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Larsen Playground project in SF revives iconic playground jet

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In this 1970 photo taken by Mike Borzage

Those who traveled 19th Avenue in the Sunset district between 1959 and 1993 likely remember the iconic jet plane that protruded from Larsen Park, where thousands of children imagined flying to the moon at the spot informally dubbed “the airplane park.”

In reality, three retired Navy jets were rotated in and out at the park along 19th Avenue at Vicente Street in those 34 years until the final plane was removed in 1993 when it was found to be contaminated with asbestos and lead. That left the play area with little more than sand and swings, essentially turning it into a “litter box,” said nearby resident Nano Visser.

But after more than 20 years without a plane, construction crews are set to break ground this month on a new playground complete with a preschool play structure, disk swings and spinners, and a sculpted replica of the beloved F-8 Crusader jet.

Visser co-chairs Friends of Larsen Playground, which has spent four years raising the $1.2 million needed to renovate the play area and recreate the jet. The plane represents a piece of her childhood that she said she has been unable to share with her two kids, both born around the time the jet left the park for its current home at the Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa.

“When I was a kid, our parents sent us outside to play,” said Visser. “We could spend hours flying to Mars or the moon, wherever your imagination took you.”

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The replica plane is slightly larger than the military jet and will feature climbing webbing at the back designed to look like exhaust. It will also honor the planes donated by the military decades ago, but include enhancements that will make the replica accessible to all and mitigate potential health hazards, according to Visser.

“We want it to be a nod to the history but not to be a military plane,” Visser said. “Anyone's imagination can make it into anything they want.”

Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset and also grew up there, remembers playing on the plane with her brother as a kid. She latched on to the project to revive the plane while working as an aide to then-Supervisor Carmen Chu, who spearheaded the effort in 2010 and contributed $100,000 from her budget toward the park. Tang added $50,000 from her 2013-14 budget as well.

“We had heard from many community members that they wanted to see the jet play structure return,” Tang said. “It's a huge icon for the Sunset district – everyone has their own story to tell about it.”

For Woody LaBounty, who co-chairs the Friends of Larsen Playground group, stories include not only “flying” on the structure as a child, but encountering political strife during the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s and early '70s when someone scrawled “USSA” on the side of the jet.

“It was some sort of protest against the U.S. being like Russia in some way,” LaBounty said.

Otherwise, the retired military jets – a Frumman F9 Cougar that lived at the park from 1959-67, a FJ-Fury Navy jet fighter from 1967-75 and a Navy F-8 Crusader from 1975-93 – sparked few contentions over the decades, according to LaBounty.

The money from Chu and Tang's offices, along with $500,000 from Rec and Park and a $250,000 grant from the 2008 parks bond, leaves the project about $200,000 short. Visser said fundraising efforts continue, and she is hoping to raise additional money through private donations and a soap-box derby event in the fall.

Construction of the playground and jet are slated to be completed by early 2015. A new restroom was already installed at the site last November.

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