The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

For Good or Ill

By Frank Gruber

Change is the big word in national politics today. Barack Obama made it his mantra, and beyond the general disapproval of the failed Bush administration, the country appears poised for a seismic shift in its politics. (Proposal for new slogan: "Let's hope so.")

Here in Santa Monica our largely left-wing electorate wants change at the national level as fervently as any other Americans, but change on the local level is not so fashionable. As the City has developed its plans for the future, in the context of the updates to the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan, the mantra has been to preserve and protect.

The image of Santa Monica as a small or even sleepy "beach town" has been invoked often, both by those residents who are wary of any change (meaning any growth), and by those, including the City's planners, who want to plan for change that is inevitable by channeling development into places where it will have less impact on the existing fabric of the city, particularly existing neighborhoods.

At the July 1 City Council meeting on LUCE, Council Member Kevin McKeown even invoked Santa Monica's origins as an "open air" beach town to question whether we could ever develop an urbanism as congenial as that of the European cities he likes so much, which, he said, were never such sand and surf paradises themselves.

I have to say that I haven't yet heard an explanation of exactly what a sleepy beach town is, but the fact is that no matter what one is, Santa Monica never was one -- except possibly to the extent that in the '60s and '70s the local economy declined so much that some surfers and skateboarders took to referring to Ocean Park as where "the debris hits the sea."

But historical reality is irrelevant to the power of the image of Santa Monica as a beach town, and it's an image that can be used for good or ill.

The founders of Santa Monica intended the city to become a great port and transportation center. Despite large investments in infrastructure by them and the Southern Pacific Railroad (which succeeded to the founders' assets) -- including a railroad line and the famous Long Wharf -- the big plans for a port failed when the federal government chose San Pedro to be the port of Los Angeles.

Port Los Angeles, a/k/a, the Long Wharf (all photos from the Santa Monica Public Library's Image Archives

Notwithstanding the failure of the SP's Port Los Angeles, Santa Monica grew for nearly a century with an economy based in part on tourism, but largely on industry -- brickyards and the like, nothing picturesque -- or sleepy.

In the '20s Santa Monica was still only lightly populated, with many vacant lots and most people living in single-family houses, but its downtown was bustling. Ocean Park then had relatively few year-round residents, and Sunset Park was largely empty. All that changed with the build up to World War II and the growth of Douglas Aircraft, which built one of the world's largest industrial facilities here, employing tens of thousands of workers.

Douglas Aircraft plant, 3000 Ocean Park Blvd., 1940

By 1950, Santa Monica's population was 71,595, about 85 percent of its 2000 population of 84,084. (Santa Monica's population peaked in 1980 at 88,314.)

Santa Monica's industrial era culminated with the closing of the Douglas plant, which coincided with the nadir of the City's tourism infrastructure in the early '70s. This was when the power structure of the time wanted to tear down the Pier -- about fifteen years after they had destroyed most of Ocean Park's "Coney Island" type amusements, along with beachfront affordable housing (okay, that was a beach town), to build Miami Beach-style apartments.

At that time, activists used the beach town image to good effect to stop the further destruction of Santa Monica's historic edge on the Pacific.

But the city we love, and the city most of us live in, took its shape during the industrial era. Apartment-dominated neighborhoods like Mid-Wilshire, Ocean Park and the Pico Neighborhood, and single-family neighborhoods like Sunset Park, owe their character and housing stock to the needs of Douglas and related businesses.

Our downtown, which Santa Monicans frequent in amazing numbers for "post-urban" America, was shaped by home-grown retail establishments like the old Henshey's Department Store, local banks and even a local telephone company, and a bus company that the City developed to serve commuters coming into Santa Monica for all those jobs.

Bay Department Store (later Henshey's), Fourth and Santa Monica, 1920s

In the post-industrial era, Santa Monica's economy switched to white-collar jobs and film and television post-production. The Douglas plant's land near the airport became an office park, and in the '80s the City went overboard with authorizing office development on formerly industrial land north of the freeway.

Looking back, perhaps it was to be expected given the reaction to the extensive development of apartments in the '50,'60s and '70s, not to mention the suburban type planning models that were then dominant, but the City did not require the office park developers in the '70s and '80s to integrate their developments into the existing street grid. Nor did anyone build housing for the new employees and their families.

Which leaves us where we are today. Santa Monica has a vibrant economy, a bustling scene with great restaurants and shops to spend your money at, first run and art house movie theaters, art galleries, and other cultural facilities, top-ranked schools, high property values, walkable neighborhoods, more park acreage than ever, beautiful beaches with excellent tourist facilities and hotels (and a restored Pier and a bay that's cleaner than it's been in decades, and a public beach club on the way), and an active grassroots politics.

Maybe not what I would call a sleepy beach town, but a wonderful place whatever it is.

Yet housing prices are so high that few of the city's children will be able to raise their families here if they want to. In fact, the number of children in the city is in such decline that if trends continue, we won't have much of a school district in 20 years. Amidst the restaurants and the culture, we still have poverty and gang violence, and an achievement gap in our schools.

And then there is the issue that motivates so much of our politics: the commuters leaving town in the afternoon -- when joined with the commuters from growth all along the 405 corridor -- have blockaded Santa Monicans in their city.

I've often thought that behind the sleepy beach town cliché is not any genuine memory of or nostalgia for whatever the culture of that mythical place might have been, but just the ability to use that cliché as a substitute for saying, in Council Member McKeown's immortal words from the 2001 Target debate, "It's the traffic, stupid."

This is where the "for ill" part comes in when people use the beach town image. Surveys show that Santa Monicans are in favor of moderate growth, and the situation calls for not allowing anything more than moderate growth. But growth will come, and Santa Monica will need to make decisions about what shape that growth will take.

We and the politicians who represent us will not make the best decisions for the future if we are stuck on an image of the past that is as false as it is evocative.

Not that anyone else is counting, but this column is the 400th "What I Say" column I've written. Thank you readers and Lookout staff. It's been a lot of fun.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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