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Seaside soul searching

New name for tiny El Porto's commercial strip reflects the evolution of the once-raucous enclave and leaves some feeling the past is being cast aside.

February 22, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Don Spencer stepped into the recess of his bay window and stared at the rooftops terraced beneath him, all the way to the sea. He spoke of a childhood easy to imagine but difficult, by now, to re-create.

Spencer's early days were spent tumbling in the local surf break, his evenings cavorting through the dunes, the sand strafing his ankles, the same song, it seemed, spilling some nights through the windows of the neighborhood bungalows: "Vaya con Dios, my darling; Vaya con Dios, my love."

Life, he said, "was a banquet -- more goodies on the table than anyone could get to in a lifetime."

But that was half a century ago, before the tiny community of El Porto was folded into the town of Manhattan Beach, back when it was still a secluded, orphaned and sometimes lawless whisper of L.A. County beachfront. Today, Manhattan Beach is one of the most expensive cities in California. El Porto, which pokes out of the northern tip of Manhattan Beach like a hitchhiker's thumb, hasn't missed out on the ride.

Along El Porto's only commercial strip, on Highland Avenue, one barbershop recently became a chic home decor boutique, another a high-end clothier. The dry cleaner became a restaurant offering chipotle aioli, and down the block, a dive bar is being rebuilt as a martini lounge.

So, late last year, city leaders thought they were just going with the flow when they decided that El Porto's business district needed a name -- "a brand," said Ron Baker, who owns the popular restaurant Bora Bora there, "an identity."

No one much noticed until the decision -- "North Manhattan Beach" -- was announced. It wasn't so much the new name that ruffled feathers. It was the fact that city officials had dismissed, out of hand, another of the proposed names, one that happened to have been used by locals for decades: "El Porto."

In the early years, some in Manhattan Beach said the words -- "El Porto" -- as if they were shooing a stray dog, as if they were talking and spitting at the same time. Their Manhattan Beach was a gentle and civil place of banana trees and beach volleyball, with well-groomed neighborhoods dubbed the "tree section," the "hill section" and the "poet section," the latter named after streets called Keats, Shelley and Tennyson.

Whatever the law-and-order crowd frowned upon at the time -- booze during Prohibition, raucous dancing during the early days of rock, pot in the '60s, coke in the '70s -- could be found in El Porto, often with great ease.

Add in the adjoining surf break, one of the most reliable in Southern California, and nearby Los Angeles International Airport, which made El Porto a common stopover for young pilots and flight attendants, and El Porto was frequently bleary-eyed by Monday morning.

Children were warned not to go there, said Jan Dennis, a former mayor and a historian working on her sixth book about Manhattan Beach.

"It was wide open," Dennis said. "It was a place where people could go to do their thing, so to speak."

For decades, El Porto, which had its roots in a scattered patch of seaside cottages that serviced the oil business or served as seasonal getaways, was unincorporated county land. In the late '70s, homeowners launched a drive to get adopted by incorporated Manhattan Beach, which initially demurred, partly out of fears it would run out of fresh water. In 1981, the deal went through; El Porto, all 34 acres of it, became part of the city -- sort of.

"People just felt like it wasn't part of the Manhattan Beach scene. That continues today," said Dennis. "You don't think of El Porto as part of Manhattan Beach."

That's what community leaders were hoping to change when they adopted a new name for El Porto's business district. They were looking for the sense, said Baker, that their commercial drag might be viewed as a viable alternative to the immaculate stretches of boutiques and cafes in the heart of Manhattan Beach, closer to the city pier.

With the new name came plans for street paving, for sidewalk cleaning, for trash cans that all look alike, for 22 large banners unifying the businesses along an 11-block stretch of Highland Avenue.

"You can't buy or sell the soul of a community," Baker said. "But you can't ignore the value of property. . . . It's economic evolution."

But in a more subtle way it was a social evolution too. The business community was also looking to move beyond El Porto's fun-loving but often sordid past. It couldn't be called "El Porto Business District," Baker said, because that would have elicited memories of what he describes as the "three Bs -- bars, bikers and booze."

On paper, the adoption of the name was simple.

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