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Stepping out of the SFV and Exploring Bamboo Charlie's World in Boyle Heights

The entrance to Bamboo Charlie's refuge with the Sears building in the background which is hard to spot  when driving by. 
The purpose of this blog is to discuss all things related to the SFV. However, today, I wanted to share a story of a remarkable homeless man turned artist living in Boyle Heights. So I apologize for stepping out the SFV to talk about this unique story that I think you will appreciate. 
The gated entrance to Bamboo Charlies refuge after you walk a couple of steps from the entrance noted in the picture above.
A R.I.P. already exists on a shopping cart as you walk in.
The view of Bamboo Charlie's home as you enter past the second entrance lined with toys. 
I was first alerted to the story of the homeless man known as Bamboo Charlie via a Los Angeles Time article publishing his untimely passing on September 2, 2012 by Hector Becerra. The LA Times first wrote about Bamboo Charlie on the front cover on July 5, 2010 by the same author.

A small exhibit of what appears to be Osama Bin Laden and the War in the Middle East.
The story of Bamboo Charlie is rather unique and unprecedented. Despite being homeless, he actually has a home in the concrete jungle of L.A in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, a minority working class community. His refuge is 50 yards away from the L.A River, rail lines, the busy Olympic Blvd overpass, and is overshadowed by the historic art deco Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building (HCM# 788) that serves as a "beacon for Eastsiders returning home on area freeways" according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Can you spot the green bamboos in the concrete jungle? Image courtesy Google Maps.
Here is a closer look.  Image courtesy Google Maps.
Looking down onto Bamboo Charlie's home from the highest point on the property with the warehouse wall in the background.
Bamboo Charlie whose real name is Charles Ray Walker has been living here for the past twenty years in an area roughly 40 ft wide by 200 foot long in between a warehouse and truck yard. The LA Times article describes it best:
It's off a narrow street lined with warehouses. The first sign of something strange and wondrous is a set of steps, neatly carved out of a bare slope. At the top of the stairs, a chain-link fence with a "CLOSED FOR CLEANING" sign marks the entrance to the domain of "Bamboo Charlie."
The gate opens onto a grove of green bamboo. Beyond is an expanse of earth sculpted into terraces and winding pathways. A multitude of action figures, dolls, toy cars, plush animals and religious statuettes are arrayed across this landscape, arranged in scenes or planted along the borders of dirt paths, like runway lights. 

The back end of the property .
One of the murals on the warehouse wall.
One of the many terraces on the property.
Bamboo Charlie grew up in El Campo, Texas who by the age of 21 had his own home and was an irrigation foreman. Bamboo Charlie eventually made his way to LA in the 70's because he wanted to see Hollywood. By the 80's he was living on and off skid row. One day in 1992 while panning for gold in the LA River he noticed green bamboo shoots spouting nearby Olympic Blvd. The owner of the property with the green bamboo shoots allowed him to stay there if he maintained the place. 

Inside Bamboo Charlie's shack which had already become ransacked by homeless people searching for money and other items of value. 
And that is what Bamboo Charlie did for the next 20 years. Going back to his days as an irrigation foreman, he sculpted terraces, staircases, and cultivated the land for a variety of fruits and vegetables. He built a shack complete with bed, windows, and a propane oven. He even has an entertainment system and a generator. He watched movies and ate popcorn from a salvaged microwave. In his spare time he collected various items from the trash, mostly toys to decorate his new home and create exhibits like Tiger Woods with Barbie Dolls next to cell phones depicting the infidelity scandal that broke out in November 2009. He allowed local artists to paint murals on the warehouse walls bounding the property. 

The Tiger Woods exhibit with Tiger in the golf bag surrounded by Barbie dolls and cellphones. I think you get the message.
In 2004, he took a detour and left his world to see family in Houston. He found work as an overhead crane operator but eventually grew bored after three years and returned back. He found his refuge unrecognizable as it was overrun by homeless people. But that didnt stop him and he returned the place to its former glory. 

I think this was the "cool" grim reaper.
On August 26, 2012, the 61-year-old Texas native was found dead on the floor of his shack. 

What really surprised me about Bamboo Charlie and is probably the reason for his long survival as that he never begged for anything. In the LA Times article, he stated:
He says he never begs and does not collect welfare.
"I'm not going to ask another grown man for money. I never have, and I never will," he said, his face contorted in disgust. "People expect that from a homeless man."
Another homeless man, Jim Garrison, 51, from Louisiana described Bamboo Charlie's home in the LA Times article:
"It's another world. You don't have to worry about nobody fooling with you," he said. "You come back here, and you find serenity. Charles, he's the godfather of this place."
A view looking at the entrance. 

Looking from the highest point of the property. 
 In the midst of the screeching and howling cars of the nearby 10 Freeway and Olympic Blvd, the bustling movement of goods from distribution centers via train and trucks, the world of Bamboo Charlie exists offering peace and solace. Everything a man would need exists in this small dirt area with bamboo trees and the warehouse wall providing much needed shade. It almost feels like camping but this was a permanent home. In today's advanced technological world, Bamboo Charlie did not have the latest iPAD, iPhone, Internet connectivity, running water, working refrigerator, A/C, 60" LED Big Screen, hot showers, 2 vehicles in the garage, etc. He made ends meet with the simplest things in life and didnt complain. Something unheard of in today's stress induced and pressure filled lifestyles. 

From the highest point on the property looking towards the Sears building.
With Bamboo Charlie passed away, I was wondering what is going to happen this place? I was easily remembered by the eccentric Daniel Van Meter who built the Tower of Wooden Pallets on his Sherman Oaks ranch (discussed on this blog) in the early 50's. This site was designated an Historic Cultural Monument in the late 70's only to be demolished in 2004 to make way for an apartment complex. 

Is Bamboo Charlie's refuge going to be subjected to the same fate or blocked from public viewing? I dont know which is why I visited the site on a hot Friday afternoon fearing that one day it would be gone and I missed the opportunity to see something special. I managed to pick a good day to visit at there were other visitors as well. However, these guys were not visitors but "friends" of Bamboo Charlie. Two of the guys were creating a new mural on the warehouse wall while others were hanging out enjoying the ambiance. As I was walking out, two other "friends" entered and a "friendly" discussion ensued between the guys that were hanging out and these new "friends" that had entered. The discussion quickly became heated and turned territorial as each one was claiming their rights to protect the property. 

As I was walking out a "friendly" discussion over territorial rights to the property erupted in the background. 
Since Bamboo Charlie had passed, his microwave was stolen and his home had slowly become overrun by the homeless just as it was back in 2004 when Bamboo Charlie briefly vacated his home. The dilemma with Bamboo Charlie passing is that there is no one around to keep the place clean and protected 24/7 as Bamboo Charlie would have done. There are a small group of volunteers that try to preserve Bamboo Charlie's legacy but being available all hours of the day becomes challenging. 

I dont know what is going to happen but hopefully this place remains as is. The City of LA has already lost many areas of significance (including some that I have discussed in the Back to The Future series regarding the SFV). This is truly a unique site especially in LA where it seems that every and any piece of land is developed for a quick profit. It would be nice if this place got an HCM designation to prevent it from being destroyed but that takes money and connections. 

In the meantime, enjoy this influential site while you can.  

Train tracks and LA River nearby Bamboo Charlie's homew with the 10 Freeway overpass in the distance. The pictures below show various reference points of the tracks, LA River, Olympic Blvd, and the Amtrak train. 


Bamboo Charlie Leaves Behind His L.A. River Paradise by Hector Becerra on September 2, 2012; Los Angeles Times.

Bamboo Charlie Builds His Private Universe by Hector Becerra on July 5, 2010; Los Angeles Times.; Somebody created this page but nothing on it as of September 15, 2012.

Bamboo Charlies World by Graffhead on November 30, 2010.

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Marty Mcfly

Anything and everything about the San Fernando Valley. This blog will take you back in time when the valley was covered with dirt and orange groves to a leader in the space race to its current status as America's suburb. Come along and join me on this adventure, I guarantee you have been influenced/impacted by the San Fernando Valley in one form or another even if you have never visited or heard of the SFV.

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