Today: April 14, 2024
Today: April 14, 2024

Uncovering Griffith Park's hidden gems beyond the Hollywood sign

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LA Post: Uncovering Griffith Park's hidden gems beyond the Hollywood sign
Natasha Dixon
February 22, 2024

Stretching over 4,200 acres of hills, canyons, and wilderness within Los Angeles' urban borders, Griffith Park has always been far more than just another city park. Though it draws comparisons to iconic parks in other major cities like New York and San Francisco, Griffith Park has its unique history and character.

Over time, its landscape has transformed from farmland to refugee camps during the Great Depression, providing temporary housing for struggling families. Those same hillsides later became platforms for civil rights protests and rallies, megaphones for speaking truth to power.

Today, Griffith Park offers both recreation and respite from city living. But look deeper, and you'll find the layers of LA’s history echoing across these 4,200 acres, reminding us how places shapeshift across the eras - and stories get written in unexpected ways.

Tapping into this robust yet often untold narrative offers visitors greater meaning and connection to land once occupied by Gabrieleno-Tongva peoples for centuries. It also sheds profoundly moving light on racial/ethnic minority struggles across pivotal eras that have shaped local life profoundly.

Griffith Park’s lengthy past as both communal refuge and stage for resistance gives ballast to marginalized voices still crying out to be heard in today’s L.A. Visiting sites where activists gathered in decades past, one might feel whispers on the wind from Freedom Riders atop the merry-go-round, hear echoes of LGBTQ residents from hillside trails used as gay cruising spots, and envision the bustling home life of hundreds of families of color who called the park “community” when refused residence elsewhere in segregated Los Angeles.

Tuning into these powerful histories as we explore builds motivation to walk purposefully through Griffith Park’s trails with equity for all firmly in our sights. Appreciating the sanctuary these 4,000 acres have provided to so many seeking freedom over time, what social justice seeds might we plant on this fertile ground in 2024?

“You poke Griffith Park, and some amazing new aspect of history rears its head,” remarks Sarah Lann, Education Director for the Los Angeles Conservancy. A worthwhile New Year’s resolution, indeed, would be to keep poking at Griffith Park’s past lives all year long through mindful inquiry and listening. Understanding the legacy of dreams, community, loss, and occasional curses embedded here enhances our understanding of what perpetuating racial justice, housing access, and environmental health in Los Angeles demand today.

It was in December 1896 when a Welsh-born gold mining and real estate mogul bestowed Los Angeles a Christmas gift that keeps giving over 125 years later — a scenic 5 square-mile park that over 4 million enjoy free of charge annually. His name was Griffith J. Griffith, and his controversial personality and bipolar disorder led him to be both a generous philanthropist and an attempted murderer against his wife.

Yet Griffith’s vision for a large municipal park providing respite to urban working folk set a valuable precedent for L.A. as a city committed to accessible public green spaces despite rampant commercial development. Even if his shining “Griffith Park” moniker was later tarnished by scandal, the Colonel’s gift brought immense relief to wearied Angelenos trudging home from factories and laundries yearning for fresh air. 

As city leaders expanded Griffith Park’s acreage and built connecting roads after its donation in 1896, the grounds exponentially increased activities for communities seeking recreation and support.

When homelessness and joblessness struck working-class WWII veterans, the park’s rolling hills supported them too—quite literally for two years. Through the mid-1940s, Rodger Young public housing village was built to shelter 750 families onsite. Though temporary, this fully integrated neighborhood with its own malt shop and medical clinic reflected the systemic racial inequities and potential for transformative intercultural community organizing that Griffith Park has fostered historically.

As we ponder Griffith Park’s role in cultivating dreams and refuge in 2024, how might we write the next uplifting chapter of public service on these sunlit trails and shaded hidden byways?

Beyond the temporary Rodger Young Village built in Griffith Park or the traveling multi-cultural Greenwich Village located here in the 1930s, even Walt Disney himself found early inspiration on the grounds that would radically impact Los Angeles’ destiny. 

As lore tells it, in the late 1940s, Walt could be spotted sitting pensively on a bench, observing his daughters joyfully riding the Griffith Park merry-go-round for hours. These father-daughter afternoons sparked imaginings of a riveting new theme park. Disneyland would ultimately open its gates in 1955, green-lighting Anaheim’s development boom and greater Orange County’s ascent as a tourism powerhouse thanks to this Griffith Park brainchild. An homage display at Disneyland Main Street captures this humble origin story with Walt’s bench, vintage horses, and railcars from the iconic ride that launched it all.  

Disney’s billion-dollar light bulb moment on a carousel daydream demonstrates the sheer power of Griffith Park as a creative muse and catalyst supporting audacious visions. When one makes space for play, peace and inspiration alongside determined souls like Walt seeking escape from urban distractions, vibrant things bloom. 

What barriers might such an enchanted natural refuge dissolve for equity warriors, art innovators, climate activists, or marginalized youth this coming year? In contrast to crowded sidewalks and metro buses constantly in motion, Griffith Park’s trails promote languid mobility, inviting deeper self-reflection about society’s past and future path. But fully unlocking this park magic requires looking past typical tourist spots to uncover its densely layered identity. 

Lesser-known gems like Amir’s Garden, the Old Zoo’s abandoned ruins, the Fern Dell waterfall trail’s former Tongan village site, and the Firefighter’s memorial offer stirring portals into communities that dwelled and developed here long ago. The stories etched in these spaces reveal poignant societal struggles still demanding attention today. Understanding that Griffith Park is sacred ground—not just in geological age but historical significance for marginalized people—is key to honoring its powerful legacy.  

Healing truth about Gabrieleno-Tongva displacement and exploitation matters when appreciating how Griffith Park nurtured public housing residents and migrant workers and buffeted civil rights activists later on. Current frightening trends in California wildfires likewise trace back to indigenous land stewardship techniques modern societies disturbingly ignore.   

Venturing to lesser-visited memorials and ruins dispersed across over 50 miles of park terrain further enriches your empathy as an explorer. Whether paying respect to lives lost battling devastating fires in the 1920s or witnessing what public housing once achieved for homeless veterans and families post-WWII, traces of transformative Griffith Park history seep into one’s pores everywhere. We inhale potent remnants of dreams dashed, lives traded, identities hidden yet also proudly proclaimed within these oak and chaparral-coated acres.

Griffith Park doesn’t just passively hold space; it actively transforms all who open their spirits as they meander through fern-blanketed trails, scrubby canyon paths, and even LA Zoo parking lots concealing buried legacies. Discovering where Rodger Young Village’s quonset huts or the merry-go-round Freedom Riders last planted their feet expands our consciousness of whose footsteps we follow, wading through wildflowers soaking up spring’s blooming magic once more.   

Imagine touring Old Zoo grounds and feeling deep gratitude towards activists who shuttered animal captivity, exploiting creatures for human entertainment. Visualize leading youth groups through memorial sites honoring those who perished so that residents today can responsibly enjoy recreation. Building this living historical frame of reference into our explorations generates what public space designers call “complexity and contradiction”—layers that move participants towards critical thinking and empathy.

Yes, the dazzling panorama, winding trails through fragrant sage, and sky island sanctuaries for native creatures like P22 draw millions to Griffith Park annually. But peeling back the landscape and vistas to uncover Gabrieleno-Tongva history, civil rights flashpoints, even Walt Disney’s dreams percolating by the carousel reframes everything. 

Suddenly, a walk through grassy fields isn’t just custom postcard fodder but a transcendent plunge into pools of courage, injustice, vision, heartbreak, and redemption lived out by fellow Angelenos across generations of change. One witnesses remnants of communities that germinated then vanished again as social mores and politics evolved. Yet their spirits endure as inspiration for causes calling out through Griffith Park portals today. 

The land’s filled history and wildlife cries converge as a wake-up call towards securing equitable public green space in Los Angeles long-term. Though Griffith Park spans over triple Manhattan’s size, developers and commercial interests constantly seek portions to exploit. Battles have claimed certain zones like the Toyon Canyon area, with luxury homes obstructing green space buffering Burbank from the park. 

Preserving Griffith Park’s legacy and future demands protecting precious nearby open land at risk of similar takeover. Park advocates now champion the Northeast Interstate Connector (NENIC) land repeatedly threatened by industrial building proposals. Winning this nearly 600-acre wildlife corridor along the LA River ensures Griffith Park and Los Feliz neighborhoods maintain vibrant access between green spaces, granting miles of trails.  

Victories like NENIC prove that when aware, engaged communities collectively activate around issues they’re passionate about, positive change unfolds. So, pointing more Angelenos towards hidden social justice history hotspots around Griffith Park motivates action to address systemic issues we keep witnessing surface. The land’s layered stories make clear that past struggles connect deeply with present-day ones still playing out.

In essence, probing the ever-unfolding, generation-spanning narrative of this grand municipal “backyard” as we roam trails under towering oaks transports us through a profoundly moving portal. We witness a microcosm of Los Angeles’ sociopolitical growing pains through the land’s eyes. But we also touch on the faith, brilliance, resilience, resistance, cultural exchange and care for environmental balance that diverse park residents and activists continuously nurture. 

These living spirits permeate the fragrant plant particles swirling up our nostrils as we pause to ingest another panoramic view. They charge the exquisite golden hour lighting we bask in at dusk before heading to cars. The legions who’ve loved this park--walking both in peace and passionate protest across its paths for over a century--surround us. And they compel us to walk purposefully towards positive progress for this beloved refuge and all who rely on its promise of sanctuary in 2024.

We must carry forth cries for conservation and justice from the past into the future. Listening to diverse voices here sheds light on the reconciliation and healing needed in the present. Ultimately, Griffith Park’s soul doesn’t dwell in celebrity lions like P22 or Hollywood landmarks erected within its bounds. Its essence resides in the communities it has lifted up during turbulent times when no one else would. 

Honoring those largely erased or overlooked makes our explorations all the more powerful. Only by courageously examining complex realities can we appreciate the beauty buzzing around us. Moving forward in solidarity with Griffith Park’s marginalized yet resilient populations, past and present, allows us to fulfill Walt Disney’s vision of this as the place “Where Dreams Come True.”  


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