By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It could have been any other early-fall Southern California barbecue. The easygoing weather, old friends and good food in a sleepy beach town — Playa del Rey.
But partygoers were dismayed over three developments proposed by Edward M. Czuker and his company, EMC Development LLC, for the heart of the community. The developer was said to be seeking three projects including about 148 residential units and encompassing roughly 20,000 square feet of retail.
Czuker is not known for subtle or small. He once plunked a faux–French chateau apartment complex on a stretch of Lincoln Boulevard. And he was involved in megadevelopments in Marina del Rey and Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura County. Would Czuker’s plans spell the demise of the last original beach town still standing in Los Angeles?
To look at Playa del Rey is not to look at much, at first. Real estate interests tried and failed to define the community, founded in 1901, through large-scale development projects at four pivotal points in the town’s history, says local historian David “Duke” Dukesherer. The attempts did not always work out. During the depression, Fritz Burns, general manager of a local real estate empire, was so destitute he lived in a tent.
Instead, Playa del Rey grew more or less organically. Today, it is a sliver of a town composed of nondescript architecture and mini-neighborhoods like “the Jungle,” jammed with 1950s apartments and gentrified condos a stone’s throw from the beach. Up on the bluffs, more luxurious homes have taken root.
Even “the village,” as residents dub the small retail area where Czuker has two parcels, has none of the quaint visuals this designation implies on the coast. Instead, it’s ramshackle bars, funky cafés and squat little stores.
Residents, however, see the 11,000-person town differently. “It’s kind of a little gem, this little beach village we have,” says Marcia Hanscom, an environmentalist. “People enjoy the beach and the wetlands, but it’s a quiet little town during the evenings.”
“You can walk down the street and say hi to neighbors and friends,” says Lance Williams, who, 13 years ago, purchased Playa del Rey Florists, a local institution for decades.
The yearning here for livable space is, in truth, replicated all over Los Angeles, where large-scale development and mansion-ization are sweeping away communities. Mom-and-pop stores are wiped out by chains, and unique histories give way to the generic.
Joe Geever, born in neighboring Westchester, which sits atop a bluff and looks out over the Ballona wetlands, camped on Playa’s dunes as a kid. Now he’s an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which fights to protect the ocean.
“Playa del Rey is representative of a cultural heritage,” Geever says. “The beaches in the ’60s and ’70s were not the place for wealthy residential development. Back then, they were really attractive to people who went out and used the beach — swam and surfed.”
Until the 1970s, places like Palos Verdes were populated by those “fascinated with coastal culture,” notes Scott Hulet, who edits The Surfer’s Journal. “People who spent every waking moment they weren’t at work on the beach.” The ocean was beautiful, but also part of the fabric of life, from the black sea bass they spear-fished to the lobsters and abalone they dove for.
Hulet pegs the demise of Southern California’s beach-town lifestyle to a specific event: “I see the tipping point as being really definable — and that’s when you could no longer find abalone, in the late ’60s,” he says. Locally, the kelp beds and sea life were being wiped out by undertreated sewage, runoff and other degradation from L.A.’s burgeoning population.
“Now,” says Geever, “I’ve got a sense that people who live right on the beach in the most expensive property, they’re not there because they use those resources. They’re there because they like to look at them from inside their darkened windows.”
The notion of living closer to the natural world drew many to Playa del Rey. The Pacific lay to the west, Ballona Creek to the north, the Ballona Wetlands to the east, and a freshwater lagoon sat at its center.
“The beach was my backyard,” says Dukesherer, whose family also lived in Westchester, and spent hours on the water together. “I have a crystal-clear recollection of being on my dad’s paddleboard, with my dad. He was in awe of the ocean.”
Dukesherer became a surfer and took on that philosophy. “I learned a lot on Toes Beach — about people, respect for the water, respect for the land. You’re dealing with some pretty big waves, so you better respect the ocean and the tides. You’re trying to control them but they can control you pretty darn fast.”