Wave riders could grab a burger at one of many hangouts, while more sophisticated diners -- airline pilots, aerospace engineers, professors -- had their pick of white-tablecloth restaurants.
It was a destination surfing town with a casual vibe but plenty of bustle.
The casual vibe remains, but Playa del Rey is no longer much of a destination.
An off-shore breakwater, installed in 1965 in part to calm the wave action afflicting the nascent Marina del Rey development, wiped out the enclave's big surf -- and with it, much of its coastal cachet.
Over the years, many fine dining establishments have disappeared, and now the tired commercial strip features bars but no bank, hardware store, pharmacy or major grocery store.
Meanwhile, South Bay commuters have turned Culver Boulevard, which curves through town, into what locals semi-jokingly call the Manhattan Beach Freeway.
"It's an area that people pass through," said David J. Dukesherer, a local historian and longtime resident of the area. "They don't stop. They don't trade."
But developers see opportunity in the quirky hamlet, and lately, townspeople have engaged in an often testy debate over whether to embrace or resist efforts to enliven the scene with new housing and shops. The conversation has pitted residents who like everything the way it is, faded storefronts and all, against those who believe that the town could benefit from some spiffing up and new amenities.
"I'm fond of the pig, obviously, but I think it needs a little lipstick," Dukesherer said.
The problem is that developers have suggested more than a little lipstick for this relatively prosperous community of about 11,000.
To resounding shouts of disapproval, developer David Schwartzman of DS Ventures has proposed building 13 rental units on a privately held parcel sandwiched between Ballona Creek and the beloved Del Rey Lagoon.
The lagoon is a vastly reduced remnant of the shallow lake that once stretched all the way to Venice, but was filled in with dredged materials in the 1930s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened out the creek.
Over the years, residents have urged the city of Los Angeles to buy the 2.4-acre parcel or swap it for another property. The land, nicknamed Egret Park, provides what some wetlands advocates contend is a crucial ecological link with the creek and nearby wetlands.
A citizens group, the Committee to Complete the Park, has been working with the developer to reach a compromise.
Schwartzman recently proposed a swap package worth $7.3 million in cash and land to the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa del Rey.
The council supported a resolution to have park supporters try to secure funds for the deal.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Playa del Rey, said he opposes any development at the site. "I think it should be part of a national conservancy," he said.
Meanwhile, developer Edward M. Czuker, who has proposed a large, mixed-use project in Marina del Rey called the Waterfront, has plans for a trio of properties in Playa del Rey, although he has yet to submit formal applications.