Topanga is an unincorporated area in western Los Angeles County, California, USA. It is located in the Santa Monica Mountains. Occupying Topanga Canyon, it is often referred to by that name. Topanga is 12,748 acres (52 km2) in size, and is bounded on three sides by State Park or conservancy lands, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean and a small strip of Malibu, which is the main community to the west. On the east is Pacific Palisades. Topanga has a population of 5,441 as of 2000. The ZIP code is 90290 and the area code is primarily 310, with 818 only at the north end of the canyon. It is in the 3rd County Supervisorial district.
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Topanga Creek drains Topanga Canyon and is the third largest watershed entering the Santa Monica Bay.[ The creek is one of the few remaining undammed waterways in the area, and is a spawning ground for steelhead trout. The area typically receives about 22″ of rain annually. Topanga State Beach lies on the coast at the outlet of Topanga Creek. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, State Route 27, is the principal thoroughfare, connecting the Ventura Freeway (US 101) with Pacific Coast Highway (SR 1). The southern portion of the boulevard largely follows Topanga Creek. North of the Old Topanga Canyon Road intersection, the boulevard traverses the Santa Monica Mountains.
Topanga Canyon contains lands of both Topanga State Park, which is the largest park in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. It is part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Topanga is the name given to the area by the Native American indigenous Tongva tribe, and may mean “a place above.” It was the western border of their territory, abutting the Chumash tribe that occupied the coast from Malibu northwards. Bedrock mortars can be found carved into rock outcroppings in many locations.
Topanga was first settled by Europeans in 1839. In the 1920s, Topanga Canyon became a weekend getaway for Hollywood stars with several cottages built for that purpose. The rolling hills and ample vegetation served to provide both privacy and attractive surroundings for the rich and famous.
During the 1960s, Topanga Canyon became a magnet to many new artists. In 1965 Wallace Berman settled in the area. For a time, Neil Young lived in Topanga, first living with producer David Briggs then later buying his own house. He would record most of his “After the Gold Rush” album in his basement studio in 1970. Charles Manson had previously been living in Topanga, where he had briefly befriended both Neil Young and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys. Members of “Manson’s family” began their campaign of murder on July 31, 1969 with the murder of Topanga resident Gary Hinman, a music teacher who had opened his home to anyone needing shelter.
The Topanga Corral was a nightclub that featured an eclectic mix of performers, including then Topanga locals Canned Heat, Spirit, Little Feat, Spanky and Our Gang, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Etta James, Neil Young, and Crazy Horse, Geronimo Black, and many others. It is rumored that Jim Morrison was inspired to write “Roadhouse Blues” about the drive up Topanga Canyon Boulevard to The Corral. Later in the 1970s, after being destroyed by fire and rebuilt, the club featured many up and coming bands from the L.A. punk scene. In 1986, the Corral again burned to the ground and was not rebuilt. Today, many musicians, artists and actors continue to make Topanga their home.
Due to its location in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga is a favorite spot for hikers, as well as bicycle, and motorcycle riders/racers. Many movie/TV car/bike chases were filmed on the winding road with the picturesque cliffs in the background. The thick vegetation, steep terrain and frequent (and dry) Santa Ana winds combine to make Topanga an extreme fire danger.
Topanga State Park is one of the largest open space preserves surrounded by a city in the world. It primarily represents a California coastal sage and chaparral ecoregion, with large areas of the California oak woodland plant community, boasting a wide variety of native plants. Streams, waterfalls, cliffs of exposed bedrock, landmark rock outcroppings, and overlooks with panoramic views of the mountains, Pacific Ocean, and urban carpet of Los Angeles. There are many trails for short walks, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, birdwatching, and rock climbing. The main entrance and parking are near central Topanga.
Topanga is known as a bohemian enclave attracting artists, musicians, and others. Numerous music festivals have been organized in the canyon, including the Topanga Days Festival and Topanga Earth Day.
In the 1950s blacklisted actor Will Geer had to sell his large Santa Monica home and move his family to a small plot in the canyon where they could grow their own produce. Geer’s friend Woody Guthrie had a small shack on the property. They unintentionally founded what became an artists’ colony. Since its founding in 1973, the Geer family has continued to operate the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. It has grown into an Equity theater, and occupies a natural outdoor amphitheater. It features Shakespearean plays, modern classics, and original productions, as well as musical concerts. Performers have included Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Della Reese, and Burl Ives.
A famous venue in the canyon was the Elysium Institute, also known as Elysium Fields, a nudist club for 30 years. After surviving extended battles with county officials the 9-acre (36,000 m2) property was sold in 2002 by its founder’s heirs.
Every Memorial Day weekend on the grounds of the Topanga Community House, Topanga has an annual fair and parade, called Topanga Days. Recently dubbed the Biggest Bohemian Bash in Southern California, Topanga Days Country Fair now features three stages of diverse nonstop music, belly dancing, fun and games for all ages, over 80 unique craft vendors and a variety of mouthwatering food from Cajun to hot tamales to comfort-loving sausages. Local and national acts perform and a parade is held on Memorial Day. The parade is said to have inspired the more famous Doo-Dah Parade in Pasadena. Once a free event, admission has been raised to $20 over the past years causing many residents to avoid the once loved event.
Some popular destinations in Topanga include a small handful restaurants such as the upscale Inn of the Seventh Ray, Rocco’s Pizza, Pat’s Grill, Abuelitas Mexican Cuisine and Froggy’s Fresh Seafood restaurant. The local music scene centers on weekend performances at Abuelitas on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Two strip malls, one old and the other new make up the local center of commerce. The newer mall, Pine Tree Circle, is home to the Topanga Historical Society. There are no hotels or motels in Topanga. There is a B&B called the Topanga Canyon Inn.
The hit 1990’s ABC sitcom Boy Meets World features the character Topanga Lawrence (played by Danielle Fishel) named after this location.
The novel The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle is set in Topanga Canyon in the fictional housing development of Arroyo Blanco.
Topanga is featured in the lyrics of the Billy Joel song “Getting Closer” on his 1986 album The Bridge: I’m a mark for every shyster from Topanga to Berlin…
In the music field, Woody Guthrie was one of the first musicians who found a home there. As nearby Los Angeles grew into a major music capital, Topanga became a preferred residence for many performers, including J. B. Eckl, Taylor Hawkins, Neil Young, Chris Robinson, Devendra Banhart, Ryan Ross of The Young Veins, Eric Ronick of Black Gold, Billy Preston, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Ed Cassidy and Randy California of Spirit (band), Bernie Leadon of the Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Don Felder of the Eagles, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison and John Densmore of the Doors, Mick Fleetwood, Spanky McFarland, Lowell George, JC Crowley, Toni Basil, Julia Fordham, Richie Hayward and Fred Tackett of Little Feat, Amy Smart, Taj Mahal, Pee Wee Crayton, Big Joe Turner, Alice Cooper, Van Morrison, Tim Booth, Ryan Bingham, Mark Andes, Jay Ferguson and John Locke of Spirit (band), Justin Chancellor & Adam Jones of Tool and the house music production artist & DJ, Rithma, Bob Hite and Alan Wilson of blues band Canned Heat. Children’s musician residents include Hap Palmer and Peter Alsop. So many orchestral musicians live in the canyon that the Topanga Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1982.
Actors who have lived in Topanga include Billy Gray and his late mother Beatrice Gray, Emile Hirsch, D.W. Moffett, William O’Leary. Viggo Mortensen, Will Geer, Dean Stockwell, Joshua Jackson, Lisa Bonet, Teri Garr, Wendie Malick, Eric Mabius, Keith Carradine, Robin Williams, Ricky Schroder, and Dennis Hopper. Russ Tamblyn raised his daughter Amber Tamblyn, and Lynn Redgrave and husband John Clark raised their children there. Barry Watson from 7th Heaven. Others include Jennifer Holden from the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock. Also, Billy Gray (“Bud” of Father Knows Best) and Kyle Chandler (‘Coach Eric Taylor’ of Friday Night Lights) currently live there, as well as Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) with his wife Kasia and 2 children. Screenwriter Jon Povill (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Total Recall, “Sliders”) also resided there until 2008.
Biotech pioneer Gisela Hoschek and German-American author Gero Hoschek lived there before they moved to San Diego county. Another famous German-American, Uschi Obermaier, former top-model, actress and icon of the polit-hippie movement in Europe, still lives there. Music teacher Gary Hinman, a victim of the notorious Charles Manson gang, lived there on Old Topanga Canyon Road in 1969. Noted Archaeologist Dr. Clement Meighan, UCLA Professor of Archaeology/Anthropology, resided in Topanga over 30 years. In addition, well-known writer and L.A. Times columnist Al Martinez lives there with his wife, and often comments on the nature of life in Topanga.
As of the Census 2000 for the zip code 90290 the following demographics are applicable.
The population of the Topanga is 5441, of which 2,754 (50.6%) are male and 2,687 (49.4%) female.
- The median age is 41.2 years.
- 90.9% of the population is white.
- Average household size is 2.45 persons.
- Average family size is 2.90 persons.
There are 2332 housing units of which
- 1680 are occupied by the owners.
- 535 are occupied by renters.
- 117 are vacant.
- 3952 (97.2%) of residents have a high school graduate degree.
- 2480 (61.0%) of residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
- Median household income in 1999 was $88,661.
- Median family income in 1999 was $118,489.
- Per capita income in 1999 was $46,834.
- Mean Travel Time to work is 39.3 minutes.
Lower Topanga Canyon
The bottom of Topanga Canyon, where it meets Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, was owned for many years by the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a wealthy private club in downtown Los Angeles. The 1,659 acre (6.7 km2) parcel was rented out to a variety of businesses and residents for decades at remarkably low rents, considering that it borders the city of Malibu. Thus Lower Topanga became unique as one of the last outposts of the classic Topanga Canyon bohemian hippie lifestyle.
The Chumash considered Lower Topanga a sacred, economic, and cultural meeting place for tribes all along the coast. One of the main neighborhoods, the “Rodeo Grounds,” takes its name from an actual rodeo arena that existed there on a Mexican Ranch in the 1800s. (Another neighborhood, “The Snake Pit,” was named both for its abundance of rattlesnakes and for the shifty characters who passed through like Charles Manson.)
In the early 1900s, Lower Topanga was a Japanese fishing village. William Randolph Hearst owned the property for a time and turned it into a weekend getaway spot with beach shacks for his and Marion Davies’ guests.
Famous residents of Lower Topanga include Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Bertolt Brecht, Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple, Johnny Weissmuller, and Ida Lupino.
In the ’60s, a lively community of artists and surfers sprang up in Lower Topanga. They maintained their houses without assistance: sometimes digging them out of the mud after floods, or setting backfires to prevent a spreading wildfire from burning down their neighborhood. The roads remained unpaved.
In 2001, Lower Topanga was sold to California State Parks. Even though the Lower Topanga community occupied less than 2% of the total purchased land, State Parks had an aggressive policy to relocate everyone and bulldoze all of the houses. (State Parks had already evicted residents who lived directly on Topanga Beach in the late ’70s.)
Arundo, a type of giant reed resembling bamboo that characterizes the Lower Topanga landscape, became a totemic plant for the residents because it was first on a long list of non-native plants that State Parks also condemned to be uprooted in an attempt to restore the land to its natural state.
A group of 10 Lower Topanga poets calling themselves the “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove” published a book of the same name in 2002, celebrating their community and lamenting the prospect of having to leave. Their publisher, Brass Tacks Press, continued publishing works by (and about) Lower Topangans including “Rat Tales” by Baretta (2005), “The Snake Pit” by Baretta (2006), a “Lower Topanga Calendar” (2005), and “Prevenge of the Androgynous Cyborg Pyrates from the Future: A Graphic Novel” by Toylit (2006— ).
In addition, Austrian filmmakers Natalie Lettner and Werner Hanak shot a documentary film about the neighborhood called Malibu Song (2006).
Even though Lower Topanga residents were given money to leave, some fought bitterly against their relocation in court. However, the last holdouts were forced off the land in March 2006.
Although some Upper Topanga residents (including the local Native American population) believed that the destruction of the Lower Topanga human community would be a terrible cultural loss, the ecological benefits of returning this vital watershed to a natural state has convinced many that this is the right move. With its completion, the flora and fauna indigenous to the region will recover, and the trails and park that replace the shacks and arundo will give way to a more balanced, natural environment, accessible to all.
Government and infrastructure
The Los Angeles County Fire Department operates Fire Station #69 in Topanga as a part of Battalion 5.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) operates the Malibu/Lost Hills Station in Calabasas, serving Topanga.
The United States Postal Service Topanga Post Office is located at 101 South Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
Topanga residents are zoned to schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District with portions of Topanga that are within the boundaries of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District(SMMUSD).
- Topanga Elementary School or Webster Elementary(SMMUSD)
- A choice between Revere Charter Middle School, Parkman Middle School or Malibu Middle School(SMMUSD)
- A choice between Palisades Charter High School and Taft High School or Malibu High School(SMMUSD)
The area is within Board District 4. As of 2010 Steve Zimmer represents the district.
- November 6, 1961, The Santa Ynez Fire began, the same day as the Bel-Air–Brentwood Fire further east. It burned nine structures and 9,720 acres (39 km2) of watershed.
- Topanga Creek causes occasional flooding and extensive road erosion, requiring the closure of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. In 1980, severe flooding washed out large sections of the road at the bottom of the “s” curves. Traffic was severely restricted during the six months of repairs. However, the heavy rains also produced beautiful waterfalls on the mountains east of the creek for a few months.
- November 2, 1993, The Old Topanga Fire. Within an hour, had burned 1,000 acres (4 km2). It resulted in the largest mobilization of emergency resources in a 24-hour period in California history. By the time it was extinguished 10 days later, 16,516 acres (67 km2) of watershed and at least 388 structures were burned in Topanga and adjoining areas.
- In 1997–8 Topanga Canyon received over 58″ of rainfall resulting in extensive flood damage.
- In 2005, a fire referred to as the “Topanga Fire” burned in Chatsworth and points south and west of Chatsworth. This fire did not burn any areas in Topanga Canyon, but was named due to its origin near the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard (SR 27) and the Ronald Reagan Freeway (SR 118) in Chatsworth.
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