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Laguna: It isn't 'The O.C.'

November 15, 2005|Karin Klein

MOST TOWNS gain patina and character as they age. Mine seems to be going in the other direction.

Laguna Beach was once known as the wild zone of staid Orange County, the town where Timothy Leary reigned as the guru of LSD. It had fame of sorts as an arts colony, though its art was never on the highly respected edge. In the 1980s, Laguna became known as a gay-friendly town, with an openly gay mayor.

Now Leary's long gone. A couple of years ago, the high school football team, that bunch of wimps, changed its name from the Artists to the more macho but mundane Breakers. The town's gay population has diminished, grown older and less visible, and even the famed Boom Boom Room gay bar is in danger of closing.

What we are left with is a city more famous than ever -- but for an MTV reality show that features vapid and wealthy teenagers shopping, eating and mooning about romance.

Actually, I've never seen "Laguna Beach." But then, I don't know anybody in town who watches it. No one talks about it. My son says it's not a major topic at the high school, where he started this year as a freshman.

We wondered for much of the summer why the crowds of tourists seemed even more annoyingly thick than usual. Then we'd remember and grumble, "That stupid show."

The more we thought about it, though, the more we began to ask ourselves whether the show was all that bad. If the city raises the sales tax to pay for landslide repairs, for instance, we ought to be grateful that out-of-towners will pick up much of the tab.

And my son told me that when his cross-country team went to regional meets, on a few occasions they were surrounded by kids who wanted to know all about that Laguna glamour -- and buy Laguna T-shirts. Even if they didn't fit. Go for it, I say. Let's sell our high school gear at all the meets. Maybe we'll never need another silent-auction fundraiser.

Our television fame even reaches beyond the Pacific Coast League. Exchange students from New Zealand who stayed with us for a few days this fall went off on expeditions to scout the sites they'd seen on the small screen. We must have been a disappointment to them, with our quiet lives and plain (and view-free) suburban house.

The show's opponents moan that because kids emulate what they see on TV, the series is turning our town into less of a funky community and more a wealth-wrapped suburb. I think we were already getting there, compliments of the real estate boom. The wildest thing about Laguna these days is the housing prices.

Besides, Laguna's still a town that proudly defies certain norms and trends. The high school does not use an abstinence-only curriculum. In Laguna? The kids would think it was a comedy act. The city hires goats to clear the brush, and the entire town leaps on the back of anyone who uses a weed-whacker to clear so much as 2 square feet of coastal sage scrub.

So which is the real Laguna? There's the lesbian couple down the block. A few doors from them lives the woman who makes kitschy clay figurines and sells them at one of the summer festivals. And there's the goofy, inarticulate teens who live to shop, moon about romance and drool for a chance to be on TV. For better or worse, they're all the real Laguna.

Karin Klein

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