It is “a group of letters, a word on the side of a steep hill that, unlike so many other cherished sites, cannot be visited, only seen from afar,” writes Leo Braudy in The Hollywood Sign (Yale University Press, 2011). “The Hollywood sign,” he remarks, immediately evokes the movie capital it looms over… and “the HOLLYWOOD over the shoulder of visitors lends an aura of status and prestige because they are near it.”
The sign differs from most other icons because its original purpose was so transitory—an advertisement for the real estate development of Hollywoodland. The Hollywoodland tract was built adjacent to the southwest corner of Griffith Park. Says Mike Eberts in his history of Griffith Park (HSSC, 1996), the sign was “hastily erected in 1923 to advertise the swanky subdivision on the hillside below it….”
For me, the Hollywood sign will always be associated with the two most important men in my life. Soon after my late husband and I moved to Hollywood, we hiked to the sign. In those days (1976) one could clamber right up to the letters. In the 1980s, it became impossible to do this. “A razor-wire topped cyclone fence surrounds the site, and the security system was upgraded in 2005 to include microphones, infrared video cameras, and motion sensors twenty-four hours a day, monitored by the City of Los Angeles from an underground surveillance center,” according to Leo Braudy.
When he was a young comedy writer in Hollywood, my father and his writing partner would regularly abandon their typewriters and refresh themselves by hiking to the sign from my dad’s apartment on north Ivar. He passed away in 2005, a day before I was scheduled to lead a Sierra Club hike up the Hollyridge trail to the Hollywood sign. I dedicated the hike to my father. Soon, access to the Hollyridge trailhead will be closed, we are told. Why?
Back in 1940, the M.H. Sherman Company owned a large parcel of land at the top of Beachwood Canyon, north of the paved road. The company conveyed a parcel, slightly over two acres, to Eben Coe. There was a problem in that there was no means of vehicular entry to the property sold to Coe. Sherman, therefore, granted to Coe “the right to use as a roadway in common” with Sherman “for the purpose of ingress and egress from the parcel of land” upon which the Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables are located. Thus, a right of way easement was established. In 1945, Sherman sold the surrounding land to the City of Los Angeles and the land became part of Griffith Park. There seems always to have been some kind of gate at Beachwood Canyon where the public roadway ends and the easement begins. Until 2013, the gate was a T-bar design and was open during the day so that vehicles, even those not bound for Sunset Ranch, could drive through the gate and park on the right of way, on small lots gouged into the hillside. The pre-2014 gate also allowed unfettered access to pedestrians, who could walk along the easement to get to the City’s Hollyridge trail. This public trail takes hikers into Griffith Park, allowing them to walk close to the Hollywood sign via Mt. Lee Drive, which is above the sign.
Until 2001, hikers could access the trail more or less where the easement begins by taking Beachwood to Hollyridge Drive. But, then, the owner of the private property where this trail access was located built a house, which cut off pedestrian access to the public trail. In response to this, perhaps, the City cut an access trail further up the paved easement leading to Sunset Ranch. Problem solved? Alas, no. “Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object,” Leo Braudy points out, “the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.”
In the case of SUNSET RANCH HOLLYWOOD STABLES vs CITY OF LOS ANGELES et al, heard February 3, 2017, in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, the “parties stipulated that, at the time of the trial, approximately 15,000 pedestrians per month walk on the access road.” The Court received testimony that, in recent years and largely due to information available on social media, “hiking has become popular, and many people want to walk the Hollyridge Trail to access the Hollywood sign on foot.”
Testimony provided assurances that the City has encouraged pedestrian access to the Hollywood sign via the Griffith Park Observatory parking lot, and not via Beachwood Canyon. Indeed, Recreation and Parks bent over backward to keep Hollywood sign traffic out of nearby neighborhoods by re-opening part of Mt. Hollywood Drive to personal vehicular traffic. Due to the lamentations of hillside residents, swarms of sign-seeking tourists were redirected to Griffith Park. A cheery report concluded that opening Mt. Hollywood Drive to private vehicular traffic “had a positive outcome of keeping the traffic out of the neighborhoods and… providing good customer service.” Porta-potties, bottles of water, temporary fencing and traffic cones were hauled up for the event, and the report gushed: “It is obvious that this area can easily become the new go-to destination to view the sign.” However, after traffic snarls, trampled wild-flowers, run-over animals, trash, erosion caused by eager photographers scrambling up and down hillsides, and howls from hikers and bikers, Recreation and Parks prudently re-closed Mt. Hollywood Drive to all non-emergency vehicles.
Now, shuttles will take people from the Sunset-Vermont Red Line station, or from Greek Theatre parking, up to the Observatory, a good place to gorge on Hollywood sign photo ops.
In April 2014, the City closed off access to the easement by motorists and pedestrians when it began construction on a new electric gate at the end of Beachwood. The City also posted human guards south of the construction area, and an electronic sign informing the public that access past the end of Beachwood was closed. Completion of the gate was accomplished in December 2014, and announced in January 2015, whereupon pedestrian access resumed. The gate’s keypad system was meant to enable Sunset Ranch customers, boarders, employees and vendors to enter the easement in vehicles. The new gate “essentially eliminated cars parking on the access road itself.” There was also a pedestrian gate. The City has continued to post a guard at the gate, but one or more guards turned away paying Sunset Ranch customers. Oops! This led to Sunset Ranch’s decision to seek an exclusive easement precluding public access to pedestrians and an injunction enjoining the public, except for customers with wallets at the ready, from using the easement.
It is time to toss in a few legal definitions: An easement creates a nonpossessory right to enter and use land in another’s possession. It obligates the possessor (in this case, the City) not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement. The land to which an easement is attached (Sunset Ranch) is the dominant tenement (holder of land). The land upon which a burden of servitude is laid (the City) is the servient tenement. The owner or occupant of a dominant tenement (land holding) may bring an action to enforce the easement, and this is what has happened.
The first issue litigated in the bifurcated court trial was whether the Right of Way Agreement precluded members of the public from using the easement. “The court finds that it does not” (!) The court observed that, by its own terms, “the ROW Agreement is not exclusive” and that “members of the public (i.e., pedestrians/hikers) cannot be excluded from using the easement.” (!!) The court also found that the City had “unreasonably and unduly interfered with Sunset Ranch’s right of way easement…” by its agents (the guards) turning away Sunset Ranch customers, and by channeling pedestrian traffic further along the easement road to access the Hollyridge trail. The court “received evidence” that pedestrians blocked access to and from Sunset Ranch, and it concluded that injunctive relief was appropriate. Thus, the court ordered the City “to provide public pedestrian access to the Hollyridge Trail at a location as closest [sic] to the start of the subject easement” (the Beachwood gate) “or at the pre-2001 access point (from Hollyridge Drive) as is practicable. A Conference on Bifurcated Issues was set for hearing on March 13, 2017. At this hearing, Deputy City Attorney Michael Kaplan announced that the City had decided to close the gate at the top of Beachwood to pedestrians. “The parties agree that preventing pedestrian access to Griffith Park through the Beachwood Gate is appropriate and consistent with the Court’s order” because it “achieves the Court’s stated interest in affording access to Hollyridge Trail through an official entrance to Griffith Park nearby the Beachwood Gate. The City has the discretion to determine the method….” The Beachwood Gate was never approved by the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners as an access point to Griffith Park.
And what did the City choose as the “official entrance to Griffith Park nearby the Beachwood Gate”? The choice was the “official and published entrance to Griffith Park at the terminus of Canyon Drive.” This “runs parallel and 1,500 feet to the east of Beachwood Drive.” A dedicated parking lot is available. Canyon Drive connects with Bronson after the latter heads north from Franklin Avenue. It goes up, west of the Bronson Caves and east of Camp Hollywoodland (aka the Girls’ Camp), ending in Brush Canyon, “1,500 feet to the east of Beachwood Drive” only if you are a crow. For human hikers, perhaps three miles will be added to a round trip to the Hollywood sign. Not only is the Brush/Bronson Canyon trail longer, it is also more arduous. Is this really the best the City can do? The problems associated with crowds of visitors clogging narrow streets, littering, etc., are being shifted to someone else’s back yard. The Franklin-Bronson intersection is crowded already. Dash buses do not go up Bronson. Residents in Bronson Canyon and The Oaks were not consulted. “The City told us nothing,” said Linda Othenin-Girard, president of the local homeowners association (quoted in The Guardian, “Welcome to Hollywood: residents clash as access to famed sign is blocked,” Andrew Gumbel, March 29, 2017).
Outrage has spread from Beachwood to Bronson and back. Hikers who live in Beachwood Canyon are dismayed and angry at the City’s “craven giveaway” of pedestrian access to the trailhead. As we have seen, the court upheld the public’s right to use the Beachwood access. It ordered that the Hollyridge trail access be relocated to a spot as close as practicable to the gate or to the pre-2001 access point.
Many Beachwood residents have welcomed the proximity of trails leading to the Hollywood sign and beyond. The City’s alacrity in surrendering the public’s right to access the Hollyridge trail from the Beachwood neighborhood is especially disappointing to those residents who enjoy hiking. Some of them might well have bought property in Beachwood Canyon with the reasonable expectation that convenient access to Griffith Park would remain within a short walk from their homes. A hillside resident who attended the March 13 Hearing reported that, when it was noted that many residents of Beachwood use the gate and will be very disappointed with this decision, Deputy City Attorney Kaplan replied: “We know that whatever we do, we won’t please everyone.” This observation applies to every dispute, but the subtext seems to be: “We’re done here. Deal with it.”
Disgruntled hikers argue that the decision was not compelled by the court’s tentative order. However, the City Attorney, Recreation and Parks, City Councilmember Ryu, other city officials—all seem to have circled the wagons, shrugged their shoulders and declared that the court made them do it. According to an attorney who is also a Beachwood resident, Sunset Ranch got everything it wanted; the City gave up everything it had won. Don’t blame the judge.
Yesterday afternoon (Friday, March 31), I parked on the street, near the market in Beachwood Canyon and toddled up the street. I passed several pairs of young people armed with cameras and smart phones. They were on their way down, and few made eye contact as they were all busy working their phones. Enjoying the fragrance of flowers in bloom and admiring homes lining the road, I made my way to the gate. A uniformed guard sat on a chair, calmly overseeing a light but steady flow of hikers going in and out of the pedestrian gate and vehicles using the electric gate. The pedestrian gate was still open. I interrupted my chat with the guard to walk through the gate. (A good reporter must see for herself.) The guard said he expected the pedestrian gate to remain open a few weeks longer. “But I’m really not sure,” he admitted. “They don’t tell us anything.” After that, it was announced that the pedestrian gate would be closed on April 18. In anticipation of the closure, Friends of Griffith Park and neighborhood groups organized a demonstration at the gate on April 15. Some Sierra Club members joined the action.
I asked whether the gate might be closed for entry but open for exit. (Many of the hikes I lead begin elsewhere—Lake Hollywood or the Beachwood staircases—and come down the Hollyridge trail, ending or stopping at the café in Beachwood Canyon.) The pedestrian gate has a key lock that would seem to stop those going in or out. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, while the gate could be locked against people wanting to enter through it, people wanting to exit could open it. The guard’s opinion was that locking hikers in would cause safety issues. He said some hikers entered the Park at other trailheads but got tired, or thirsty, and wanted to get off the trails and out of the Park. The Hollyridge trail offered them a quick exit. If the gate is locked, these hikers would look for other ways out, which would take them onto private property, much of which is steep and brushy. The guard told me that homeowners near the easement gate had complained of incursions onto their property
“You ought to see this place on weekends,” said the guard. “In spite of the new parking restrictions, about a thousand people each day come to hike up to the sign.” In an attempt to decrease traffic on Beachwood Canyon Drive, Councilmember Ryu introduced resident permit parking on weekends and worked with police to enforce bans on large tourist buses. At the foot of upper Beachwood Canyon, motorists without permits cannot park between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Closer to the gate, the prohibited hours extend to 6 p.m. This seems a reasonable measure. One can imagine the annoyance caused by the procession of Hollywood sign pilgrims making their way up the mostly sidewalkless street, many with eyes glued to smart phones. A young Asian man raised his eyes from the phone he clutched and looked at me imploringly as I trotted back down Beachwood. “Where?” he began. “Where is…?” I supplied an end to his question: “The Hollywood sign?” He nodded. I pointed and said, “Hollyridge trail, on the right.” That was too much information in English so he smiled and continued up Beachwood.
A Beachwood resident, quoted in The Guardian, said the Park should be as “porous as possible so we’re dealing with relatively small annoyances at a bunch of places…” After all, Griffith Park belongs to the public. It seems, however, that the interests of the public often come last. Permitted parking on Beachwood was a step in the right direction. Total closure of the Hollyridge trailhead is a step too far.
To support access to the Hollyridge trailhead, or to a truly “nearby” substitute, call Councilmember David Ryu (323) 957-6415 (Hollywood Field Office) or Recreation and Parks chief Mike Shull (213) 202-2633
Carol Henning is a Sierra Canyon member and has hiked Griffith Park for many years.