bombay beach ca

Bombay Beach Gets Lit

A festival and library bring another wave of culture to the resurgent town on the Salton Sea.

Kent Black Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

bombay beach ca
A festival and library bring another wave of culture to the resurgent town on the Salton Sea.

Author and professor Gina Frangello may be on the petite side, and her calf-high leather boots, flowing skirt, and multitude of scarves may seem at odds with the grittier fashion aesthetic favored in Bombay Beach, but it would be a mistake to underestimate her passion for the community.

A little more than three years ago, she was staying with her significant other and fellow author Rob Roberge at his cabin in Wonder Valley. The inner city Chicago girl had visited the desert for the first time “and instantly fell in love with it — the intense heat, the colors, the giant sky, the dryness. I went crazy for it.”

• SEE OUR PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Can Artists Save the Salton Sea? 

She and Roberge explored the High Desert to the low, from Pioneertown to Coachella, and one day she announced, “I want to see the Salton Sea.”

They drove down the same day, walked into the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach, took a stool, and looked at each other in wonder. “We’re like, ‘This place is crazy — like Mad Max meets Baghdad Café meets Northern Exposure.’ What the hell … We love this town.”

Frangello, whose novels include A Life in Men (2014) and Every Kind of Wanting (2016), had to return to her family in Chicago, but Roberge, author of the highly regarded memoir Liar (2016), delayed his return with her in order to rent a trailer in Bombay Beach and write for a couple of months. Frangello visited him, and the die was cast. “Rob played a music festival out here and then we made friends, and we decided we wanted to be involved in the town’s revitalization.”

Thus, the idea of a Bombay Beach Literary Week was born. In many ways, the rebirth of Bombay Beach was inevitable.

bombay beach salton sea

Ski Inn

bombay beach

Bombay Beach Drive-In.

During the 1950s and ’60s, North Shore and Bombay Beach on the east coast of the Salton Sea were twins in the ever-expanding concept of desert paradise that extended from Tramway Road in Palm Springs to the southern shore of the Salton Sea. It was the perfect leisure complement to living beside a golf course in Palm Springs or Palm Desert: Winter beside a huge inland sea and water ski or sail during the months the rest of the country was buried under snow.

In its heyday, more tourists visited the “Salton Riviera” than Yosemite National Park. The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Desi Arnaz, Jerry Lewis, and even the Marx Brothers were regular and enthusiastic visitors. It wasn’t all hype. The sea’s salinity and altitude (200 feet below sea level) made boats more buoyant and faster. A 1951 regatta resulted in 21 world records.

But starting in the mid-’60s, the bubbles started bursting. Tropical storms destroyed marinas and  plans for new resorts. Diversion of water from theColorado River caused the sea to slowly evaporate. The salinity increased, and wildlife died and decayed in the mudflats of the receding shoreline. Every view of the one-time paradise contained the detritus of its inevitable decline.

Today, the Salton Sea derives its fame as the biggest environmental disaster in California history.

Bombay Beach is the post-apocalyptic star of this excruciatingly drawn out disaster. The mostly elderly residents who make up the population live in a grid of mobile homes and eccentric (and, sometimes, elaborate) small homes and shacks.

Forget your dystopian fictions; Bombay Beach is the real deal. Its surreal decay and the contrast with the stark, beautiful surrounding landscape draw a steady flow of artists, writers, and filmmakers.

And so, yes, it was inevitable that someone like filmmaker Tao Ruspoli and his entrepreneurial friend Stefan Ashkenazy recognized the town’s potential for an alternative art festival. In 2016, they hosted the inaugural Bombay Beach Biennale, a tongue-in-cheek jab at “serious” biennial art exhibitions around the globe. For the last four springs, the event has invited artists, academics, writers, and film-makers to create work, give lectures, and stage “happenings” for the enjoyment and edification of a closed attendance of 500 people — limited to avoid a crush of hipsters irresistibly drawn by the idea of Burning Man Meets Slab City After Nuclear Annihilation.

Ski Inn Restaurant

Gina Frangello at Ski Inn restaurant and bar.

bombay beach biennale 2020

Foundation museum

bombay beach opera house

Bombay Beach Opera House

“A lot of people were simultaneously falling in love with Bombay Beach and coming out here and doing things,” Frangello says. “Tao and Stefan got everyone operating under the same umbrella.” But their greatest contribution was instilling a sense of mindfulness of the community and focusing on “how can we use this artistic revitalization to help draw attention to the town, to help enrich the lives of residents.”

Frangello also points out that the Bombay Beach Biennale is only one event. The community — despite its aging population, precarious economy, and lack of resources — puts on a music festival (Roberge, who plays in the Los Angeles–based band The Urinals, was invited to play), a party where everyone puts on wedding dresses, and a race through town. “So, I thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s a lot of visual arts popping and music happening, but I didn’t see a literary component,” Frangello says. “The thing about literature that struck me as particularly applicable for Bombay Beach is that it doesn’t cost money to do literary programming.”

steve shigley art

Literary Week adds to a culture that already includes the Bombay Beach Biennale.

bombay beach biennale

Literary Week adds to a culture that already includes the Foundation.

Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition.

For her literary week, which begins March 23, Frangello invited writers from all over the Southland, including a couple of big-name authors to read from their work and give lectures, for a small audience of “probably about 150 people.” Frangello, who’s also editor in chief of The Coachella Review, an online literary magazine published by graduate students in UC Riverside’s low-residency MFA program in Palm Desert, hopes the Review literary community and audience will respond to the call in addition to the residents of Bombay Beach.

Ultimately, Frangello’s goal is to engender a literary presence in the community. At press time, she was raising money to build a small library with a reading and lecture room and walls filled with books donated by literary week participants. It will be available to residents and host ongoing lectures and writing workshops.

This is not Frangello’s first foray into lit fests. She has worked with nonprofit organizations since 1995, run a literary magazine and two literary websites (The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown), and created a literary festival in Mexico called Other Voices Queretaro. “My background is bringing people together to do fun things on a local level,” she says. “It’s actually pretty amusing to say, ‘No one is here to make a profit.’ ”

Frangello soaks in the scene from the two-story-tall Tesseract by artist Steve Shigley.