Commentary: Huntington Beach’s insular reputation has a progressive throughline

Trump supporters rally in Huntington Beach Saturday.
Trump supporters rally in Huntington Beach on April 1 in response to the filing of criminal charges against the former president.
(Eric Licas)
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Attending Peterson Elementary School in the mid-1970s, it seemed like surfers and surfing — and Huntington Beach — would always be progressive and pro-environment. Wasn’t the most popular column in Surfer magazine “Our Mother Ocean?” Shipley Nature Center and Huntington Central Park opened in 1974, the stunning Richard Neutra-inspired Central Library a year later.

Together, they defined the aspirations of the era. By the 1980s however, a new generation of entrepreneurs pushed moneymaking — and sticker-splattered businesses like Wahoo’s Fish Taco as new architectural statements.

What created the Huntington Beach we love and hate today? It’s worth spending a few minutes on the question — because few really have. Instead, Huntington Beach is lazily labeled as a sort of homeland for lesser-educated, tattooed immigrant-bashers.


While these elements exist, they are minorities and likely on the decline. They should not define the place.

Fresno State University historian Daniel Cady helps provide context. His doctoral dissertation, “’Southern’ California: White Southern Migrants in Greater Los Angeles, 1920-1930,” uncovers some key points in Huntington Beach’s story.

Perhaps the biggest single factor that created today’s Surf City is the oil boom of the early 20th century. It drew significant numbers from Texas and Oklahoma in search of work during the city’s oil boom.

By 1930, 16% of Huntington Beach residents were Southern born — the highest percentage of any city in the state — and more than twice California’s average, Cady writes. The oil workers transformed the cultural landscape, where Cady notes they introduced “hillbilly music” and Southern cuisine — along with boxing, pool halls, prostitution and drunkenness — the latter fixtures of any boom town of course.

Delbert “Bud” Higgins, an early city lifeguard, firefighter, and policeman, vividly recalled the oil boom in an interview decades later.

The main beach area around the pier, Higgins recalled, was crowded with cardboard shacks and World War I Army tents — a scene many today might have a hard time stomaching.

Oil workers were young and male, and vice flowed with them onto the beachfront.

“The town was full of bootleggers selling whiskey during those days,” Higgins recalled of Prohibition years. “Many of the downtown hotels were loaded with prostitutes. There were a number of gambling places running. I think it’s like any boom town. When you get a boom town, anything goes.”

Not everyone who encountered the protest was supportive, including one person taken into custody after striking a demonstrator with a skateboard.

April 1, 2023

Boxing matches and tough attitudes proliferated, perhaps echoed by today’s wrestler city attorney and former mixed-martial-arts city councilman. In the early 1920s, established citizens urged their police department to take action. “Huntington Beach’s modern police force and city council enacted measures designed to maintain social order,” Cady writes.

The city moved to ban boxing, limit permits for pool halls and aggressively enforce statutes against public intoxication — similar to recent policies banning cannabis dispensaries.

Huntington Beach’s Southern flavor also influenced its attitude toward Black, Mexican, Japanese and other residents. The 1930 U.S. Census lists three Black residents in Huntington Beach. By 2010 the number grew to 1,813 — 1% of the population.

Cady calls these “a more serious” cultural importation — “southern racial strategies, which appeared to find acceptance among the city’s non-Southern white population.”

The idea that race has anything to do with Huntington Beach’s current pushback against state affordable housing laws has been hotly denied by Michael Gates, the city attorney who continues to lead that charge. Strong arguments can be made, however, that the policies derive from profound discomfort with shifting demographics.

During the campaign that led to President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg showed how communities that had experienced dramatic declines in their white majorities were most strongly attracted to Trump and Trumpism.

“You’re talking about [places] that are predominantly white, but [they were] seeing a glimmer of change,” William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said in the article. “It connect[ed] with the message of Trump.”

Huntington Beach was 85% non-Hispanic white in the 1980 census. By 1990 the number had dropped to 79%. By 2000 it was 73% — and today has slipped to close to 60%.

It’s part of what’s driving the anger of many Huntington Beach residents now, commentator Joe Mathews argued in a 2019 essay.

“While the other three Orange County cities with more than 200,000 people — Irvine, Anaheim and Santa Ana — now have nonwhite majorities, Huntington Beach, at 63% non-Hispanic white, clings stubbornly to whiteness,” Mathews wrote in 2019. “And city policies limit the ability of younger, more diverse generations of Californians to gain a foothold in town.”

This argument will be disputed by many. But multiple experts who chart racial attitudes agree it’s part of the puzzle. And if true, tensions may wane as the city’s makeup evolves over the next several decades.

Finally, could other factors contribute to Huntington Beach’s headline-grabbing qualities? The place is, after all, a resort destination — where alcohol, surfing and other hedonistic activities can only rub against the preferences of working families.

It’s interesting to compare Surf City with Brighton, the beach town in the south of England. Brighton’s reputation for crime, decay and disorder has long been debated in the U.K.

“The seaside encourages and capitalizes on transgression,” opines Andy Medhurst, a Brighton-based writer. “Seaside culture is somewhere [where] the everyday rules of behavior are put on hold.

“[It’s] a zone where all bets are off,” Medhurst told the BBC in 2021. “It gives us the opportunity to write our own rules; in some cases, that can mean the usual codes of respectability cease to hold much sway.”

The same certainly holds true for Huntington Beach.

Erik Skindrud, @Erik_Bookman on Twitter, attended Huntington Beach’s Peterson Elementary School during the presidency of Gerald R. Ford. He currently resides in Long Beach.

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