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Seal Beach: A Centennial

 

I got on the bus the other day, for Ishmael's reasons, because there are seasons when movement is all that's wanted. It was a fair day in a hot autumn and melancholy. I had intended to get on the OCTA Route 1 bus and ride from east Long Beach to San Clemente.

The OCTA bus follows the shore for the most part, dipping inland at Dana Point and returning to PCH near Capistrano Beach. On any Saturday, the trip south takes almost three hours.

I got off sooner than I had intended, at the top of Main Street in Seal Beach, because I saw that it was the city's 100th birthday, and the city was throwing a party.

All beach towns on the Los Angeles and Orange county coast are the same. Southern California-ness is heighted in each of them. Foregrounded are the sweet clichés of living here: bodies, bikinis, sunshine, surfboards, and real estate. Everything that's no longer particularly true of the California Dream is still being sold there as tourist come-on and residents' idyll.

For all their similarities in what beach towns hope to sell, Seal Beach is different from the others. That's because, by history and geography, Seal Beach is more of an island than a wide spot on the coast road. Poorly accessed by freeway and bounded by a wildlife refuge, the Naval Weapons Station, and the 542 acres of Leisure World, Seal Beach stands off from the honky-tonk of Surfside, Sunset Beach, and Huntington Beach to the south and the frenzy of trends in Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu.

Sin City

Seal Beach, so Mayberry today according to its residents, didn't begin that way. Ocean breezes drew inland settlers from 19th century Anaheim and Fullerton to the beach, but liquor incorporated the city in 1915 and brought drinkers from "dry" Long Beach and Alamitos Beach nearby. Booze only went so far, however, to profit land owners Bixby, Hellman, Huntington, and Stanton.

They tried selling the shore to visitors with the motto "The beach without an undertow." Their sales pitch could have had more dazzle.

 

In response, Stanton put up the Joy Zone amusement park to boost the town. By 1917, the Joy Zone had a wooden roller coaster, the usual flimflam carnival games of any traveling circus, and the bad food of every Southern California boom town. Seal Beach built a pier, another requisite of beach towns desperate for tourist nickels and dimes. There was a dance hall.

You got to the Joy Zone from Long Beach by taking one of Huntington's Pacific Electric Red Cars that ran diagonally across Main Street a few blocks from the pier, the roller coaster, and the flimflam. The Red Car passed though Seal Beach to take riders to Huntington's own beach town, Huntington Beach.

Connected to other places better financed and more heavily promoted, Seal Beach sputtered through the next decade, descending in the mid-1920s into a shady sub-existence of bootleg liquor, brothels, and gambling. Cheap lodgings could be had for the summer in a tent on tiny lot. (The tiny lots are still there.)

Seal Beach was a kind of border town, a comfortable distance from the big cities of Long Beach and Santa Ana, with the petty corruption and lax policing that keep bars and border towns wide open. At the lower end of Main Street in the 1920s, you could try your luck with cards, roulette, craps, and slot machines. Out in the bay in the 1930s, a sort of floating Las Vegas of gambling ships, beyond the federal three-mile limit, provided genteel sin at the end of a power boat ride from the pier.

 Joy Zone, Seal Beach, ca1917
Joy Zone, Seal Beach, ca1917 | Photo by Orange County Archives | Creative Commons License
The gambling ships were shut down in 1939. The war years between 1940 and 1945 are supposed to have toned down the rest of Seal Beach, but according to one local historian, "it took three elections in one year and 11 recall attempts in five years, each costing $1,500, to finally kill off the (bingo and poker) Airport Club." It wasn't until 1953 that the gamblers at the Airport Club were replaced by Dick Dale and other rock acts.

Even into the mid-1960s (when, as a college student, I first went to Seal Beach) hard drinking and surf movies were the town's principal entertainments. The Irisher and Clancy's bars still remain at the lower end of Main Street, as divey in exterior aspect as ever. The Bay Theater at the top of the street has been closed for years.

Suburbanization broke up the town's vice-friendly politics by the end of the 1950s. Seal Beach cleaned up, slowly gentrified, and took on a cheerful character that would seem timeless except that it's rather new.

Mayberry by the Sea

On its centennial Saturday, Seal Beach appeared to be exactly what its residents wanted it to be: a small town with a mile and a half of beach as its backyard and the second longest wooden pier in California stretching into the Pacific. On the horizon, not very distant in the haze, you could see leggy platforms pulling oil from the same coastal formations that fueled so much of the 20th century.

At just 15 feet above the breakers and already affected by storm-driven high tides, Seal Beach awaits the higher, not-so-distant sea level that burning all that oil will bring.

A hundred years of cityhood has given Seal Beach much to be proud of. The old PE right-of-way across the center of town is a narrow, leafy park. Main Street, after buffeting from military downsizing and the collapse of the aerospace economy, got through the 2008 recession relatively intact. Schools are some of the best in Orange County. Property values are high.

Main Street still has a concentration of places to get a drink, from lite beer to craft cocktails. The food is better, from artisanal to ethnic.

And unlikely seaside places remain on Main Street, like the shop that sells a bewilderment of dried and preserved stuff from the ocean. Who hangs a curtain of strung-together scallop shells across a doorway anymore? Who buys dresses from a shop in which every garment is at least partly purple?

Perhaps it's the wives of aging surfers. In the places to drink on Main Street are retired guys in shorts and printed tees, thick waisted, sitting on stools talking of hip replacement, high school sports, and real estate. There are plenty of younger guys, too, waiting their turn there, Seal Beach's geezers to be.

The population of Seal Beach is less than 30,000 and startlingly white for those used to the plurality of ethnicities in the communities inland.

The centennial was being celebrated with a street fair on Ocean Avenue and a carnival with the usual, unsafe-looking rides. Parents with small kids in big strollers maneuvered through the crowd. The Oak Middle School and McGaugh School choirs sang. The Leisure World Hula Group hula-ed. Local musicians played. A few celebration indifferent young people, because the day was still warm, body surfed in the breakers coming in from the south. The pier was closed for the day. There were to be fireworks at 7:00 p.m. from the pier end. The fireworks would end early enough to get small children to bed on time.

The city's website sells Seal Beach as a "quiet, down-to-earth community," as if the beach and the bars were as lacking in libidinous qualities as the Leisure World Hula Group. "Down-to-earth" means something different when it's scented with sea wrack, stale beer, and artisanal barbeque sauce. Beach towns, even sedate Seal Beach, give license to the imagination.

Seal Beach also tries to be quiet, but the noise of small town politics gets in the way. The fight underway in October was over allowing loud music in the bars on Main Street.

According to Forbes magazine, Seal Beach is "one of the five friendliest towns in America." That didn't extend to riders on Long Beach city buses, who were denied a stop in Seal Beach between 2012 and 2014 because, Long Beach Transit official told the Press-Telegram newspaper, racist comments about Long Beach bus riders were made by Seal Beach residents at a public meeting held to discuss a change in bus routes.

Seal Beach officials who attended the meeting denied any racially motivated statements were made.

The green and gray Pacific Ocean was indifferent to race on centennial day in Seal Beach. The few bodies on the sand were of several colors. A bathing suit reveals little about the swimmer's socio-economic status. The beach has that subverting power. At the foot of the pier on Ocean Avenue, locals and bus riders like me were made, if only briefly, all alike.

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