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COVER STORY

Grand stands by the sea

Rocking to the rhythms of the ocean, piers offer a taste of the Southern California good life.

June 12, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

A well-tanned Kenny Rogers -- not that Kenny Rogers -- launches a footbag 15 feet into the salty air, twirls, and catches it, miraculously, on the outer edge of his right shoe before flipping it on top of his head. He is in the center ring.

All around him are skateboarders, bicyclists, in-line skaters, walkers, runners, dogs, volleyball players, fishermen, an old guy dressed in black punching and kicking at invisible foes, Hermosa Beach locals sucking down Coronas at the corner tavern, surfers carrying their boards beneath their arms like Bibles.

They're all down by the pier.

Here in Southern California, a pier is a balcony overlooking a stage of sand and sea, skin and sun. It's a pathway into morning's early mist and, later, as fine a place as there is to feel the embers of a day. At night, it becomes a lovers' lane. To walk upon a pier is to walk upon the back of a sleeping giant, wonderful and frightening.

And as the sun sets on Hermosa Beach, it's a place to chill.

There are 116 public piers in California, says Ken Jones, author of "Pier Fishing in California" (Marketscope Books, 1992) and a self-described "pier rat." Jones, of Lodi, has fished from them all, as well as from some, like Aliso Pier in south Laguna Beach, that have been dismantled -- the sea's fury too vast, the cost of rebuilding too great. Others, like the Malibu Pier are gaining new life. Now in the final phase of reconstruction, it is open for fishing and walking as work on the buildings continues. Businesses are expected to open next year.

In all, there are 22 public piers in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties, no two of them alike. Jones considers the Ventura Pier to be the oldest in the state. Built in the early 1870s, just before Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, it also is among California's longest wooden piers. The longest in the state, at 4,135 feet, is the San Mateo Pier, Jones says. (An updated version of Jones' book is due out later this year. While the first edition was about 200 pages, the next will be closer to 500 and include historical information about each pier.)

Some piers are sleek, some creak, some are like shopping malls on pilings. Ride the rides and hear the music at Santa Monica. Feel the wind at Goleta. Dance all night at Club Curves, "where big girls come to party," in Redondo Beach. Stroll beneath the moon at any of them.

The Manhattan Beach Municipal Pier leads to the Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium, located in the historic Roundhouse, offering displays of ocean life including a shark tank. The Seal Beach Municipal Pier offers a view of the Long Beach skyline to the north, Sunset Beach to the south. At midday, people in business attire head to Ruby's Diner for burgers, fries, a taste of the 1950s and a view of the ocean.

The Redondo Beach Pier is actually a complex of piers, a microcosm of the region where people of all backgrounds, speaking different languages, wearing Laker jerseys and huaraches, stroll past shops and restaurants: Korean barbecue, churros, sushi, baklava, chow mein, pizza, live crabs in window tanks. Next to the bait shop, you can get a bowl of chowder or a green tea latte.

At Redondo, you can listen to the blues, or you can fish, shop, play video games or even search for justice. A branch of the L.A. Superior Court is located up by the Japanese restaurant. If you're headed for the slammer, you might consider take-out.

At Hermosa Beach, where the 36-year-old Kenny Rogers spends much of his days and nights with his footbags, the pier closes at 10 p.m., but others remain open 24 hours a day.

At night they take on a different persona, evident in the writing of Raymond Chandler: "There was a winking yellow light at the intersection," noted Phillip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep." "I turned the car and slid down a slope with a high bluff on one side, interurban tracks to the right, a low straggle of light far off beyond the tracks, and then very far off a glitter of pier lights and a haze in the sky over a city ... "

Day or night, people are drawn to them. As summer settles in, our friends from elementary school and brothers-in-law from Nebraska are preparing to head west, arriving in minivans loaded with children and anticipation. So, too, come college students, paroled into a few months of freedom.

Their expectations have been building ever since that cold February night when they were watching "Baywatch" and suddenly could not escape images of endless summer. The beach. The ocean. The stars. Lifeguards. Romance. Mickey Mouse. Slow walks upon a sleeping giant. So they called and said they were coming.

Get out the air mattress, hide the good wine.

Artist Elbert Price stops and turns upon the Goleta Pier. He extends his right arm and sweeps it across the landscape. Everywhere, he says, there is a painting.

The first time he saw this pier, located in the Goleta Beach County Park just north of Santa Barbara, he knew he must paint it.

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