Click on any picture to see a larger version
Santa Monica Bay is a section of the Southern California coast that extends from the Palos Verdes Peninsula north to Point Dume in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu. The shoreline is a nearly contiguous stretch of sandy beach that for many people is what comes to mind when they think of Los Angeles. The region at the southern end of the bay is, not surprisingly, called the South Bay.
Along with the four cities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the South Bay includes the three “beach cities” (from south to north), Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Manhattan Beach. Though they might lack the individuality of Venice, or the Baywatch cachet of Santa Monica and celebrity-saturated Malibu at the north end of the bay, they’re very popular summer and weekend escapes for residents of “Greater Los Angeles.” On sunny warm weekends, the beaches are jammed with families looking for a respite from the inland heat and smog. In winter, surfers flock there to take advantage of the large waves churned up by Pacific storms.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities all along the California coast built municipal piers to serve as docks for ships to load and unload their cargo. Ships stopped calling at the South Bay’s piers in 1909, when the new Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro consolidated Southern California’s maritime cargo operations. But updated piers in all three beach cities remain for recreational use. Even without the amusement park amenities of the landmark Santa Monica Pier, they’re places where anglers can catch their supper; and where locals and tourists can enjoy the ocean air, coastal views, and perhaps a colorful sunset.
The pier in Redondo Beach is the most extensively developed of the three
in the South Bay. It offers a collection of restaurants, fast food, and tchotchke
shops. There’s also a low-key office complex that includes a small courthouse,
possibly the only truly desirable jury duty assignment in Los Angeles County. The
pier also has underground parking, a convenient (though expensive) amenity for
beachgoers who might otherwise face a frustrating search for a scarce metered space
on a nearby street.
The current Redondo Beach Pier is the seventh version of the structure since 1889. The earliest piers were railroad terminals for lumber, to which sections were eventually added for fishing and tourists. Except for one that was condemned when the lumber business waned, these piers all succumbed to the winter storms that periodically batter the Southern California coast.
The 1929 version lasted until 1988, when a fire destroyed most of it. It was called the Horseshoe Pier because of its unusual circular shape. The small section undamaged by the fire remained open to the public until 1995, when it was demolished to make way for the current pier. The old Horseshoe Pier was quite a colorful place; it was one of my favorite spots for testing new cameras, lenses, and films.
The current pier officially opened to the public in 1996. The designers seemed to have learned their lessons well. They built it with heavy-duty concrete and steel, which should (in theory) better withstand the storms and fire that destroyed its wooden predecessors.
The Redondo Pier includes some distinctive historically-inspired artistic elements. A series of mesh sun shades on a frame of steel tubes recall the sailing ships that docked at the 1889 pier. The reinforced concrete pilings are painted the color of the earlier piers’ wood pilings. And the railings have decorative inlays with cetaceans, painted sea blue.
The initial concept for the pier had rather grandiose
ambitions. It included an aquarium, a wax museum, and a carousel. It’s
probably a good thing that those all got dropped in the final design,
since the place gets crowded enough without them during the summer and on
weekends. The pier nonetheless offers plenty of things to do— and
plenty of colorful details to photograph.
Hermosa Beach is probably best known for beach volleyball. It’s a featured stop on the National Volleyball Association tour for men and women, and hosts the Hermosa Beach Championships tournament.
Perhaps because Hermosa Beach is the smallest of the South Bay beach cities, its
municipal pier is the plainest of the three piers. Completely reconstructed in
2000, it’s just a simple concrete deck for fishing and strolling, extending some
200 meters beyond the shore, supported by unadorned concrete pilings. At the end is
a square platform for fishing. At its foot— the end of Pier Avenue, appropriately
enough— is a pedestrian mall with restaurants, bars, dance clubs, and shops. It
gets very crowded and noisy on weekend evenings.
Manhattan Beach is the northernmost of the beach cities. At the end of its 376-meter municipal pier is the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium. The Roundhouse is a non-profit educational facility chartered to teach children (and their parents) about the oceans of Southern California. Along with exhibits of local undersea fauna in glass tanks, there’s a marine “petting zoo” with tide pool creatures, rays, and cute baby sharks.
Much of the area around the South Bay beaches was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well before the automobile came to dominate Southern California life. The narrow streets create parking and traffic nightmares in the 21st century.
Parking anywhere near the beach is metered, and subject to an extensive set of limits and restrictions aggressively enforced by parking officers. The restrictions and zealous enforcement are about the only way the cities can fairly ration a very inadequate supply of parking in summer and on weekends when demand is high. But the officers are just as busy at other times, as the cash-strapped cities have come to rely on revenue from parking citations for a significant portion of their budgets.
If you’re aware and prepared, you can enjoy a nice visit to the beach without finding an unpleasant souvenir under your windshield wiper. Bring plenty of quarters, since some meters accept no other coins. Many meters are state-of-the-art models that that also accept credit and debit cards, though some people (including me) are reluctant to trust that capability. If you’re willing to walk, you might find free parking in public lots away from the beach. If you’re desperate, there are also a few private lots that charge extortionate fees.
If you’re fortunate enough to find an empty parking spot on the street, carefully read all nearby signs to make sure you’re actually allowed to park there. It’s worth walking to both ends of the block to check for applicable signs. Some street parking is reserved for residents with specific permits. There are numerous other arcane rules and restrictions that aren’t always clearly identified. But parking officers know every obscure jot and tittle of them, and take professional pride in exploiting any confusion to extract revenue from unwary visitors. A state law now prohibits those officers from ticketing vehicles parked at broken meters, but they can still ticket you if you exceed the applicable time limit. Feed the meter generously; then set the alarm clock on your watch or cellphone to make sure you get back to your car in time. Remember, you might have a very long walk to and from the beach on a summer weekend.