THE FIRST time I arrived at the Old Griffith Park Zoo ruins, and walked past what appeared to be a Quincenera on the edge of the free parking lot, I had strange expectations. It's the sort of place where one would expect Nicholas Cage to pop out from the recess of an animal enclosure--being chased by an aggressive animal ghost (which, with time, would actually grow to be a friendly ghost) in some sort of thriller in three dimensions (and after they greenlit Ghost Rider 2:Electric Boogaloo anything is possible). My first impressions were deceiving. First off, Nicholas Cage wasn't there at all. This wasn't some movie set that had been abandoned--still holding memories of shoots past (like the Paramount Ranch in Malibu). This wasn't just a fictionalized representation of life, much like a lot of what is left in Los Angeles. The place still had a breath, and a heartbeat (but hopefully not that of an animal ghost).
The zoo was cursed from the 1900s (so long ago now). There's this old story that says that Mr. Feliz (the human), the owner of the property, gave all his land to a man not related to him upon his death: Colonel Griffith J. Griffith (yes, same name twice). Folklore says Feliz (not the cat) "nodded his head yes" because Colonel GG had attached a stick to his head to control him much like a puppet (he probably stole the idea from a Charlie Chaplin movie). The story goes that Feliz's niece, Dona Petronilla, cursed the land and the Colonel (not that one, the eleven spices are a different story). In 1912, the (Old) Griffith Park Zoo was only the second zoo ever built in Los Angeles. By the beginning of the 1960's (curses ain't in no hurry), patrons began to recognize that there were too many animals for the small, inadequate, and poorly planned space. In 1965, the zoo was relocated to what is now the (new) Los Angeles Zoo.
The most fascinating thing about the zoo grounds is the mystery that surrounds them. There's a void of information about something that just isn't that old, but a place where your grandparents may have spent a leisurely Sunday afternoon, or a place where Marlon Brando might have taken a young lady he wanted to get to know (biblically). If you visit the grounds now, several brown and white signs inform you that the enclosures were not ideal for the animals, but that they are more than adequate for present-day picnics. These signs were added to the grounds in the early 2000's in an attempt to prevent graffiti artists from covering this historic monument (because there's nothing anarchist youths respect like some authority). Today, numerous tags make their way along the abandoned bear caves of the picnic area, and the "shack house" at the top of the hill.
Los Angeles has tried to modify the Old Zoo over the years to give it new uses. There have been 'Shakespeare in the Park' events, and I've been told the popular 'Haunted Hayride' makes its way through the Old Zoo grounds (honestly, I've been too much of a wimp to check it out). Hikers hike, photographers shoot the forefront of earthy abandoned life into the backdrop of the Observatory and blue skies. During the day, people try to be Alexander Supertramp, if not for five minutes, drinking out of plastic bottles of water and eating apples down to their core. At night, teenagers come to party and drink cheap beer (which they stuff into the walls of the above mentioned "shack house" like a hoarder looking for cheap insulation). There are always a few people walking around, and it's always quite a mix (much like a late night, or an early morning, at the nearby Cafe 101). The ruins mean something to all of them. To some it's a playground: you can go in crazy old rusted monkey cages, take Facebook photos (for the timeline), and touch the ropes that almost definitely were put in by someone in the last few months. To others it's a rush: you can freak out your date and raise her adrenaline, or see who will frighten first as the sun goes down.
Even though this place is tagged in graffiti, the picnic benches (also tagged) aren't cozy, and there aren't any animals (rattlesnakes and coyotes excluded) there, the cages, shacks, and entrances that remain of the Old Griffith Park Zoo provide one of the best anti-Hollywood monuments within walking distance of the Hollywood sign. It's a place that is completely abandoned but at the same time, full of people. It's a place that was just cool, or uncool (hipster cool), enough to not need to be turned into something else (and we all know you could stack applications for Pho-bulous permits from the floor to the ceiling). The ruins, as creepy and foreboding as they are, offer us a glimpse into a different time. They offer us a chance to touch, physically, the progression of a city. As much as we try to mold it, or change it, or have thespians perform in it, it gives us all what we want from it. Because it has no meaning, it has every meaning.
-- Thea Green
photo credit: Thea Green
-- Thea Green
photo credit: Thea Green