Remembering Syd Kronenthal
November 26, 2015
BY JOHN HARTMIRE
When you asked Syd Kronenthal how he was doing, he invariably an¬swered with a smile, "When I think of the alternative, I'm great." For anyone who grew up in Culver City remembering summer days spent swimming in the Plunge, or those surprising and lasting friendships forged with the college-aged yellow-shirted staff who monitored the neighborhood parks we played in until the sun went down, or family picnics in the shade offered by those parks, the alternative has come to pass. Syd Kronenthal died on October 18 at the age of 92.
During his long tenure as director of Culver City's Park and Recreation Department, Syd Kronenthal was the man above all others who should have been recognizable to all the people of Culver City. As it was, when he entered a room or arrived at an event everyone there would seem to say, often in unison, "Syd's here."
If you grew up in Culver City Syd Kronenthal affected you. Even if you never knew his name, shook his hand, sat down and had coffee with him and asked him what it was like building a community where before there was but a loose association of houses and streets, Kronenthal was the man. There are the parks, the pool, the teen center, there are the recreation leagues and youth sports tournaments, an annual marathon, a senior center, a pro¬gram for the disabled that has been acclaimed from coast-to-coast, a fortified sister city program and a tight and tangible Olympic con¬nection that is somewhat remark¬able for an 84-year-old town squeezed by better known municipalities like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and the dreaded three- headed beast, Los Angeles.
Culver City came into its own because it offered a place for the young to be just that, and because, as a young man fresh out of the army he recog¬nized the possibilities and turned them into a blueprint for tomor¬row, Syd Kronenthal did as much for these 4.9 acres as anyone, in¬cluding Harry Culver, whose orig¬inal dream it was. It was a Herculean effort, an affair of the heart, one not without its failures, and Syd Kronenthal was its pulse and drive for more than 50 years.
That is corrected, sort of, by the April 20 renaming of the new and better McManus Park as Syd Kronenthal Park. It is not every day that as man gets something named after him while he is alive.
Sometimes our affection and appreciation for an individual be¬comes dulled by familiarity. No achievement seems significant, no vision miraculous, no idea en-chanting-all, all commonplace. This may have been true when it came to Syd Kronenthal.
So long had he been in the forefront of the city's march forward, so many city council meetings had he sat through-so many commission meet¬ings, lunches, dinners and civic af¬fairs-that little notice was taken of his countenance, his gray hair and hurried walk. His brief case bulged. The lines around his face have deepened over the years, as did his worries about this city's future.
They were Culver City lines etched on his face. Coming here in 1945 he never married. Culver City was his bride, the resi¬dents-all of them-his children. And like any parent, his sleep was sometimes troubled.
"Culver City, like everywhere, is changing," he said over lunch more than 30 years ago. "We've been real fortunate in the past. Most of our ideas and plans have turned out pretty good, and our visions have come out true. But it is changing.
"Our problems are shared by communities throughout Southern California, yet you still find a reluctance to work together. It is paramount that we now sit down with other cities and search for compre¬hensive answers to common prob¬lems. Sometimes I think our elected leaders forget that cities were formed to insure a better quality of life."
Veteran's Park in Culver City was nothing but rows of empty dirt lots when Syd was lured from the Veteran's Administration to come to Culver City to build some parks. Vets Park was, he remembered, "supposed to be a housing development, but it was never built because of a lack of funds from the Great Depression."
He first had to convince the grow¬ing post-war population to ap¬prove a $650,000 bond measure to finance the development of a park system. He walked the streets that bear little resemblance to what we now see, knocked on doors and talked to anyone who would listen about the importance of a park system for any city that wants to offer a quality lifestyle to its residents.
His arguments must have been compelling because the measure passed with almost 90 percent of the votes, making it the first major recreational bond passed after World War II redefined our view of the world.
It led to the building of the Culver Munic¬ipal Plunge, whose opening was celebrated with the first woman to swim the English Channel, Flo¬rence Chadwick, and the legendary Esther Williams. The Veteran's Memorial Building, the park, and two recreation centers were built with money from that first bond, and it took the city about 25 years to pay it off. It was Syd's baby, these parks and the programs they house.
It is encouraging to see how cleanly an idea, even a relatively obvious one like a park and recre¬ation program specifically tailored for a sprouting city, perpetuates and extends the spirit of a man.
Syd Kronenthal loved Culver City, its people, the promises and their history, and that is what he has become-its people, its promise, its history. History is not always a most accurate measuring stick, but in this instance it can be useful, because, Kronenthal cannot be separated from the city's history, no matter our inclination to do so.
He made it, helped others make it, and did everything in his power to see that it smiled kindly on Culver City through the years. Don't underes¬timate his influence on what transpired and who emerged.
The park system, its manage¬ment and growth, has been studied and copied in cities and towns na¬tionwide. More than 35 former park and recreation leaders are now city managers or department chiefs in cities as large as Seattle and as innovative as Santa Monica. The former Middle East Director of UNICEF was a former Culver City "park coach."
"Danny (Dan O'Dell) was just one of my kids," Syd said during that long ago lunch. His pride was un¬mistakable.
Former Culver City Councilwoman Jozelle Smith, who grew up in Culver City and remained to raise her children in Culver City, said of Kronenthal years before he retired in 1995, "He is a living le¬gend. Whenever I mention I'm from Culver City at political functions or conferences I always hear 'Oh, that's where Syd Kronenthal is from.'"
At today's pace, where more and more is asked of us, it is all too easy to overlook the sig¬nificance of a patch of grass in the overall shape of things. But Syd Kronenthal repeatedly warned us against it. That in¬significant patch of grass, some larger than others, others more worn than some, was, in the world championed by Syd Kronenthal, the heart and soul of a community.
Having watched homes built and neighborhoods blossom around the parks he built, Syd's passion never swayed. "I wonder where the heart and soul of this city has gone?" he rhetorically asked one day back in the late 1980's.
At the time, he was referring to the lack of recreation facilities developed or improved in Culver City for the better part of a decade. "They turned Culver City Park into a baseball field, he lamented." It was originally intended to be a rustic nature park for all our people to enjoy. But politics took care of that."
When men have one thing on their mind, like, say, parks and recreation room for children to grow in, anything that cuts them off, or appears to be opposition, is viewed as the enemy. People like Syd Kronenthal saw the word simply, and that makes them in¬valuable because they develop necessary sharp edges in a world that is, essen¬tially, round.
"What we have here," he said, again reflecting on about Culver City more than 30 years ago, "is a living lab for kids. It's inconceiv¬able to me that we don't do every¬thing in our power to offer them all the chances and opportu¬nities at our disposal."
Philosophy like that compelled former Culver City Mayor Paul Ja¬cobs to call Kronenthal "the conscience of our community."
There was more to it than that, of course. The teen center was his, and the Culver City Senior Citizen Center might actually not exist had there been no Syd Kronenthal to champion it, but don't bet on it.
A very brief list of his accomplishments-he founded the Culver City Employees Credit Union, he was President of the Culver City Employees Associa¬tion, he was a member of the Board of Directors for the American Red Cross, a lecturer at USC, a con¬sultant to the Japanese and Korean Olympic Teams, to name but a few.
None of it tells enough of the story. Like the city he was asked to build a park system for, Syd Kronenthal, was not easily mea¬sured. He was, if this is possible, more than a sum of what he did and the lives he shaped.
It is there out in the open to see-90 acres of recreation space, the swimming pool, the sister city plaques, the peace tree, the senior center, the teen center, the tennis courts, basketball games, softball leagues and recreation classes-but it is not easily appreciated in one take.
Unlike most of us, he has a living, vibrant monument to his credit, and however you describe it one thing is quite unequivocal: Syd Kronenthal set up a great tar-get and he pounded himself to pieces trying to hit it square in the middle.
His dream was a simple dream: it was pure and had few frills: he wanted Culver City to of¬fer all it can to anyone smart enough to embrace it.