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Amir Dialameh, 71; After a Brush Fire, He Turned Part of Griffith Park Into a Garden

Obituaries

December 07, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Amir Dialameh, who transformed close to five acres of Griffith Park into a public garden in his free time after a brush fire there in 1971, has died. He was 71.

Though his general health had been good, over the last year he lost weight for reasons he did not explain to his family, according to his nephew Farrokh Ashtiani, who reported Dialameh's Oct. 27 death, from natural causes, to The Times last week.

"Amir never complained when he was in any kind of pain and he always stayed away from doctors," Ashtiani said. He is survived by four brothers and one stepbrother, five nephews and two nieces.

Dialameh worked in the garden most days of the week, hiking or driving his pickup truck on a service road to the site at the top of the rugged Mineral Wells trail. The area overlooks the Los Angeles Zoo and is nine miles into a 13-mile trail around the park. Over the years, he planted pine and jacaranda trees in the oasis, along with rose bushes, geraniums, oleander and bougainvillea.

On the days when Dialameh was in the garden, it was apparent even from the bottom of the hill. He always raised the American flag over the grounds, carrying it there in his backpack.

"Only in America can a man build something like this for himself," Dialameh said in a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times when the garden was dedicated by the city and a sign -- Amir's Garden -- was placed at the entrance. "This country was built by volunteers. I believe everyone should do something for his community. I built a garden."

Born in Tehran in 1932, Dialameh was one of seven children. He graduated from military school in Tehran and worked as a customs officer at the city's airport.

In 1952 he visited one of his brothers who was a university student in Pittsburgh, and decided he wanted to live in the United States. He emigrated in 1963, settled in Southern California and studied art for two years at Los Angeles City College before he went to work as a wine merchant.

He never married, once saying that the garden was like a family to him. "His decision to remain a quiet man was partly because he was very sensitive to other people's feelings" Ashtiani said of his uncle in an interview with The Times last week.

"Amir didn't want to expose himself to family politics." He retired in his early 60s so he could spend more time outdoors.

A nature lover and an avid hiker, Dialameh walked from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania during a three-month vacation in the late 1970s. On other vacations he hiked the Grand Canyon and camped in Alaska. Ashtiani went with him on one trip to Alaska.

"Amir was a very private person, but he was the one you most wanted to be with," according to his nephew. "When we were camping, he would get up early and make a wonderful breakfast. But at the end of the trip he'd say, 'So long; see you next July.' "

Long before fire damaged part of Griffith Park, Dialameh regularly hiked the Mineral Wells trail. The effects of the fire troubled him. "I said to myself, 'This is really ugly. Somebody ought to build a garden here,' " he explained in an interview with The Times in 1983. "So I said, 'I'll do it.' And I did."

His goal was to make, "an attractive rest stop for hikers," he told The Times, because outdoor recreation was as important to him as food and water. "There are so many problems, so many pressures," he said of city life. "All people do is complain. They need to get away from that."

He obtained approval from the city to cultivate the plot on the park grounds. After that for several years he worked alone, clearing about 200 tree stumps with a pick and shovel he carried from home and building a retaining wall with discarded fencing he found near the zoo.

It was typical for him to work six or seven days each week, as long as eight hours at a time, terracing the slopes, building stairs to a picnic area and adding wooden benches that he painted with decorative patterns. After a day in the garden he worked as a wine salesman at night, most recently at Greenblatt's delicatessen and liquor store in Hollywood.

By the late 1970s, other hikers and nature lovers were helping him keep up the grounds. An 11-year-old boy, Billy McGehan, spent the summer of 1979 clearing one of the picnic areas, which Dialameh then named "Billy's Point." Several nurseries donated saplings and park services and private benefactors contributed a sprinkler system that Dialameh installed himself during a two-week vacation.

His work on the idyllic landscape didn't come without incident, however. During the rare times when he was away, people stole plants or demolished saplings.

One Sunday in 1991, he was beaten and robbed by three people. A second fire, in 1996, damaged part of the garden, which he then restored.

"He knew very well that few could put up with the difficulties and endure the obstacles he faced in his 32 years of voluntary work," Ashtiani said. "Amir's sense of humor and his pure soul kept him in balance."

The garden was also a field trip destination for children from the nearby boys and girls camp who hiked the trail to visit "Amir's Garden." Dialameh entertained them by feeding peanuts to the blue jays, which ate out of his hands. After he died, relatives found a small stash of peanuts in the pocket of Dialameh's gardening pants.

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