Noe Valley Voice June 1999

Finding the Perfect Playground

By Janis Cooke Newman

This is a baby playground," my 4-year-old son, Alex, says the minute we walk into Noe Courts.

He's right. The climbing structure is a non-intimidating three feet from the ground, and the slide is practically horizontal. Babies in sun hats with flaps that make them look as if they've joined the French Foreign Legion crawl around in the sand. They stare up at Alex, drooling. Their mothers look at him nervously, fearful of the enormous 4-year-old who has just entered this Lilliputian world.

Alex and I survey Noe Courts with a critical eye. We've come looking for the perfect playground -- i.e., one that we both will like. Alex's criteria is pretty simple. He likes anything with a climbing structure large enough on which to play Action Boy -- an activity which consists solely of running around shouting, "I'm Action Boy!"

I'm a little pickier. I want a playground that's within walking distance of cappuccino, has a nice view, and is filled with interesting people over three feet tall to talk to.

Noe Courts is charming. There's a big grassy lawn (home of the dogs vs. kids debate), pretty houses, and lots of sun. I'm only a block away from the Diamond Corner Cafe, and there's a mom reading Virginia Woolf sitting next to me, so I'm willing to stay.

But Alex cannot really get up a good head of Action Boy steam on the tiny climbing structure, and the tire swing is no compensation.

"This is boring," he says. "Let's go."

Trying not to step on any of the babies in the French legionnaire hats, we leave Noe Courts and head up Douglass Street.

"You should have brought my bike," Alex accuses me, as soon as he catches sight of Douglass Park's nice flat macadam basketball court.

"Look at that cool slide over there," I say, pointing out a long slide that shoots out from under the trees.

Alex tests out the slide a couple of times and then climbs onto monkey bars shaped like a cartoon spaceship. I eavesdrop on a group of moms sitting in the sand.

"This is the fourth child I've tried to get into that school," one of the moms is saying, as she shakes her head. "You think they'd give me a break by now."

Douglass Park reminds me of playgrounds in Marin, the county we just moved from -- it's grassy and woodsy, and you have to get in your car if you want coffee. When the sun dips behind the rocky cliff at the back of the playground, I start to get cold.

"Come on, Alex," I call to my son, who is busy spinning a queasy-looking little girl on the roundabout.

"I don't want to go," he says, coming with me anyway. On the way out, we stop to drink at Douglass Park's exploding water fountain.

We drive over to the Upper Noe Playground, where a group of Spanish-speaking nannies and a hip, SOMA-type dad with a shaved head are sitting around a sand pit that reminds me of the conversation pits they used to build in living rooms in the 1960s. At their feet, small children attempt to scale the cement wall around the pit, only to fall back like frogs trying to escape an aquarium.

Alex runs off to try the satisfyingly loud clatter bridge, while I hover around the sand pit.

The only real view at Upper Noe is of the knobby spires of St. Paul's Church, peeking over the top of somebody's house. I watch a woman with a windbreaker zipped up over her sari pushing her son, and occasionally Alex, on the swings.

We could walk down to Church Street, I think -- I'm feeling tempted by a Cafe J latte served in a cup big enough to have a facial in -- but I hate to quit before finding the perfect playground.

"One more stop," I tell Alex, as we head over to Dolores Park.

The park's enormous climbing structure is mobbed with big kids from one of the nearby schools. Their teachers refer to them by room number: "Five more minutes, Room 15!" "Time to line up, Room 25!" Now that Alex is the Lilliputian, I'm afraid he'll get trampled, but the big kids seem to regard him as a kind of animated toy, pushing him down the circular slide so fast he's like a marble coming out of a chute.

I sit on one of the sunny benches and contemplate the Moroccan-looking tower of Mission Dolores, the gold-plated dome above City Hall. From where I'm sitting, I have a perfect view of the downtown skyline and Alex running back and forth on a wooden boat shouting, "I'm Captain Hook!"

A woman with tattooed shoulders is throwing a yellow tennis ball to a dog with a heavy gold chain around its neck. Someone just over the grassy hill is playing conga drums. A couple is sleeping under a palm tree with black leather jackets over their faces.

When I ask Alex what he likes best about Dolores Park, he tells me, "Everything here is my favorite."

Afterward, we cross over to the Dolores Park Cafe, where a biker with a mohawk startles Alex by speaking to him with a woman's voice. Sitting at a table in one of the cafe's sunny windows, we clink glasses -- mango smoothie and cappuccino -- in celebration of finally finding the perfect playground.

The Playgrounds

Noe Courts: Douglass Street, between Elizabeth and 24th streets.

Douglass Park: Douglass Street, between Clipper and 27th streets.

Upper Noe Playground: Day Street, between Sanchez and Church streets.

Dolores Park: Dolores Street, between 18th and 20th streets.

NOE KIDS is a new column about where to go and what to do with your budding urban legends. It's written by Janis Cooke Newman (who last wrote for the Voice about moving from Marin to Noe Valley), with a great deal of input from her 4-year-old son, Alex. But we'd also like some input from you. If there's a topic, activity, or outing you'd like to see covered in Noe Kids, please e-mail Janis at, or write to us at the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114.