Gentrifying Dystopia in Bombay Beach – Summer Chronicles 2018 #5

by on July 17, 2018 · 1 comment

in Under the Perfect Sun

There’s something compelling about desolation, about lost places filled with traces of forgotten histories both personal and collective. That’s why I’ve always had a penchant for little towns around the Salton Sea, the vast, dying body of water I describe in my first novel, Drift:

It was a mistake, the product of a vulgar utopia gone awry. At the turn of the century, they dreamed of transforming the desert into a garden by bleeding nature of more than she readily offered.

When they sought to divert the waters of the Colorado, they flooded downhill and formed the Salton Sea. In the wake of this disaster, they dreamed of turning the floodwaters into their own depraved version of Eden, a haven for real estate boosters, businessmen, and all the hungry failures who had lost out on the golden dream in Los Angeles and San Diego.

But everything went wrong, and all the detritus of the dying dream flooded into the sea—all the pesticides, toxics, organic compounds, and salt, salt, salt mixed together to form an ocean of poison that is killing even the harder corvina, who survived, like those who transplanted them, by eating all the smaller fish. Now the fish lie rotting by the shore, easy prey for the birds that scoop them up hungrily and die in large numbers.

And when you drive through places like Salton City or Bombay Beach it feels like the end of the world. As the main character of Drift muses, “This is where you go when you stop wanting . . . Occupy the wreckage of a dead dream. If the world pushes you too hard, just stop pushing back.”

Polaroid of Bombay Beach by Mooninsean / Flickr

It was that noir quality that I sought to echo in both Drift (2007) and my second novel Flash (2011), where obscure little towns around the Salton Sea provide the backdrop for some of the most important parts of both books. What captured my imagination about these forgotten locales was how they seemed to be beyond saving. They were shells of places where people went to survive on the margins or play out their last act.

I tried to get at that feeling in this poem I wrote during one of my trips out to the desert while those novels were in the process of being born:

Bombay Beach, CA

When I drove in at midday
it was 105 and
the wind was blowing the
stench off
the Salton Sea.

There was an old pick-up
outside the general store
with a sticker about Jesus
on the tailgate.

As I drove through
the tiny grid of streets,
I passed two lonely
little churches
that could have been
auto parts stores.

Most of the trailer homes
were empty
but a few had the AC on,
rattling away,
laboring hard against
the inferno outside
as the people stayed cool
and built mystery
behind blinds.

Toward the shore,
the road turned to gravel
and I stopped to look
at the dead shell of
a bar
with the open sign
still hanging from the window.

By the abandoned marina,
there were houses and trailers
submerged in the rancid water,
victims of a past flood
after winter rains.

I got out of
the car and walked down
a dead pier,
the flies hovering
in a cloud
around my head,
and I noticed the water
was full of dead corvina
and other fish,
dying slowly,
their gills moving languidly
a few last times.

And from above,
a solitary heron was swooping down,
feasting on the easy prey.

I looked out, across the sea.

It was strangely beautiful–
the eerie glow of the sun and heat
on the water
framed by distant mountains
and the vast, empty desert.

As I turned back to the car,
I saw two figures
fishing in the distance.

An old man
and a small boy,
who must have been his grandson,
sitting in lawn chairs,
holding their lines
and grabbing
Cokes from
a cooler
as if no one had told them
about the end of the world.

I got back in the car
and drove to the highway,
windows up,
AC on.

The radio said that birds
were dying
of an unknown disease.

Since that time, there have been other literary and filmic riffs on the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach, including Marisa Silver’s beautiful novel The God of War, but nothing that seemed capable of transforming the barren eastern shore of this ecological disaster into a hot commodity—until now.

As the Guardian recently reported, hipsters have invaded Bombay Beach:

Birds and fish died. Toxic dust swirled. The air stank. Tourists and most residents fled, leaving a virtual ghost town of abandoned, decaying homes.

For decades the only regular visitors were film-makers who came to shoot horror flicks about zombies and Armageddon.

Now, Bombay Beach, population 295, is enjoying a rebirth of sorts with an influx of artists, intellectuals, and hipsters who have turned it into a bohemian playground.

Now home to a trendy arts festival, the Bombay Beach Biennale, that trades on the locale’s dystopian vibe, the place at the end of the world is being gentrified. The Guardian notes how, “Prices are rising in Bombay Beach. Some bungalows which cost a few thousand dollars 15 years ago now fetch tens of thousands of dollars . . . ‘They’re buying up all the old stuff, it seems like they’re taking over,’ grumbled an 80-year-old customer at the Ski Inn bar, who gave his name only as Wacko. ‘A lot of the buildings are painted ridiculous colours.’ Vandalism and petty theft has hit some exhibits, suggesting there are additional detractors.”

But the detractors aren’t stopping Bombay Beach’s newest promoters, like the West Hollywood hotelier who cruises into town in his Mercedes to buy property and create a “free” place, “a hub to host, among other things, film premieres at the drives-in which is populated by wrecked cars.”

Of course, there is a bit of history repeating itself with the difference being that this wave of boosters is trafficking not in sunny get-rich-quick dreams, but in hip nightmares.

I have to admit the whole thing strikes me a bit like the British artist Banksy’s dystopian theme park Dismaland minus the irony. In this case, the environmental catastrophe is real and the actual denizens of Bombay Beach get to stay on to play bit parts in the commodification of their genuine marginalization and despair. As the organizer of the arts festival says of remaining locals, “You are so authentic. You are so yourselves.”

It’s theatre, I suppose, of the Anthropocene.

ABOUT THE SUMMER CHRONICLES – In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Denine July 17, 2018 at 5:24 pm

I really, really like the poem. I just put both books on hold at the library and look forward to reading them both.


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