L.A.’s Ghost Zoo

My Escape To the Cages at Griffith Park

On muggy summer days in Missouri, a gang of pre-adolescent hellions who’d dubbed themselves the Marion Street Kids would take to the woods for shady relief and adventure. Every creek was a river to be forded. Every downed tree was a fort waiting to be constructed. We raided our parents’ toolboxes, found scraps of lumber, and fashioned crow’s nests out of stray branches.

Now, pushing 30 and settled in Los Angeles, I’ve revised my standards of what qualifies as a respite or adventure. A parking spot within walking distance of my destination seems magical; free-flowing traffic in the late afternoon provides a sense of wonder.

But then I stumbled upon a derelict fence while hiking in Griffith Park. It was the first indication that I was entering the Old Los Angeles Zoo. Now I hike there often. Exploring the trails and cages of the zoo, the foundations of bygone buildings marked with graffiti and overgrown by weeds, I regain my childhood sense of adventure. The foundations become Mayan ruins. The graffiti becomes hieroglyphics. I climb into a cage and discover a long dark stone staircase. I picture a cavern deep inside the earth, a trail that leads to the fountain of youth.

Despite our age of lawsuits and liabilities, these structures have been allowed to stand. Visitors can wander, unrestricted, through enclosures that once were homes for bears, lions, monkeys, and macaws. It’s freeing to know that there isn’t a meter running, that the nostalgia roused by this product of the 1930s doesn’t come with an entry fee or a time limit. This is a place that seems preserved only to inspire daydreams.

Levi Smock is a Missouri native and a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute.

*Photo by Daniel Marks.


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