Ah, Huntington Beach. Surf City. Internationally renowned for its gorgeous beaches, its impressive civic facilities and home to not only over 200,000 people, but a vacation and recreation spot for millions more every year.
Despite all of its many attractive attributes, Orange County’s fourth-largest city (behind Santa Ana, Irvine and Anaheim) is having a rough year. In this new era of coronavirus and – how can I describe it? – “racial awareness,” the community has taken some public relations hits.
At Monday’s meeting of the city council, Barbara Delgleize lamented the tensions and emotions that have “people biting each other’s heads off.”
Articles in various news media have portrayed Huntington Beach as a haven for neo-Nazis and anti-mask activists, a community riven by a conflict between its long-time conservative lean and the changing demographics (and politics) of a new era.
The truth, as I see it, is that HB has never been one homeogenous municipal mass. There have always been seemingly contradictory impulses in the community. While the city has been predictably Republican since Lincoln was in law school, it’s had one of better environmental records of any larger city in California.
The Bolsa Chica wetlands is an example. What some people might term a “swamp” along Pacific Coast Highway is treasured by nature advocates who have fiercely protected it as a haven for many endangered and local species. Amigos de Bolsa Chica has successfully fought off efforts by deep-pocketed developers who would have liked to have built houses and condos in a solid mass from Warner Avenue to Goldenwest Street.
Far-sighted community leaders set aside copious areas for parks, including the gem known as Central Park. It straddles Goldenwest Street at Talbert Avenue covering 350 acres, making it not only the biggest city-owned park in the county, but over twice as big as the original Disneyland.
There’s a huge library on the eastern side, and a Taj Majal of a senior center west of Goldenwest. South of the park is a large sports and recreation complex.
Of course, some of this largess comes from the community’s origins as an oil town. Originally called Pacific City (a name which survives as a trendy commercial development southeast of downtown) and renamed after Henry Huntington in a successful bid to lure his railroad line, the city remained a small beach town throughout the early part of the great postwar housing boom of the Forties and Fifties. As late as 1960, when Garden Grove had a population of around 85,000, Huntington had fewer than 12,000 residents.
It was a town of roughnecks who worked the many oil fields that dominated the area and of what some people unkindly called “beach bums” whose culture would later provide much of the city’s identity. Both those occupations (or avocations) had a strong libertarian streak in an apolitical sense. Leave me alone and don’t make me follow your rules.
As the world rushed in the Sixties and Seventies, suburban tracts a bit nicer and more expensive than those in other parts of West Orange County filled up with a more affluent class than the blue collar residents of Garden Grove, Westminster and Stanton. The wide-open spaces produced by vigorous annexations left plenty of room for parks, lakes and shopping areas.
Now, as before, Huntington Beach has never been just one state of mind. There’s millionaire Huntington Harbour at the west end and the gritty area near Slater Avenue. There’s the surfer class at the pier and the philosophy classes at Golden West College at the extreme northern edge of town.
Whatever Huntington Beach’s image right now might be, there’s two things that seem true. One “image” can never paint an accurate picture and it’s a picture that’s constantly changing. As with the city’s sublime shoreline, there’s always a new wave rolling in.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on Wednesdays. He is a former resident of Huntington Beach and worked in the city for 35 years. So there. And his favorite HB restaurant is Capone’s.