Shoreline Version of ‘Small Town, U.S.A.’ : ‘Everybody’s outside all the time, so you can’t help seeing your neighbor.’

For a visitor, the following is a sure sign that he has arrived in Hermosa Beach:

“Meter operates 24 hours daily 365 days a year.”

Parking is so scarce in this beach-front, residential community of 20,000 that at 3 a.m. on Fourth of July a motorist is advised to pay 25 cents per half-hour for the privilege of parking within walking distance of the sand.

On a summer’s weekend, when the city brims with 100,000 beach-goers, one would do better to park in Redondo Beach, which borders Hermosa on the south and east, and take a bus in.

“If you’re a renter or a visitor, you’ll have a hard time with the parking here, especially in the summer when it just gets ridiculous,” said Hermosa Beach resident Patrick Watson.

“But most of the residences have their own parking, and for us it’s not a problem,” said Watson, who was enjoying the beach with his son and a neighbor on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Knew What He Wanted

Watson, who is 45 and sells computer equipment, was raised in East Los Angeles but has since become “a beach person.” Growing up, he used to hitchhike to the beach with his surfboard.

At 17, he moved to Hermosa, sharing an apartment with other surfers and living on potatoes. Four years ago, he was ready to buy his first house here and knew what he wanted.

He did not want to live on the Strand--the broad sidewalk thronged by roller skaters, bicyclists and pedestrians. Too noisy, he said.

Neither did he want to live inland, even though the glen where the Santa Fe Railroad once maintained a freight line has since become the greenest and least hectic neighborhood in a community with only six parks and precious little open space.

Nor did he want to live on the high hill on the eastern edge of town, where the main thoroughfare is aptly named Prospect.

‘Small Town, U.S.A.’

Watson wanted to live on one of the streets between the Strand and Hermosa Avenue. They are a stone’s throw from the beach and are marked by open front yards facing a communal sidewalk. Like condominiums, the houses exist in close proximity because the residents have so much in common: parking hassles, sunshine and the beach.

“Small Town, U.S.A.,” said Watson of 19th Street, where he bought his 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house in 1985 for $370,000.

He claims to know every one of the 18 families on his block. They celebrate together on the Fourth of July, at Christmas and, Watson said with a wink, the really important holiday: St. Patrick’s Day.

One of the street’s families recently hung signs in the windows of their house to declare to the rest of the block: “It’s a boy.”

“Everybody’s outside all the time, so you can’t help seeing your neighbor,” said Watson, turning to a neighbor of his own, 40-year-old Gary Martin, who is a real estate developer and manager. “Some people you wouldn’t ordinarily like, you see so much of them all the time, you learn to like them,” Watson said.

No Sizeable Employer

Martin picked up the cue and smiled back. “Or you just put up with them,” he said.

Hermosa Beach was incorporated in 1907 and developed as a resort and bedroom community. Its economy was founded on its fishing pier, a cinema and the Biltmore Hotel, which was demolished more than 30 years ago.

The city still has its landmark shops and institutions: The Lighthouse jazz club, Either/Or Bookstore and Critters, a bar whose tinted windows and corner location make it the perfect spot to relax while watching motorists look for parking.

But the community to this day has no sizeable employer--not even tourism. Its total number of hotels and motels is three.

While Redondo Beach developed a harbor and attracted TRW Inc. as the foundation of light-industrial employment, and Manhattan Beach welcomed a hotel complex and tennis center, Hermosa has done almost nothing to alter its residential character.

Its voters repeatedly defeated, albeit narrowly, the city’s proposal to build a hotel and retail center on the Biltmore site. Now a task force has recommended that the city sell the site to a private developer under zoning for open space and general commercial use.

Long Commute to Freeway

“This is probably one of the last true beach communities in the state,” Watson said. “We are small town, very residential, very non-commercial. We’re different from Manhattan, which is why you can’t get a hotel passed here.”

Like other South Bay cities, Hermosa has poor access to the San Diego Freeway--a 25-minute drive to the nearest on-ramp. “You don’t have that many people commuting downtown,” said Watson, who works at home.

“You’ll have people like me, who work locally, or you’ll have people who work at the airport or (in) Torrance. We’re kind of isolated, and we like it.”

The bedroom community produces notably few children. According to the Chamber of Commerce, the total kindergarten to eighth grade enrollment is only 700. The city has only one combined elementary and intermediate school and is served by high schools in Redondo and Manhattan.

Not surprisingly, house prices are too expensive for most young families.

Residential Burglaries

A 17-year-old duplex of two-bedroom apartments on Hermosa Avenue, not far from Watson’s home, fell out of escrow in early April and went back on the market at $750,000.

Another listing was for a one-bedroom, one-bath residence with an enclosed porch: $40,000. It was a trailer.

The prevalent crime is residential burglary. According to police statistics, there were eight during the week ending April 4, one of them just a block from Watson’s home. The police department, with its 37 officers, stresses community watch groups and preventive hardware, but in dense neighborhoods composed primarily of renters, burglary is persistent.

But pleasures, too, are always at hand. Watson’s son, Thomas, 21, was asked what he liked best about Hermosa Beach and replied: “This right here.”

He was standing by the Strand, watching the crowd flow past. His dad laughed.

AT A GLANCE Population

1988 estimate: 18,956

1980-88 change: 4.3%

Median age: 32.3 years

Racial/ethnic mix

White (non-Latino): 87.1%

Latino: 8%

Black: 1.1%

Other: 3.8%

Annual income

Per capita: $25,333

Median household: $45,905

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 10.7%

$15,000 - $30,000: 18.4%

$30,000 - $50,000: 26.3%

$50,000 - $75,000: 25%

$75,000 +: 19.6%