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The dark side of LA's largest park | Bartell's Backroads

Griffith Park is an icon, but its founder is not. Here's how a fake "colonel" who shot his wife changed the urban landscape of Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES — Within California’s largest city is one of the largest municipal urban wildernesses in the country. Griffith Park spans more than 4,300 acres. It's home to the Greek Theatre, the Hollywood sign, and one of the most visited observatories in the nation -- the Griffith Observatory.

Whether you’ve seen it in the movies or hiked its many trails, Los Angeles’ Griffith Park can be summed up in one word: iconic. However, the man the park is named after was not so iconic.

"Colonel" Griffith J. Griffith was a successful mining entrepreneur and land baron with a made-up title. 

“Well he was never a colonel and was never in the military,” said historian Marian Dodge, steward with the nonprofit group Friends of Griffith Park.

According to Dodge, Griffith was not well liked in Los Angeles. He used his mining money to purchase and develop a portion of LA now called Los Feliz. There was just one problem...

“Griffith Park is very steep and not ideal,” said Dodge.

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The land was also several miles from downtown LA. So, to attract buyers, Griffith built an ostrich ranch. Then after he sold all the buildable land, he did away with what was left in a very capitalist way.

“He gifted it to the city because he was paying a lot of taxes on land he really couldn’t make any money on,” said Dodge.

Reluctantly, the city accepted the land donation and Griffith Park became LA’s great backyard. Eventually trails, attractions, and a zoo were built.

Today, you can see remnants of the old zoo. They were left in place as a reminder of the deplorable conditions the animals lived in from 1912 to 1966.

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“When they moved the animals, they filled in the moat in front of their cage and walked the elephants trunk to tail to the new zoo,” said Dodge.

Griffith Park was also Hollywood’s backyard. The James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause was just one of the many films made at the Griffith Observatory, and at the east end of the park you’ll find Bronson’s Cave, an old tunnel used in the 1966 Batman series.

“The park is a popular place because you can turn it into whatever countryside you need,” said Dodge.

Mountain lions are not something you see in a big city, but Griffith Park is so large, it can support P-22 -- the elusive but well known puma that roams the park.

“He is a very savvy guy. He practices human avoidance,” said Dodge.

The park also supports a wide range of deer, birds and other wildlife. It's benefited Los Angeles in more ways than Griffith J. Griffith could imagine, but in no way was he a hero. 

“Well, in a drunken rage he was out in Santa Monica with his lovely wife Tina and shot her in the eye,” said Dodge.

She survived, but due to his social status, Griffith only served two years in prison. He attempted to right his wrongs by enhancing the park.

Though opposed by many, Griffith's money was eventually used to build icons like the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory. Today, many have forgotten about Griffith's dark past, but what can’t be forgotten are the benefits the urban wilderness has on the city of Los Angeles.

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