Santa Monica was literally an afterthought for its founders. Senator John P. Jones, who had made a fortune in silver in Nevada, wanted to found a new Los Angeles railroad, and chose this patch of coast as its hub, while Colonel Robert S. Baker and a group of English investors planned to found a town called Truxton.
When Jones’ railroad plans were foiled, and Baker’s British investors withdrew, the two men pooled their resources in 1875 and auctioned off lots in the new town of Santa Monica. As they envisioned it, the center of the town would be what is now Reed Park, between Lincoln Boulevard and Seventh Street on Wilshire Boulevard, but that, like Jones’ railroad and Baker’s Truxton, didn’t happen.
Collis Huntington, the Southern Pacific Railroad boss, spent years trying to make Santa Monica the Port of Los Angeles. Huntington, who once described his railroad as “two lines of rust and a right-of-way,” built the long wharf, near the mouth of Santa Monica Canyon, and did everything, including offering bribes to members of Congress, to have his way, but he failed, and San Pedro got the nod.
In its first decades, Santa Monica was a cautious, conservative sort of place, made by and for burghers.
Pacific Palisades to the north was founded by members of the Chautauqua Society, a gathering of high-minded idealists. Venice, to the south, was the dream of Abbot Kinney made real. But Santa Monica was what two would-be tycoons did when everything else failed.
Only people who rank simple order over dreams would see that as an unpromising beginning. Still, it took the town a while to find its footing and its place in the panoply of cities in the L.A. nation.
Pleasure piers dotted the coast. But the sole purpose of Santa Monica’s Municipal Pier, which was built in 1909, was to carry the City sewer line out into the ocean. In 1918, when a Coney Island showman opened a pleasure pier next to the municipal pier, it attracted a crowd of 100,000 people, which frightened and appalled the burghers, who were far too buttoned up to enjoy sun, surf and merry-go-rounds.
The first residents of the beach were Japanese fishermen. Charlie Chaplin is said to have shot his first one-reeler there. While the burghers constructed solid square houses on the mesa above the sea, movie stars and moguls built literal castles in the sand, Los Angeles and Pasadena elites built lavish private beach clubs and the media dubbed it all the Gold Coast.
At the same time, blue-collar workers made their own enclave of beach bungalows in Ocean Park.
The primary fact of Santa Monica was always its location on the fabled Southern California coast and it eventually prevailed.
In 1934, the City opened a “yacht harbor” adjacent to the pier and sleek motorboats transported men and women in stylish evening clothes from the pier to a gambling ship that was moored in the ocean just out of reach of the law.
But the 1941 Santa Monica Blue Book gave all the credit for the town’s luster to its women tennis stars, ignoring its storied beaches and their legendary inhabitants, aviation pioneer Donald Douglas’s mammoth aircraft factory, which, by then, virtually filled the southeast quadrant of the city and ran 24 hours a day building war planes for the U.S. and its allies, and reigning child star Shirley Temple who lived on Nineteenth Street.
By then, Santa Monica was 66 years old, gorgeous, and famous, but it continued to play the small town, proudly provincial, the rube in the heart of the most dazzling, startling and modern city in America.
Bay City, in Raymond Chandler’s exemplary novels, is actually Santa Monica in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and he didn’t much like it. In Farewell My Lovely, he wrote, “It’s a nice town. It’s probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town this size all complete, with the original box and tissue paper. That’s the difference. And that makes me want out….”
By all accounts, like many small America towns of that era, it was run by a few businessmen – a straight-ahead sort of place that didn’t mind a little backroom corruption as long as it was profitable, but would not tolerate rogues and renegades.
However, the door had been opened by Hollywood, the boom at Douglas Aircraft, and the founding of the RAND Corporation, arguably the nation’s first “think tank,” and remained open and the world came to stay. Many of the writers and artists who left Europe when Hitler rose to power settled in Santa Monica, Santa Monica Canyon and Pacific Palisades. Screenwriter Salka Viertel’s salons in her house on Mabery Road in the canyon were renowned for the glitter and variety of its regulars – who ranged from Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller to German playwright Bertoldt Brecht, who lived on 26th Street, to Garbo.
At the same time, young writers, film-makers, painters and renegades of all sorts found Santa Monica’s location on the western edge of everything irresistible.
In the 1950s, city fathers were ready to shut the Santa Monica Pier down, as it was attracting “undesirables,” biker gangs, rock and roll musicians, and bohos. Still, the first show of West Coast abstract expressionism was held in the Carousel on the pier in 1954.
But it probably wasn’t until 1965, when the new Santa Monica freeway opened, that Santa Monica finally stopped playing Babbitt to L.A.’s Gatsby.
Suddenly, everything was only 20 minutes away, everything and everyone. Throngs of inner city and valley residents were finally able to escape the basin’s heat and smog and spend a day at the beach. Self-described “old radicals” and young 60s activists moved in, because it was gorgeous and it was convenient.
Civil war was probably inevitable. The first shot was fired in 1973 when the City Council voted to demolish the Pier and replace it with a man-made island and convention center. Joan Crowne, a starchy Brit who ran Al’s Kitchen on the Pier, led the “Save Our Piers Forever” campaign, and was joined by the activists, old radicals, many longtime residents, and virtually the entire cast and crew of The Sting, which was shooting on the Pier at the time, to force a city-wide vote on the question. The upstarts won, the Piers were saved, and the Council members who voted for demolition were booted out of office.
It was the first time in nearly 100 years that the people had challenged their leaders, and the people had won.
But they were not satisfied. Rents were rising too fast, but, as it happened, 70 percent of the registered voters were renters. Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights was formed. The group’s first act was to put a Rent Control ordinance on the ballot. It passed and two SMRR candidates were elected to the Council in 1979. In 1982, three more SMRRs won Council seats, giving SMRR a lock on City Hall. So it was that arguably the most conservative town in Southern California became “the most radical city in America,” according to the Village Voice. Outraged burghers and landlords hoisted signs around town that said, “Welcome to the People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” The Wall Street Journal fumed. “60 Minutes” did a segment on Santa Monica, “Left City.” Except for two years in the mid-1980s, the SMRRs have maintained their majority for more than two decades.
But some funny things happened on the way to Utopia. In order to increase City revenues to fund some laudable new programs, the SMRRs, on the advice of City staff, thought they could outplay mega-developers, and generate highly desirable revenue, while avoiding undesirable impacts. And they were wrong. More significantly, City Hall decided, without consulting residents, to move Santa Monica into big-time tourism, a major change in direction. A Hotel District was established. The Convention & Visitors’ Bureau was created and given $1 million a year to promote Santa Monica. In City Hall parlance, the beach became “a visitor-serving facility.”
Residents didn’t need the money. 69 percent of the residents who were employed worked outside the City. They didn’t need the additional jobs either – which were mostly menial. City Hall needed the money, much of which was spent on turning downtown Santa Monica into a kind of amusement park for tourists. The tarted up Third Street Promenade squeezed local independent businesses out and replaced them with big box chain stores and tourist-oriented businesses.
Now we’ve set out to update the land use and circulation elements of the 1984 Master Plan, in order, in the City’s tagline, “to shape the future…2025.”
But whose Santa Monica is it anyway? Who should make the crucial additions and corrections? Whose “vision” should prevail?
Property owners? Business operators? Developers? Residents? Workers? Tourists? Our children – many of whom will grow up and many others of whom will be middle-aged by 2025?
The interests and aims of each group are quite distinct and, quite often, at odds with each other.
And, if City Hall follows in its own footsteps, it will try to satisfy all the groups, and, in that way, end up with a revised General Plan that will please no one.
Whose Santa Monica is it? The residents, of course. It’s a large and wholly heterogeneous group, and includes property owners, renters, business owners and operators, workers, and children — just about everyone but tourists, and, if the City knew anything about tourists, it would know that tourists are attracted to totally bogus places, like amusement parks, and utterly real places, like old beach towns.
Ultimately, as with virtually everything, Santa Monica, this glorious, gorgeous old beach town belongs to the people who love it and understand it, and will settle for nothing less than a future that is as bright, and surprising, as its past.