Transitional Topanga Canyon

Topanga Canyon is one of those places that has occupied space in my mythological memory for years – which is to say that I’d never been there, but I felt like I had.

As an East Coast girl obsessed with ‘60’s and ‘70’s California culture (how that sort of thing of thing happens I do not know), I’ve consumed a lot of art, music, and pop culture that was birthed in this steep-walled oak-choked Los Angeles arroyo – enough so that I could not only name a number of Topanga Canyon’s former residents, I could describe the flavor of their gifts to the world.  That flavor is tinged with the scent of eucalyptus carried on salt-infused air.  It bears the stamp of the southern California sunshine as well as the constant threat of sudden and spontaneous fire.  It lingers like fog, trying to pretend that the pace of life is easy and accommodating while still being utterly self-conscious of its pivotal role in the big money, high speed Los Angeles entertainment world.

With that stew of ideas floating in my head, I was working with some well-established preconceived notions of what Topanga Canyon was like long before I turned off of the 101 onto the winding State Highway 27.  Twenty-seven connects California’s 101 freeway to its smaller coastal route 1, creating a link between Woodland Hills and Pacific Palisades.  Along with Topanga Creek, a still-active Steelhead trout run, it also forms the literal spine of the 9000-person community of Topanga.

Having once lived in another hippie haven-turned-wealthy hideaway zone – Marin County, California –  I had expected to witness that odd aesthetic and vibrational tension palpable in communities that simultaneously exist in multiple eras.

And I did. Take, for instance, the vintage clothing store Hidden Treasures, an establishment that was started as a roadside stand in the ‘70’s and expanded into a storefront in the ‘80’s.  The place is amazing, with its warehouse-sized inventory of bell bottoms, leather chaps, muu-muu’s, tu-tu’s, Western shirts, and lycra bodysuits crammed into 1930’s house with an amazingly outlandish exterior.  There are tikis, pirate statues, and giant ship’s wheels, and the random succulents and flowers surrounding the place exhibit that classic California laissez-faire landscaping style.

I could have been lost in the place for hours planning my next concert outfit and scoring exotic statement pieces for my friends were it not for the price tags.  Like everything else in LA, this experience was thrift shopping taken to the extreme; nothing I was interested in cost less than $200.  I later found out that both supermodel Kate Moss and rock star Lenny Kravitz have been seen here.  So much for acquiring a Topanga Canyon-sourced fringed leather jacket.

The architecture of Topanga Canyon’s houses illustrated this same “now and then” dichotomy.  Some had clearly not been touched since they were built in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and a few of these old school monuments had yards full of vans and school buses (presumably with people living in them) attesting to their continued semi-commune status.  There were quirky cabins built into steep sidehills, octagonal domes, homemade houses, and prayer flags aplenty.

There were also plenty of makeover mansions.  An experienced eye can detect the shells of the original buildings at the core of these transformations, but their minimalist modern aesthetic has covered over much of their eccentricity.  And then, of course, there are the hybrids, the in-process renovations where some of the old house lingers as the new one is taking shape – literal microcosms of the town itself.

There are VW microbuses driving highway 27, but they are outnumbered by the BMW’s, Teslas, and Mercedes Benzes.  Everyone is moving much faster on that stretch of pavement than they should be; a clear sign that this narrow, meandering “country road” is now an LA highway in all senses of the word.  A couple of real estate agencies and boutique shops also served to remind me of my proximity to the giant megalopolis.

And yet, there is much evidence of a community that is still a community.  I happened to walk past a small arts center and saw a poster advertising its classes – weekly painting and ceramics sessions for locals at very affordable prices. The new library is spacious and appears to be well-used, and it includes a cheap used book store annex, free parking, and a bulletin board exploding with announcements.  The grocery store is actually a grocery store, not a supermarket, and its aisles were refreshingly narrow and disorganized.  I couldn’t get everything I might want in there, and I was glad for it.  I appreciated wandering around amidst wood shelves that may have been installed more than a half-century ago.


There’s no neon in Topanga and there are no chain stores, and when I took a seat at the local bar and bistro, the incredibly handsome waiters (struggling actors all, no doubt) took the time to ask me where I had come from, why I was visiting, and if I liked their town.

Best of all, I kept seeing posters for the Topanga Days Country Fair.  Evidently, this event was started as the Strawberry Festival in the 1960’s and before being renamed in 1973. It has continued to occur annually as a fundraiser for the Topanga Community Center and includes music, crafts, food, and a parade.  The poster depicted a dog playing keyboards in front of a big vinyl record, which seemed just about right.

I went for long bike rides in Topanga State Park, the largest urban park in the United States.  I saw flowering agaves, rabbits, multiple species of oak trees, and one bobcat.  I explored around the bottoms of wild rock outcroppings, then climbed atop them to see views of the entire LA basin and the coastline from Malibu down to Manhattan Beach.

I wandered the steep residential streets, pausing to admire a random buddha statue, a well-designed craftsman-style gate, or a jade plant the size of a potting shed.  Yes, I almost got hit by someone speeding in a Lexus convertible, but I also had a few very friendly exchanges with people out walking their very small dogs.

While I wish I could have seen this place in its heyday, there’s still a big part of me that loves these places-in-transition.  I am fascinated by the coexistence of different value systems, financial realities, and artistic preferences.  When I know I can see just about anything around the corner, I am awake and alive, keenly observing my surroundings and open to anything – the opposite of the feeling I experience when moving through a tract housing development where predictability and order reign supreme.

I’m not sure how much longer communities like this will be able to hold their somewhat contradictory aesthetics and principles in close proximity; after all, transition is inherently unstable, and balance is characteristically fleeting.  This place won’t last.

I suppose this gives me all the more reason to take it in while I can – an idea the 60’s and 70’s artists who made this place famous would almost certainly embrace.


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