Tom Labonge: The Mayor of (Fire-Blackened) Griffith Park
As Griffith Park burned Tuesday night, there was one politician who kept showing up on our television screens, one man who sounded deeply sad and yet strangely reassuring as the flames raced toward scores of homes and the newly rebuilt Griffith Observatory.
Acting as the unofficial mayor of Griffith Park, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge kept the city informed about the winds that whipped one direction and then another, the deer and coyotes who fled the flames, the evacuation center set up at his beloved Marshall High School.
Wait. Tom LaBonge? The blustery, bear-hugging guy who tends to ramble on about obscure municipal history? The councilman who made stream-of-consciousness conversation his own personal trademark? Yet there he was, showing up every few minutes on KCAL Channel 9 to give Angelenos what they needed to know, more or less, about the fire that had come dangerously close to the Los Angeles Zoo and the streets above Los Feliz Boulevard.
The fire, unnerving as it was, was tailor-made for LaBonge, taking in all of the topics that are his passion. LaBonge knows his L.A. Fire Department, having had a fascination with it since his youth. He loves the observatory, the zoo and Marshall High — all of which are located in his council district — and will talk about them endlessly on days when there is no emergency at all. LaBonge, who lives in Silver Lake, hikes four to five times each week through Griffith Park — a habit of his since 1978. In other words, things that LaBonge loved dearly were in peril.
On the night of the fire, LaBonge looked genuinely pained as he talked about the loss of habitat. He lamented the destruction of Dante’s View, a two-acre garden created in 1964 by an Italian immigrant who also loved the park. The garden was turned over to another park volunteer in 1978, who in turn left the caretaking duties to LaBonge in 1997. On the morning of the fire, LaBonge hiked through Dante’s View. When he saw it at sunset, it was gone.
At 11 p.m., Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa staged a live press conference about the fire, and by then LaBonge, standing a few feet away, was starting to sound loopy and exhausted. He had given out the wrong number of acres that were destroyed, and the fire was clearly taking a toll on him. But LaBonge was back out in the park the next morning, chatting up reporters and praising the firefighters for their hard work. “They saved the neighborhood,” he said.
Operating on three hours’ sleep, LaBonge explained how there would soon be wild mustard on the hillside, how nature would soon replenish itself. And yet he compared the loss of more than 800 acres — roughly a fifth of the park — to the death of a dear friend. “This park has been special for me and my brothers. I grew up with seven brothers, and we did everything here,” he said.
By the time LaBonge had returned from the Griffith Observatory, the street leading to the firefighter staging area had returned to normal. At 10 a.m., gardeners pushed lawnmowers and ran leaf blowers. A Lycra-wearing senior jogged down the median strip. Dog walkers were out in force. And LaBonge was giving off his typical warmth.
With the fire under control, LaBonge will return to his role as the goofy yet lovable uncle of City Hall, a politician who makes his share of missteps. LaBonge has his detractors, particularly when it comes to the future of the park. But on the day that fire threatened Los Feliz, LaBonge behaved like a councilman should. And like the mayor of Griffith Park.