In the early 1950s, when Earnest Yancy was growing up in Hollywood, he couldn't wait for the summer afternoons when he and his brother would be driven to the Ferndell section of Griffith Park.
There the boys would romp along the paths through the lush foliage. When they tired of chasing squirrels and playing tag, they would sit on a bridge and listen to the stream beneath them.
"It was just like being on a tropical island, and I can't even describe how beautiful it was," Yancy said. "I would just let my imagination run wild. I could be in a tropical rain forest in South America or in a jungle in Hawaii. It was heaven."
However, Ferndell has changed a lot over the years. After its glory days in the 1940s and 1950s, it went into a steep decline and has stayed there. But now it may be about to enjoy a revival because of public pressure and state funding.
The new attention given to Ferndell has special significance for Yancy.
Unlike youngsters who wanted to become movies stars or great athletes, he had dreamed as a boy of becoming the chief gardener of Ferndell. In 1977 he was hired by the city, and six years ago his dream came true. He passed the civil service exam and was transferred to the dell as chief gardener.
Then he found daily proof of how far Ferndell, once a favorite of lovers, naturalists and movie makers seeking a tranquil setting, had fallen into disrepair, the victim of budget cuts and unrelenting vandalism.
Today most of the dell's ponds and streams are dry. Its bridges no longer have railings. Its ornate rock work is chipped and scarred with graffiti. And most of the ferns have been stolen or trampled.
'A Losing Battle'
The maintenance staff, or what's left of it in the wake of Proposition 13, tries to keep the dell presentable, "but it's a losing battle," said Yancy, 40.
At one point the gardeners tried turning the sprinklers on at night to keep vandals out, and they have bought fish and plants with their own money. None of it has worked. Half of a shipment of 3,000 ferns received late last year is gone, either stolen or trampled.
"People who used to come here when they were young run up to me these days and ask what has happened to Ferndell," Yancy said. "All I can do is shake my head. Sometimes I go home after work feeling real sad, and my brother or my roommate asks me what's wrong. It just hurts my heart to see this happening."
But this week, Sheldon Jensen, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, said the city has been told it will receive $500,000 from the state to make improvements in Ferndell, primarily for plants and for watering and lighting systems.
The money came through a request from Los Angeles Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, who for a year has been working with the Friends of Ferndell, a group that organized in 1983 to see what could be done to save the deteriorating dell.
"It was a beautiful area, and we want to bring it back to what it was," Jensen said. "Ferndell deserves this money."
Ferndell, on the western edge of Griffith Park just off Los Feliz Boulevard, was built in 1914 by two brothers from New Zealand who were hired by Los Angeles because of their skills in building rock gardens. In 1930 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps extended the dell through the canyon that leads to the Griffith Park Observatory.
The heart of the dell consists of one-fourth of a mile of paths through gardens of ferns--30 varieties of them--and other plants. A small stream, once stocked with goldfish, carp and minnows, curves through the dell.
The dell soon became an attraction for tourists, and tour bus operators put it on their sightseeing routes. Movie producers also began to take notice.
"The movie guys loved it and shot a lot of Hawaiian-type films there," said Bill Eckert, who was the chief gardener for Ferndell from 1949 to 1959 and is now retired. "I used to get on them because they would step on the ferns and mess things up."
Eckert said Ferndell began to deteriorate in the 1960s after park users began disobeying warning signs that told them to stay on the paths and not trample the plants. The city also began hiring some gardeners unqualified to care for the ferns, Eckert said.
"I hope this new money will do the job because the dell used to be the talk of the town," he said.
Questions on Spending
But just how and when the money will be spent has been questioned by the Friends of Ferndell.
Laurie Smith, spokeswoman for the group, said that, because vandalism is the main reason for the dell's decline, the money should not be spent until the Griffith Park staff is better equipped to ward off the criminals.
"It's going to be a waste of money if they don't first do something about security," Smith said. "The improvements they're talking about are fine, but a few years down the line we could be back to where we are now."
Jensen said that much of the money will be used to buy a new automated sprinkler system to replace a 50-year-old manual one. He said his staff is taking steps to improve park security but that the state money can be used only for capital improvements, not for guards.
"It would be great if we could hire some private police but our hands are tied," Jensen said.
More Rangers Studied
He noted that a City Council committee is studying a plan that would double the number of park rangers and give them the right to carry guns.
"If that plan gets through, it would give us the opportunity to patrol Ferndell much better," Jensen said.
Hector Rivera, senior gardener in charge of the park's Western Avenue region, said he fears that any more park rangers would be assigned to other city parks that are affected by violent crime not often found in Ferndell.
"People steal our plants, break our picnic tables and put graffiti all over, but those are not real attention-grabbing crimes," Rivera said. "If they got more rangers, that would be great for the city's parks, but I don't know how much it would help us."
Dick Ginevan, chief park maintenance supervisor, said that, even without more rangers, Ferndell will be better protected because of a new lighting system that will be purchased with the money.
The Friends of Ferndell are "not too keen" about that idea either, Smith said.
"They've already got the dell fenced in, and if they put lights up it'll hardly look like a park anymore," Smith said. "What we need is a regular patrol, and I don't think they should spend a dime of the new money until they can get that."
Yancy has another suggestion.
"You see this hard hat I'm wearing?" Yancy asked, pointing to his bright orange headgear bearing the city seal. "This is the only way anyone in the park knows I'm a city employee, someone who has a little authority. If they only gave us our khakis back and maybe a few walkie-talkies, we could cut down on vandalism like you've never seen."
Yancy explained that, after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the city attempted to cut costs, first by cutting Ferndell's gardening staff from seven to three, and then by eliminating the gardeners' brown uniforms from the budget.
Plea for Uniforms
"Let's say I catch someone ripping a plant out or spray painting a wall," Yancy said. "I go up to them and tell them to cut it out, and they just say something like, 'What's it to you?' If we had our khakis, they would know we have a right to meddle in their business. People respect uniforms, and you can bet they'd pay attention to us."
Jensen said that would be expensive, because the city's other 500 park gardeners would have to be given uniforms too.
"We know the gardeners in Ferndell are one of the most dedicated groups we have in the city, but it's a matter of money," Jensen said. "I know Yancy and the other guys in the dell, and they are dedicated to the point of living and dying in that section of the park, but we have to set priorities."
Meanwhile, Yancy is impatient.
"It's just a shame that people treat this place so badly," he said. "When I came up here as a little boy, Mr. Eckert would walk me through the park and tell me all about the plants and how they grow, and that's why I respect this place so much--because somebody told me all about it and I listened. We don't need any more debates about Ferndell. We need action or the city is going to lose this wonderful hideaway."
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