As you drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica, the shoreline curves around the bay and the mountains tip downward into the sea. Five miles past the city’s amusement pier, with its carousel and neon Ferris wheel, other emblems of Southern California start to appear: the Getty villa—a model of an ancient Roman country house—crowns an oceanfront cliff; and the Malibu Feed Bin, a rustic red barn selling chicken feed and livestock sundries, hunkers down at the mouth of Topanga Canyon. Turn right here.
The village of Topanga (population 8,289) has long functioned as Los Angeles’s bohemian Brigadoon. Surrounded by Topanga State Park, the largest wilderness area within a city limit in the United States, it’s accessible by just one route: Topanga Canyon Boulevard passes through chaparral-covered hills and steep outcrops of rock, winding along for 12 miles from the ocean to the San Fernando Valley. Since the early 20th century, a scattering of businesses—a rotation of general stores, taverns, spiritual centers, community galleries, and cozy cafes—have come and gone along this main drag. Perhaps emblematic of the latest wave of creatives: The old Bruno’s Dead Dog Saloon—a biker bar nicknamed the Stop and Fight—was recently transformed into Topanga Fresh Market, featuring organic, locavore fare and pressed juice. But some things don’t change. The Inn of the Seventh Ray, a terraced creekside restaurant that opened in 1973 touting “angelic vibrations,” is still festooned with fairy lights and continues to rate as a romantic destination—celebrity trackers report Leonardo DiCaprio, Channing Tatum, and Fergie as regulars. The French-born Museum of Contemporary Art director, Philippe Vergne, and the curator Sylvia Chivaratanond, who are the L.A. art world’s It couple du jour, were married there.
“When you turn off PCH and head up into the canyon, all you can see are those beautiful cliffs and trees,” says the filmmaker Alexander Payne. “You roll down the windows, smell the smells, and I think your blood pressure lowers about five points.” Since 2005, Payne, a devoted Nebraskan, has been dividing his time between a condo in downtown Omaha and a 1930s Topanga retreat boasting fruit trees, live oaks, and spectacular mountain views. “In the little city, I live as though I live in the big city,” he points out. “And in the big city, I live as though I live in the country.” The Topanga commercial attractions do have that down-home feel. Locals dig in to the breakfast special on the porch at Pat’s Topanga Grill, sip margaritas at Abuelitas Mexican Restaurant, and buy black radishes and fig yogurt at the farmers’ market on Fridays. But at the same time, one has the opportunity to practice yoga alongside models like Angela Lindvall and Sibyl Buck.
The artist and filmmaker Meredith Danluck and her husband, Jake Burghart, the director of photography for Vice Media, spent six years shuttling between New York and L.A. before happily settling in Topanga four years ago. “We both surf, so being five minutes away from the ocean has been amazing,” Danluck says. “The air here has its own story. Every day it’s something different: citrus blossoms, fireplaces, night-blooming jasmine. And I love watching the Pacific fog roll into the canyon like a slow white river.”
Topanga’s artistic roots date back at least as far as the McCarthy era, when Will Geer—a blacklisted actor and trained botanist—fled Hollywood and bought a parcel of canyon land. With his family, he established a large, working garden and an open-air theater, where Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performed. In the ’70s, when Geer gained new fame on the hit TV show The Waltons as Grandpa and his children had grown up to be actors, the family created Theatricum Botanicum, now a venerable woodland venue for performances and workshops.
George Herms, a peripatetic beatnik who infuses visual art with a free-flowing jazz sensibility, arrived in Topanga in 1965 for an eight-year sojourn. “It was a creative community unlike anyplace I’d been a part of before—or since,” he says of his circle, which included the late Wallace Berman, one of the West Coast’s most enigmatic and influential artists; and former child actors Dean Stockwell, Billy Gray, and Russ Tamblyn. The artist Peter Alexander arrived a few years later, in 1970. He was living in downtown Los Angeles when land at the top of Tuna Canyon—located on the Malibu edge of Topanga, with a view straight out to the ocean—became available. He and his then wife, the painter Clytie Alexander, and their two small daughters camped out there, planted a garden, and eventually built a house out of timber scavenged from a demolished Union Pacific Railroad building. From their ridgeline, there was only one other inhabited place in sight: Sandstone Retreat, a nudist colony. “We could see little pink things running back and forth,” Alexander remembers. “But what was vivid was a particular sound wave that penetrated the canyon: ice rattling in cocktail glasses.”
Music has long reverberated through the canyon. Although the Topanga Corral, a roadhouse on Horseshoe Bend, burned to the ground in 1988, its musical history has grown mythic. In the hippie heyday, the local band Canned Heat pounded out their anthem “Going Up the Country” there; Neil Young, having left Buffalo Springfield to go solo, played; and Taj Mahal delivered the blues. “I remember my dad going to hear the Flying Burrito Brothers in ’68 or ’69,” recalls Wallace Berman’s son Tosh, a writer, who spent a chunk of his childhood in Topanga. “The only people in the audience were my dad and the Rolling Stones.” The musician Jennifer Pearl, of the noirishly psychedelic L.A. band VUM, says that she and her partner in love and music, Christopher Badger, “were magnetically attracted to Topanga’s ethereal forests, musical history, and strange, burnout-’60s-misfit culture.” In 2011, Pearl and Badger emigrated there from L.A.’s Eastside and settled into an apartment that had been the recording studio where Neil Young wrote and produced his 1970 LP After the Gold Rush. Embracing “a hideout, hermit lifestyle,” the couple wrote Laura Palmer/Are You Animal?—an album produced by their own label, Secret Lodge Recordings.
It’s not hard to understand what draws so many artists to Topanga: wild, wide-open spaces; enforced solitude; and an atmosphere that teeters between insular and inspiring. Perhaps the most dramatic creative compound belongs to the artists Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins, who bought a tract of land atop a mesa in 1981 and, over the years, have acquired an 80-acre spread made up of a modest house, capacious studio buildings, and a vast collection of airplane parts, vehicles, and architectural salvage that they use to create their sculptures and installations. Three years ago, the artist Sam Falls and his wife, Erin, a director at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, in Los Angeles, landed in Topanga after moving from New York. For Falls, whose process-based work often employs natural elements—rainfall, river water, sunlight—the prospect of working outdoors was a big appeal. The couple soon recruited their friend and former housemate, the artist Joe Zorrilla, who found a tiny cabin on a large property nearby. Zorrilla, who maintains a Mid-City studio, now has what he calls an “outdoor office”—a table where he sits to draw and read. “When I left New York, I wanted to slow things down,” he says. “In the canyon, there are things you couldn’t change even if you wanted to—there’s only one way in and one way out.”
Living within one’s own vision of paradise, Payne says, is central to the Topanga vibe. “Each house in the canyon is an entirely different universe,” he observes. “The only thing that unites them is a sense of creativity, of having your house reflect you in some way. I think that people who live in Topanga have two attitudes going on. One being, I love to be part of a community like this. And the other being, leave me the hell alone.”
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