Straying from The City Line

by Conor Friedersdorf

The Huntington Beach City Council, which two years ago ignored protests from thousands of residents and allowed wrecking crews to demolish the historic Golden Bear nightclub, is actively soliciting an operator for a new, privately owned entertainment club in virtually the same location.

Plans for the club, which would be at least 3,000 square feet and seat at least 150 people, are part of a $22-million commercial, office and condominium project called the Huntington Pier Colony. --The Los Angeles Times, 1988

This travel piece on Huntington Beach that The New York Times just published is an excellent example of why one shouldn't write a piece on a municipality by relying on the official narrative from city hall. "What was once simply a surf city in the U.S.A. has rebranded itself Surf City USA, after a heated legal battle with Santa Cruz over the coveted title," reporter Chris Colin writes. "With the reinvention has come a flurry of development, designed to capitalize on the city’s reputation as a surf capital." This is naive. The oceanfront property next to the Huntington Beach pier would've attracted developers during California's long-running real estate boom whether or not the city mounted a re-branding effort -- and Huntington Beach hardly needed to wage a public battle with Santa Cruz to count "surf mecca" as an obvious part of its character.

The actual story of Huntington Beach's redevelopment is a lot more interesting, but telling it would require interrogating whether the area near the pier was ever actually blighted, whether the city screwed over existing business owners as it pushed its perennial redevelopment plans, how it came to be that the always popular Maxwell's restaurant didn't get its lease renewed for the spot at the foot of the pier -- in other words, presenting officially sanctioned "redevelopment and re-branding" as the controversial and fraught process that it actually is, rather than as a fairly tale about the town that embraced its heritage of surfing. Think about it for a moment. Does anyone really think that with hundreds of millions of dollars of prime real estate at stake, coastal land with oil underneath it, and incentives to pack sales tax earning retail space onto Main Street, "being surf city" was the primary force behind Huntington Beach's reinvention? Or even the most interesting one?

Later in the piece, the author writes:

How do you preserve a city’s slow-paced, small-town, wave-loving appeal, while scaling up so that more people can enjoy it? That’s what city planners are asking themselves, and it’s worth a trip to see how they’re answering it.

But this is not what city planners are asking themselves -- they're asking themselves how they can maximize sales tax revenue, satiate the most well-connected commercial real estate developers, maintain maximum influence over downtown business owners, etc.

The author finally recommends, in the "Where to Drink" footer, that you visit Sharkeez, "worth a visit if you’re the sort who wonders what spring break in Daytona Beach is like. Loud and cheesy but eye-opening and open late." For God's sake. There is no one reading the New York Times travel section who should visit that bar under any circumstances, and it's only eye-opening if you're utterly unfamiliar with cliched bars. If you must drink in Huntington Beach, make it on a weeknight, and try to nab one of the firepits at Fred's or else on the patio of the restaurant/bar right beside the boardwalk (underneath Duke's).