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The menagerie is long gone but something wild lingers

“Arrested deterioration,” says Linda Barth, senior management analyst for the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks, and from her tone, it is obvious she does not quite approve. She is standing on an old stone wall, built as part of a WPA project, in Griffith Park. She is describing what’s left of the original Los Angeles Zoo, which can be seen at the Old Zoo picnic ground, just north of the carousel.

Barth has, in the trunk of her car, a stack of new signs that will explain the structures that for years Angelenos have picnicked and played on -- the abandoned cages, the ruined buildings, the faux-rock habitats cut into the hill like some set from “Land of the Lost.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 25, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 316 words Type of Material: Correction
Old zoo concert -- The L.A.-Centric column in Tuesday’s Calendar incorrectly identified the L.A. Philharmonic as the group playing a concert at the Old Zoo picnic grounds in Griffith Park. The concert was given by Symphony in the Glen, which has no affiliation with the Philharmonic.

The habitats are officially bear grottoes, but kids just call them “the caves.” The caves look very natural, except for the doors at the back. The doors are made of bars, like prison doors, and they are locked. On the other side of the doors are stairways -- rimed in small leaves and mulch -- that lead up the hill. The stairs are steep and tantalizingly spooky; it is impossible not to want to open the doors, not to shake them in hopes that a lock will give way.

“These are the dungeons,” one little boy recently informed onlookers. “There are ghosts here. Scary ghosts.” Three little girls nearby shrieked with glee. The sun was shining cheerfully down the stairs and people were eating corn chips a few feet away but he seemed quite certain of his information.

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Soon, Barth’s brown and white signs will provide information about the old zoo, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1964. One sign will point out, for example, that elephants, zebras and goats once socialized on the central lawn, now used for festivals and family reunions, for plays and the L.A. Philharmonic’s summer Concert in the Glen series. During these events, it is easy to leave the present. On a recent Sunday, a crowd huddled in the shade beneath white awnings, swatting at yellow jackets while others spread their blankets in the sun all the way up the hill. As the players tuned their instruments on an emerald lawn, bees rose and fell like dust motes and children played where bears once lived. One half expected to see Lewis Carroll, all velveteen and linen, leaning against a tree.

Barth and other park officials believe it is important for people to know the history of the area, even if it is a bit sketchy. There are no records, for example, describing the occupants of a half-dozen square cages nearest the grottoes. Ivy drips through the black bars, falls like a Pre-Raphaelite’s hair around the stone lairs within. The ground is sprung with weeds, crisscrossed with shadow and marked with the thumbprints of fallen eucalyptus leaves. Anything or anyone could have lived here--foxes, perhaps, or captive princes; hobbits would not be completely out of place.

Officials surmise that a small house above the grottoes was the veterinary, because there are cages attached to the building. Door-less and windowless, it has seen the business end of many a spray-paint can. This is still the city and the city is rarely tame -- one can only imagine the years of furtive fornication, smoking and snorting beneath this roof. A little farther up the road, against a leaf-covered hillside, there is another cage, a larger cage, silver and shocking amid the gentle eucalyptus. Inside the cage is the detritus of the city--beer bottles and disposable lighters, condoms and Styrofoam cups. The door to the cage is open--Barth figures that as long as no one can get locked in or hurt, it might be “beneficial” for a person to see what the world looks like from inside the cage.

It was the graffiti, and the bad behavior, that drew Barth’s attention in the first place. The rangers had complained, so rather than raze or abandon the old zoo completely, Barth and her colleagues decided to reclaim it.

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They hope the new signs will be the first step toward preservation and restoration of the area; they would like to keep the graffiti and the bad behavior under control.

They would like to develop a program using this site with its antiquated cages as an instructive example of how animal captivity has improved. All of which seems very sensible and worthwhile.

But there is something else here, something wild and unsettling, perhaps more valuable than an educational program. Here in the middle of a city, the forest steadily consumes the structures of man. Here is proof that time is slow, but steady and purposeful.

Los Angeles so often seems new and impatient. We constantly tear things down, but we have few ruins, few moldering stone walls or ancient wells, no half-surfaced castles or cathedrals, no inexplicable henge looming against the sky. People need to see ruins rising from the verge; they are romantic and chilling, they remind us that queens have trod where we step, or common folk of another time. They remind us that this age too shall pass, that the earth has its own plans after all.

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The path passes the cages; as it moves toward the heart of the park, the party-hat skyline of Glendale becomes visible. Above, crows call to each other, a sound like an iron door opening. And from the corner of your eye, you can see the zoo in the forest, the ghost zoo, hear the monkeys and the lions, the thud of the zebra hooves.

*

L.A.-Centric appears each Tuesday. E-mail: mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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