Landscape Architecture 101

It sometimes is good to have friends.  A couple of years back I was doing some paperwork in my ranfla down by one of my favorite places to access the LA river (EC has to know this one) when something caught my eye:

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Little neatly carved steps cut out of the clay earth that would easily be skipped by most.  Actually I skipped it for years, as I had been coming down here for decades and never noticed one of the places that makes LA so great.  So I got out of my carucha to investigate, because as many an Eastsider will tell ya: the river makes for good stories, even the most boring river moments are never dull.  As I walked over to the stairs I noticed a peculiar sign:

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This is the edited sign that is more public-friendly.  The original one I first saw read “don’t piss, shit in bamboo fucken crackhead assholes, no rocks here,” or something to that effect.  By this time I was enamored, the socio-barrio-urbanophile meter in me was registering off the charts, which has never let me down.

So I walked down this little path that begun at the handmade steps; which was a bit nerve racking as the bamboo the path was surrounded by makes for a good place for a wacko to jump out and attack you, and the path curved a bit making the outcome more elusive and exciting.  Here’s some more stair action before the gate:cimg2987

And then you get to a gate, one of the best gates I have found in the city, a gate that would make the most gifted beercan-windchime-making-viejito envious:

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When I initially got here I was waiting for some toothless locote to come out swinging a machete at me, as is often custom by many river folks when an outsider comes around (which I found out as a teenager down in the hobo islands up past fletcher).  I was awestruck by the gate, landscape design, hand-carved steps and overall aura of this magical place that I had to see more.  I’m not stupid, so rather than just barge in I called out and waited for the usual “get the fuck out of here” greeting one often gets when trespassing.  But rather than a scowl I got a nice calm “hey how’s it goin’ ” from someone I now consider a good friend and a person I care about immensely.  You see, that’s the cool part of urban exploring and blogging from an Eastsider perspective (not that others from elsewhere don’t, but the style is how we do all day and grew up doing out of need or lack of resources), you don’t just see shit and meet people and check it off your list of things that make you cool/ real and give you validity; instead you meet people, make connections and relationships and learn about who you are and what the world is. You don’t just experience things, you are things and the things are you, blah blah blah….

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There’s my man, Charlie.  The first time I showed up at Charlie’s doorstep I was having a shitty day. He smiled at me, shook my hand and invited me in.  All I told him was hello and I dug his place, he opened the gate and asked me if I wanted to check it out.  Boy was I grateful, his place is the shiznit!!!  My crappy day disappeared, and from then on I go and shoot the shite with Charlos when I’m having a off one.  His casa is out of this world, but Charlie himself is extremely nice and a pretty cool dude to know, you cant go wrong with such an awesome combo. Let me take you on a visual tour of the Charlie compound:

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The compound is basically a half-mile stretch of riverbed hillside between two warehouses and a parking lot.  Charlie carved the whole chingadera by hand, first forging an encampment space and then working his way through the bamboo forest to create an elaborate path filled with his amazing landscape architecture, gardens and artwork he lets local kids paint on the walls.  The building owners love him, and so do many locals, mostly river rats and graffiti writers as well as a few local movie people who are the reason he spruced up his front door signage.  Charlie uses the hillside areas for his gardens where he grows tons of various fruits and veggies, he gives the surplus to local churches and homeless.  The ground level pathway meanders through bamboo clumps and is decorated from head to toe with various odds and ends Charlie has found which give it a Disneyland cum swapmeet magical feel.

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Here’s one of Charlie’s kitties. He had 2 doggies but they ran off, they both had cool names like Basehead and Ruff. If you notice the edges of the walkway are adorned with the largest green onions I’ve ever seen.  Charlie’s a landscaper by trade, having grown up near Houston in the rural Texas Gulf Coast area. He picked up the green thumb through his grandparents and folks, whom used tricks from their slave parents (Charlie’s grandpappies) in the “industry” at one time.  He has tons of amazing stories, as well as tips for your milpa. He also used his skills to make this patch of urbanity a little sanctuary.

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He says the Hollenbeck PD officers get a kick out of the next guy:  they send kids fuckin’ up down to Charlie’s pad as part of their rehab after getting locked up. I spent over 10 months in Eastlake and a half year at Nelles as a teen and I sure could’ve used some inspiration from Charlie’s hacienda. Hopefully it soaks into some mocoso’s brain and keeps him on the right path.

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It’s a doll with a crack pipe in its mouth in case you can’t make it out.  There’s also a 3 foot high mountain of brillo from crack pipes Charlie made a grave from as well nearby. A lot of Charlie’s landscaping has a bit of humor in it…..

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I think the thing that makes me love Charlie the most is how much he is like my abuelito, a working-class renaissance man. Someone whose talents could’ve changed the world but for his lot in life (and I am not starting the violins, real life has none, it just is what it is), so instead they became fantastic dynamos in their own right, in their own box.

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I have a lot more flics and stories/insight about Charlie, he’s an amazing fellow. But I wont mess with the gods, I had documented his place a few times but somehow each time my pics were destroyed, and my computer is acting funny so I’m leaving it at this now. Charlie is one of the points of light that make this city magic, the Tongva were the first to know it and everyone followed suit.  Enjoy!

14 thoughts on “Landscape Architecture 101

  1. Awesome pics and story Art! There used to be some really nice similar gardens right around where the Arroyo and the river meet, completely out of the way of anyone, but of course the powers that be made sure to kick them all out, plants and all. I’m glad to see someone is still continuing this tradition of real guerrilla gardens.

  2. Great post Art! Glad to see some of these DIY “wild” (as in not being controlled by some authority or other) spaces are still around! I love your last line “the Tongva were the first to know it and everyone followed suit.” So true!

  3. I love the sign at the entrance (and everything else). It’s good that the cops respect what he is doing and send kids down there to help Charlie instead of going and trashing his place when they are off-duty, as I’ve heard happens to some of the river encampments.

    “a gate that would make the most gifted beercan windchime making viejito envious” So true! The world is a better place with all those viejitos in it.

  4. this story really made me smile for the first time all day, You have stumbled onto a place of zen in the mist of a concrete jungle with sirens constantly goin off for who knows what these dayz. This world needs more people like this

  5. Art,

    This is a wonderful post! I will admit the pictures that show on the initial website page are not enticing one to read the story, I am glad that I took the time to read it. You found true paradise in LA. It it great to know that he is being taken care by those that surround him, people who live outside are exposed to many mean people. You have been blessed by this friendship.

  6. Gracias to Chavo for editing my post, Ive always appreciated your writing skills and am honored to have you lend me a hand. Im the kind of person who listens to the production on songs more than the song, especially with newer music, so your verbal finesse is much revered by me. Maybe we can meet up and you could tell me about those encampments down by the confluence.

    Thanks for all the other kind words, on behalf of Charlie.

    And pitbullgirl, my goal in life is to become one of those viejitos! I already am practicing my whistling songs and frequently am in the front lawn in my consones to the horror of my wife and kids. I say hello to my jardin after my family once i get home and use the same paper napkin for several meals.

  7. Great post Art, folk art at it’s finest in the heart of LA. I’m glad most people respect and like Charlie because he’s unique and the world needs more like him, and with the ongoing La Crisis maybe it will.
    Good photo’s too.

  8. Art, I see that Hector Becerra in the LA Times today has done a story on that refreshing true to life character “Charlie”, and that you are mentioned a couple of times in the article. Becerra, unlike that creep Chris Blatchford at Faux News, at least gave you proper props since he was so obviously influenced by your post up here at LA Eastside.
    I just hope that with the additional notoriety Charlie isn’t fucked with in a negative way.
    You know what I mean, the city coming down on him and bulldozing all his art and his little pad near the river.

  9. DQ,
    Hector actually learned of Charlos via the Hollenbeck officers, I think he was discussing crime reduction in Boyle Heights and stumbled into a great story. Charlie told me about Hector, he tells me about the folks from the “real world”, as he calls it; Eric Gracetti’s dad also used to visit Charlie.

    Hector contacted me because Charlie has my card and #, as I told him to hit me up if he needs me. The Hollenbeck police have also called me, I think out of curiosity, because we have given charlie gifts and artwork that he hangs up, including a family Xmas photo. Charlie has actually only called me once, when his ulcers were real bad and he needed some meds, he has some serious problems with ulcers and a friends gives him medicine that is the only thing that works, if anyone has a hookup i can find the name of the medication.
    Hector called me and asked me about Charlie, he also told me some of the details of Charlie’s life he found by digging.

    In terms of burning the spot, yeah I gave that a lot of thought. A few years back I found the hobo encampment under the 10-605 interchange near El Monte after following some crackheads by my suegras who went through a hole in the freeway fence. I wanted to do a post on it here but opted not to because of that exact reason. A few months later some douchebag SC student alerted the world to this squatter encampment and it was sealed, now all the hypes live and shit behind the apartments by my suegras, rather than the river where their presence bothered nobody and the stink was washed away.

    In fact, Im very concerned about the negative effects that public and institutional exposure brings to organic/off the grid stuff. I loved the breed st vendors for years, have only eaten street dogs on Bway for the past decade (so now I dont eat on broadway), started a legal graffiti sactuary that is now buffed and artists arrested because the supervisor didnt like the exposure ELA was getting, and grew up poor and brown (aka exposed/ dependant on the black market and illicit activity). So yeah, Ive given it mucho thought. I also used to get food from the OG SC farmeros who left when shit got hot, and remeber how scared they were of media exposure (and as the situation played out, they were damn right)

    But the local cops adore him (all the way the brass), he is on private property and in great standing with the owners, serves a very important function on the property. Hopefully it stays that way, but this is also LA, cool shit is always burned out by either public institutions or juiced up douchebags/gangsters. Double edged sword of this city I love…..

  10. Good to hear Art, the world needs more characters like Charlie, who march’s to his own drummer, hope he has a long and fruitful stay in his own little piece of paradise.

  11. Thanks for the insights for the story Art. The LA Eastside post is excellently done. Like Art said, I was driving with an LAPD officer and we got to talking about homelessness and whether any people were being pushed out into the Eastside as a result of the pressure on homeless people in downtown L.A. The officer just happened to mention “Bamboo Charlie” and asked if I wanted to meet him. I immediatly knew I would do a story.

    At some point I saw a paper plate wishing Charlie a happy “X-mas” on the door of his make-shift house and it said something like, “from Art and family.” I asked who Art was and Charlie told me and gave me a number.

    I did have reservations about whether this would complicate his life, but I had a good sense that because he had permission to stay on private property from the owner, he’d be alright. I would not have done the story if I really thought he’d suffer because of it. It wouldn’t be worth it. So far I think his life hasn’t really been upset.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. I rely on you guys for good insights into what’s going on in the old neighborhood. There’s some great tales and sharp observations here. And, of course, good story leads.

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