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Vandals, Graffiti, Top Targets in City’s Attempt to Revive Fern Dell

Times Staff Writer

Shopping bag in one hand, garden trowel dangling from the other, the stroller emerging from the misty canyon in Griffith Park was stopped by Louis Ramos.

The telltale frond sticking out of the bag confirmed to Ramos that he had a poacher on his hands. Again. On the several occasions when this had happened, as the maintenance supervisor recounted the story, he marched the interlopers back down into the dell where they replanted the fern.

“People think, ‘Well, they won’t miss one,’ ” Ramos said. “But a 100 people think that and you got no ferns. We lose 1/10th of what we plant. And the kids, they go where they’re not supposed to go and crush the rest.”

Verdant with trailing plants and clinging vines, the Fern Dell area faces many travails: besides the plant thieves, the area has been spoiled by vandals, graffiti artists and people having sex in the bushes.

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After years of abuse and neglect, Fern Dell is getting a face lift, and officials hope to keep it pristine with tighter security. Prompted by a three-year campaign by a group of residents, a $650,000 restoration effort was supposed to begin in April. But permit troubles delayed the project, expected to start up again Monday.

Among the snags: Prefabricated concrete bridges had to be inspected by the city before they could replace 50-year-old rotting wooden ones and an archeologist had to verify that the site holds no Indian relics. All hurdles cleared, officials say, contractors are ready to begin.

Pathways will be redone, handrails, picnic tables and drinking fountains installed, graffiti scars smoothed over. The city contributed $150,000 for a new high-tech sprinkler system and the rest of the money comes from state bonds. The dell will be closed during most of the work, which will take about six months, according to Sheldon Jensen, assistant general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

And once the dell is spruced up, officials hope that increased police patrols and a recently expanded ranger force will protect the area from the vandals, fornicating couples and transients that have plagued the spot in the past. Gates in the chain-link fence surrounding the canyon, installed four years ago, will be locked at dusk. Trespassers will probably be discouraged by the sprinklers’ misting all night, Jensen said.

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A new effort is planned on the perennial problem of people engaging in sex. Two years ago the Los Angeles Unified School District notified the parks department that field trips to the dell would stop, citing “inappropriate conduct.” The children went to see some nature, Police Officer Richard Graff said, “and they were getting more nature than they expected.”

Jensen hopes that the increased presence of rangers will deter would-be lovers. “It’ll improve it a lot,” he said. “We’re just trying to restore it and make it quiet and lovely again.”

An oasis for more than 70 years, with more than 140 kinds of ferns, the dell is the largest public fern garden in the state.

Work began on the 4.5-acre area, tucked beside Fern Dell Drive, north of Los Feliz Boulevard, in 1912. Frank Shearer, the city parks superintendent, thought the canyon would make an idyllic fern garden and began the plantings that today dominate the dell.

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A forest of tall shade trees and a watering system including streams, waterfalls and sprinklers provide an ecological niche incongruous with the surrounding desert climate. Australian tree ferns, standing up to 15 feet tall, hedge-high nephrolepis and microlepiaca, tiny rabbit’s foot, hanging staghorn--all thrive in the shade and mist of Fern Dell. But among this multitude there are no rare ferns.

“If there were rare ferns, they wouldn’t be there,” said senior gardener Leo Eribe. “Someone would take them.”

But even the ordinary ferns are suffering.

“Fern Dell used to be real nice,” Ramos said. “Gardeners spent their time raking and pruning. Now they pick up trash.”

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Litany of Abuse

After 11 years of working in the park, Ramos can recite a litany of abuse: picnic tables tossed into streams, gang names carved into rocks, homeless people sleeping on ferns. Then there’s the graffiti, which is on everything.

“It’s really hard to remove when it’s on trees,” Ramos said.

But the gurgling brook, quarter-mile muddy trail and tall, arching sycamore canopy still retain their charm.

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Juan Castello, who lives nearby, visits the dell weekly with his 10-year-old son, Juan Jr. The other day, the pair sat on an embankment where handrails will be some day, dangling twigs with string jumping from them. The crude fishing gear worked.

What kind of meat does Castello use for bait?

“The cheapest,” he said. “But they like burritos, too.”

The elder Castello pulled up a crayfish, the size of two fingers. The pale, insect-looking crustacean squirmed as Juan Jr. tried to pick it up. He jumped back. His father kicked it into the water. “Just playing,” he said.

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