The Park Politico
The Secret City on

For five years, Sierra Club executive Louis Alvarado has been known as the honorary mayor of Griffith Park
Louis Alvarado, the honorary mayor of Griffith Park, is sitting at a picnic table under a yellow umbrella at the brown-tiled open-air common area of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

The honorary mayor is a local Sierra Club executive who espouses a simple, albeit fairly radical land-use doctrine: Don't build anything in Griffith Park. Alvarado opposed the Autry and its parking lot. Now he frets about a plan to expand the museum and combine the Autry's facilities with space for the Southwest Museum, the area's leading exhibitor of Native Americana.

"Cowboys and Indians don't mix," says Alvarado, who was born in Mexico and has roots in the Native American OtomED tribe. "For them to bring in the Southwest Museum? No way, I wouldn't want it. They are the same people that chopped my ancestors' heads off. They want them sitting in there? Are you serious? I don't feel good about that."

Alvarado laughs at the end of his statement. He does that a lot. Punctuates his points with dramatic gestures, too.

When the honorary mayor looks at the barren landfill in the hill above the L.A. Zoo, he pounds his right index finger into the picnic table. He brings his hand to his face, wistfully cups his cheek with his palm. "This is how much respect people had," he says. "To put it bluntly, it's a dump."

And when he lists his top priorities for the park--install a wetland on DWP turf, purchase the land around the "Hollywood" sign, separate the park from City of Los Angeles oversight--Alvarado rolls his hands round and round in circles, like the tightly choreographed leader of a Motown R&B revue.

"You have to dream of the beautiful things this park is going to be in the future," Alvarado says. "The biggest dream we can have is we're going to preserve it as is for future generations. We don't need any of this; we don't need any roads here. We don't need any facilities of any kind. Leave it alone. That's all we need. Let this park alone."
* * *

The honorary mayor of Griffith Park is in his 60s. He has thin hair with thick sideburns, a mustache the color of scattered rain clouds, and a wisp of a ponytail held in place by a yellow scrunchie.

On a recent Tuesday, Alvarado wears a white snap-up windbreaker over a navy blue collared knit shirt. His faded pants and cream-colored loafers almost match the jacket. He smiles often, maintains consistent eye contact, and lists between lyricism and gruff growls when he speaks. During a single hour, he says the word "beautiful" 22 times.

"There's nothing as beautiful as a sunset in the summertime," he says. "As the sun sets down, you see the city coming to a close, you see the lights light up, you can almost see the congestion. The traffic slows down, as the city gets ready for its night sleep. And then here we have this beautiful mountain again, the hikers up there, we can enjoy that. But the sadness about that is that most people in the city of Los Angeles are not taking advantage of this beautiful natural wonder."

Griffith Park is the largest urban municipal park in the nation, 4,107 acres and nearly 100 miles of trails, deeded to L.A. in 1896 by Col. Griffith J. Griffith, a palindromic-named gold mine speculator. Alvarado's been coming to Griffith Park for a quarter-century. He joined the Sierra Club 15 years ago. Alvarado is retired from business, and spends four or five days a week here, four or five hours per day.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan gave Alvarado his title five years ago. It's unsalaried and non-binding, but a sign of respect and appreciation for Alvarado's commitment to the park's causes, as well as to his service on various committees. The title, in turn, helps him earn more respect, serve on more committees and receive media attention. It even makes him an electoral asset.

Tom LaBonge is a longtime friend of Alvarado's and a fellow hiker. LaBonge was the person who originally arranged the honorary mayorship. He just completed a successful run for City Council; some of his campaign literature featured Alvarado's picture and endorsement.

Alvarado's family emigrated from Mexico to Colorado Springs, Colo., when he was a toddler. He has 12 siblings. He used to hike in Cheyenne Mountain, which how houses the North American Aerospace Defense Command, otherwise known as NORAD.

Alvarado played college football at Syracuse University. He maintains the barrel-chested torso of an ex-jock, and the weary bones to match. His bum back keeps him from hiking half the distance he used to. Twice a week he welcomes a couple hundred Sierra Club members and others who arrive for nighttime hikes. Alvarado doesn't leave the parking lot; he gives a short speech from a small stage a few feet away from where his name and handprints are inscribed, Walk of Fame-style, in concrete.

Before he retired, Alvarado was an engineer, then a builder, mostly of shopping malls. When he first started coming to Griffith Park, he would sit down on a bench, relieve some work-related stress. Soon enough, he had an epiphany. Changed his life.

"I was walking down here one day and I was thinking, 'I don't know if I should be in the construction business anymore,'" Alvarado says. "'I said, I have more than I need. I'm 48 years old, the rest is all greed. Getting up early in the morning, [going to] a job, driving a nice car and all that. Those are the material things. You don't need that. That's when I changed. Out of the blue sky I quit."

There's some irony in a man who built shopping malls, those suburban specimens of sprawl, now devoting himself to keeping the city's leading open space free of any further development.

"I'm even against horseshoes," he says, turning on the western leisure activity. "Because once you put in a steel peg into the ground, that's part of a structure and I feel you are occupying open space and that should be removed. I don't believe there should be any permanent structures in the park, starting today. Every square foot of the park should remain a park."
* * *

The honorary mayor walks into the Park Rangers station at Griffith and mock demands, "Who's in charge here?" He laughs and is greeted by an official from the city's Parks and Recreation Department, who gives Alvarado an impromptu briefing about a proposal from birders. Next, Alvarado arranges for Park Ranger Victor Carrasco to drive him around some of Griffith Park's dirt trails, which otherwise are reserved for walking and horseback riding.

After a few minutes, Carrasco stops his truck at the Vista Heli-Port, a paved-over chopper landing pad and de facto scenic overlook. Alvarado chats with a hiker he recognizes; yards away, out of Alvarado's hearing range, Carrasco compliments the honorary mayor. "He's welcome in the park anytime," the ranger says. "He's pretty vocal, tries to get things happening in the park, positive things. I wish we had more people like him in the parks in the city."

Carrasco has a meeting to attend, so he brings Alvarado back to the station. At street level, on the paved roads, Alvarado continues his ride-through in a green Kia he's borrowed from his daughter. Everywhere he goes, from Zoo Drive to Griffith Park Drive to Riverside Avenue, Alvarado can point out new mulch, new shrubs, even spots where public sex is prevalent.

The park gets more crowded in the mid-afternoon. Baseball players rake the infield of a diamond. A man tosses a soft green ball to a child in a wheelchair. Another man looks through a dumpster, his sweatpants falling far below his waistline. A woman allows her dog to run free in a parking lot, earning Alvarado's private ire.

Alvarado parks the jeep at the Greek Theatre, walks in to say hello to administrators. He's on a committee concerned with the concert venue. He drives over to the Observatory; en route he speaks highly of the facility's director and also says he's excited about the Observatory's restoration plans, especially because they no longer include a four-level parking structure. He was on a committee about that, too, he says. Alvarado cruises over near the L.A. Zoo, points out a stretch of native plants he helped dedicate. Says the same about Turner's Trail, up in the hills, and Mulholland Fountain, just outside the park.

The honorary mayor of Griffith Park manages not to sound cocky when he relates this. More matter-of-fact. Same as for something else he says about his beloved grounds:

"Climb those mountains, those trails," Alvarado says. "In five minutes, you will not even hear the sounds of those automobiles driving through those freeways. And sit down someplace and listen to the natural life that's around you. With a little imagination, you can even hear the trees grow. It's just a beautiful quiet. Even though you're quiet, it brings you alive. It makes you think. Makes you say, 'Hey, this is really life.'"