What is the essence of Santa Monica? Many would say the beaches, which appear in media so often as “Santa Monica” that someone living in Cincinnati might wonder if we actually have any buildings here. A Florida real estate trust is betting $34 million that the quintessence of our town is the Pier. Hot dog, anybody?
When I say “Florida” to you, do you at first see a helicopter shot of Miami and all those sun-bleached skyscrapers down there? Or is it a girl in a bikini sitting next to a mojito with a tiny paper umbrella in it? Or maybe a dead drug dealer in the trunk of a Lexus. “California,” in general, is often represented by shots of roller blade skaters and tarot card readers down on the Venice boardwalk. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it hardly begins to give you an accurate sense of the state. For example, it says nothing about California producing 2.28 billion pounds of cheese in 2007. I don’t know how you get cheese into a beach scene, but you see my point: No one image is definitive. Even Lindsay Lohan’s mug shots, which might say “Los Angeles” to the rest of the world, leave out Lindsay’s healthy appetite for California cheese when she’s in rehab.
CNL Lifestyle Properties Inc. announced last week that it has bought Pacific Park, the name bestowed on the attractions and rides operation on our Pier, from the group of investors who opened said attractions in a first phase in 1996. According to an L.A. Times piece, a managing director of CNL has stated that our Pier is an emblem of the region and that “You can’t watch a morning newscast or television show without a pan of the pier.” Same goes for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or Big Ben in London, or a woman flashing her boobs during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. New Orleans also has a Big Ben, but it’s a middle aged guy that — On second thought, let’s not encourage that guy.
I’m saying that there’s always the possibility that iconic images are simultaneously honest (women will do that thing I described during Mardi Gras) but not necessarily quintessential. New Orleans has more than the drunk-y French Quarter “fun zone,” including a world-class jazz festival and some of the finest restaurants in America. Images of our town as a brightly solar-lit ferris wheel describe one area on the beach, but never lead you to such things as the Rand Corporation or the new Agensys biotech facility where, as I understand it, they might just develop a cure for cancer.
But people need a handle they can carry a city by, and it’s no easy task settling on the one or two images that might do the trick. I grew up in Milwaukee during a time when that city’s heavy manufacturing of machine tools and industrial hardware made itself known all over the world. But a drill press or even the sparking flare of a welding torch doesn’t really say “Good times!” when it comes to promoting a city to tourists. So they invented a kind of consolidation of ethnic festivals, and called it “Summerfest.” This was that time decades ago when every activity had the word “fest” glued on. Now it’s “palooza”, as in “Schmooza Palooza”… a recent event at the House of Blues, where I’m guessing some people drank booze-a and possibly went home with a looza.
“Summerfest” isn’t the totality of the city of Milwaukee, and maybe our Pier isn’t everything we are here in Santa Monica. Still… I would love for every person who visits our town for the first time to make a point of riding our ferris wheel at night, hopefully with the moon hanging over the bay. That’s an image that in many ways is quintessentially our town, and you can’t buy that online or see it in a movie and have the same experience.
Meanwhile, there’s the on going evolution of the Pier. The rides at Pacific Palisades are family-oriented, old school, …in a word, gentle. The roller coaster, as it might be viewed by fans of gut-wrenching and brain-bobbing super roller coasters, is something of a kiddy ride. But that pulls families together, since a spin on our coaster is less likely to bring-up that taco from a half-hour ago. It’s a nice amusement park, and that’s a very positive thing for our Pier.
However, an aspect of Palisades Park that this column has wondered aloud about in the past will continue to be a concern as the new owners of Pacific Park take over. And that’s that the ride tickets are too expensive and don’t allow families on tighter budgets to have a bigger day at our Pier. I would hope that CNL would take a look at such things as season passes or any format of ticket options that might open things up a bit, especially in light of what we know is true of the economy right now. To be emblematic of the Santa Monica we know and love, the amusements at the Pier need to be there for all to enjoy. The L.A. Times reports that last year Pacific Park grossed nearly $20 million dollars. It seems like there might be some wiggle room for special lower price promotion days, or anything that might give harder-pressed parents a shot at bringing their families to that Pier they keep seeing on the morning news.