The wind rousts the waves, whipping up a spectacular show of nature’s force and beauty to those witnessing the tossed foam-topped ocean performing under a late winter sun. From across a busy mid-day Pacific Coast Highway, I play poet peering through the glass of an upscale oceanfront cafeteria serving curry roasted cauliflower salad and vegetarian chili–my odd lunch pairing. I enjoy the view thanks to a brand new construction, Pacific City, which is the latest installment of gentrified downtown Surf City.
Downtown Huntington Beach (aka Surf City) has come a long way since I first took up residency in 1977. Back then, the spot upon which I write in this clean, stark-modern restaurant with solid white, kelly green, lemon-aid yellow and teal faux art deco tables, chairs and leatherette booths, was probably a run down gas station or liquor store back then. An outlier of Main Street where the original Jack’s Surfboards and the YMCA youth hostel sucked up a city-like block with its ramshackle broken down brick front and faded letters, my current location was a strip of highway fodder to drive past on the way to more happening places like the arty Laguna Hills or more-widely known for its naval installation, San Diego.
If memory serves, my dining spot sidles the former location of the Golden Bear nightclub, which drew significant music-loving crowds. Featuring artists such as Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, the Golden Bear cafe, turned restaurant turned music hall hosted serious madcap concert-going experiences for a good 63 years before it closed in 1986, probably at the advent of the city’s huge facelift planning phase–even before the Waterfront Hilton and Hyatt moved in to accommodate tourists venturing into this former sleepy beach town.
Only I would not characterize the downtown of the 70s and 80s as sleepy so much as sleazy. Yes, the surf culture pervaded, which in itself did not account for the run-down, neglected downtown even local folk felt slightly wary of at night. No, between the oil drills along the beach by the dozens and the off shore rigs peppering the ocean front view, there did not seem to be reason for investors to take note. And lease holdings were tied up tightly at that time to oil contractors and developers.
So, with the world-renown U.S. Open of Surfing’s arrival each year for the last 60 or 70 years (and its 9-day festival), only one of about 50 surf competitions that take place in Huntington Beach annually, I’m sure many chop-licking promoters, developers and real estate moguls begrudged the wasted, unexploited prime realty. Probably about the same time some of those long-term lease holdings expired and the oil drills disappeared, money rolled in and Huntington Beach began its slow 20 year upgrade.
So here I sit, thinking about that grungy YMCA with its “dirty hippy” (as my friend’s parents would say), drug-addled or merely down-and-out on their luck clientele, where my best friend stayed while he visited me a few months after I moved to Southern California from the suburbs of Long Island, New York that winter of 77. We were dirty hippies back then too so didn’t think twice about the sub-par accommodations. It was affordable, and I did not feel the “unsavoriness” of the place until a well-intentioned passerby informed me that the place was a dangerous dump full of criminals.
My best friend was no criminal unless you consider smoking pot and under-age drinking criminal rather than mere exploratory indiscretions of teens being teens. We two criminals or adventurers (depending on your rigid adherence to the law) flop-housed at the Y and dug the ocean’s roiling and rolling, its contrasting aqua marine to the Atlantic’s sea salt brown, and the frisbee-throwing 65-degree winter weather (from an east coaster perspective).
Disheveled downtown was our town back then–for that week anyhow–a place to kick around and watch the placard-waving, end-of-times barkers and strung out sun-and-booze blanched surfers splayed here and there against downtown restaurant or head shop walls, or near the Golden Bear, probably scene of the last sober moment before getting tossed or passing out. We walked the length of the city’s beach front and all over the town, miles of it, as tourist-residents.
A far cry from this pleasant, well-dressed, muted-pretentious, upscale open-air strip mall on steroids with its second tier cushioned lounge chairs parked alongside a balcony view of the ocean dancing before a paying audience. It’s clean. It’s orderly. And it smells better than the vomitous former downtown stench emanating from alleyway pockets, but somehow not quite as personable and dauntless.
Taking one last look at the rarely clear outline of Catalina Island jutting into the horizon, creating the illusion of the ocean-as-bay from my limited human perception, I pull out the parking ticket for validation. The $12.00 parking fee, yet another reminder that I am, yet again not, in my own hometown, is a first for this town. I know of no other place in the city with comparable parking fees. But hey, I could have walked the mile to get here too. Just like I did in 1977, the last time I pal’d around with my best friend, just being us.