I had never heard of Cardiff-by-the-Sea until 1958 when my father was offered a job at the local post office. He put an offer in on an ocean-view duplex and was about to sign his life away for $25,000. We visited the town and the house. My mother and father loved both while my brother and I resisted. I think he was crying, while I merely pouted. Before we made it back home again, our tears and sulking had won out.
Montebello, a town adjacent to East L.A. was our home, and, our entire world. There were baseball diamonds, a trampoline park, the GarMar Theater, a lake for fishing and, less than a mile from our front door, the hills, where we hunted fossils and shot tin cans and rabbits with our .22 caliber rifles.
Within a few years of that first visit, we had begun surfing, and Cardiff was central on our radar. By then we wanted nothing to do with the cement that had encroached onto the fields in Montebello and longed to move to this small village by the sea. But my father’s job transfer was no longer available and so we settled for rides to this hamlet.
It wasn’t until 1970 that I moved to Cardiff, where three of us split a house on Cambridge Ave for $100. I had landed in a funky sort of paradise. Nobody I knew had a new car, a bank account or a pair of leather shoes. And nobody cared.
By the mid ‘80s rent had rocketed to up to $500 a month, and some chose to live in converted school buses in the unpaved splendor of the Cardiff Reef parking lot. By then Porches and Mercedes were becoming a commonly despised site. But the surf was still good and often uncrowded and we barely noticed.
Time and the internet could not allow Cardiff to remain off the world map, and soon there were more visitors than locals. With them came building projects as greenhouses and avocado groves were replaced by tract homes with fancy names and fancier prices. At that point many of the old locals had moved to Mexico or Hawaii and the new locals made paradise in the image of the locations they had left. Houses got bigger and yards got smaller. Parking lots were paved and admission was charged.
Still, even after the surf cams were installed there were little corners of old Cardiff beyond those all-seeing eyes, and long afternoons could be spent surfing with nobody but the few friends you arrived with.
It took a while, but even I eventually accepted the growth of the town, and barely cringed when the small houses were demolished. I still had the privileged of walking to the bluff, down the dusty, cactus-lined trail to the beach. Then, one morning the trail was gone. So was the bluff, for that matter. In its place there were big machines and concrete that ate up the land and transformed it.
Machines also began digging out the lagoon. While it seems awful now, I am assured it will be a good thing soon, as water flow will be improved and make a better home for birds and fish.
In the meantime Cardiff looks like the Montebello I left, a paved paradise with many of the wild areas and much of the childhood wonder subtracted.
After nearly half a century in town, my wife and I are leaving Cardiff, and moving a few miles to the north. I won’t miss Cardiff as it is, but I will miss what it was. It was the best place I ever lived, and for that I thank it and wish it and all of you well.