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Happy 100th Birthday to the 'Resort for the Rank and File of the Plain People.' : With That, Col. Griffith J. Griffith Donated the Land That Would Became Griffith Park. So How Has Our Urban 'Resort' Aged Over the Last 100 Years? Considering All That's Happened, Pretty Gracefully.

March 17, 1996|Frank Clifford | Staff writer Frank Clifford covers environmental issues for The Times. His last article for the magazine was on the changing American West

Yet, it's hard to feel pessimistic about the park as dawn breaks above Mt. Hollywood and the park's sinewy green hills materialize out of the night shadows. The daylight's most remarkable revelation is how little things have changed over the past 100 years. In a city that has grown from 110,000 people to more than 3 million in a century, the park is one of those rare places where nostalgia and reality converge. It is still a refuge for many of the creatures--hawks, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and opossums--first noted by 19th century visitors. And much of the early man-made landscape has endured. There's the merry-go-round where Walt Disney brought his children and Olivia de Havilland came with her sister, and the same golf course where Babe Ruth played and golfer Babe Didrikson met her husband George Zaharias.

Sunday picnics and birthday parties, nocturnal hikes and twilight horseback rides are as popular today as they were in the 1920s, when a local banker operated a chuck wagon for park equestrians and Mayor George Cryer--known as the hiking mayor--helped popularize the park's growing network of trails.

And for lovers of Griffith Park, even adversity can be a blessing in disguise. Three years ago, facing several million dollars in street repairs it could not pay for, the park closed its network of mountain roads to traffic. Sagging shoulders and fractured concrete made the winding lanes too dangerous for cars. Today, the upper roads are a retreat for dog walkers, hikers, bicyclers, horseback riders and nature lovers.

"Even if we had the money to fix those roads, I don't think the public would allow it," says park superintendent George Stigile. Away from the weekend crowds, out of earshot of the freeway, the upper park is where one must go now to experience the park as Col. Griffith did, as "a place where the human soul can commune with nature itself . . . where things are as God made them."

The son of a Welsh farmer who had come to America as a boy and traveled to California, Griffith saw the park as a cameo version of America's heroic western landscape. And for 100 years, newcomers have reacted much the same way.

One is Liverpool native Charlie Turner who has been looking after Dante's View after the death of the Brazilian-born Dante Orgolini, who planted the garden in 1964.

North of Dante's View, a former customs officer in Iran, Amir Dialameh, began tending Amir's Garden, a two-acre plot high on one of the park's northern slopes, 25 years ago.

"I thought the park was like heaven the first time I saw it, but I didn't think it was enough just to go there," Dialameh said. "I felt some kind of duty to my new community."

He bought a pick and shovel and headed for an area in the park that had recently burned. "I cleaned out the dead wood and then started planting: pines, oleanders, roses, ash trees, jacarandas, a silk floss tree. I put in steps and trails so hikers could stop in and enjoy the view." Today, some of the first trees he planted are 40 feet tall.

After a time, people like Dialameh can take on a bit of the character of the park itself, their lives shaped by a lonely forbearance, solitary exuberance and a perennial adaptability in reaction to whatever surprises man and nature serves up. One season may bring a calamitous fire, the next a miraculous reappearance of wildflowers that no one had seen in years.

As much as anyone, Dialameh, now in his mid-60s, has come to symbolize the fragility and durability of the park. Five years ago, while working in his garden, he was attacked by three men who robbed him and beat him savagely. He worried about returning to the garden. Working by himself up there, he knew he was an easy mark. "But I couldn't stay away," he said. And he has come to feel safer since the park's upper roads were closed to traffic.

"I try to make it up there just about every day and work for a few hours, now that I am retired."

Afterward, he gives thanks. "I go home and take a shower, and then I raise a glass of wine and say thank you for what you did today. I toast myself, yes, and I toast our wonderful park."

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