It’s mid-afternoon at the lowest bar in the western hemisphere, and a bartender named Scheherazade pours drinks for a smattering of regulars, mostly eccentric retirees. They talk about nothing and everything, from sports to whether their town has enough people left to justify the cost of keeping its last ATM in service.
We’re an hour southeast of Palm Springs, California in the hottest and driest part of the Sonoran Desert, where the green highway sign welcoming visitors to Bombay Beach counts its population at 295. But it hasn’t been updated since the 2010 census, and those who congregate here, at the Ski Inn, think the actual number is under 200.
“It can be hard for people here,” Scheherazade explains, with the compassionate smile of someone equipped to handle it. There’s no gas station, no laundromat, only a sparsely-stocked convenience store. The nearest hospital is a 45-minute drive away. Temperatures routinely reach 120 degrees in the summer, and, as Scheherazade has witnessed, “When people don’t have AC, they die.”
Artists are bringing new life and attention to town
Don’t get me wrong, Scheherazade—the daughter of a serious “1001 Arabian Nights” fan—is cheerful and welcoming as can be. But she knows media people love stories, and every kind have passed through here: documentary filmmakers, lifestyle reporters, architecture magazines, and Anthony Bourdain. All have been curious about the apocalyptic ruin of a resort town outside Ski Inn’s doors. Lately, most have wanted to know about the Bombay Beach Biennale, taking place in April.
Scheherazade can help with that. She shows me a thick photo book rich with text about the bacchanalian spring arts festival that has put Bombay Beach on the cultural map. Like most locals, she’s become a de facto docent for the the dozen or so permanent art installations the Biennale, and other progressive art groups, have left behind. Some, like a supersized tesseract cube, weather alongside the remnants of the town’s demolished waterfront, a jagged collection of debris known as the “Bombay Beach Ruins.” Its structures have rotted beyond definition, whittled by salty winds and triple digit temperatures into a collection of splintered stumps.
ITS STRUCTURES HAVE ROTTED BEYOND DEFINITION, WHITTLED BY SALTY WINDS AND TRIPLE DIGIT TEMPERATURES INTO A COLLECTION OF SPLINTERED STUMPS.
But the ruins aren’t confined to the beach. A 30-year exodus from Bombay Beach left scores of discarded homes and trailers long-since abandoned to the elements. They’re peppered throughout the surviving remains of town, windowless husks blanketed in graffiti, surrounded by broken furniture and rubble.
Bombay Beach has been in this state for decades, teetering toward ghost town status. When the streets empty out on scorching hot days, they offer little compelling evidence that the place even exists in the present tense: There’s just a cell phone tower, the occasional “No Trespassing” sign, and a pirate flag flying over one of the still-functioning homes.
Describing Bombay Beach as it was in 2012, some blurry, drunk guy from a YouTube clip shot at the Ski Inn put it best: “If the state of California needed an enema, this is where they’d shove the tube.”
The perception has changed since the artists got a hold of the place. One blighted home now opens up to reveal the Bombay Beach Opera House, a cerulean blue performance space, displaying a cardboard piano and hundreds of discarded flip-flops. Another small home has been reborn as the Toy House, covered in vibrantly colored plastic toys that seem to grow on its surface like fungi.
The effort has brought a second life to the little zombie burg, and Bombay’s barely-on-the-grid residents are enjoying the tourism renaissance. “You’ve just got to experience it,” Scheherazade encourages me.
“People from all over the world come here,” plugs my newest friend, a retired Marine who moved here from Texas last year, and clearly got started at the bar a few hours before I did. Timothy Keith Zimmerman spotted my camera lens and sussed out that if I’m not yet-another Instagram influencer, I must be yet-another journalist. “Are you making a documentary?” he asks brightly. “Or blogging?”
Bourdain allegedly liked the patty melt, so I order one and chat for a while before I go to see the ghost boat and the metro station sign some creative people have planted on the world’s crappiest beach.
The curse—and allure—of the Salton Sea
Part of Bombay Beach’s allure is the irony. The thing that keeps it alive is the same thing that’s still killing it: It’s located on the edge of an ecological disaster. And yes, people from all over the world come a long way to see it.
The rundown community sits on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, a massive desert lake whose very existence reads like a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of manmade climate change. It stands 227 feet below sea level on the southern terminus of the San Andreas fault, which over millions of years carved out a desert basin lower than any point in North America outside Death Valley.
Thanks to a cataclysmic irrigation miscalculation circa 1905, the Colorado River gouged a mile-wide flood channel funneling water into the land called Salton Trough for two years. By the time they plugged the breach, Salton Sea had emerged as California’s largest inland body of water.
Viewed from the highway hugging its eastern shore, the massive salt lake still shows all the postcard appeal that helped it become a hot weekend getaway destination beginning in the 1950s. The scenic Santa Rosa mountains rise above its opposite banks, their peaks reflected on a shimmering blue surface nearly twice the area of the state’s beloved Lake Tahoe.
But like any desert mirage, things look less refreshing up close. The sea’s brackish water takes on a murky brown cast, beleaguered by bacterial blooms and subsequent health department warnings against swimming. Bones in various states of decomposition litter beaches, revealing the sea’s episodic history of bird death by the thousands, fish by the millions. The drastic ecological shifts might prompt sulfuric gases to burp from the lake bottom, unleashing a stench of death potent enough to occasionally carry all the way to Los Angeles, 120 miles away.
It wasn’t always like this. A pair of billboards marking the entrance to Bombay Beach hint at better times, when the Salton Sea thrived as one of the greatest fishing holes in the country. It was billed as the next Riviera, attracting boaters, celebrities, and speculators sold on the novelty of beachfront property in the arid desert.
One billboard displays a vintage, black and white photo of women in ‘50s era swimsuits and hairdos, riding side-by-side on water skis. It reads “The Last Resort,” in bold yellow letters. Faded imagery and scorched edges suggest the ads are relics of Bombay Beach’s mid-century heyday, and it’s easy to imagine a Don Draper cruising past it with the top town, driving the fam out of the city for a long weekend of boating and relaxing.
The history is real enough, but the Last Resort billboards went up only a few years back, among the first of the Biennale group’s efforts to activate Bombay Beach. Since 2011, they have steadily turned Bombay Beach into a remote desert arts district—something of a Burning Man meets Marfa, Texas—on the banks of a dying sea.
Big-name artists are now Bombay Beach part-timers
The loose collective of artists and bon vivants who organize the spring festival possess the resources to commission original artwork from renowned artists, and enough social clout to show up in Getty Image stock photo searches. There’s an Italian prince, and a scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire. After a couple of independent filmmakers in their circle discovered that the Bombay ruins made an ideal location to shoot zombie movies, they all became enthralled by its squalor, and found that beachfront lots could be purchased out of foreclosure for as little as $800.
“It’s soil that interesting fun art can be made in,” says Biennale organizer Stefan Ashkenazy, owner of West Hollywood’s Petit Ermitage hotel, and co-creator of “The Last Resort.” This includes the billboards as well as the storage container hotel he hopes to establish on site, where each room’s interior will be designed by a different commissioned artist.
As a group, Ashkenazy and friends now own more than 40 lots within the town’s 30-some gridded blocks, which they likewise endow to artists, imploring them to treat the corroded beach town as a canvas for free expression, experimentation, and spectacle. Several in the group have ultimately established themselves out here as part-time residents, mingling at the Ski Inn and working through the fall and winter to produce the festival.
They’ve hosted opera singers and ballerinas, and created photo galleries and sculpture gardens. The results range from jarring to fascinating to inspirational. For example, Biennale commissioned New York artist Greg Haberny for its first year. Best known for burning his own artwork at Banksy’s dystopian Dismaland satirical theme park, Haberny’s reputation for making art out of destruction suggested he would be a natural fit for the ruins.
“I thought getting a smashed house with no roof on it and walls missing would be perfect for him to do whatever Greg does,” recalls Ashkenazy with a laugh. “Maybe drive a car into it, blow it up, crash a plane into it…”
But when Haberny saw the building, the context of the surroundings sent him in another direction. “As opposed to causing carnage, building a huge audacious art thing and then burning it down,” he thought, “Why don’t we turn around and create a contemporary art museum that actually gives back to the community?”
“IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE HISTORY, IT LOOKS LIKE A BOMB HIT IT.”
They rebuilt the roof, repainted the walls, and opened the Hermitage Museum, which Haberny still curates, bringing in progressive artists from both coasts. The work they leave behind is available for viewing seven days a week. The keys to it and other installations are kept behind the bar at the Ski Inn.
Another outstanding work is the Bombay Beach Drive In. Conspicuous for its kitschy, atomic age sign, it’s a motley collection of wrecked cars lined up as though parked for a drive-in movie. Except instead of a movie screen, they face a blank, white truck trailer.
It resonates as conceptual art, and does function as a working theater used by the community. Ashkenazy recounts scavenging the wrecks from an Imperial Valley junkyard, hand-selecting cars to match the crumbling town’s post-apocalyptic veneer.
“If you don’t know the history,” he points out, “it looks like a bomb hit it.”
The rise and fall of the Salton Sea
A bomb didn’t hit Bombay Beach. Agricultural runoff did, again and again. It turns out, even when things were looking good for Salton Sea, they were looking bad.
A 1957 Sports Illustrated article details how, in the late 1920s, an economic development-minded Department of Wildlife used state horse betting taxes to populate the marine lake with fish exciting enough to fish for sport: striped bass, salmon, pompano, halibut. None of them took.
Finally, after 28 years of this, orange mouth corvina from the Sea of Cortez offered a means to capitalize on the accidental lake.
The corvina quickly multiplied to millions, growing up to 30 pounds. Sports Illustrated rightly projected that Salton Sea would become an angler’s dream. Throughout the 1960s, sportfishers averaged nearly two fish per hour. They barely needed bait. Sea birds joined in the bounty, altering migratory patterns to feast on other fish that soon joined the budding ecosystem.
Bombay Beach flourished. Guys like Frank Sinatra and Sonny Bono sang its praises. Weekenders out of Los Angeles and San Diego started coming so frequently, they bought properties to keep their boats here full-time. Those of retirement age settled in more permanently.
But great fishing wasn’t the Sports Illustrated story’s only accurate prediction about the salty lake. “The rate of salinity will increase steadily,” it read. “Scientists estimate that if this rate continues the Sea will provide up to 25 years of fishing before it becomes too salty to support fish life.” The place was dying from the outset.
Salton Sea has no outlet. Salt-laden irrigation wastewater still trickles in, but water can only leave by evaporation, which means salt levels always trend up. When Bombay Beach opened for business, salinity measured around 38 parts per thousand, roughly the same as ocean water.
According to Tim Krantz, it now measures over 60.
The University of Redlands professor maintains the Salton Sea Database Program, which tracks changes to the lake’s changing geography and biodiversity. He explains that early fish and bird deaths could be attributed to fertilizers and toxins in the agricultural runoff feeding the lake. But since 2003, the hyper-salinity has exterminated the lake’s roughly three dozen species of fish, and the birds have stopped coming altogether.
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the Salton Sea is shrinking. Beginning in 2018, a reapportionment of Colorado River water is now decreasing the volume of irrigation wastewater spilling into the lake. This means water that evaporates each year will not be replaced.
Krantz says the 370-square mile lake has already shrunk to 360 square miles since the fall, and the rate will only increase. Because, while much bigger than Lake Tahoe, Salton Sea isn’t nearly as deep—only 50 feet, according to Krantz. Put to scale, “That’s like a football field with one inch of water in it.” He predicts a 40-percent decrease of the lake over the next fifteen years—exposing 140 square miles of dry lake bed—which will likely release toxic dust into the desert valley.
An outlier community of snowbirds
The crumbling buildings are another story. I sought out one of the longest-tenured Bombay Beach residents to find out what turned a vacation-friendly community of 1,200 people into the wreck it is today.
Louie Knight first visited Bombay Beach as a young man in 1951, when his father decided to buy a place here. The younger Knight moved out here in the ‘70s, and soon became the chief and sole operator of the Bombay Beach volunteer fire department. I find him outside, working on the town fire truck. He tells me I’m the second impromptu interview he’s agreed to that day.
There’s no law enforcement to speak of out here, so every kind of emergency falls to Knight: putting out fires, coping with collapsing structures, and performing welfare checks of residents who may have passed in their homes. He says the toughest problem to solve is visitors driving cars onto the beach. “If you get stuck,” he warns, “it will take us a couple days to get you out.”
When I ask about the ruins, he mentions floods in the 1970s, which led to construction of a huge protective berm that blocks any view of the lake from town. Water-damaged structures left on the wrong side of the berm are responsible for the debris-ridden beach.
With the fish die-offs, part-time residents visited less frequently, leaving trailers and homes empty in their absence. As the price of copper shot up over $3 per pound in the mid-2000s, Knight says part-timers would come home to find their properties ransacked and stripped for wires, walls torn open, appliances and valuables stolen. With the cost of repairs now exceeding the value of the property, lots were abandoned to foreclosure and the elements.
But today, property values are coming back. Lots that couldn’t fetch a grand in 2011 now list at $20,000 and up.
WITH THE COST OF REPAIRS NOW EXCEEDING THE VALUE OF THE PROPERTY, LOTS WERE ABANDONED TO FORECLOSURE AND THE ELEMENTS.
Perched on its dying lake, Bombay Beach isn’t destined to become the sort of storied urban neighborhood that becomes gentrified once the artists moved in. But the attention is making things more interesting for the seniors who come to this out-of-way wasteland, 223 feet below sea level.
The Ski Inn has lasted this long thanks mainly to snowbirds; retired folks in RVs seeking a mild winter at mineral bath resorts a few miles uphill. Groups will show up at the Ski Inn to chat over beers, and keep up a habit that started in the 1950s, when vacationers would write their names on dollar bills and stick them to the walls. Decades on, uncounted thousands of dollar bills plaster the place like wallpaper, covering every wall, door, ceiling, and even ceiling fan blade.
As older generations have passed on, the occasional snowbird has settled into the outlier appeal of the Bombay community. My bartender, Scheherazade, first arrived here as a snowbird herself, seven years ago.
So did Timothy, the Marine Corps vet. After 38 years and multiple tours, he’d been coping with undiagnosed PTSD and the death of his sister when he walked into the Ski Inn for the first time last year. Legend has it that the bartender working that day took one look at him and said, “Welcome home.”
Both cherish their oddball community at the edge of nowhere, and maintain it’s lively for a dying town. Zimmerman tells me, earnestly, “I never knew what love was, ‘til I moved out here.”