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‘We fought two years to save the canyon and now it’s too dangerous to use.’ : Let’s Go Down to the Park Again

There is exquisite irony in the incidents of violence that are gradually destroying the Fryman Canyon natural area in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains. The very people who fought to save the quiet retreat in a large and noisy city are afraid to use it. Vandals have moved in. Guns have moved in. Drugs have moved in.

And yet one more metropolitan refuge, a sanctuary of peace and reflection, is falling to the unnerving realities of a society at war with itself.

Sadly, to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the enemy in Fryman Canyon and he is us.

It didn’t have to be this way. The park is considered a riparian treasure, an emerald amid the bleak grays of booming Southern California.

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A year-round stream flows through its 69-acre canyon, encouraging a variety of plants and wildlife not found elsewhere. Water cascades off the rocks and down the creek bed even in the steamy depths of summer, providing Los Angeles with a hushed glade to mute the jangling tones of urban angst.

What everyone calls the Rain Forest has been a place to walk, a place to think and a place to be at peace with one’s self.

People who live in the Fryman Canyon area understood that years ago. Here was a special cut of land, green and orderly, lying between Studio City and Beverly Hills, so near and yet so far from the calamity surrounding their neighborhood.

They envisioned it not as a private enclave for the exclusive use of the privileged few living in homes beyond the reach of most of us, but as a unique gift of nature to be preserved and enjoyed by all the people, despite the traffic that might bring to their narrow streets.

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There was something more important than the inconveniences of cars at stake here, and the Fryman Canyon people realized that.

Led by the Briarcliff Improvement Assn., they enlisted the support of the Sierra Club and the TreePeople, fought off those who would build condominiums on the verdant slopes and lobbied their legislators to join with them in recognizing what the unique blend of terrain and water offered to all.

A clock was ticking. The land was privately owned and builders were competing in ever-increasing numbers to bulldoze into its hillsides and bury its natural treasures under the foundations of high-priced homes.

A small army of volunteers wrote hundreds of letters and made thousands of telephone calls over a two-year period, even as they worked on their own to keep the Rain Forest clean and natural.

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In 1980, the effort paid off. California acquired Fryman Canyon and mandated that it remain in its natural state in perpetuity. The acquisition was praised as a model effort by the few to benefit the many.

And then the many came, and the cheering stopped.

Rather than a haven for those seeking quiet, Fryman Canyon has become a gathering place for young toughs, drug users and noisy drinkers.

News accounts tell us that animals are being killed by vandals and plants ground under by off-road vehicles. A dog was found hanging from a tree where the cool stream flows, and the Rain Forest is dying just as surely as if the bulldozers had won.

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“I can look out my window almost any day of the week and see people with guns,” one woman who lives on the edge of the park said. She was too frightened to allow use of her name.

“I find birds in my yard killed either by bullets or arrows. Our neighborhood security patrol chased someone trying to climb in a window. Minor annoyances maybe, but when might they get serious?”

Another found a nude man in her yard shooting up with heroin. By the time police arrived, he had passed out near her doorway, a hypodermic needle still in his hand.

“I used to walk by the stream every day,” she said. “But now I’d have to arm myself to go there. Groups of young men harass and threaten anyone who comes near. What kind of walk in the park is that?”

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Ann Day agreed. She was president of the Briarcliff Assn. during the height of the struggle to preserve the quiet place, the peaceful place.

“We fought two years to save the canyon,” she said sadly, “and now it’s too dangerous to use.”

Police speculate that Fryman Canyon may have become gang turf. Almost everyone in the area has seen the use of drugs. The gunfire, the booze parties and the roaring engines of off-road vehicles are heard by all.

Who’s to blame? Everyone. No one.

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You can’t patrol a park 24 hours a day anymore than you can search everyone who walks in. Freedom has its perils. It is granted in equal measure to both the good and the evil, the preservers and the destroyers.

But how sad to realize that one neighborhood, in an almost perfect display of urban generosity, offered such a gleaming gift of nature only to witness in close proximity its destruction by the very recipients who stood to benefit by its existence.

“I guess,” one man said, looking down to where the cool stream flows, “it’s just that no one cares anymore.”

And that in the end may be the saddest realization of all.

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