"Memory of Place"
Poet and publisher Pablo Capra is haunted by a place that no longer exists, the vanished bohemian Eden of Lower Topanga. The loss of his childhood home has been the catalyst for his life and art.
by Suzanne Guldimann
Photo by Harry Varnas
Photo by Harry Varnas
Lower Topanga was erased from the map by the California Department of Parks and Recreation in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2002, the community of artists, poets, writers, musicians, surfers, stoners, dreamers, and outlaws received eviction notices. By 2007, the neighborhood of bungalows, shacks and tiny houses originally built in the 1920s was gone, torn down to make way for park facilities.
That loss inspired Pablo Capra's quest to preserve the history of his childhood home. "It was a motivation to make sure it was not erased from memory," he told the "Messenger Mountain News." "It's weird, it's like it didn't exist," he said. "The house where we lived, even the road it was on are completely gone."
Capra, who started out writing and publishing poetry, including a collection of Lower Topanga poets called "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove," has spent nearly two decades collecting the history of Topanga Beach, interviewing former residents, gathering photos and publishing the stories and images in a series of books called "Topanga Beach Experience."
Early books featured the quirkily pen and ink illustrations of James Mathers. More recently, Capra has gravitated to photographic covers, often images from his growing collection of archival photos.
"I was 22 or something when I started doing this," Capra said. "I kept putting together more. It amazes me how much I've been able to find from the '60s and '70s. There's a lot less from the '80s and '90s than from 50 years ago."
The era of the digital camera and social media has dynamically added to the record of Topanga Beach, Capra explained. "There's incredible stuff," he said. "Photos from 100 years ago, photos from one hour ago. There are so many people documenting the area, the beach culture. There's always someone on the beach with a camera."
While Lower Topanga and Topanga Beach have "taken up a lot of energies of the press," Brass Tacks Press has unfolded in related directions, publishing the works of other poets, including lifelong Malibu resident Alden Marin and Downtown Los Angeles poet laureate and Brass Tacks Press co-founder Richard McDowell.
In 2016, Capra collaborated with historian Jay Ruby to publish "The Property: Malibu's Other Colony," a history of a small artists' utopia located just west of Topanga Beach, near Tuna Canyon, that shared much in common with the Lower Topanga community.
Capra recently contributed an essay on life in Lower Topanga's lost paradise for Ruby's book "Bohemia in Southern California," published earlier this year by San Diego State University Press.
In his essay, Capra reflects on his personal lost world. "When you're confronted with that kind of freedom, you really get to develop your individuality," he wrote.
There was a dark side as well. "Like in many bohemian communities, there were plenty of opportunities for hedonism and abuse," Capra wrote. "The privacy was so seductive, and the low cost of living was such a relief, that it was easy to overindulge. Pushing that freedom was addictive. There was almost a sense of torch-bearing, like we should do this because we can… before the end, which always seemed to be looming."
When the end came, Capra was there to document it and he's kept the stories alive for another generation, one that will never know what [the late part-time resident and poet Robert] Campbell described as:
a perfect place just to get away
from the annoying crossroads
and noisy street signs
from the hustle and bustle struggle
just to stay alive
a move back to the big sky
with the flowers and trees
to let his mind shimmer
in the summer breeze.
"How have these values served me in life?" Capra asks in the essay. "I think mostly they’ve kept me healthy, honest, and positive.... However, I still long for those idle days that enticed me to explore my creativity, and hope to find a place that feels so much like home again."
As one of the last children to grow up in the storied Lower Canyon, and as the keeper of its history, Capra has found a way no only to preserve the memory of place, he has set those memories free to live in other people's thoughts, and perhaps to inspire them in turn.
Capra is one of the guest speakers at this year's Transport Topanga Literary Festival, and will be speaking on September 24, 3:45 - 5 p.m., with his collaborators Eric Dugdale, Paul Lovas and Gail McDonald-Tune.
More information is available online at www.topangaauthorsgroup.com.
Learn more about Brass Tacks Press and the Lower Topanga Photo Archive at www.brasstackspress.com.