An Encinitas State of Mind
By Thomas K. Arnold
Encinitas is a state of mind. At its core, and in its heart, Encinitas hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s still the quintessential Surf City, a sanitized, scaled-down Huntington Beach, with a traditional “Main Street,” Old Highway 101, the historic coastal road that locals compare to Route 66.
The highway, just blocks from the roaring Pacific, is dotted with surf shops and mom-and-pop businesses. One of the favorite haunts is the Daley Double, a bar that opened in 1934, a few months after the repeal of Prohibition, and has been at the same location ever since.
Old Encinitas, as this core is known, also has its own newspaper, the Surf City Times, filled with gossip, tidbits about store openings and lots of odes to surfing. Residents are typically gregarious and tanned. Young and old work and play well together, bonded by their shared love of the ocean, the waves, the sand, the sun—one’s pierced belly button and tattoo complementing the other’s gray ponytail and tie-dyed T-shirt.
But like practically every other coastal burg in California, Encinitas has bulged eastward with surburban sprawl. Like the rest of North County, the hills east of congested El Camino Real—which in its run through Encinitas has become one endless strip mall—are blanketed with single-family homes. Typically, they’re four-bedroom ranch, Cape Cod and newer loft-style houses with neatly manicured lawns and SUVs or BMWs in the driveways.
A decade ago, when the hills were only half-covered, these homes could be picked up for $200,000. Today, the median price of a single-family resale home is $600,000, with larger custom homes and tract mansions in once-rural Olivenhain, in the far eastern stretches of the city limits, valued in the millions.
What sets Encinitas apart from its neighbors—Carlsbad to the north and Solana Beach to the south—is that expansion also went north-south. When cityhood was finally granted on October 1, 1986, two other coastal towns, on either side of Encinitas, came along for the ride.
To the north is Leucadia, a funky town of aging and nouveau hippies known for its one-sided commercial strip along Old Highway 101. There, in the shadow of majestic eucalyptus trees sprouting like wooden giants from the dirt embankment on the east side of the highway, is a string of eclectic businesses, selling everything from used CDs to tikis, from antiques to plants.
To the south is younger, hipper Cardiff-by-the-Sea, the spoiled brat of San Diego’s northern coastal belt. It’s best-known for its expensive hillside homes and restaurant row, where the coastal highway takes a dip and diners can choose from a half-dozen or so fine restaurants, all positioned to provide magnificent views of the ocean.
Today, what is officially known as the city of Encinitas—population 58,014, according to the 2000 census, and stretching along 6 miles of coastline—is more a cluster of communities than the homogenous Surf City it once was. And yet there is this pervasive sameness, this common state of mind that permeates all 19.4 square miles, from sea to shining strip mall.
The Encinitas state of mind is this: There’s no better place to live in the entire state, country or world than coastal north San Diego County. And there’s no better place in coastal north San Diego County than Encinitas.
“It’s really got a nice hometown, rural flavor to it—it’s a quaint little beach town, and not much has changed in the years that I’ve been here,” says Marc Adam, an owner of Encinitas Surfboards, in business 28 years at the same Old Highway 101 location.
Adam, 52, moved to Encinitas in 1965 with his family. His dad picked up a seven-bedroom boarding house on Arden Drive, a few blocks from the coast, for $20,000, “complete with a bomb shelter.” Today, the house is worth nearly $1 million.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Adam. “The eucalyptus trees in Leucadia, the exotic palm trees that people have planted over the years, the ocean—it’s just a great place to live.”
Jerome Stocks, a former mayor of Encinitas and resident since 1986, agrees. “Encinitans are justifiably proud of Encinitas and the fact that we have five very distinct communities cobbled together into a union to make a city,” he says. “That’s part of the flavor that makes Encinitas great—no one community was coopted or had to knuckle under for the greater good. Like the United States, this is the united communities of San Dieguito.”
There’s one other bond these “united communities” share: the surfing culture, which, Adam says, “is so ingrained in the lifestyle of not only the people here who surf, but also the people who don’t surf but love the area and live here.” Wetsuits and surfboards are a common sight on the streets of Old Encinitas. Boutiques up and down the coast highway offer the latest in surf and beach fashions. The city’s Park and Recreation Department sponsors surf classes.
The most famous surfing spot in town is Swami’s, a reef point on the south end of town that gets its name from Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, for whom the gold-domed Self-Realization Fellowship was built in 1937 on the cliffs above. Swami’s caps a series of reefbreaks and is famous for its waves, particularly in winter. “Pretty much any wave at Swami’s is a good wave,” enthuses the Surfline Web site. “Swami’s can handle as big a swell as the Pacific cares to throw its way, and gets better as the size increases.”
The beach is home to the Swami’s Surfing Association, which for 12 years has held an annual surf contest at Cardiff Reef, at the mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon. Last October, a turf war erupted when some Cardiff Reef regulars complained the contest, which attracted more than 350 competitors, infringed on its territory. Cardiff surfers complained they were hassled by contest organizers; one even filed a battery complaint. Swami’s surfers countered by claiming the Cardiff crowd took to the water to purposely disrupt the contest, a benefit for a scholarship fund and programs to teach blind people how to surf.
“It seems everyone in this town surfs at least occasionally,” says John Osborne, immediate past president of the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce and a seven-year resident. “This has put more and more people in the water, vying for the same number of waves. As a longtime surfer, I miss the days of fewer surfers, but respect the fact that the beach is public and all need to have access to it. Now we just need to have etiquette classes.”
Not surprisingly, Encinitas has had its share of characters. Ed Seykota, the nationally known money manager, was one of the town’s more colorful residents in the 1980s. He lived in a grand house perched on the cliffs just south of Moonlight Beach, hung out with pop priestess Terry Cole-Whittaker and drove around in a fire-engine-red Cadillac limousine. He even cut an album, You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish, that got airplay on Dr. Demento’s nationally syndicated radio show of novelty tunes.
In the north end of town, there’s a fellow known only as “Kenzie of Leucadia,” who operates a Web site devoted to his favorite beach, Beacon’s, tucked away at the foot of the cliffs below Neptune Avenue, and accessible only by a rickety walkway that hugs the bluff. Its official name is Leucadia State Beach, but everyone calls it Beacon’s because of a beacon that stood there during World War II to guide aircraft along the coast.
Like Swami’s, Beacon’s is a favorite with surfers. According to Kenzie’s Web site, the cast of regulars includes such colorful names as Sea Ghost, Fi-Fi, Long Willy and Fireman Chuck, who “surfs 99 percent of the time without a wetsuit.”
If it’s true that a city must change or die, Encinitas is at the far end of the stagnation scale. Two years ago the city completed the first phase in its ambitious “Streetscape Project,” giving Old Encinitas’ business district, on either side of the coast highway from Encinitas Boulevard south to F Street, a $5.3 million makeover. Sidewalks were inlaid with tile mosaics, curved stone benches were put up, and both sides of the street were landscaped.
Early next year, the second phase is scheduled to get under way, this time stretching from F Street south to Swami’s.
Meanwhile, Encinitas is getting close to starting construction on a $12 million library, with sweeping ocean views, outdoor reading areas and at least 50 computers for public use. At 26,000 square feet, the new library, scheduled to open in late 2005, will be six times larger than the old one.
Stocks, who continues to sit on the Encinitas City Council, is proud of all the improvements in Encinitas, particularly Streetscape. “It’s really helped make Encinitas a destination,” he says. “People are driving here from La Jolla and Del Mar to go to dinner and to walk around and enjoy the ambience.”
If there’s a downside to Encinitas, it’s one shared with all of North County’s coastal towns—the drive south to San Diego is a nightmare, with Interstate 5, even on Saturdays, resembling a parking lot. Poor planning by regional transportation officials is often fingered as the culprit; while Orange County was widening its freeways and building carpool lanes, local officials didn’t do much of anything. This situation is now changing, but many feel it’s a case of too little, too late.
As a result, “People who live in the coastal communities try not to head south of ‘the [I-5/805] merge’ if they don’t have to, especially on weekends,” Osborne says. “And the great thing is that unless you are going to a sporting event, you don’t have to.”
Indeed. Encinitas has 6 miles of oceanfront shoreline, as well as some of the county’s cleanest, most family-friendly beaches. Quail Botanical Gardens has one of the world’s more diverse plant collections. A network of eight scenic trails takes visitors to 20 gardens, a 60-foot waterfall in a tropical rain forest and the country’s largest display of bamboo.
One of the biggest draws is the commercial district along the coast highway. Lou’s Records has been praised as the best CD store in the county. Ducky Waddle’s Emporium is a deliciously eclectic boutique with everything from classic beatnik books to retro trinkets. La Paloma Theater, built in 1928, still shows movies on a single screen. And there are plenty of enticing galleries, including the 101 Artists Colony, a mini-mall for new artists to exhibit their wares.
The 101 is a common reference point for Encinitans—and for all residents of North County. It’s the mother road of California, and the stretch that runs through North County has been preserved better than anywhere else in the state, with historic road signs and cherished landmarks like the Log Cabin Apartments, a roadside village of red cabins in Leucadia that once were home to a honeymooning Desi Arnaz.
The Log Cabin Apartments were built in 1935, a decade after the highway was officially designated. But that’s recent history, considering that the original inhabitants of Encinitas were Native Americans—San Dieguitos, La Jollans and Diegueños—and that even the Encinitas name has roots stretching back to 1669.
That’s when the governor of Baja California, Gaspar de Portola, led an expedition north from San Diego to establish a string of presidios to protect Spanish missionaries. As the expedition made its way up El Camino Real, or “King’s Highway,” Portola was struck by the small oak trees that studded the hillsides and named the area Encina Canada, Spanish for “hills of live oaks.”
In the 1800s, California came under control of the Mexican government, which issued land grants to ranchers willing to be under Mexican rule. California became part of the United States in 1850, and in 1881 a settler named Jabez Pitcher filed a claim for 160 acres on a mesa near where the Encinitas Civic Center is now located. He’s considered the father of the town.
Three years after Pitcher came to Encinitas, a group of German immigrants arrived in the hills to the east and founded Olivenhain, which in German means “olive grove.” Around the same time, the communities of Leucadia and Cardiff were established.
Former Mayor Stocks sees land use as Encinitas’ single major challenge in the years ahead—specifically, the fate of the large plots of land throughout the city used to grow flowers, including the city’s signature poinsettias.
“We’re going to have some very controversial land-use decisions to make regarding agricultural property and its potential for development, and there’s going to be a lot of upset and angst,” Stocks says. “We’ve always been known for horticulture, but the flower-growing industry has moved indoors, so the footprint required to be competitive is very small.
“At the same time, land values are skyrocketing, the growers are getting older, and their children don’t want to be part of the business. And it’s getting harder and harder to be profitable, growing this stuff. So when they can turn around and sell this land for nearly half a million dollars an acre, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to sell out.”