Public Beauty, Part 3
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By Marc Porter Zasada
Today, Part 3 in the search for public beauty in Los Angeles.
This morning, in a bright 10am haze, the Urban Man finds himself roaring into Griffith Park on an unauthorized, but long-delayed mission. I'm here to do a little survey on behalf of Col. Griffith J. Griffith, the man who donated this vast tract of land back in 1896. Yes, just for today, I have appointed myself heir and agent to the large and foolish man I have seen in yellowed photographs: A man who wore handlebar moustaches, showy watch fobs and carried a gold-topped cane. Griffith made a bundle here, then granted us the famous Observatory and Greek Theatre along with the largest municipal park in the nation, located smack in the center of the fourth wealthiest city on earth.
Griffith once wrote a book in which he hoped L.A. would someday become a great city and then use this land for a Golden Gate Park, a Central Park, or a Boston Common... all places he had visited. He imagined cultivated forests and vistas for the masses. He listed hundreds of trees we might plant. And the Urban Man, who often finds himself hunting down beauty like a wayward orphan along many miles of Arco stations and mini-malls--I figured I should look for some beauty here.
I even brought a camera to send pictures back to the colonel when I, you know, get his address.
As I enter, I notice no friendly map or useful directional signs. Instead, I drive lost among mediocre picnic areas with uninteresting trees, unplanned vistas, and grim blockhouses. I skirt the vast zoo and museum parking lots, I press my face against chainlink fences separating me from golf courses. I stroll Fern Dell, often pictured as a paradise, but actually a dusty reserve of stagnant pools and fallen branches. I climb the many poorly-marked roads which criss-cross the enormous hills. I hike to dismal "Dante's View," a famous but amateur garden now tattered and unimproved by the city. I note many mysterious municipal facilities, vehicles, and excavated hillsides. But I see no magnificent groves, no horse-drawn carriages, no open Central Park.
At last I pause at the top of Mt. Hollywood, famous as the home of the Hollywood sign, and a peak which should be a major tourist draw. It proves instead a place of scattered metal pipes and cement tables, but here I hook my fingers in my belt as did men in old photos, and I awake the portly ghost of the colonel himself.
"Well, sir," I begin in the bombastic style of those days. "It's been an exciting 110 years. And just like you said, your park became one of the few public spaces remaining in a city grown thick with luxury and poverty. We have cultivated much private beauty in this town: Descanso. The Getty. And yes, Golf Courses.
"But somehow, we never learned to create beauty in our truly public places; we never built a Boston Common. Instead, we used part of your gift for the 5 Freeway. We cut up the best flatland into several fenced-off golf courses, a passable zoo, some museums... and you might find Travel Town fun. But much asphalt was laid, and I'm sorry, colonel, outside of the links, I found nothing lovely to photograph... except of course the view of your handsome and broad-shouldered Art Deco Observatory, which yes, still crouches above the city, less like a memory of past glory than like some well-groomed sentry, quietly awaiting the arrival of a future L.A. which cares about public beauty.
"I'm sure that city will arrive, but it might take another century. They're doing a new master plan: maybe they'll take down the fences and let us picnic on the golf courses. Meanwhile, Colonel, sleep... the Urban Man will ask his great grandkids to come up and snap some pictures in 2106."
I mean, who knows?
Copyright -- 2006 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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