TOPANGA MESSENGER -- December 12, 2002

"Venice Reading Celebrates Lower Topanga"

Article and photos by Dan Mazur

On Sunday evening, December 1, the creative spirit of the Rodeo Grounds came to life in a small, dark room in Venice. "Lost Lives: the Poetry of Lower Topanga Canyon," a reading held at the Rose Alley Theatre, was organized by Pablo Capra, featuring poetry from the book he recently edited, Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, as well as music and visual art by Lower Topanga residents.

As in the book, themes of home, community and loss were central, as the Lower Topanga enclave faces erasure to make way for the expansion of Topanga State Park. These shared issues gave focus and coherence to the work. The nine writers' poems flowed together into a unified wholeƑfrom Bond Johnson's tender concerns for his soon-to-be-displaced horse, to Catherine Holliss' love affair metaphor for facing the loss of her Canyon home, and Pablo Capra's yearnings for transcendence and inspiration in his boyhood surroundings. The audience, packed into the small space, was in tune with these feelings, laughing knowingly as Capra reeled off his reminiscences of dozens of past and current neighbors in "Rodeo Grounds Poem."

Other poets included Robert Campbell, Michele Capra, David Hayward, James Mathers and Daisy Duck McCracken. Frank Lamonea played guitar and sang. Hayward graced us with his accomplished jazz trumpet, and Johnson played classical piano. A constant visual accompaniment was provided by Lower Topanga "performance painter" Norton Wisdom, interpreting the words and sounds in constantly evolving images, and Mathers' paintings from the book were on display. The reading began and ended with a slide show of Topanga photographer David Blattel's pictures of Lower Topanga.

Through its various media, the two-hour event presented a vivid portrait of a unique place and its inhabitants. Certainly more personal than political, it was nonetheless a reminder that the otherwise-laudable goals of environmentalism can sometimes conflict with human values of home and community.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- December 5, 2002

Photo by Cathy Nieman

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- December 1, 2002

"Hope for a Community in a Few Lines of Verse "

By Scott Timberg
Artwork by Norton Wisdom

Poetry, W.H. Auden famously said, "makes nothing happen." Can it keep a bunch of hippies from being evicted from their canyon hideaways? Whether verse can stop the bulldozers ... well, you can't blame the Lower Topanga Community Assn. for trying.

Today they're staging "Lost Lives," a concert, poetry reading and appearance by "performance painter" Norton Wisdom, to protest the uprooting of residents from their homes and the likely closing of restaurants and shops along Pacific Coast Highway.

"This little community is such a utopia," says Will Willoughby, Topanga resident and organizer. "It's a throwback to the '60s -- the people really look out for each other. They're writers, they're artists."

But not for long. Say goodbye to those groovy homes and funky shops like Malibu Feed Bin and Ginger Snips Salon and Spa. "We'll probably end up becoming a Gray Davis Visitors Center," he says, conjuring up the image of tourists relieving themselves on a site that once made up the Reel Inn's picnic tables.

Last year, the Los Angeles Athletic Club sold a patch of land -- 1,659 acres from the Pacific Coast Highway to Topanga Canyon Park -- to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Residents received a letter from the deal's broker saying they'd have to clear out by Dec. 12 or be evicted. That day's getting close.

The parks department, though, says it's acquiring the land for pretty, uh, utopian reasons. "Mostly, it's to turn it back to nature," spokesman Roy Sterns says. "We'll be restoring the creek, rehabilitating the fish runs, bringing back native plants. No plans, he says, for a visitors center or commercial development, though some of the homes will be converted into park offices. So which side really wants to get back to the garden?

Either way, "Lost Lives" kicks off at 4 p.m. at the Rose Alley Theater, 318 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice. Admission is $5. For information, call (323) 650-3013.

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- November 28, 2002

"'Idlers,' a Portrait of Lower Topanga"

By Dan Mazur
Photo by Katie Dalsemer

Arguments for Lower Topanga's status as the last outpost of a vanishing hippie-bohemian-surfer lifestyle seem to have fallen on deaf ears at State Parks and other government agencies. Now a group of Lower Topangans have gotten together to put the evidence down in black and white.

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry From Lower Topanga Canyon was published in October by Pablo Capra's Brass Tacks Press. The 62-page booklet includes the work of Capra and eight other writers from the area, as well as illustrations by Lower Topanga artist James Mathers who provides portraits of each contributor.

Capra, who has lived for 22 of his 23 years in the Rodeo Grounds in Lower Topanga, has been in the thick of the battle to save the unique community in which he grew up. For some time he and fellow poets David Hayward and Catherine Holliss have been sharing their work with each other. Finding the experience of facing mass eviction was becoming a theme in their writing, Capra decided to put together the book, and was happy to find six others who had work to contribute as well. The title was inspired by Li Po, an eighth century Chinese poet who formed a group of six poets called the "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove."

"The poems reflect what people are experiencing and feeling," says Capra. "It's an artists' community, so it reflects how people are making art out of this experience. They have a lot of strong things to say that they don't get considered by the state."

Besides Capra, Hayward and Holliss, there are poems by Robert Campbell, Michele Capra, Bond Johnson, Frank Lamonea and Daisy Duck McCracken. A short introduction by Pablo describes the history and predicament of Lower Topanga.

Love of nature and loss of home are the major themes running through all the poems, including Capra's own "Rodeo Grounds Poem." Now ecstatic, now despairing, Capra's paean to his boyhood home is full of youthful nostalgia and creative longings and features an apparently comprehensive list of all the Lower Topanga residents, with a brief characterization of each.

David Hayward expresses the anger of the residents facing loss of community at the hands of environmentalists in the opening lines of "A Rout of Squatters."

The Eco-Fascist will always oust
a verse dreamer, a phrase blower
the dreamer caught gazing thru
a sun-faded mandala
stuck on an eighty year old
windowpane forty years ago...

The grievance process for the Lower Topangans fighting relocation is underway. Capra says he doesn't see the book as a weapon in the battle, but as a tribute to the community that is at stake.

"I don't have a lot of expectation for what it can change," he says, "but I think it stands as a legacy for what this place is, and, if it goes down, what this place was. I think it's really worth remembering."

As Catherine Holliss writes wistfully in "Maybe When,"

...and when
State Parks flattens the home
the hikers will pause at the foundation
and maybe wonder who lived here
and what were their names and
dreams and deepest secrets
where are they now do they
still have a community...

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove is available for $5 at the Howell-Green Gallery, as well as at Dutton's Books in Brentwood and Vidiots in Santa Monica. There will be a reading of works in the book at the Rose Alley Theater, 318 Lincoln Boulevard in Venice at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 1. Admission $5.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- November 28, 2002

"Idlers of the Bamboo Grove"

Article and Photos by Cathy Neiman

The crusade of Lower Topanga

The crusade of Lower Topanga is a sad one. It is the underdog against the big developers, a losing battle, "a one-hand clapper," a very emotional state of affairs. In 2001, California State Parks bought Lower Topanga from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. State Parks wants to make Lower Topanga a national park. This means it will bulldoze the land, tear down homes and uproot all nonindigenous plants, at the same time uprooting longtime residents, a unique community of artists, writers, intellectuals and families. Only a fraction (about 3 percent) of the purchased land is occupied by the Lower Topanga community, yet State Parks still wants them to go. Originally, the residents of Lower Topanga were supposed to vacate their homes by July 2002. Most of them did leave. Then final evictions were pushed to September. Now it looks like it might be a few months more, depending on the court decision. But it looks very grim and the 50 or so people who are left in this community are very distraught. Yet some are staying put.

The Capra family is especially upset. They plan to stay in their homes until the bitter end, to not fight lying down. Pablo Capra, the eldest son of the Capra family, a published poet and an American Literature graduate of UCLA, has lived in Lower Topanga since he was one year old. He has spent a lot of time writing and sharing his poems with his neighbor/friends and poets, Catherine Hollis and Dave Hayward. Capra decided to put together a poetry book with the collaboration of his neighbors and friends about the heartaches of having to leave home. The book is called "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove." The title is a reference to a Chinese poet named Li Po who was part of a literary movement in China 700 A.D. Po wrote with a group of poets called the "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove." Capra felt the connection between the artistic community of Lower Topanga and the wild bamboo that grows in the area.

"One of my earliest memories of growing up here is running through tunnels of arundo," Capra said. "Arundo is the real name for bamboo and it is being uprooted just like we are."

Capra's co-collaborators are an eclectic group of people. Michele Capra is his 12-year-old published sister. Then there is Robert Campbell, a prolific poet who is losing his eyesight, a longtime friend and part-time housemate of the Capra's. He writes most of his poems in the Capra's backyard. There is James Mathers, the court jester of the group. He is a painter and screenwriter. Mathers drew all the illustrations for "Idlers." Daisy McCrackin, Mather's housemate, and the most recent resident of the "grove," is an actress, songwriter, painter and also a very imaginative writer. Dave Hayward, who has lived in Lower Topanga since 1960, is a musician and an astrologer. Catherine Holliss is a retired dancer, screenwriter and a graphic designer. Frank Lamonea is a musician and a photographer. He decided to take State Park's offer of relocation funds and moved to Latigo Canyon from Lower Topanga. However, he contributed to the poetry book. Bond Johnson, a professor of French at Pepperdine University, is a linguist, a writer, and has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. He recently published a book of literary theory called "The Mode of Parody." While Johnson never lived in Lower Topanga, his horse is housed at Holliss' property.

Lower Topanga, aka the Rodeo Grounds, or the Snakepit, has had the reputation for its people being of a nefarious sort. But after meeting with these people and hearing about their lives and accomplishments, that reputation is the furthest from the truth.

Will Willoughby and Jamie McMurray, creative directors of the Rose Alley Theater, met Capra during a play performed there, "Tennessee Williams One Acts." After the play, Capra started talking to Willoughby and McMurray and gave them the recently completed poetry book, "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove."

"I was blown away by Pablo's book," Willoughby said. "I looked at it and thought, how cool! This guy has a book!"

It turns out that Willoughby and McMurray are also Malibu residents and have been interested in the plight of Lower Topanga.

"We wanted to help," Willoughby said. "It is so sad what is going on there, so many people are being displaced and their lives are being uprooted. It is a terrible loss to the community and the businesses as well. [They] will be disappearing too."

The poets and the creative directors decided on a multimedia/poetry reading, where the writers could read their works and reach even more people. Willoughby titled the poetry reading as "Lost Lives: The Poetry of Lower Topanga."

There will also be a performance painter, Norton Wisdom, who will be painting while the poets read their work. Wisdom is a former Lower Topanga resident.

"It's going to be quite an event!" Willoughby excitedly said. "There are so many talented people involved here."

Being at the Rodeo Grounds is like being a part of a past era. A time when life was less complicated, less consumer-based, less taken over by technology and television. A time when "people got their daises and sunshine for free," Mathers said. A time when people had conversations as entertainment.

"A lot has come out of this place," Mathers stated, with a Cheshire cat smile. "This milieu, this community. We want to be able to give a voice, a document, a legacy of all that we have experienced here. This is the last piece of what Topanga used to be like in the 1960s and 1970s. We have all encouraged and helped each other throughout the years. We watched babies grow up and people get together, and get divorced. A landscape constructed from relationships and personal experiences. That is what constitutes a community. Without that, it is just dirt with buildings on it."

"Lost Lives" will perform at The Rose Alley Theater on Sunday, Dec.1, at 4 p.m. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 323.650.3013. A copy of "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove" can be purchased at Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood, Vidiots in Santa Monica and the Howell Green Fine Art Gallery in Topanga.


"Photographing Topanga from the Rodeo Grounds Up"

by Carole Merritt
Photos by David Blattel
(Photos of Blattel by Carole Merritt)

Photographer David Blattel is fulfilling his dream of capturing Topangans in the act of being Topangans, a project he plans to compile into a book.

After 20 years as a commercial photographer with clients like Harley-Davidson, Disney, General Motors and Mattel, Blattel says, “What I’ve been doing for a living is creating shots from beginning to end…in other words I’m taking something and manipulating it and creating what I want out of it. On this [project] I’m trying to take what’s there and show that. And it’s a whole different aspect of what I’m used to.”

Now he looks forward to expanding his capabilities as a photographer by adding editorial aspects to his work as he captures the life and landscape of the canyon,

We decide to meet at Mollie Hogan’s Wildworks deep in the heart of Paradise Lane to continue talking and shoot a few photos. There, surrounded by 40 or so animals in cages, we meet Hogan and volunteer Larry Mann, former owner of Envy, a mountain lion now in residence.

Hogan, who founded Wildworks in 1995 to care for some of the animals she raised and trained at the Los Angeles Zoo, guides us among the cages.

Blattel deftly photographs Sneakers, a ferocious hissing serval (an African wildcat), and a 13-year-old purring mountain lion named Phoenix, who shreds old phone books and licks our hands under Hogan’s watchful eye. Then there is Lucy, the normally nocturnal prairie dog, who comes out to eye the strangers in her midst.

Hogan coaxes Tara, a red- tailed Hawk with a 45-inch wingspan, out of its cage onto a metal bar where it can view the sky and spread its wings. Blattel crouches and snaps away. All the while Hogan gently intersperses her philosophy of preserving wildlife and their habitat as key to preservation of our planet’s livability. We leave Wildworks with dozens of photos and a promise to return.

As we walk back to our cars, Blattel says he’s amazed how well the animals appear to be even though they are in captivity. “Mollie seems to speak their language and they respect her.”

Later that same day Blattel and I sit down at his home near the state park to talk about his passion and his profession.

“When I graduated from high school I had no inkling of what I wanted to get into. I [had] enjoyed photography in high school and so I decided to enroll in photography class at LA Trade Tech.” The teacher told the class the first year was going to be working with a 4x5 view camera, the kind where you put the cloth over your head. “I thought he was joking and that no one had used those cameras since the 30s and 40s -- and I fell in love with it,” said Blattel.

His 4x5 camera is among the several cameras he demonstrates as we talk about his career spanning 20 years. He worked with Harley-Davidson on their calendars. And then there was sky diving and free-fall photography. He asks me if I’ve ever heard of base jumping? When I nod negatively, he explains, “It’s where they jump off of cliffs and bridges. I was with the first group in 1978 – nine times off of El Capitan in Yosemite – in my crazy days.”

Jumping less after the birth of his son in 1990, Blattel said he started “making mistakes.” Unable to stay current, he gave up skydiving when his daughter was born in 1994.

But his photography, which also includes work for Honda, St. Jude Medical and Amgen, in addition to the companies previously mentioned, has continued to thrive.

Blattel describes his Topanga project as a work in progress. “I’m hoping that over time people will start recognizing me so that it will break the ice, so they’ll be more apt to let me take pictures of them,” said Blattel. “I think it’s just going to take a lot of communicating. By getting my face known by people, I’ll have a much easier time.”

We head to Pine Tree Circle – another aspect of life in the canyon -- stopping to photograph a traffic accident, and wind up at Howell Green Fine Art and Framing in Pine Tree Circle where he photographs David Green at work cutting a matt.

The following weekend Blattel and I head down to lower Topanga to take some pictures. Pablo Capra, a 22 year-old aspiring fiction writer, greets us. A 20 year-resident of lower Topanga, Pablo is the son of Bernt Capra, acclaimed director of the 1990 film Mindwalk. We meet brother Lucas, born in this community, who is off to work as a sound engineer in a club. Bernt, backlit by the western sun, is salting strips of cod in a sizzling frying pan.

Pablo takes us walking along overgrown paths to meet the neighbors: visitor Jean Louis Bartoli of Corsica giving himself a facial mask (as only a Frenchman would or could), resident Claude Bal, a sculptor, and designer Gustav Alsina who kindly shows us his cottage.

Blattel didn’t think much of Lower Topanga before going there. “I thought maybe they had had it too easy over the years. And I knew they were going to have to be out within six months or so and I wanted to document it. “But after being introduced to people down there he realizes they have a special community.

This is a living environment created by the residents. But there is an end looming as the state seeks to relocate the residents for a park. “Most of them live frugally,” Blattel said. “I don’t know how many of them are going to exist in other areas. It’s going to be a radical shift in their lives – compensation will get them by for a couple of years but then….” Blattel shakes his head. “Some of them have lived there for 30 years. There will never be anything like it again,”

Blattel captures the lingering sunset and will return again. He will become familiar in Topanga as he captures life in the Canyon. “I know I’ve already stepped into two environments that don’t exist anywhere else.”

What started out for David Blattel as an idea to break through the constraints of commercial life, has become a passion, as it evolves into a photographic story of Topanga.

Older Articles

About Me

My photo
Los Angeles, California, United States
Official website at