‘Bamboo Charlie’ builds his private universe
Amid the gray warehouses, graffiti-covered freeway overpasses and railroad tracks along the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights, a tiny patch of green thrives.
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.
“God bless this lousy apartment,” says a sign posted along a curved, earthen staircase.
You’ve entered the world of Charles Ray Walker, a 59-year-old homeless man who has turned this patch of ground into an unlikely exhibition of his tastes, quirks, obsessions and comic observations.
For the better part of 18 years, Walker has lived on this dusty plot — no more than 40 feet wide and perhaps 200 feet long — wedged between a truck yard and a warehouse.
Homeless people have long struggled to fashion simple comforts from society’s cast-offs. But few have done so with Walker’s flair. His meticulously arranged found objects suggest a junkyard designed by Santa’s elves or a post-apocalyptic Disneyland. There’s even a faint echo of large-scale specimens of over-the-top folk art, such as Daniel Van Meter’s Tower of Wooden Pallets in Sherman Oaks or Simon Rodia’s world-famous Watts Towers.
Walker’s raw materials are discards of every description: sea shells, marbles, SpongeBob figures, a Pillsbury doughboy, an Osama bin Laden puppet in camouflage, the Grim Reaper. Posters, traffic signs (“No Smoking — Stop Your Motor,” says one) and other detritus contribute to the surreal atmosphere.
“That’s my drug exhibit,” Walker says, pointing to a horned figure holding a broken marijuana pipe and an orange lighter. “The devil’s right there. He’s trying to blaze it up.”
On a terrace, a doll that looks like a young black prince stands surrounded by a harem of Barbie and Bratz dolls. A foot away, a grinning Tigger figure holds two curvaceous dolls in its stubby arms.
“That’s my Tiger Woods exhibit,” Walker says with a laugh.
Not far off, two stuffed Elmos sit on a fold-away coach, near a sign that reads: “Reserved for David Spade.”
Walker’s oasis includes a shack he assembled from discarded plywood, with a bed, curtained windows and a propane oven in which he sometimes bakes cakes. Beneath a canopy of bamboo leaves sits a home entertainment system cobbled together from junked components. A church gave him a generator to power his lights and electronics. He watches movies on a dusty Electrotune CompuFocus TV and eats popcorn he cooks in a salvaged microwave.
He also grows potatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, watermelons, peppers, okra and other fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, people ask him for bamboo leaves to make corundas, a small triangular tamale from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
“Ah man, my nectarines, and my peaches, and everything’s growing,” Walker says excitedly. “My grapes and my yams popping up all over.... People in the neighborhood come and get the seeds and plant them in their yards. My strawberries are starting to pop up. Look at my carrots!”
Completing this picture of ragged domesticity is a collection of salvaged books: bestsellers by Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz, a meditation on quantum physics and the human mind, and a dog-eared volume titled “The Semi-Complete Guide to Sort of Being a Gentleman.”
Walker said he has long moved back and forth between “the homeless world” and “the real world” of rent and responsibilities, and his private oasis reflects that duality.
“When I was in the real world, I had a garden. Why not have a garden in this world?” he said. “In the real world, I had a TV. Why not in this world?” He is fastidious about cleanliness. “I cleaned up in the real world. Why not clean up in this world?”
Walker grew up poor in El Campo, Texas, near Houston, the second-oldest of seven children. As a boy, he picked cotton with his cousins and grandmother. His father, a jack-of-all-trades who built houses, welded and poured concrete, instilled a strong work ethic in his son.
When he was 15, Walker went out on his own. He got jobs landscaping and installing sprinklers and eventually became an irrigation foreman. He says he had his own home by age 21. But he had taken medication for hyperactivity since boyhood, and as an adult he bored easily and could never stay in one place or in the same job for very long.
He said he first came to L.A. in 1971 because he wanted to see Hollywood. By the late ‘80s, he was living on the streets of skid row off and on.
In 1992, he was walking along the concrete banks of the L.A. River in Boyle Heights, panning for gold chains, coins, rings and other valuables that sometimes get stuck in the cracks after a hard rain. On the east side of the river, south of the 10 Freeway, he saw green bamboo shoots sprouting amid the steel and pavement, and he explored the little plot off Olympic Boulevard, near a giant Sears store.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! Bamboo,’ ” Walker said. When the property owner told him he could stay there if he kept it clean, Walker’s mind raced.
“It was like, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to change?’ ” he recalled. “To have the ability to have this property to do whatever I want, but to do it in a good way, it was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”
Walker cleared some of the bamboo with a machete and built his plywood shack, making sure the roof was sloped so rain would run off. He dug a drainage ditch beneath the dwelling so water wouldn’t pool there.
One day, while looking for cans and bottles in a dumpster, he found a poster depicting abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad. It made him think of picking cotton as a boy. He tacked the poster to the door of his shack.
Drawing on his landscaping skills, Walker sculpted terraces and staircases out of the dirt with a meat cleaver. At the top of the longest stairway, he placed a coral-blue angel.
“My stairway to heaven,” he said.
He let graffiti artists take turns spray-painting vividly colored murals on the warehouse walls that border the lot.
None of this is visible from the street. The only clue is that hand-carved set of dirt steps, so incongruous in this bleak industrial landscape. Sometimes, they call out to a passerby with a keen eye and a sense of mystery.
Arturo Gonzalez, 31, an urban planner and muralist, said he was on the Olympic Boulevard bridge one day when he noticed the stairs. He followed them, and found the gate.
“I expected a crazy dude to come out screaming at me and cursing,” Gonzalez said. “My grandpa was a gardener, so I appreciated what Charlie created — the skill that it took to do what he’s done with that place. He’s very self-sufficient.”
Gonzalez said Walker taught him work-out techniques on gym equipment he found in alleys. Gonzalez, in turn, brought his children to visit and gave Walker food every few months, as well as a TV for Christmas.
Police officers, neighbors and homeless people stop by Walker’s retreat from time to time. On a recent day, Jim Garrison, 51, a homeless man from Louisiana who lives in a nearby alley, parked his shopping cart outside Walker’s gate.
“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.”
In 2004, Walker left his plot to return to Houston. He wanted to see relatives, including his adult children. While there, he found work operating an overhead crane for a steel company.
Pat “Slim” McIntyre, a former foreman at the company, said Walker was known as “L. A.” and was liked by everyone.
“Charles Walker, that’s ‘L.A.!’ ” McIntyre exclaimed. “He was just an excellent hand. He would come an hour early to work every day. A good guy, a friendly attitude. We just thought the world of him.”
After three years, Walker grew bored and came back to L.A. and his bamboo yard. The oasis he had created was unrecognizable. It had been overrun by homeless people and reeked of human waste. The elaborate murals had been obscured by gang graffiti.
Walker reclaimed the clearing and established ground rules for homeless people to stay there; eventually, they moved away. He tidied up the lot and resumed his landscaping and decorating.
On his midnight peregrinations, in which he fills a shopping cart with cans and bottles, he began collecting discarded toys with which to embroider his retreat. Christmas season is the best time to find toys because people throw away old ones.
Walker says he survives by selling the recyclables he collects and the fruits and vegetables he grows. Restaurant workers occasionally give food to him in return for cleaning or taking out the trash. 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.”
LAPD officers have brought him Thanksgiving turkeys. On Sundays, St. Mary Margaret Catholic Church in Lomita drops off food for the local homeless. Walker gives the church children a tour of his retreat.
“I love the expression on people’s faces when they come here,” he said. “A homeless man with toys? Whoa! People make a whole big fuss and confusion about it. It’s not the norm.”