Article and Photos by Pablo Capra
Group photo by Nicolas Amato
Damn! I knew I would have to write this article one day.
After five years of resisting forced relocation by State Parks, my neighborhood is finally coming to an end.
On February 14, Judge Mira at the Malibu courthouse granted State Parks's request to get a police order to forcefully relocate the last residents of Lower Topanga. Now the small group of hold-outs are scrambling to move before the police order goes into effect.
I've lived with my family in the part of Lower Topanga known as the Rodeo Grounds since I was one year old. My neighborhood supposedly got its name because cowboy actor Tom Mix liked to hold rodeos there to entertain the real cowboys from the Rindge and Adamson ranches in Malibu.
William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies purchased Lower Topanga in the teens or ‘20s and also used the property for horseback riding and throwing parties.
Other big names who stayed here include Bertolt Brecht, Johnny Weissmuller, Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Carole Lombard, and Charles Manson.
Lower Topanga has long been a gathering spot for creative types: from celebrities to eccentrics to outlaws to all-around groovy dudes. Its community has always existed on the fringes of society.
It's true that Lower Topanga was once a hideout for scary bikers and drug dealers, but those days ended in the late '80s. And later, the infamous Snake Pit was the first Lower Topanga neighborhood to be relocated by State Parks. But Lower Topanga still maintained its iconoclast image until the end, thanks in large part to Rodeo Grounds artist Toilet, his consecutive girlfriends Daisy Duck and Log, and the tribe that surrounded them.
At Toilet's place anarchy ruled, everyday was a holiday, and costumes or nudity were the norm. He and his friends embodied the spirit of the "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove" the Brass Tacks book of ten Lower Topanga poets, which Toilet also illustrated and contributed poems to. In the last years, Toilet actually managed to repopulate the Rodeo Grounds by inviting dozens of guests to stay on his property, an act of defiance which State Parks took him to court for several times.
Meanwhile, a surprising number of new neighbors appeared in other ways – mostly house sitting for residents in transition – just to soak up the stoke of the historic community before it disappeared.
One of these new neighbors, Christoph, moved into a house with an outdoor bathtub that he loved. Luckily, he wasn't bathing the day that a huge branch fell on it – one he was never able to completely clear away. He enjoyed his last night in the house by taking a long bath with candles burning all around. The next day, a bulldozer came and rolled over his house, transforming it into a flat dirt lot.
My sister had camped in Christoph's yard one night with her friends and forgotten to take our tent down. Family drama ensued when we realized that the tent had also been bulldozed.
Christoph then moved into another house in the Rodeo Grounds, but complained about the rat problem there. With each house that was bulldozed, more rats seemed to descend upon the remnants of our crumbling community.
This rat invasion became the inspiration for long-time resident Baretta's Brass Tacks book "Rat Tales." Baretta was evicted from his shack almost a year ago and ordered to stay away from the neighborhood.
But with nowhere to go and all his friends here, he chose to sleep in an abandoned van in the Rodeo Grounds anyway, using the facilities at various neighbors' houses. In December, State Parks towed the abandoned van away because it wasn't registered, so Baretta started sleeping outside in the bed of his pickup truck. We worried about him, but weren't too concerned because the nights were warm, so it seemed like a tolerable short-term solution.
But then the weather suddenly turned cold, and he woke up one night shivering and suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, he survived. He now lives in an RV and is working on another book inspired by his life in Lower Topanga.
Farengis moved to the Rodeo Grounds last summer, and for some reason, her first encounters with Baretta turned into angry shouting matches. Christoph once said, "You have to get along with Baretta to live in this neighborhood," and there was some truth to that. Really, everybody had to get along with everybody in the Rodeo Grounds. But Farengis's and Baretta's personalities just didn't mix. Luckily, things mellowed out between them… maybe because Farengis became a fan of Baretta's "Rat Tales."
One night, as Farengis was driving home, she saw a car broken down in the middle of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. The driver, a timid college student, was standing outside crying helplessly. Farengis promised to get help to push her car out of the street, then drove down to the Rodeo Grounds to get me.
When we drove back, someone had already pushed the girl's car into the Feed Bin parking lot. The girl was feeling better and said that her friends were coming to pick her up in half an hour. But Farengis said, "Why don't you come stay at my place until your friends arrive?" So, the girl got into Farengis's jeep.
As we turned off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the jeep bounced onto the dirt road of the Rodeo Grounds and drove into pitch blackness. We descended into the flood plain, splashed through the creek, then wound through the trees and arundo until we reached home.
When we parked, the girl, who had been strangely silent during the ride, suddenly jumped out of the jeep and backed away.
"What's wrong?" I asked? Visibly shaking, she replied, "I'm so scared right now!" I was like, "Hey, it's okay. Don't worry. Do you want to go back?"
I made a friendly gesture but she backed away again. It probably didn't help that I am 6'7" and she was barely five feet tall. Or that a bunch of trippers and freaks were playing loud music and dancing around Toilet's campfire next door, an almost nightly occurrence.
I realized, "Man, this girl thinks we've kidnapped her and taken her to some kind of Satanic compound! In a moment, she's going to mace me, or faint, or bolt away into the bushes."
So, I just threw my hands up and said, "Look, do what you want. I'm leaving," because I knew that was the fastest way to diffuse the situation.
As I left, I could hear the girl asking Farengis, "Is it really okay here? Are you sure?"
Apparently, the girl chilled out so much that Farengis got her to go to the party next door, where they had a really good time. Then Farengis aroused the girl's interest by telling her that our neighbor Christoph was single and looked like Leonardo de Caprio. So they went to his house and bothered him for a few minutes, but he fumbled. Needless to say, the girl was late to meet her friends, but arrived with a big smile.
The next day when Farengis came home, she found a whole pizza and a thank you note that the girl had left by her door.
Sam, a Topanga teen, didn't actually live in the Rodeo Grounds, but was here almost everyday, hanging out with his best friend Calvin across the street. The two never wore shirts, and when they weren’t at the beach, they were at my house, either visiting my sister or playing videogames. Because the Rodeo Grounds is unpaved, Sam and Calvin liked to pull my carpet up and practice skateboarding tricks on the concrete floor.
Rebecca, a new neighbor, had lived in Mexico for so long that she almost spoke English with an accent. She built a swing in the middle of the house she moved into, and it was the cutest little bohemian place except that, like with all the houses, you knew it was doomed. It got bulldozed a few months after she moved in, but she continued living in the neighborhood with friends.
Now Rebecca is one of the last people here. These nights, she sits alone by Toilet's campfire, wearing a colorful scarf and a man's hat tipped forward, looking like a ghost from a Mexican fairytale.
This neighborhood is full of ghosts. I still see buildings clearly in the corner of my eye that don't exist anymore – all the houses, Ginger Snips, Something's Fishy, the Topanga Ranch Market. And I avoid looking at the empty spaces that try to erase these places from my memory. Sitting in my house at night, I can already hear the shovel of a bulldozer crashing through the walls. It's a terrible sound.
Mailboxes are disappearing from the shelf at the top of my road. Once I saw five or six of them filling a nearby trashcan. A simple image, but jarringly surreal. How often do you see something like that?
Everything in the Rodeo Grounds has become rundown because no one wants to fix anything anymore. The footbridge is weathered and crooked, and boards are falling off it. The trampoline in my yard has rusted and recently fallen apart. The roof of my house has holes that I can stick my foot through. The walls of my room, on which I hung a collection of more than 30 paintings by Lower Topanga artists, are bruised and bare. (I conveniently curated a show to store my art collection, "Art from the Vanishing Lower Topanga Community," which will be up through February at Beyond Baroque in Venice).
A week ago, Toilet was in my yard when he exclaimed, "Oh my God! Look at this!" I rushed over to see a beautiful dead hummingbird hanging upside down, still clinging to a wire fence with its tiny talons. These are ominous days.
Toilet tried to move his Airstream trailer but the wheels don't roll right anymore. It lumbered forward about 50 feet then broke down. Now he has left, but his trailer is still parked in the space between our two yards. That space was once a house.
Ever since the first people started moving out of Lower Topanga, we've had to chase away scavengers. Even when they just want to save plants from people's gardens, it hurts to see them carting off pieces of our neighborhood. Recently, somebody took the sign we put up by the creek crossing that said "Rodeo Grounds Forever," now a lost dream.
I have less than a week now before the police can legally throw me out. I still don't know where I'm going. I'll never understand why the State had to bulldoze my neighborhood to make a park, and I think most Californians (including me!) wouldn’t have voted for Proposition 12 to acquire more parkland in 2000 if they new that this was how the State would do it.
At Toilet's last party, he graffitied his place with references to our neighborhood's demise. On one door, he wrote, "Not enough paper to record all the beauty that this door has opened up to."
That's so true it makes my head spin. And it's only one door out of many!