The old neighborhood isn't what it used to be. Every home is gone, nearly 800 razed to nothing but a few low retaining walls.
Streets are still here--Rindge, Jacqueline, Kilgore--but not a car has passed over them in a quarter-century. Knee-high weeds breach the asphalt, running in lines like lane stripes. A few old, globeless lampposts are the last standing pieces of a beachfront community wiped from the map.
Machine gun nests protected this coastal strip of Playa del Rey from the threat of enemy invasion during World War II, but the homes were defenseless against American planes: an onslaught of noisy commercial jets from Los Angeles International Airport next door. As the airport grew, the thunder of first-generation jetliners rattled the windows and shook the ceilings. The city solved the problem in the 1960s and early '70s with four rounds of condemnations--forced purchases at a fraction of what the land alone would be worth today.
More than 470 acres of gently rolling hillsides--prime ocean-view land above Dockweiler State Beach--were bought up, cleared and cordoned off by chain-link fencing and barbed wire. Then it was all left to sit, year after year after year.
The scene is nearly the same today as when Apollo XI landed on the moon, as when the boys came home from Vietnam. It is a ghost town that may last another century, as far as anyone can guess.
"The plan is no action at all," says Harold Johnson, an airport spokesman, when asked about the future of the desolate property. The broken streets are visible to anyone driving along Vista del Mar north of Imperial Highway. The tract extends inland to Pershing Drive and is bounded on the north by Napoleon and Waterview streets, near Playa del Rey village.
"You talk about prime real estate, that's it," says Steve Matilla of Matilla Realty, whose childhood home was gobbled up by the condemnations. He talks of the emotional suffering of having to move but has great memories of playing football in the now-dead streets and chasing jack rabbits across the sand dunes.
"It was ideal--two blocks from the beach, ocean views from about every spot on the block," he says. "The only bugaboo was, the jets did fly right over our heads. Some of those jets got so close you could almost pick up a stone and hit them. Literally, you had to stop talking and put your hands over your ears and let them go by."
It is one of the classic and inevitable urban battles--airports versus the neighborhoods that feed into them. Playa del Rey became the worst-case scenario, a scarred place, a place of heavy losses, tears, lawsuits and hard negotiations over fair-market value.
New runways, federal restrictions on jet landings and takeoffs, and potential liability for hearing loss were all part of the equation. As a result, wonderful old buildings were knocked down or, in a number of cases, moved in sections to other neighborhoods.
One of the first demolished, in 1967, was a 6,400-square-foot Spanish-Moroccan mansion that locals called "The Castle." The airport bought it for $86,000 and set upon it with bulldozers rather than let it draw vandals and transients.
"It was a fantastic neighborhood," remembers Mandy Saner, who rented a home here and watched the grim exodus, one parcel at a time. "They kept saying, 'This is the end of it . . . this is the end of it.' And they kept moving the line, moving the line."
Saner, a retired interior designer who now lives only a few blocks away, talks lovingly about the old beach colony, developed in the 1920s. Cecil B. DeMille had a cottage here, as did other Hollywood luminaries and writers. It was comparable to Pacific Palisades in its topography and charm.
The airport was not a worry then. It opened in 1928, a tiny place that would grow and grow, like a fleshy mass that squeezes everything around it. By the mid-1960s, when the condemnations began, the annual passenger volume had grown to 7 million. Today, the number is 67 million, making LAX the third-busiest airport in the world. Even with quieter modern jets, the noise is horrendous and the fear of further condemnations dogs homeowners in other parts of Playa del Rey and Westchester.
After the targeted beach-side homes were bought and removed, airport officials set about in the early 1980s to bring other uses to the property. They drew up a scheme that included an 18-hole golf course, a viewing area to watch planes take off, a 12-acre sand dune preserve and an 80-acre habitat for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.
Ultimately, concerns about the butterfly superseded all other options. Project plans were approved by the airport and the city but voted down by the California Coastal Commission.
A park of only two acres was developed--a few picnic tables across the street from the beach. The remaining land, lampposts and all, became the domain of the butterfly. From the insects' point of view, it is a happy story: Fewer than 500 butterflies were counted way back when; now there are believed to be 50,000 or more.
The empty acreage, with its dry grass and eerie, weed-filled streets, remains puzzling to many of the people who lie in the little park to watch the ocean.
"I do wonder what happened," says Bythell Franklin of Manhattan Beach, peering through the chain-link. "To me it's an eyesore."
Sandpiper is the only street still open to traffic through the property. It is lined with fences and "no parking" signs; for a while it was a notorious lovers' lane. Some people ignore the signs to catch the sunsets or watch the planes. Private pilot Jerry Guzman is one of them, and he knows about the butterfly preserve.
"What I don't know," he says, "is what used to be here."
In the surrounding neighborhoods, emotions are so raw that nothing besides butterfly conservation may ever be done with the land. Not long ago the airport planted palm trees around the perimeter to spruce things up. Activists became enraged about the nonnative species, and the trees may have to go.
"It's a mess," says Lon Cadis, whose home borders the empty parcel. He loves it here despite the jet noise. He just wishes they had built the golf course: The third green would have been right outside his front door.
"That would have been so nice here--so nice," he says, his gaze fixing in the distance. "It would have been comparable to Pebble Beach."