HOPEDANCE -- March/April 2004

"Topanga Canyon: A Legendary Artists Community's Struggle to Survive"

by Amy Landau

The longtime residents of an extraordinary artist community in Topanga Canyon are currently facing what may be the threat of their lives: imminent eviction. Once a vibrant artist community of 120 residents forming one of the last outposts of the ’60s hippie bohemian lifestyle, the community has now diminished in size to 40 courageous holdouts. They do not battle an easily recognizable culprit like a real estate or strip mall developer, displaying obvious signs of monetary greed. Rather, their battle is with none other than the California State Parks, which bought the property in 2001 from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the previous owners for 50 years. On the surface of the matter, the community’s eviction may incite one’s sympathy more than outrage. However, one need not look far to uncover a much more troubling picture, one that cries out for the public’s attention.

I first stumbled upon the community of Lower Topanga in mid-November last year when I had the fortune to attend a fascinating party in one of the main neighborhoods, known as the Rodeo Grounds. After descending a windy road through the lush Santa Monica Mountains toward the ocean, my companions and I took a secretive turn onto a rough, broken road that led to the grounds. Behind a latched wooden door, we found a charmingly rustic world I didn’t think possible within such close proximity to the chaos of Los Angeles. At the party, people actively shared their passions, improvised new songs around a fire, played music, danced to a DJ and lounged in a wood-stove-heated art studio. The edgy urban sensibility and out-of-bounds creativity of the people within such an unexpectedly wild setting struck me as rare and delightful. However, I soon learned that this jewel of a community was on the brink of extinction and that what I witnessed was only a taste of the community in its former glory.

An assortment of neighborhoods lying at the border of Malibu, Lower Topanga stretches from Topanga State Beach to the first two miles of Topanga Canyon in an area characterized by frequent flooding from Topanga Creek. Its residents have rented their low-cost houses from the Los Angeles Athletic League on land considered undevelopable because of its location within a low-lying flood plane. Although the people rent their homes, they more closely resemble toughened homesteaders than modern tenants. Their unique lease arrangement stipulates that they must be responsible for all repairs on their homes without outside assistance. Thus, they confront flood, fire and earthquake routinely. Consequently, their identification with their homes and fellow community members is strong. "Everybody has wonderful war stories," says Beth Van de Wouw, a resident of 10 years. "People with shovels and sand bags. People help one another. Your house is a living entity."

The declared motive behind the actions of State Parks is to restore the land to its "natural state." They claim that their intention is to connect the coastal region to Topanga Canyon State Park in the mountains. However, residents are quick to point out the difficulty of negotiating a path from the coast to the mountains: a hiker has yet to tackle this feat. Furthermore, State Park’s plan for the removal of all plants deemed non-native would account for approximately 80% of the flora. Bernt Capra, a longtime resident and accomplished art director, is actively fighting the evictions in court. He describes the State Park’s mission as a futile attempt to turn back the clock in order to recreate a Jurassic Park fantasy-land. He argues that the 500-year-old-past cannot be recreated without bringing back the bears, wolves, and other natural predators to the area. Weeding out the non-native plants itself would be an endless, nearly impossible operation.

Bernt believes that the State Parks have a much less ethical plan up their sleeve: to do business with developers. Developers have always had an eye on Topanga Canyon, wishing to build a strip mall, for example, along the Pacific Coastal Highway, yet it has remained essentially rural until recently, because of prohibitive costs. The State Park’s decision to purchase such expensive land leads to suspicions that they intend to recoup costs through a lease with developers. "The New York Stock Exchange is a non-profit," Bernt declares, pointing out the myth behind the non-profit designation. In his belief, State Parks are merely a business, wanting to increase their cash flow like any other. As a ring leader in the current struggle, Bernt remains resolute in his determination to keep his community intact and remain in his home. "We are like Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio,’… the conscience," he says, referring to the character who points out the wrongs of others. "They don’t want us here."

Historically, Lower Topanga had significance to the Chumash who recognized the area as a sacred economic and cultural meeting place. In the 1800s, the Rodeo Grounds served as an actual rodeo arena for a Mexican ranch; in the early 1900’s, a Japanese fishing village. Finally, the houses of the residents in the 1950s (many of which are now boarded up or demolished) were built as weekend beach shacks, for actors like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Charlie Chaplin, Carole Lombard, and Ida Lupino. "There are stories that Peter Lorre and Bogart used Herb’s house as a weekend retreat place where they’d have their mistresses and what have you," said James Mathers, a resident painter and writer, referring to the now vacant home of his friend Herb Bermann, also a writer. Clearly, the region has a long and unique heritage of undeniable cultural significance. "And strangely, it’s been allowed to exist in this kind of state," mused Mathers, calling the area an "anomaly" amidst the belt of multi-million dollar homes extending from San Diego to Santa Barbara. "I can either say that’s good luck, or that it wants to be like this."

Although the community in question only encompasses 2% of the total parcel of bought land, State Parks has mounted an aggressive policy to uproot its occupants, bulldoze their homes and reshape the land according to its own particular ideals. Arundo, a type of Bamboo that has come to define the landscape, has become a pivotal point of controversy to parallel the peoples’ own struggle. One of many plants considered "non-native" by State Parks, the plant has been condemned for removal by means of herbicide. The original herbicide in use, Round Up, contains Glyphosate, a cancer-causing agent hazardous to humans. Residents and environmentalists have fought the plan with varied success. Aside from the complete disregard for the health of the community, some residents are dismayed by what they view as the destruction of a familiar and treasured plant. Pablo Capra, a poet, journalist and publisher, feels particularly strongly on this issue. "This plant in particular, I feel very connected to, and it just seems to me like the most native plant to this neighborhood. Because I grew up here, I used to climb them." He grieves the loss of the memorable Arundo tunnels that are now reduced to refuse along trails by State Park contractors. Although the plant originated in Asia, Pablo says its non-native status is by no means universally-regarded. The question of what to consider native to the land, whether it be people or plants, is at the heart of the Topanga Canyon conflict. Pablo, the publisher of Idlers of The Bamboo Grove, a collection of works by local Topanga artists, arrived upon his title with precisely this parallel in mind. He and other residents fought to block the use of herbicides and won an agreement with State Parks to halt herbicide activity through the end of 2003. However, the agreement was broken recently, when an independent contractor working for State Parks was spotted in the act of spraying herbicide to poison another "non-native," the castor bean.

The daily struggle to remain in their homes and confront officials of the State has taken a harsh toll on the well-being of the residents. Many suffer from depression at the thought of losing their homes. Most notably, the struggle resulted in the tragic loss of three people, Arthur King Zimmerman, John Fowler and Jerry Greenwood who died from causes their loved ones directly attribute to the stress and threat of eviction. The Pacific Relocation Consultants (PRC), who were hired by State Parks in 2001 to assist residents in finding comparable living situations largely failed in their attempts, namely because no such equivalent living situation exists. Coliene Rentmeester, a resident of 22 years, came to live here for the tranquility and natural beauty that Lower Topanga offered. "I like it here and I don’t know where to go. There’s nothing around, not in a comparable situation. You have to be a very rich person." Katherine Groomer, a resident of 30 years, says she has looked everywhere but found nothing comparable to her home. "Everyone lives under a constant threat. The stress is a form of torture," she complains. Trailer parks have been proposed as relocation homes to residents, falling far short of expectations. Contrary to rumor, no cash-in-pocket has been offered for compensation. Instead, residents have been offered the option to accept one of three "comparable" houses with the difference in rent paid for a period limited to four years or a modest sum for a down payment on a house (i.e. trailer) but no assistance to pay off mortgages. The unsatisfactory efforts of PRC may have reflected a conflict of interest because public records uncovered by the community’s lawyer revealed that monies left over from relocation would go toward employees’ salaries. State Park’s decision to remove the relocation consultants from office in December suggests PRC’s failure and the triumph of the 40 holdouts who resisted relocation for more than two years beyond the deadline.

Although some of the holdouts are uncomfortably resigned to their fate, others are fiercely determined to fight to the end. Beth Van de Wouw, whose house became an unexpected legacy from her husband’s grandfather, vows that she will climb the palm tree outside her window and refuse to come down, should the officials come to evict her. "I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for this family," she states. Bert Capra too, remains one of the most cheerfully defiant of the bunch. He considers State Parks his landlord and cites precedents (such as the Trippet Ranch in the 1970s) in which rentals were allowed to cohabit peacefully the State Park land. He strongly believes in the success of the community’s quest for survival.

One can only hope, for all our sakes, that he is right. The artistic contributions and love of the land that distinguish the community are striking testimony to its value, as is its role as a rare and much-needed conscience for the world today.

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