MALIBU MAGAZINE -- August/September 2005

"The Disappearing Bamboo Grove"

Article and photos by Sonja Magdevski
Old photo courtesy of Topanga Historical Society

The fight to save Lower Topanga

Pablo Capra is a denizen of the Rodeo Grounds, an area of the world that today only exists for a few fortunate souls. He moved there when he was 6 months old with his family, after his father cleaned out a flooded, mud-filled home he had fallen in love with that was devastated by the overflowing Topanga Creek in 1980. Twenty-five years later, Capra struggles with the thought of having to leave his homemade paradise to make way for the expansion of Topanga State Park.

The Rodeo Grounds is one of a few neighborhoods that comprise the 1,659 acres of the Lower Topanga Canyon area, which was purchased in August of 2001 by California State Parks after 64 percent of California citizens approved Proposition 12, the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000. As the largest park bond act in California history, a yes vote gave the state permission to collect $2.1 billion from taxpayers for park acquisition and development, with a majority of the funding allocated to cities and counties for neighborhood projects. A smaller portion of the proceeds was allotted for land acquisition, of which $43 million was used to purchase the Lower Topanga Canyon property.

"We are preserving and protecting a significant ecological corridor for future use and recreation and just as importantly we are preserving the habitat and wildlife of the area," said Deputy Director of California State Parks Roy Stearns. "As Los Angeles expands, more and more of these precious open spaces are being gobbled up by asphalt, driveways, houses and businesses and in the future we will need additional recreation space for people to enjoy."

The area has been coveted by California State Parks for several decades with the goal of creating a hiking trail that links the ocean to the Valley. Starting at Topanga State Beach, the trail would wind its way through Lower Topanga all the way up to Topanga State Park and beyond. The interim plan calls for removing invasive plant species, enhancing the native plant community, removing non-historic buildings, restoring the creek bed, protecting habitat and wildlife, and possibly, some day, restoring the wetlands and the lagoon that once existed before the Pacific Coast Highway was built. State Park officials admit this will be an arduous process lasting anywhere from 10 to 20 years or more. Regardless of the timeline, ecologists, environmentalists and many local residents celebrate the purchase.

The irony of the situation is that Pablo Capra said he was probably one of the state's citizens who voted yes for Proposition 12, because "who doesn't want clean water and clean air?" he asked. One of the main reasons he and his fellow residents live where they do is because they enjoy living immersed in nature, where the door delineating the outside from the inside is often blurred. He and his neighbors most likely also voted yes for Proposition 40 in 2002 which collected $2.6 billion dollars for land acquisition, park development, habitat protection, clean beaches, and more. Stearns stated that there isn't enough money in this lifetime to purchase all of the land that Californians would like state parks to protect. Pablo Capra wondered if Californians would still vote yes to these bond acts if they knew people would be evicted from their homes in the process.

Five million dollars has been allocated by State Parks to provide relocation funds for the area's evicted tenants, two-thirds of whom have already accepted their buy-out offers and have moved out. The average pay-out has been about $80,000 per household, depending on the size and condition of the home, with the highest payment so far reaching well over $200,000. The commercial district along the highway with its staple historic institutions has suffered a similar fate. Stearns said that businesses compatible with future visitor use of the park have a greater chance of remaining in place. The Topanga Ranch Motel closed in 2004 but will eventually be restored as a historic structure. Of the initial ten businesses, half have opted for a buyout, while the other five remain open, albeit somewhat tenuously, as they continue to work through arrangements with State Parks. Wylie's Bait and Tackle has been in business since 1946 and the Malibu Feed Bin is going on 40 years.

A Hidden Paradise

The Rodeo Grounds was, back in the day, an actual rodeo arena in the 1800s on a Mexican ranch. Today, the arena's outlines can still be seen from aerial photos. Before that, the area was once an important economic and cultural crossroads for Chumash and Tongva Native Americans who inhabited the land, and the area is purported by local legend to be a sacred Native American burial ground. At the turn of the 1900s, it was home to a Japanese fishing village, then, in the 1930s became camps for the young men of President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. Soon after it became the private hideaway for famous Hollywood movie stars in the 1940s who stole away with lovers and friends into the area's wooded seclusion and serenity.

Many of us have driven by Topanga Canyon Boulevard along the PCH numerous times without ever having the pleasure of experiencing the beauty and charm of Lower Topanga. Once inside the canopy of native and exotic species that has created this magical landscape below and beyond the road at the mouth of Topanga Canyon, the outside world seems far away. The sounds of traffic disappear, sunlight dances along Sycamore tops, slight breezes trickle through palm fronds, ducks casually paddle their way down the creek, and narrow, well-worn paths through dense thickets of bamboo beckon one deeper and deeper into this Alice in Wonderland-like world.

"We are fortunate enough to have landed like Columbus in this idyllic setting next to the ocean that does not exist anywhere anymore in the United States," said Robert Lynn Overby, (a.k.a. Baretta to those who know him), a resident of the area since the '60s. "I came from a little town called Ocean Beach near San Diego that had a beautiful pier where my father had a drug store, and when I came here it was just like coming from this little sleek surf town. My friends from UCLA brought me here to go surfing and at that time it was full of thugs, bikers, actors, surfers and artists right it in the middle of Los Angeles where we all lived for cheap. It was unbelievable. It seems like a hundred years ago. There was really special magic about this place."

Before state park acquisition, the area was home to a community of more than 80 households composed of artists, writers, filmmakers, surfers, local business-owners, photographers, families, students and retirees, many of whom have lived there for decades in a lifestyle that has been called eclectic, bohemian, and unconventional. Residents lived in a rural, village environment where everyone knew each other's families, histories, fears and dreams; where neighbors helped one another and the community pitched in for public works projects. In 1981, they collected $2,000 to construct a permanent foot bridge across the creek out of old telephone poles after floods destroyed the previous one. During the Malibu fires in 1993, residents used flares to control burn their own hillside and clear it of brush as fires were fast approaching after the fire department refused to enter the area with their trucks.

"People don't understand why we live here - some people think it is too rustic - sometimes we go through winters when there aren't any exits except on foot, but we still think it is the best place to live in the world," said Ray Casser, who with his wife Renate, has been a Lower Topanga resident since 1965. "I love nature and when I first came here I was instantly fascinated by the beauty and serenity of the place. Each time we come home at the end of the day we are reminded of how we live in paradise."

The Cost of Preservation

Unfortunately this idyllic community that emphasized tranquility instead of materialism has come to pay a high emotional price for this lifestyle. Their previous landlord, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Ltd., (LAACO), allowed residents to live cheaply as long as they weren't bothered with the typical tenant/landlord grievances such as maintenance, plumbing, roofing, etc. Residents lived in rented homes with month-to-month leases on prime Southern California coastal real estate for $400 to $1,600, but were required to repair everything themselves regardless of the crisis. They even had to maintain their own roads. As a result, LAACO's extreme laissez-faire lease arrangements made it easy for longtime renters to feel like homeowners, as many people constructed beautiful additions to their homes, with bedrooms, offices, sunrooms, and art studios.

"I have lived here for 25 years and I have really grown roots here with my family," said Bernt Capra, Pablo's father. "My son Lucas was born here, Pablo was 6 months old when we moved here and my youngest daughter Michele loves it here. I have buried pets here. We have a vegetable garden and 15 fruits trees with avocado and fig trees and blackberries - it is just a different lifestyle here - and yet we are only 10 minutes from Santa Monica. This place made it possible for me to develop a life that has been very comfortable and full of happiness for me and my family because the cost of living is low. For entertainment you can take your surfboard to the beach and in the summertime lots of friends come to visit. Maintaining a family home as the center of gravity for our activities is very important to me and I don't want to lose that."

The Capra family is one of the remaining households that has refused to leave their home and who, along with the others, are currently in litigation against State Parks challenging the relocation plan. The residents' contend that a proper relocation committee was never formed, in which tenants comprise 50 percent, according to state relocation laws. Tenants and business owners alike have said they feel as if their voices were ignored throughout the planning process, even though they attended all meetings, repeatedly outlined their needs, formed a community association, and hired legal counsel. Ginny Wylie, owner of Wylie's Bait shop (which her grandfather started), also has a home on the property and said that if the process had been fair and equitable most of the tenants would have probably made agreements with State Parks by now. The initial court rulings in the case have not been favorable to residents.

Another impediment in the relocation process is finding equitable housing for residents, which in today's real estate market seems impossible, particularly for anything along the coast for the rates residents had been paying. As Bernt Capra pointed out, the only comparable location that has a surfing beach within walking distance surrounded by a lush, tree-filled environment with a creek running through it is Serra Retreat, which as he also highlighted, is a playground for millionaires.

"Living here has made me very open minded and it made me respect nature and helped me to become an artist with all of the other artists around as role models and inspiration," said Pablo Capra. "It is hard to get back a community that you grew up in so it would be hard to build another community like this because I have been here my entire life."

To read more about the residents of the area, Pablo Capra has published Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, a book of poetry and drawings from Lower Topanga Canyon residents available through Brass Tacks Press and local bookstores. The website is www.lifeasapoet.com. To learn more about Topanga State Parks, call 310-455-2465 and ask for Ranger Tim Hayden, or 310-454-8212 to speak with Park Superintendent Bill Verdery. To view old photos of the area, call the Topanga Historical Society at 310-455-1969 and ask for Ami or Doug Kirby.

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