April 24, 2024

Opinion | The secret to surviving the climate apocalypse

There are two ways to experience the city of Bombay Beach, California, as a visitor: gawk at the spectacle or fall into the vortex. Thousands of tourists pass by every year, often without leaving their cars to see decaying art installations left over from an annual gathering of artists, photographers and documentary filmmakers in mid-March, known jokingly as the Bombay Beach Biennial. When I first went to the city in 2021, I was looking for salvation in this strange desert town on the Salton Sea, south of Palm Springs and in Joshua Tree National Park. I went in, felt vibrations and came out with stories. I looked at kinky, large-scale art, posted Instagram photos of ruin porn, and a hot pink sign on the beach that said, “If you’re stuck, call Kim.” I posed in front of a mountain of painted televisions, swung on a swing at the edge of the lake’s receding shore, and explored the half-buried, rusting cars that make up an abandoned drive-in theater stand-in. On that trip, it felt like I was inside a “Mad Max” simulation, but I was only scratching the surface of the city.

I returned in December to try to understand why Bombay Beach remains so attractive, especially as extreme weather conditions – heat, hurricanes and drought – and pollution wreak increasing havoc on it. Summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, tremors from the San Andreas Fault occur regularly, bomb tests at nearby military installations can be heard and felt, and the air is so toxic due to the use of pesticides, exhaust gases , emissions from factories and dust rising from withdrawal. Salton Sea that a study showed that asthma rates among children in the region are three times the national average. By the end of the decade, the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland body of water at about 325 square miles, could lose three-quarters of its volume; over the past 20 years, the sea surface has shrunk by about 38 square miles.

But the people who live in Bombay Beach stay because the city offers a close-knit community in the midst of catastrophe. While its residents face environmental adversity every day, they also demonstrate how to navigate the uncertain future we all face – neglect, the struggle for scarce resources, the destruction of home, the feeling of having nowhere to go. They are an example of how to survive together in the wild climate frontiers.

The town’s 250 or so residents live in the low desert on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, which formed in 1905 when the then-mighty Colorado River spilled into a depression, creating a freshwater lake that became increasingly saline. There used to be fish – mullet and carp, then tilapia. In the 1950s and 60s, the area was marketed as a tourist destination and advertised as Palm Springs by the Sea. More tourists visited Bombay Beach than Yosemite. There were sailing clubs, boat races and water skiing. It became a celebrity magnet: Frank Sinatra frequented there; so did the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher.

Eventually, as agricultural runoff accumulated in a drainless body of water, it became toxic and created a lake with salinity that is now 50% higher than the ocean. In the 1980s, dead fish ended up in the sand, car remains rusted in the sun, tires rotted on the beach. Tourism has disappeared. But some community members resisted. One way to define Bombay Beach is through environmental disaster, but another way is as an example of how to survive disaster and how to live in general.

Candace Youngberg, a councilwoman and bartender at the Ski Inn, remembers a very different Bombay Beach. When she was a child in the 1980s, she rode her bike with the neighborhood kids and ran from yard to yard in groups because there were no fences. But over time, the city changed. With each passing year, she saw the needs disappear. Now there is no gas station, no laundromat, no hardware store. Fresh produce is hard to find. The trailer dedicated to medical assistance was closed. In 2021, 60.9% of Bombay Beach residents lived below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 12.6%.

As painful as it was to see the city of her youth disappear, as deep as the problems ran, even Ms. Youngberg admits that adversity brought those who stayed together. She wanted to return Bombay Beach to the version of the city she remembered, to recreate a beautiful place to live year-round, not just in winter, not just during art season, not just for tourists posing in front of the wreckage. She wanted people to see the homes, the town, the community that once thrived, thrive again. With art came attention and the potential for more resources. She joined the Bombay Beach Community Services District, a city council, and began working toward improvements such as fixing roads and planting trees to improve air quality.

Bombay Beach may be a small town, but when I visited last winter, there was something that felt more collaborative, as if everyone’s lives, businesses and projects overlapped. I’m not sure if the community that exists now started intentionally, but when fragmented groups of people come together as guardians of an enigmatic space, responsible for protecting it and each other, community is inevitable. Plus, there’s only one place to socialize, one place to gossip, one place to dance away the anxiety, and only about two-thirds of a square kilometer to stroll around. Whether you like it or not, your neighbors are your people – a city in its purest form.

When I was there, I walked the streets with Denia Nealy, an artist who goes by Czar, and my friend Brenda Ann Kenneally, a photographer and writer, who shouted names and people instantly appeared. A stranger offered a handful of Tater Tots to Czar and me in a gesture that felt emblematic: Of course a complete stranger on an electric unicycle would pass by and share food. I was given a butterfly on a stick, which I carried around like a magic wand because it seemed appropriate and necessary. I was told that if I saw a screaming woman walking down the street with a knife in her hand, not to worry and not make eye contact and she would leave me alone; it was just Stabby. There was talk of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on the beach, the weekly church sermon led by Jack the preacher (who is also a plumber), a lasagna potluck.

Last year, Kenneally created a trashy fashion show/photo series for the Biennale, in which she created couture designs from trash collected on the beach, recruited city regulars to model the clothes, and then photographed them. (She also showed a similar series at this year’s festival.) The work was a way of showcasing the people and the place. Jonathan Hart, a fireworks expert who slept on the beach, posed as a gladiator; a woman who normally rode around town with a Kermit the Frog stuffed doll strapped to her bike was wrapped in a see-through tarp and a crown, looking like royalty emerging from the Salton Sea. The environment was hostile, the poses striking. Each painting straddled the line between glamor and destruction, but also showed a community’s pride in survival. They were not intimidated by the junk armor; in fact, it made them stronger. The debris, which outsiders might consider trash, looked beautiful. The landscape often described as apocalyptic has become ethereal and magical. And that’s because it is.

On my second day, we went down to the docks at noon and I found myself sitting on a mustard floral couch watching about half a dozen people taking turns riding jet skis in the sun. The sun was warm even though it was the cold season. Time seemed elastic. Mr. Hart told me that he and some friends fixed up the jet skis to give everyone in town a chance to let off some steam and smile a little. It has been a difficult few months in the region. In preparation for Hurricane Hilary, which hit Mexico and the southwestern United States last August, 26 volunteers made 200 sandbags and delivered them door to door. Neighbors helped protect as many structures as possible.

Most media outlets reported that the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm because that was the weather system that hit Los Angeles, but it was close to a hurricane in Bombay Beach, with winds reaching 60 miles per hour, and most properties were surrounded by water. Roofs collapsed or completely blew off. “When faced with something like this, they said, ‘Boom, we’re in it,’” Youngberg told me. They were together in the disaster and in the celebration of survival.

This reminded me of the book “A Paradise Built in Hell”, by writer Rebecca Solnit, which considers the positive side of catastrophe. She finds that people rise to the occasion and often do so with joy because disaster and survival leave a trail of determination, consequential work, and community. Disasters require radical acts of imagination and interaction. It seemed that as Bombay Beach lived so much, surviving climate catastrophes like extreme weather conditions in addition to the extremes of everyday life, it celebrated even more. It seemed that in Bombay Beach there is enough to celebrate if you spend the day, look at the night sky and do it all again in the morning.

Many residents who live there now arrived with trauma. Living there is its own trauma. But somehow the combination creates a place of physical and emotional care and presence. People experience life intensely, as one. It’s an isolated town, but despite an epidemic of loneliness, it doesn’t feel all that lonely being there. I felt an unexpected joy in what, from everything I read from afar, was a place that could very well be sinking into the earth. I felt so safe and so happy that if we had sunk into the earth together, it wouldn’t have seemed like such a bad way to die.

On my last night in Bombay Beach, I went to the Ski Inn, a bar that serves as the hub for all social activities. I had only been in town for two days, but it was as if I had been to the Ski Inn a million times, as if I already knew everyone and they knew me. A band was playing, we danced and drank, and I forgot about the 8pm kitchen cut-off time. The chef apologized but he had been working since 11:45am and had already cleaned the grill and fryer. He saved some mac and cheese for the bartender, and when she heard I hadn’t eaten it, she offered to share it with me, not wanting me to go hungry or leave without having tried the mac and cheese.

Bombay Beach is a strange place. And that was an especially strange sensation. I was instantly welcomed into the community and cared for even though I was a stranger in a very strange land.

I realized I didn’t want to leave. There were lessons there – how to live with joy and purpose in the face of certain catastrophe, how to exist in the present without the constant presence of destruction. Next time, I thought, I would stay longer, maybe forever, and actually ride a jet ski.

Jaime Lowe is a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and author, most recently, of “Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.” Nicholas Albrecht is a photographer based in Oakland, California. His first monograph, “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand,” was the culmination of a multiyear project undertaken while living on the shores of the Salton Sea.

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