The park has been ravaged by floods, earthquakes and fire. Thousands of eucalyptuses, pines and redwoods died during the recent drought. Most have not been replaced. About 35% of the park's acreage had gone up in flames by 1970, according to Mike Eberts, a Glendale College journalism professor whose book, "Griffith Park: A Centennial History" is scheduled to be published in June by the Historical Society of Southern California.
An urban park, it has not remained immune from the forces buffeting the rest of the city. Dead bodies turn up periodically; the victims of five unrelated murders and suicides were found in the space of one month a few years ago. There have been racial melees. Vandalism and theft is epidemic; lately, there has been a run on brass restroom fixtures. Last summer, rival gangs began facing off in a parking lot in Fern Dell, a long, leafy arcade that has always been a favorite destination for strollers and picnickers. By year's end, police had made more than 100 arrests for lewd conduct. It was not a record.
In 1992, on one of the park's saddest days, Stanley Diamond, the beloved engineer of Travel Town's children's train, was shot to death during a robbery of the train's cash box.
There's even a curse. In the 1860s, when the park was part of the 6,600-acre Rancho Los Feliz, an heir to the rancho, one Petranilla Feliz, was cheated out of her inheritance. According to the legend, she put a curse on the land, warning that nothing and no one would ever prosper there again.
In a way, municipal parks have always been cursed. Over-used and under-financed, they reflect America's ambivalence toward public spaces. This is especially true in the West, where cities abut mountain ranges and seashores, and man-made parks can seem almost superfluous.
People elsewhere have rallied to the defense of aging city parks. In the midst of New York City's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, civic activists created a conservancy and raised more than $100 million for the rehabilitation of Central Park, which turned 100 years old in 1976. The conservancy continues to play an important role in the affairs of the park, actually paying the salaries of most park employees, including landscapers and horticulturalists that the city could not previously afford.
In the shadow of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains, in a recreation-obsessed metropolis that boasts of Disneyland, Universal City and miles of beaches, Griffith Park is easily ignored. Moreover, as part of the first truly suburban city, the park competes for people's attention--and for water--with some of the most breathtaking and exotic backyards in urban America.
One hundred years ago, Griffith Park lay just beyond the city limits. Today, it lies near the same city's tired heart. And like the rest of Los Angeles, it is counting on new blood to revive dwindling budgets and sagging civic spirits. From the soccer fields and picnic areas to the trails up Mt. Hollywood, the most accessible parts of the park have never been more popular. Yet, as the traditional middle class has dispersed, moving west and north or out of the region altogether, the old sources of philanthropy and environmental activism have been drying up.
From the beginning, officialdom has not known quite what to do with Griffith Park. When the land for it was first offered to the city, the mayor and the city council took two years making up their minds whether to accept it. The park's first master plan in 1939 stressed the park's wilderness value, while the next one in 1968 hyped it as a theme park. The following year, the director of city planning was discouraging further preservation of the park's natural resources. Why bother, he said, with so much wilderness within easy driving distance of Los Angeles.
Today, the park's reigning symbol of volunteerism, 91-year-old Charlie Turner, can no longer make it on his own to Dante's View, the oasis of trees and plants on the east slope of Mt. Hollywood that he has tended for more than 30 years. Arriving by pickup truck atop the 1,600 foot mountain, Turner was the guest of honor recently at the first of several planned centennial festivities. Clutching a cane and speaking softly of the years he has spent looking after the park, Turner helped remind people of how much the place depends on the goodwill and sweat equity of ordinary citizens.
As the park heads into its second century, it will have $50 million in voter-approved bond proceeds to make needed improvements at the zoo and the observatory. (Park Superintendent George Stigile has formally proposed raising additional revenue by establishing a recreational-vehicle park in the zoo's parking lot, though the project has been put on hold.)