6HWbNHN-show-poster2x3-c7tgE2Y.png

Artbound

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
5LQmQJY-show-poster2x3-MRWBpAK.jpg

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

From Seal Beach to the 'Surf City' Pier

Support Provided By

Bellflower Boulevard curves into Pacific Coast Highway on the slope of Bixby Hill just below the Long Beach Veterans Hospital. Traffic on Bellflower bunches, shifts lanes, and splits up through intersections at Seventh Street and then PCH.

Turning left onto PCH takes you down the last ledge of the hill, past the blue dome of the Greek Orthodox Church, past a patch of wetlands, and past the nodding oil rigs squatting in a remnant of another wetland sacrificed to a long-ago oil boom.

PCH curves again after the crowded intersection at Second Street and recurves over the bridge at the mouth of the San Gabriel River into Orange County. When I was a boy -- and when I was at Cal State Long Beach in the mid-1960s -- I would often be driven south down PCH -- a watery way, smelling of sea wrack and petroleum and fried food.

My old friend Randy and I on recent Saturdays have taken that route again through its string of beach towns still as tawdry and wonderful as ever.

Seal Beach's Main Street is pinned to the town pier; the Bay Theater at the PCH end, ice cream shops, bars, and liquor stores just before the pier begins. The town ends at the edge of the Navel Weapons Station where rows of steel floats for anti-submarine nets were once stacked along the highway, and everyone was sure that they were mines or maybe bombs. (They weren't, but there were -- are? -- nukes further inland, in barrows that look like tombs.)

In Anaheim Bay, where tourists at the turn of the century rented shacks for the summer, the Navy rearms warships behind an unreassuring berm of earth and concrete.

PCH immediately curves again after Anaheim Bay, where the beach at Surfside forms a little peninsula. North of the peninsula is a tangle of ocean creeks that makes up a substantial wetland. On the peninsula itself are three rows of very small, very expensive house lots hugging the shore. Haphazard commercial buildings and storefronts edge along PCH.

For my mother's birthday, we used to drive to Sam's Seafood -- now Don the Beachcomber -- between Surfside and Sunset Beach. The blue sailfish sign over the restaurant is still there. So is the water tower in Sunset Beach, long since made into an awkward house.

Sunset Beach remains more a beach town than not, despite gentrification and the false nostalgia of themed surfboard and jet ski dealers, bars, tattoo parlors, and restaurants. Life is pushed right up against PCH and set up in ramshackle disorder. Stuff spills into the street, into parking lots, against the adjacent beach. Everybody is selling something to everybody else -- real estate or the advice of a psychic.

Open beach begins just beyond. Long stretches of Bolsa Chica, slotted between wetlands and the ocean, used to be called Tin Can Beach for the rusting butts of cans that stuck out of the gravelly sand in such numbers that there seemed hardly a place to walk without the threat of tetanus. The beach was a cheap campground for the summer. For some, in more-or-less permanent encampments, it was both a home and a landfill. Today, cleaned up, Bolsa Chica's parking lots are stocked with rows of big RVsOil Rigs on PCH 1930s 

PCH used to be heavily industrial at this point. Petroleum extraction took over the beach scene in the 1940s, fueling the war. Steel derricks from that time lined the road for decades. Wells still pump in some places, although most of the oil on and off shore has been taken out.

Further south, the oil boom modestly enriched the lucky owners of the "encyclopedia lots" that segment the landward side of Huntington Beach. It seems an encyclopedia company offered a sliver of a lot with the purchase of a complete set. $125-worth of encyclopedias turned out to be a deal.

Today, Huntington Beach is busy repurposing its past, and I suppose that's benefitted business interests there. But the fun on a summer Saturday seemed desperate and shrill, more like Coney Island and less like the beach I knew.

Huntington Beach has been making these trade-offs since the days of Henry Huntington and his Pacific Electric railway. As an inducement to bring Huntington's PE line south, the town changed its name from Pacific City in 1909, elected a business associate of Huntington as its first mayor, and incorporated under an arrangement that ceded the city's future to the Huntington Beach Company, which was controlled, of course, by its namesake.

Business interests in HB hold a gaggle of trademarks for the name "Surf City" so they can sell as much of the vibe of their beach as they can, as if the city were only a thin strip of sand and not, in fact, a much more complex place with an inland history. Better a misremembered and mostly invented past than marketing the romance of sugar beets.

It seems to me that these beach towns concentrate the essence of Southern California: boosters, bombs, bikinis, surfboards, real estate, and crowding salesmen. You can wonder at them all by going south on PCH.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

Support Provided By
Read More
Students at Manchester Ave. Elementary School have virtual meet and greet with teacher

State Deal Encourages School Reopening by April; but Local Resistance Looms

Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced a multibillion-dollar deal today aimed at enticing schools to resume in-person instruction for young students by April 1, but it's unlikely L.A. Unified will meet that date.
(LEFT) ER nurse Adwoa Blankson-Wood pictured near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, wearing scrubs and a surgical mask; By October, Blankson-Wood was required to don an N-95 mask, protective goggles, a head covering and full PPE to interact with patients.

As A Black Nurse at The Pandemic's Frontlines, I've Had A Close Look at America's Racial Divisions

Most of the time, I was able to frame conversations within the context of the virus and not race, telling patients that we were doing our best, trying to be the heroes they kept calling us. But I was dying inside .... It was easier to find solace in my job, easier to be just a nurse, than to be a Black nurse.
The City of L.A. is staging a COVID-19 mobile vaccination clinic in Chinatown for senior citizens, in an attempt to improve access to the vaccine among vulnerable populations.

Long-Awaited COVID-19 Vaccine Access Expanding in L.A. County Monday

Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 vaccination effort will expand vastly Monday, but health officials said today those workers will have to be patient as vaccine supplies remain limited and staff are trained to ensure only eligible people receive shots.