dwarfed the one that remains in Santa Cruz. You might also notice that when people rode on it, nothing strapped them in.

One of the differences between Playland and amusement parks today, is that many of the attractions were privately owned. They were run like small businesses.

Ever hear of the diving bell?

"Down inside was salt water. In its better days, it had a fish and sharks," says Smith.

It's gone, now. The site of a Safeway store that covers the pitt, but it is where thrill seekers once rode a submersible metal container to the bottom of a water filled shaft and then as Smith describes, "Just pop to the top like a cork."

Today, you can find some of Playland's remnants in El Cerrito. A place fittingly called 'Playland Not at the Beach.' Here, a sentimentalist can still visit Laughing Sal who has become a symbol for the park.

"The people who live nearby can hear it all the way down the street in their homes," says Smith.

All this trivia came flooding back to Smith partly because of some pictures. He bought them in an auction from a park employee and then put them into a book -- a big, reminiscent one that document's the park's early years.

"We no longer appreciate the simple pleasures. Playland was about simple pleasures. People used their imagination. They were willing to go through a dark mystery ride and imagine all the frights. Now they want to see all the blood and the gore, and the realism, where before a lot of that was just stretching your imagination," says Smith.

For the record, Playland disappeared in 1972, when its land became more valuable than its play. With every passing year, it becomes more and more an institutional memory. One kept alive by old pictures and now the author of a new book.

So when Smith sees condos built over the old site, he says, "It's a sad thing, but that's progress, unfortunately."

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