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Leisure: Huntington Beach landmark has a colorful past--and present, for that matter.


HUNTINGTON BEACH — These are the mellow days around the pier in "Surf City," when the year-round people start counting the days before the tidal wave of tourists washes onto the beach.

There are miles of public sand along the Southern California coast, but this stretch is one of the most popular. There are probably lots of reasons, says lifeguard Lt. Steve Davidson, but the main one is also the most obvious: the pier.

"Most definitely," he says. "It's the landmark. You drive along the coast and there's a lot of beach, but you don't really think about stopping until you see a pier."

They are the descendants of the old-time wharves that allowed coastal freighters to supply the town. They weather, decay and break apart, but they are rebuilt and improved, often at great public expense. Nowadays, municipal piers remain revered symbols of a city's identity.

Huntington Beach without a pier? The idea makes Davidson pause and try to imagine it. He can't. "I've never worked a beach without a pier," he says. "It's such an integral part--our backbone."

Nature has been trying to break that backbone since it was first erected in 1904.

Waves tore away the middle in 1912, but a new pier was built within a year.

An earthquake broke the pier in half in 1933. Twenty-three-foot waves carried away nearly 300 feet in 1939. Thirty pilings were sheared off in 1983, still more in 1986, and about 250 feet of pier, including a restaurant, were washed away in 1988. But a new, $12.5-million pier opened in 1992.

"It's a good thing they did rebuild it," says 16-year-old Loreen, skating in a thong bikini. "I love it here. I come here every chance I get," including this particular school day. "Don't put my last name in, OK?" she says.

Businesses love it too. The old and sometimes shabby downtown section at the foot of the pier has long since been replaced by modern buildings, and they know to what they owe their existence. They are named "Pier Colony," "Pierside Pavilion," "Pierside Gallery" and "Pierside Dentistry."

They do a grand business during the summer. "We get lines for hours," says Robert, a "sandwich artist" at Subway Sandwiches. So these easy, early May days must be golden. "You got that right," he says.

Anglers and surfers also love the pier, if not each other. "In the way, in the way," is all Dung Nguyen of Garden Grove had to say about surfers. His nearly invisible fishing line ran from the pier's railing to the surf where surfers and their boards maneuvered close by.

Anglers who cast their lines near the breakers find they sometimes catch surfers instead of fish. The pier's pilings make for bigger waves, so surfers tend to group along its flanks.

"The fishing lines are hard to see," says lifeguard Davidson. "They may hit the line accidentally, cause the pole to move and the fisherman assumes they're messing with their equipment and start zinging sinkers at them. And sometimes, the surfers do mess with their stuff."

But not in mellow May. "I love every minute of it," says Roy Johnson, who lives out of a shopping cart. "I'm here every day--until Memorial Day. Then I won't be back till Christmas."

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