Surf City-The Slow Death of Huntington Beach

As a wide-eyed gremlin, I watched a surfer streak across a massive green wall and straight through the barnacle-encrusted, concrete pilings of Huntington Beach Pier. It was the 1964 Surfing Championship and all the big names were there. An unknown, Laguna Beach goofy-footer named Jim Craig took top honors for that awesome beast of a wave.

Even back then, there was civil unrest.  I recall passing a broken storefront window on my way home.

After I moved away, the rapaciousness of developers and city leaders in Huntington had transformed the funky beach town into a surfing theme park-a vast, out door shopping mall.

In 1986, during the OP Pro surfing contest, the crowd got unruly, burned trash cans, overturned and torched police cars. It appeared some vestige of the town’s wild spirit yet remained, despite all efforts to redirect it into acceptable channels-where the only expression of freedom encouraged is a choice between what brand of surf trunks to wear.

It is pointless to get moralistic about the stupid outbreak of violence this past week. But whatever our judgements, the riot was a response to social engineering-where power imposes constraints that are integrated with city planning and architecture itself. With the city’s long history of capitulation to  marketplace demands, citizens were disenfranchised and reduced to the role of passive consumers. But the spirit of rebellion won’t be stifled, though it fights targets as elusive as quicksilver (a telling brand name in this heady mix, and part of the corporate attempt to misappropriate surfing’s mercurial spirit.) Even the most chaotic and, on the surface, meaningless, events have a hidden logic, and the spontaneous explosion at this year’s surf contest was fueled by a long, bitter history of city mismanagement and greed.

Huntington Beach has long been a site of pilgrimage. People flock from the congested suburbs inland, to where the pier stretches into the sea as if it might extend man’s dominion ever further into pure emptiness itself. The theme of westward movement is encoded in our DNA and shapes our literature from Cather to Steinbeck, Kerouac and beyond. It is an Archetypal journey on which the soul travels from the world of endless toil and confinement to the promised land where we might, at last, find happiness in the spacious land of infinite surf, sun and fun, fun, fun.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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