by Brian Awehali
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stayed at a bland beige corporate hotel chain with paper coffee cups that thanked me for making a difference. The cups were made of 100% recycled material, and despite there being no other choice for a cup in sight, I nevertheless apparently now get to save the world and make a difference just by drinking my coffee. No, thank-you, green capitalism. Thank-you for caring.
I had several days to kill, so I decided I was most interested in seeing Los Angeles in ruins. This involved spending almost as much time on freeways, in traffic, as it did actually seeing things of interest, but I mitigated that misery with a good soundtrack: Darker Than Blue: Songs From Jamdown, 1973-1980, and a lot of very loud Popol Vuh.
Not far from West Hollywood, in one back corner of Griffith Park, are the bizarre ruins of the old Los Angeles Zoo (1912-1965), where I made my first stop. WPA workers in the 1930s hand-sculpted a variety of animal-scaled stone (concrete) caves, stairways and cages for the zoo, perhaps attempting to approximate the feel of the animals’ native cage environments. They also courteously placed several picnic tables just in front of the bars, so visitors could sit down and enjoy lunch without having to move away from the entertainment.
There are more traditional metal cages at the old zoo as well, and in these, nature has begun to reclaim its dominion. Vines creep between any narrow gap, and inside the cages it is profoundly still. Webs gossamer in shafts of greenish sunlight.
The entire time I was exploring this place, there was the distant sound of firecrackers snapping at irregular intervals. In the otherwise eerie emptiness, the effect was very Raymond Carver. The drive in had a desolate feel that reminded me of one of the last scenes in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, where the actor played by Chris Penn snaps and kills a woman who rejects his sexual advances, only to be saved from murder charges when a deus ex machina earthquake provides an alternate explanation for her death. Weird shit happens in LA. A day after this visit to the zoo, I spotted some alternate universe dopplegänger of myself, standing at the edge of the ruins of a cliffside neighborhood, and when I approached him, he said, clear-eyed: “I’ve been waiting for you. I dreamed that something was going to happen…”
Behind some of the cages were truly amazing passageways: animal-scale catacombs with rusted cage bars, covered in graffiti that was glorious, at least to my eyes. Featherless bipeds making art in caves. (“But why the mania for writing their names over and over and over again?” future archeologists will ask.)
Signs for the old zoo convey that these “historic enclosures” are “no longer appropriate for housing animals,” but that they can still be “home to memories of family visits to the Griffith Park Zoo.” There is a bigger zoo in Los Angeles now, and one might presume that it has only appropriate contemporary enclosures for its animals. There are probably a lot of differences between this abandoned zoo and the newer one; admission undoubtedly costs more now, food and beverage options likely abound, and there’s surely an entire building full of literature and animal memorabilia to be enjoyed.
But in both cases, here’s a simple fact I can’t get far enough around to imagine enjoying a zoo: every animal, uncaged, would go somewhere else of its own free will, even if it meant wandering to a likely death. Ascending cramped stone stairs to upper cage areas, I wondered how many animals died at the old Griffith Park Zoo between 1912 and 1965, and I wondered if they were all buried in one general spot nearby, a mass grave of bears, lions, monkeys, macaws, goats and reptiles within shouting distance of the picnic tables.
On my way out, I saw that sound of snapping firecrackers I thought I’d heard was actually the sound of a man practicing with his bullwhip. I wondered if he was imagining himself cowing the lions that used to be here. I suppose they mostly whip lions at circuses, not at zoos, but it still seemed like there must be some specific reason this guy chose the clearing in front of the former animal cages to practice.