A Conversation at the Devil's Punchbowl

AV Outpost 4th Open Conversation at Devil's Punchbowl, April 25, 2015. | Photo: Mark Farina (Otis)

In partnership with Antelope Valley Art Outpost, managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, a creative placemaking project that supports regional vitality through artist-driven projects in the unincorporated California communities of Littlerock and Sun Village.

We often think of Los Angeles in terms of its densely populated downtown communities and districts, each with its own rich histories, juxtaposed against the omnipresent construction of buildings rising to the sky and reconfiguring the visible skyline. For each of us, the area that is Los Angeles evokes a different image or memory, whether that is a fly-by experience at the airport or a few hours driving through the epicenter on one of its numerous highways.

When someone says they are from Los Angeles, the common follow-up question is, "which part?" The county of Los Angeles actually refers to 88 incorporated cities, countless communities, towns and villages, and even more areas simply referred to by the city government as census-designated places (CDPs). The total population of over ten million people is spread over about 4,700 square miles, an area equal to more than the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.

How do we start to investigate the different areas of such a vast landscape of people, with their unique, yet overlapping histories? How do the people managing the resources of the county begin to understand the lesser-well represented areas under its jurisdiction? How does this understanding translate into establishing local, community driven engagement that fosters a shared sense of pride and sustained commitment to including a broad spectrum of voices in shaping future planning?

Los Angeles County has made recent efforts to reinvigorate previously ignored or underserved communities within its boundaries with arts and education funding. Part of these efforts are framed with the lens of urban planning and community development and are making an attempt to shift the power structure from the city planning offices to the streets and to the people actually living in these identified sections of the county.

One of the most recent Los Angeles County Arts Commission (LACAC) initiatives to cultivate "healthy community through arts and culture" in rural outlying regions of Los Angeles County is the Antelope Valley Art Outpost. A group of eight graduate students in the public practice department at Otis College of Art and Design were brought on board to lead the research and cultural mapping of the area for the first phase of the AV Outpost project. This research was arranged thematically to focus the Open Conversation workshops that would bring the communities into closer conversation with six selected visiting artists: Lauren Woods, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Las Cafeteras, Kim Stringfellow, Metabolic Studio and Rick Lowe.

AV Outpost Open Conversation with Kim Stringfellow. Photo: Jonathan Numer
AV Outpost Open Conversation with Kim Stringfellow. Photo: Jonathan Numer

Our fourth Open Conversation with Kim Stringfellow explored not only the value of such natural settings as the county parks and public lands set aside for preservation and enjoyment, but the relationships people have developed with the land and local environment, in all its forms. The landscape in which both Littlerock and Sun Village are set is a defining characteristic of the area. On the northern boundaries of Los Angeles County, about an hour northeast by way of Highway 14 and east about eight miles on Pearblossom Highway lay the towns of Littlerock and Sun Village. Nestled at the base of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, these towns act not just as a stopping point along the highway for passersby to fill up on gas and local fruit and kitschy treasures found at Charlie Brown Farms, but also as a transition zone between different landscapes and histories.

The first non-native to the area settled here in the 1850s near a small spring, now referred to as the Cienega, above Littlerock Creek Wash. Juan Garcia and his family are said to have planted a small farm here, using water diverted from the Cienega. Grazing livestock and mining continued to bring prospectors to the area through the 1870s, when the first orchards of figs and almonds were planted along the small sections of the foothills closest to Littlerock Creek Wash, which was the primary water source for early agricultural endeavors. This belt of alluvial, mineral rich soil along the foothills was slowly developed into what would later be referred to as the Pear Capital of California. Local farmers would eventually plant over 5000 acres, and at the height of the picking season, send over 4,000 packing boxes to downtown Los Angeles each day.

Workers sorting pears, Bones & Son packinghouse, Littlerock , CA 1946. | Source: Wikipedia
Workers sorting pears, Bones & Son packinghouse, Littlerock , CA 1946. | Source: Wikipedia

When driving along Pearblossom Highway now, the denuded landscape reveals skeletons of many of the larger orchards, which have been removed, cut down and/or burned as water conditions in the area have forced many to reconsider the economic viability of such operations in the Antelope Valley. Beginning in the 1960s with the State Water Project, the Antelope Valley sought other sources to keep its industries prospering. Over the past 50 years, the area has overdrawn the groundwater basin and now relies on about 50 percent of its water from the California Aqueduct in order to survive. After the last large-scale farming operation, Scattaglia Farms, closed shop recently, only a few smaller, family run orchards now remain.

Even before this area was known as the "Fruit Basket of the Antelope Valley," why did people come to Littlerock and Sun Village; what was the character of the landscape that drew people here, to stay and build small communities? Some would consider this type of environment the "last frontier" of the west. The desert still holds this type of romantic appeal for many. It is a place where residents say they are "hoping to be left in the dust that blows over the remote area." The challenges of living in the high desert are significant. Gusty winds are common, and a fine dust infiltrates every corner of living space. The vast stretches of open space can feel empty, even lonely to some who are unaccustomed to the nuances of desert habitat. The soil is not easy to cultivate and takes not only significant water and attention, but also additional care to safeguard crops from native wildlife and insect pests. The longer one lives out here, the more time there is to look closely at things, to enjoy the land and the people, plants and animals that all share the same space and resources.

Jennifer Kane, Otis public practice graduate student (left) and Jeffrey Hillinger, aka Moldy Marvin (right) at his studio and workshop in Littlerock. | Photo: Beth Ann Morrison (Otis)
Jennifer Kane, Otis public practice graduate student (left) and Jeffrey Hillinger, aka Moldy Marvin (right) at his studio and workshop in Littlerock. | Photo: Beth Ann Morrison (Otis)

To guide our research each of the Otis students set out to locate and document stories of some of these long-term residents to better understand what the two towns symbolize and represents for today's current residents. We asked them how their values relating to use of the land and its resources have changed over time? What compromises do communities like Littlerock and Sun Village and other rural ones like them need to make in order to share and protect dwindling natural resources for a variety of stakeholders including non-human ones?

Jeffrey Hillinger, aka Moldy Marvin -- a name given to him by the artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth -- is a 13-year resident of Littlerock. Jeffrey, who hosts the annual Rat Fink Party and Kustom Kulture "kampout" in Acton along with other regional community events, remembers first going to the Antelope Valley when he was nine, hunting and fishing with his dad at Palmdale Lake. Highway 14 wasn't built. "The area was just farmers and people who love the environment," he says. "It was just teeming with outdoor activities." When asked why, years later, he decided to move to Littlerock permanently as an adult, he proclaimed, "I love it here. I love Littlerock. I want to see it remain the sleepy little town that it is, to have a farm and to pass down the things that this community is all about."

Moldy Marvin, Jeffrey Hillinger's alter ego illustrated by Drag Daddy aka Ben Mitchell. © Ben Mitchell 2015.
In other conversations, we learned how the desert has become a kind of testing ground for those living outside the reaches of any real governing body, in which settlers were able to experiment with living and making a living. It seems like a fleeting way of life.Towns on the edges of cities, like Littlerock, appeal for those interested in living on the margins of society. Not so much interested in abandoning social living altogether, these smaller communities thrive because there is a group of active local individuals advocating for cultural and community preservation. The county government in control sits in offices hours away and at a safe distance for the area to still feel autonomous, even though not completely in control of its own resources. In turn, notions of environment and habitat mean many different things to every person we meet in Littlerock and Sun Village, but what ties them all together is their desire for open space, and a quiet, peaceful setting in which to live.
Convening for the 4th Open Conversation at Devil's Punchbowl with Pacific Crest Trail hiker, Charles Du at the far right. | Photo: Mark Farina (Otis)
Convening for the 4th Open Conversation at Devil's Punchbowl with Pacific Crest Trail hiker, Charles Du at the far right. | Photo: Mark Farina (Otis)

This is one of the qualities of living in Littlerock and Sun Village that we hoped to highlight in the latest Open Conversation with Kim Stringfellow hosted at the Devil's Punchbowl County Park on Saturday, April 25th, 2015. Stringfellow, whose practice bridges cultural geography, environmental journalism and experimental documentary into creative, socially engaged transmedia experiences, gave a nuts and bolts overview of audio storytelling for a group of local artists and community members. She touched upon how audio storytelling can be the perfect creative vehicle for sharing oral histories and community conversation as it provides participants with a sense of direct engagement, empowerment and shared authority for those involved. This fourth conversation brought together almost forty people, with members of the Littlerock and Sun Village communities, as well as Otis grad students and instructors, Los Angeles county employees, local Antelope Valley college professors, scientists, educators and artists.

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We learned that the relationships that people have developed with the landscape in the area are varied and profound. These relationships manifest across a wide range of examples -- from the off-highway enthusiast who escapes the pavement of the city on weekends to rock crawl up and down canyons or ride dirt bikes through the desert after work to the forest ranger stationed in one county park for over forty years to the local transplant who still drag races in established venues and enjoys fishing and hiking in recreation areas. It seems that almost every type of outdoor enthusiast resides out here.

Dave Numer, Superintendent of the Devil's Punchbowl county park and his son Jonathan, who is also a naturalist and guide at the park's visitor center, deepened the conversation by sharing their depth of knowledge about the area's geologic and human history. Dave, having worked for over forty years at the Punchbowl, still leads weekly tours to the San Andreas Fault line, which runs through the foothills just north of the punchbowl and oversees the entire facility.

The group hike in Devil's Punchbowl led by Jonathan Numer (2nd at left) after our conversation. | Photo: Dorit Cypis.
The group hike in Devil's Punchbowl led by Jonathan Numer (2nd at left) after our conversation. | Photo: Dorit Cypis.

The room in which the workshop was held used to be the park's first nature center, and Dave and his wife Pauline occupied the room and small kitchen attached to the southwest of the building. Illuminated in a golden light from fixtures dating back to the original construction of the facility, the conversations moved from geologic time to the present experiences of a local hiker who wandered into the workshop by way of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Charles Du, began the kickoff of the PCT thirty-four days prior to our meeting him this past Saturday. He describes hiking as his religion, and the gratitude he expressed for his supporters and "trail angels" along the way so far is straightforward and sincere. In the same way, his act of setting out on this three-month long trek from Mexico to Canada, which is shared by thousands of others this season, embodies a basic desire to reconnect with a simple way of living.

Rainbow over Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area. | Photo: Jonathan Numer
Rainbow over Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area. | Photo: Jonathan Numer

Bringing people together in settings where we can appreciate our special places within a larger community dialogue opens up a world of connection across generations, backgrounds and other previously conceived boundaries. The conversations that unfolded that day were both specific to Littlerock and Sun Village and the surrounding communities but also for the greater region. Amid a rainbow at the end of a stormy day, in the historic building located at one of the Antelope Valley's greatest natural resources and treasures, new friendships were forged and established. That afternoon, we laid the foundation of a rich dialogue that will surely continue into future conversations within Antelope Valley's Littlerock and Sun Village communities and beyond.


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