April 28, 2017

4. Flavia Potenza, Founding Editor

 

1976 began two of the most exciting years of my life. The mystery of the Messenger’s evolution and survival is just that—a mystery of human interaction in a dynamic community…and dumb luck.

Personally, that time was a non-stop blur of activity and has a 30-year veneer of nostalgia when I try to recall it. I often try to recapture half-remembered images of starting a newspaper while raising a child as a single mom, and scratching for money to pay rent on “The Shack,” a one-room, former horse or goat barn on Bonnell Drive with no insulation and a rusty wood stove for heat. I was a long way from New York and family and I had dreams. I just didn’t know one of them had come true until long after I had left the Messenger.

As editor, I was on call 24/7. I didn’t know at the time it would be like that, but looking back, I was so hooked into meeting the people of the Canyon and reflecting their stories in a newsprint mirror that it didn’t matter. For example:

It is 11 p.m. I’m in bed falling asleep to the news blathering away on my small black and white TV.

“Is it too late to call?”

“No.”

It was my first conversation with Saimi Moss, long-time Canyon dweller, married to Marshall Moss, a concert violinist. She had tales about Topanga in the ‘60s when it was wryly referred to as Haight-Ashbury South and regaled me with her memories of the people who populated the place before it became gentrified. We talked for an hour that night and her words evoked a dark, wooded Topanga full of iconoclasts and free spirits smoking joints and selling real estate.

As editor, I said “yes” to anyone who wanted to write for the paper, and if it wasn’t that well written we’d work it until it was. It’s not like people came begging at the door wanting to submit articles. When people didn’t come to me, I shamelessly solicited friends and acquaintances—with some success, I must say. The Canyon was full of fascinating, passionate people and their stories. From the homeless denizens of Topanga creek hanging out at the Center, to professors and philosophers, I was privileged, and sometimes chagrined, to know them all.

4.     Flavia Potenza, Founding Editor

Left to right: Messenger Business Manager Mary Colvig-Rhodes, Publisher Ian Brodie and Founding Editor Flavia Potenza during a recent visit by Brodie to Topanga.



Names of people from those early days come to life in my memory. Marge Dehr ran a restaurant and her son, Richard, built windmills and died in a plane crash. Geri Kenyon, a school psychologist, was outraged when Proposition 13 came up. Editing her long, complex article in opposition was one of the most difficult tasks and involved more analysis on my part than I had time for. Cordelia Bland called me on a regular basis to say “hi” and ask detailed questions about whatever she was writing at the time. She was determined to publish her findings on the ineffectiveness of radical mastectomy and eventually did so in a small medical journal. Later, she succumbed to cancer. Herbert and Traute Gutman had escaped from Nazi Germany and eventually settled in Topanga. They spent years working with Topanga State Park to put the three wooden benches along the fire road behind Trippet Ranch and worried that the Park service wouldn’t maintain them after they were gone. The benches are still there. Herbert called me his ‘muse’ when we published his poetic fable, “The Creation of Man.” Traute once opened a small drawer in her ancient sewing machine and slowly lifted a piece of fabric. It was a yellow star that a relative had been required to wear during the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It gave me chills to hold it. I wish we had interviewed the Gutmans and published first-hand chronicles of their lives that reflected so much history. I did write a happier feature on one old-timer, Mr. Bohorquez, who painted a picture of Topanga in the days of horse-drawn buckboards when it took days to get from the Valley to Santa Monica on an unpaved Topanga Canyon Road. Gerry Haigh enriched our hearts with his love of nature and our minds with his encyclopedic knowledge of the birds who share our Canyon home. And then, of course, was the challenge of working with, and coming up against the formidable Jan Moore and the Topanga Woman’s Club that had to misspell its name for legal reasons long forgotten.

The names go on and I see their faces in my mind; some stayed, some moved away, others passed away. No matter. They all feel like welcome ghosts momentarily passing through my consciousness, as if to say, remember us, and moving on.

It was a heady time that could only lead to burnout, and burn out I did. By 1979, I needed a real job and handed the editorial mantle to Colin Penno. I’m glad Ian agreed. And I’m glad Colin wanted the job.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about those days. It was hard work and sometimes we didn’t see eye-to-eye with the community or with each other, for that matter, but we marched on with the times. In fact, we are enormously proud of our colorful website at www.topangamessenger.com, and grateful to the indomitable Bonnie McCourt for maintaining it in addition to her many other tasks. There is much more to it than the current paper’s contents, including many photos, access to our archives and to search engines, plus the latest on Topanga weather. Take a look for yourself. It’s free to all.

The essays that follow by some of the “original nine” founders and others who joined us a bit later, capture the philosophical intent, the history and often comical details of what it was like to birth a vision with few resources. But who needs money when you have such incredibly talented and resourceful dreamers as Merrick Davidson, Mary Colvig, Sid Francis, Nico Van den Heuvel, Colin Penno, Connie Schurr, Susie Walczak, Emily Karnes, Judee McBride (whom we weren’t able to find), Jeanne and Tom Mitchell, Michael Cregar, Jim “Gyro” Erickson, Alice Vickers and, of course, Ian Brodie, our publisher.

Oh, and one more thing. We could never have done it without the support of the Topanga community, the folks who know first-hand what being a community means.

Here’s to another 30 years! Read on!

Since leaving the Messenger, Flavia has reinvented herself several times over but has remained, above all, a freelance writer. Her son, Vaj, graduated in 1995 from UCSB’s College of Creative Studies with a degree in Literature. He is a TV and film editor, filmmaker and screenwriter.