Charles Ray Walker at his brightly decorated Boyle Heights encampment… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)
Twenty years ago, Charles Ray Walker saw green bamboo shoots sprouting along an industrial mosaic of steel, concrete and dirt by the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights. When the property owner told the homeless Texan he could stay if he kept the wedge of land clean, Walker's mind exploded with possibilities.
"It was like, 'What do you want to do? What do you want to change?' " he said. "To have the ability to have this property to do whatever I want, but to do it in a good way, it was like, 'Whoa!' "
What Walker did, over two decades, was turn something grim into a wonderland garden of edibles and toys. He grew fruits and vegetables on bare slopes. He took discarded toys and whimsical signs and decorated terraces and elaborate stairwells he carved out of the dirt. He built a shack, and under the cool shade of a tree, a home entertainment room with a television set and sofa.
PHOTOS: Bamboo Charlie
Finally, Walker opened his world to all manner of visitors — children and parents, graffiti artists, musicians, police officers, and other homeless people looking for a break from the harshness all around. In 2010, Walker was featured on the front page of the L.A. Times.
On Aug. 26, the 61-year-old El Campo, Texas, native known as "Bamboo Charlie" was found dead, curled up on the floor of his plywood home.
For years, Walker had suffered terribly because of ulcers. Friends who visited him tried to persuade Walker to get treated at a hospital. Ever prideful and stubborn, he said he was OK.
But by the week of his death he had grown gaunt, having lost much of his appetite. On Aug. 25, Alejandra Teyuca, 20, said she went to his well-hidden home by an underpass near Olympic Boulevard, beneath a giant Sears store. She called for Charlie. When he didn't answer, she assumed he was sleeping. Early afternoon the next day, two friends found him dead and called Teyuca's 23-year-old friend Vicente Jimenez, a musician, who told her.
A coroner investigator said officials determined he died of heart disease.
The group of friends has kept a vigil on the property, to keep possible looters out and to keep it as clean as Walker had. They hope that perhaps Walker's exhibits can somehow be preserved.
"I really think what he did was folk art, built out of scraps and things found, things that people gave him," Teyuca said. "He was always so positive."
Walker decorated a slice of land perhaps 40 feet wide and 200 feet long — wedged between a truck yard and a warehouse — with hundreds and perhaps thousands of action figures, dolls, toy cars, plush animals and religious statuettes. They were discards, like a Pillsbury Doughboy, an Osama bin Laden puppet and a Grim Reaper. He took a doll that looked like a young black prince, surrounded it with Barbie and Bratz dolls, and declared it a tribute to golfer Tiger Woods — then besieged with women problems.
On a shelf, he kept salvaged books, including bestsellers by Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz and a dog-eared volume titled "The Semi-Complete Guide to Sort of Being a Gentleman." He worked hard to break stereotypes about a homeless man, collecting cans late into the night to make a living.
"I'm not going to ask another grown man for money. I never have, and I never will," he said. "People expect that from a homeless man."
Walker was proud of a garden he tirelessly cultivated, growing potatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, watermelons, peppers, okra and other fruits and vegetables. He had picked cotton as a boy and grew to be a kind of wandering jack-of-all-trades with an admitted attention-deficit problem. Over the years, he would travel back to the Houston area to spend time with family and work 9-to-5 jobs. A former foreman at a steel company where Walker operated an overhead crane said he worked hard.
"He would come an hour early to work every day. A good guy, a friendly attitude," Pat "Slim" McIntyre told The Times. "We just thought the world of him."
In his last days, friends said his garden began to lose some of its luster as Walker became sicker, his body rocking with pain. But he rarely turned anyone away. Walker had said he enjoyed the look on people's faces when they stepped through a gate into his world.
"I love the expression on people's faces when they come here," he said. "A homeless man with toys? Whoa! People make a whole big fuss and confusion about it. It's not the norm."
More than a few of those people became friends, who brought other friends to see "Bamboo Charlie" and what he had wrought. And that probably ensured Walker was found not long after he died.
"He was a mad genius," Teyuca said with a laugh. "He had such a wild imagination."