Book Review: An environmental perspective on Malibu history


Malibu Diary: Notes from an Urban Refugee

University of Nevada Press

By Penelope Grenoble O’Malley

By Pam Linn/Staff Writer

Malibu has often been the subject, or at least the locale of novels (Jonathan Kellerman’s thrillers), nonfiction magazine articles and books. The hook for some is the many celebrities who live in the sheltered enclaves of Malibu Colony and Serra Retreat. Others focus on the area’s beauty and vulnerability to natural disasters. Seldom has Malibu been depicted as honestly as in “Malibu Diary: Notes from an Urban Refugee” by journalist Penelope Grenoble O’Malley, who moved to this coastal paradise, as many others did, to escape the ills of urban life in Los Angeles.

Part history, part memoir, it chronicles Malibu’s evolution from secluded bedroom community of mostly movie industry folk to a full-fledged city of diverse and often competing interests. As a reporter for The Malibu Times, O’Malley covered City Council and Planning Commission meetings where the struggle to manage growth polarized public opinion, pitting preservationists against business interests. The dichotomy for O’Malley was her affinity for the natural environment, a long-held love of the outdoors, and the editorial bent of the newspaper, which was firmly pro business. Hers was the difficulty of all journalists to report the individual stories of those engaged in the struggle without taking sides.

A chapter titled “Cowboys and Indians: A Drama in Three Acts” reveals her initiation into the legal challenge of the American Indian Movement to prevent a mortgage banker from building the house of his dreams on a Malibu bluff top believed to be a significant archaeological site of the Chumash. At the time, slow-growth activists supported Chumash claims as another method of thwarting development.

“My bones ache with empathy for the timelessness in which these lives were suspended, unencumbered by our modern determination to mold place to our human will and our futile efforts to bend time around the angles of our demands.” She writes that she doesn’t begrudge the Chumash the chance to search in the soil for clues to their ancestry and believes she is behind them all the way. Why is it then, she wonders, that she found herself sympathizing with the young banker and his family and why does she find merit in the city attorney’s proposal over that of the city archeologist? Only as the case unfolds does she learn of the feuding Chumash families, the director of the Chumash Cultural Center against a leader of the Owl Clan who makes his living monitoring commercial and residential construction sites for artifacts. Through the course of reporting stories of longtime Malibu citizens fighting for the right to develop their property against an obstructionist city government, O’Malley learns that the battles had more to do with an innate need to resist change than to provide any real protection of the environment based on science.

Organized mostly in chronological order, the book devotes chapters to fires and floods, and the fledgling city’s efforts to deal with the results of collapsed roadways and sliding hillsides.

What separates the book from O’Malley’s newspaper accounts of events as they were unfolding is the inclusion of her own impressions and the evolution of her sense of place in both the natural and built environment.

“I went to Malibu a white-robed ascetic, feet shod in sandals, so rawboned at first I never thought to pay homage,” she writes. “I believed that the way people live in a landscape defines it, even when they disregard the climate and landforms and vegetation that existed before they arrived.”

After leaving Malibu and reporting on its persistent struggles against development and dueling government agencies, O’Malley had time to reflect on her journey. “Gradually it came to me that it might not be in the opposites that I would discover the truth I was seeking, but in the middle ground between them.”

Penelope O’Malley will sign “Malibu Diary” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Dutton’s in Brentwood.