It’s been a rough year for all of us, but an especially rocky one for the people and City of Huntington Beach.
The sun-soaked “Surf City” has been in the spotlight, and not entirely in a positive way. Along with the disruptions of the coronavirus, this city of about 200,000 people has been roiled by rowdy political demonstrations, an out-of-control “birthday party” that attracted national attention and a largely unearned reputation as a haven for extreme right-wingers.
The latest trip into the headlines came this week when former wrestler and martial arts star Tito Ortiz resigned from the city council and the position of mayor pro tem (a sort of vice mayor). Ortiz, the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” symbolized for certain critics of the city some of what they felt was wrong along Pacific Coast Highway.
I’ve written in this space before about how unfair it is to generalize a community of a fifth of a million people without a fuller understanding. But let’s reflect now on how, in some ways, what’s attractive about Huntington Beach can attract some of its biggest problems.
Beach communities can be a bit scruffy. In the earlier days, HB was an oil town, with roughnecks and wildcatters creating and sustaining a gritty community that also had its genteel side. Most HB residents alive today aren’t old enough to remember when towering, ugly derricks lined Pacific Coast Highway between Main and Goldenwest streets.
By the 60s and especially the 70s, the oilman was pushed aside by the developer, and since there were vast vistas of open land, Huntington went from a community of a few thousand in 1960 to well over 100,000 by 1970.
The old downtown area remained small, quaint and quiet and talk of redevelopment was shouted down by traditionalists. But eventually money spoke louder than nostalgia. The Golden Bear could not stand in the way of the cynic’s Golden Rule: He who has the money makes the rules.
This era also catapulted the sport of surfboard-riding into prominence. Imported from Hawaii and publicized by the Beach Boys, surfing seemed to embody the California lifestyle: endless summer, no rules and no responsibilities.
Downtown went from funky to fun, as described by the kind of fun you can get from a bottle. The blocks radiating north, west and east of Main Street soon filled up with eateries – which sold liquor – and bars – which sold liquor – and tourists, which (you guessed it) drank a lot of liquor.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not lecturing against demon rum, here. But Huntington Beach’s downtown is known for having one of the highest concentrations of liquor licenses in the state. DUI offenses are commonplace and bar owners often plead with the city to allow them to extend their serving hours well past midnight in order to keep up with the competition.
Another “cost of doing business” is the happy hour, which each likker mill must provide to compete, even though it means slashing the price of their most profitable product: booze.
So … pack a bunch of well-lubricated free spirits (many of them from out of the area) into a sunny paradise with no admission fees and keep, keep, keep on building, and here’s what you might get. Nimrods.
In many ways, the re-imagining of the original central business district of the town has been a success. But when looking at how it recently has acquired a reputation for bad manners and bad news, you have to wonder if there’s just too much “fun.”
At the last meeting of the city council, Interim Police Chief Julian Harvey speculated that what happened on May 21-23 might just be the start of more mayhem.
Maybe it’s time to start re-thinking about what sort of downtown the citizens of Huntington Beach want to have. When the Beach Boys sang “Fun, fun, fun,” riots are not what they had in mind.
“Retorts” by Jim Tortolano is posted on alternate weeks.