Save Los Encinos

Things change; I get it.

My favorite diner — Benice, in Venice — closed this week after 24 years in business. Life goes on. They pave paradise. Joni Mitchell is 67, for Pete’s sake.

So why does the impending closure of Los Encinos State Historic Park rankle so many people, me included?

Partly because the five-acre park off a busy stretch of Ventura and Balboa boulevards has been in use for hundreds of years. First it was a Tongva Indian village, then a cattle ranch, a sheep farm, a stagecoach stop. Since 1949, the natural spring, the unadorned but stately old buildings and the stands of oak, sycamore and willow have served as a public education and visitors’ center. School kids learn that Encino really has a history. Parents bring their kids to feed the ducks. It is a small compound, dwarfed by the surrounding malls and streets and ranch homes and office buildings just outside its ring of cinderblock walls. The simple De la Ossa Adobe, built in 1849, was home to the rancheros who ran the 4,600-acre Rancho Los Encinos. The two-story limestone Garnier Building was built by Basque sheepherders who took over in 1868. The Garniers also built the pond, lined with limestone, in the shape of a Spanish guitar.

Earlier this year, the State of California announced that Los Encinos was on the list of 70 state parks slated for closure due to budget cuts. The park was targeted because it doesn’t bring in revenue, and the state simply couldn’t find the $210,000 per year it needed to maintain the park and pay the rangers, who function as interpretive guides.

A group of residents, led by Amy Zidell and Encino Neighborhood Council member Kathy Moghimi-Patterson, have banded together to fight the closure. Around Christmas, an anonymous donor wrote a check for $150,000 to keep the park open until July. After that, it goes back on the chopping block. 

I didn’t visit the park in order to write this story, because I don’t have to: I know it like I know my backyard. I grew up in Encino, about a half mile from the park, and Los Encinos was my personal retreat, my youth’s ideal companion. It’s where I went to read a book, to daydream the spring into Walden Pond, to picnic on the Tempo falafels from across the boulevard.

I’m writing this to pay the park back for all those peaceful moments, and to pay it forward for the next bookish, sensitive teenager who needs a refuge from suburbia.

But, like I said, life moves on. Why, in the scheme of things, is closing the park that big a deal?

One reason — not a surprising one, mind you — is that it shows just how dumb and shortsighted we are. After all, we didn’t create the park. We inherited it from the many generations before us, who preserved and protected it, who saw fit to spend their resources on it, so that we and our children would enjoy it.

You would think that if we can’t just pick up the bill for the park, we could be imaginative enough to find alternative ways to support it. Perhaps there is a public-private solution: Let a restaurant or other concessionaire develop a plan. Rent it out for the occasional high-end weddings and bar mitzvahs, like The Adamson House in Malibu. Hold great public concert series there, and charge. Encino has more celebrities than the Huffington Post homepage: Can’t they put on one benefit each year for their own neighborhood? I know residents are concerned about parking and other issues, and that State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) is now actively seeking all suggestions. But c’mon folks — five beautiful acres in the middle of a car-choked city, and the best solution anyone has so far is to buy a padlock? 

How ironic that we send money to buy trees for parks in Israel, and let one just down the block from us languish.

My friend Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, likes to say that the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees,” which we will celebrate on Feb. 8, shows our ancient rabbis at their most prophetic. Somehow, in a world still comprising vast, fearsome wilderness, they saw that as civilization progressed, our survival would hang on our ability to understand the natural environment, and revere and protect our open spaces.

If that wasn’t so obvious then, it is now.

“The places where we live are killing us,” says Dr. Richard Jackson in “Designing Healthy Cities,” a six-part documentary airing this month on PBS.

Produced by the Media Policy Center (on whose board I sit), the documentary details how the built environment affects our physical and mental health.

“Good designers, good architects, good political leadership are really important to create communities that work for people,” Jackson says.

Open space, spaces for retreat and connection — to one another and to our past — are part of what define and nurture healthy communities.

That is to say, keeping Los Encinos open is not about preserving our past. It’s about protecting our future.

To make a donation to Los Encinos State Park, visit