Decline and Rejuvenation for a Cherished Spot

<i> Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer who teaches literature and creative writing at Cal State Los Angeles</i>

As once more the Fourth of July came and went, and the celebration at Hansen Dam became reality, I thought back on the good times I once spent there.

When I was growing up, Hansen Dam was where poor folks from the Pacoima and San Fernando areas went swimming. And although by the 1950s Mexican Americans were allowed at most pools, we liked best driving to el dam. It was free, close to home and, for teenagers, a great place to meet guys and show off a bathing suit.

On hot summer days we swam in the still clean water, then, smeared with baby oil (which was all we could afford) we lay in the sun to toast. More importantly, other than the “plunge” at Fernangeles Recreation Center in Sun Valley and the swimming hole at Pop’s Willow Lake (in nearby Sunland), Hansen Dam was it.

Boys from all over the San Fernando Valley came to Hansen Dam; a few came to swim but most were there to check out the chicks.


The guys from Sanfer, as we called San Fernando, drove the better cars. They dressed sharp, too, in lightly starched shirts and slightly draped pants. They cruised around, radio at full blast, then parked atop a slope and sat back to enjoy the view. I found it amusing that none of them went near the water. Could be they feared to wrinkle the creases on their tailor-made pants.

And then Hansen Dam began to earn a bad reputation. Our parents, unaware that we often went there at night, forbade us to swim there during the day. It wasn’t so much that the dam was polluted, the water smelly and full of germs. Rather, Hansen Dam was said to attack the “lowlifes”: druggies and drunks who littered the place with garbage and beer bottles.

When fistfights became a common occurrence (guns were unheard of then), some kids began to avoid the place. Others, with no place to go on a Sunday afternoon, threw caution to the winds. They packed a baseball bat along with hot dog buns.

By the 1970s, Hansen Dam began to deteriorate. The lake became clogged with debris; the park looked neglected. The only worthwhile attractions were the pony rides and miniature train. The rides were cheap, the horses docile; they kept to a narrow path. Even young children felt safe.


By the early 1980s, things began to change. Latino immigrants from the area “rediscovered” Hansen Dam. The water, trees and grassy areas were a welcome respite from the crowded apartments many were forced to share. Saturday birthday parties brought out entire families. Folks cooked carnitas, strummed guitars, then rested underneath the pine trees that provided both shade and a breeze.

Recently, when in need of a quiet place to write, I drove to Hansen Dam. Near a grassy knoll three kids--and a dog--chased a Frisbee. Atop a blanket a woman read a book. Near the water, children played with inflated rubber toys, while next to a shade tree, una familia--a family--roasted plump chickens, onions and chiles; a pungent smell permeated the air.

I asked an elderly man walking with his grandkids how he liked the “new” dam.

“It’s the best thing to happen around here,” he said. “Most of us live in apartments; it’s the only place we can be outdoors.


“It’s even safe for white folks,” he added. “And, around here, that’s something.”

It’s the ‘90s, and at the dam things are looking up. Early morning and late afternoon joggers clog the walkway bordering the dam. Along the road that parallels the waterline, kids on bikes run wild. It’s good to know that Hansen Dam is once more a fun place, that our local politicians cared enough to ensure funds for its renovation, and Fourth of July celebrations there will become a tradition.