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Battle for IB

Imperial Beach just may be Southern California's last funky beach town. Residents are fully engaged in the campaign to keep it that way.


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As cars gun past me, headed for the border, I take one of the last U.S. exits short of Mexico on I-5 South and head down Palm. A sleepy, gritty avenue unfolds, with pockets of nostalgia and humor — Puff & Stuff Smoke Shop, Billie Jean’s Hair Styling, Cox Bait and Tackle — plucked straight off a small-town movie set. With a gentle turn onto Old Palm as it nears the coast, the surroundings brighten with swaying palm trees, vividly painted houses and umbrella-sprinkled patios.

Red steel surfboard sculptures in various shapes and sizes line Third Street. Part of Imperial Beach’s economic stimulus and multimillion-dollar redevelopment, this “Outdoor Surf Museum” nods to the town’s surfing heritage and its famous big-wave break, the Tijuana Sloughs, and memorializes 25 prominent board shapers from early Waikiki days, nine of whom hailed from Imperial Beach. Where the colorful board parade ends at Seacoast Drive, an 18-foot bronze sculpture of a man and his surfboard stands nobly in a plaza where the street meets the sand. Titled The Spirit of Imperial Beach, it too represents a key element of an effective campaign to put the “Imperial” back in this sleepy beach town nestled in the southwesternmost corner of the United States.

Next to the towering statue, Miss Imperial Beach Princess, regal in tiara and sash, flashes a smile for a photo session. You couldn’t possibly orchestrate a more perfect small-town moment. As if on cue, the Underhills pedal by on their cruisers, wearing windbreakers and helmets, hopping off to breathe in the air by the crashing Pacific, tilting their faces to drink in the sunshine. Eager to engage in conversation, the affable retirees explain how they happily traded their Rancho Bernardo life for Imperial Beach.

“It’s a great surf community, where people truly appreciate Mother Ocean and get out there to enjoy it,” says Mike Underhill.

“People are kind and not afraid to look you in the eye and say hello. No pretentiousness,” Kathy chimes in. “Besides, where else do you find a mayor who rides around on a bicycle?”

“In a Hawaiian shirt, no less,” adds Mike.

As I walk down the wide beach — home to the U.S. Open Sandcastle Contest, which draws upward of 400,000 people to these shores each August — past the renovated pier and then over to the art-filled Pier Plaza, it’s hard to picture this scrubbed-up, funky beach town as a rough-and-tumble place, home to hel­lions, bikers, gangs, illegal immigrants and drug runners. This image may have been mostly true in the past, but a solid community with a fierce love for the beach lifestyle and surf culture appears to be winning the battle for I.B.’s soul.

Founded in 1887, Imperial Beach started as a coastal retreat for farmers and landowners in Imperial Valley, some 90 miles inland. That same year, construction began on the grand dame down the Strand, Hotel del Coronado, and many of the 2,000 laborers lived in I.B. and ended up settling there.

A pier appeared in 1909, as did the first sidewalks, followed by a general store, library branch, dance pavilion and café. Troop “A” of the 10th U.S. Cavalry hunkered down nearby to provide security for the area, especially in regard to border conflicts.

The Army and Navy presence revved up over time, most notably during the outbreaks of World Wars I and II. The arrival of the military, along with land subdivision and development, fueled the population. More schools sprouted, and a sense of community grew, bolstered by PTAs, civic groups, a volunteer fire department and recreational activities.

Just before World War II, a group of surfers, led by Allen “Dempsey” Holder, began charging the giant waves next to the Tijuana River mouth, called the Sloughs, just south of Imperial Beach. Unquestionably, surfing has helped put this town on the map. The love of the sport runs deep in its salty, sun-kissed residents (also known as IBcians).

Walking under the giant 20-foot ­arches (titled Surf Henge, by Malcolm Jones) across Pier Plaza en route to the new lifeguard tower, I pass a series of benches made from surfboards in sunny colors. Their plaques (based on the 1993 Longboard Magazine article “Watermen: Tales of the Sloughs” by local environmentalist, prolific author and surfer Serge Dedina) chronicle the local big-wave surf history from the 1930s through 1950s as the Sloughs became a testing ground for mainland surfers heading to Hawaii.

At the striking wood-and-glass lifeguard station, built in 1999, I find Oscar Alvarez, who has patrolled this beach for 30-odd years. Inside the modern building, he shows me old black-and-white photographs of past guards, including the legendary Dempsey Holder.

“I actually lived with Dempsey for 11 years,” says Alvarez. “He was an inspiration for all the water guys. Real personable. He knew everybody, and he carried his legend with him  — but not in an arrogant way.”

Dempsey’s eldest son, Peter, 56, a surfer and former lifeguard who now sells real estate at Spirit Realty, recalls, “My dad ran the beach; everyone knew and respected him. All the people he had working for him as lifeguards were my heroes. He was absolutely fearless when it came to the ocean. He’d wake me up, drag me out of bed, and we’d go to the end of the pier, where they’d put us in a lifeguard skiff and drop us off way out there.

“I remember one time getting caught inside, right off the bat, and losing my board. The foam was 6 inches thick, and the waves were pounding me when, all of a sudden, my dad was right next to me. He put me on the front of his board and said, ‘Hang on.’ He took me all the way in, and then he turned around and paddled back out while I was kissing beach,” Holder says, laughing.

Present-day lifeguard captain Robert Stabenow further stokes the fires of this iconic waterman’s mythology. “Legend has it that if you wanted to get hired by Demp­sey, you had to go out and surf the big waves with him,” he explains. “Inevitably, somebody would lose their board, so they’d have to swim all the way in — which could be half a mile to a full mile, often in 55-degree water — and grab the board and paddle back out. If you could do that, you won the job. That was the hiring process — no interviews.”

Upstairs, a collection of longboards hangs on the wall, many donated by local surfer John Hanks, who’s terminally ill and wants to leave a legacy at the station. Generations of IBcians have manned this station, like “Spiderman” Knox and his brother Jim, a longtime guard. Jim’s son Kyle, the town’s most notable pro surfer, is an active lifeguard today.

“There’s also legend Verne Dodds, a former lifeguard and big-wave surfer who’s now in his 70s,” says Stabenow. “His son Kim used to work for us, and now his grandson does.”

Clearly, these multigenerational locals take pride in Imperial Beach, repeating the same descriptors of the town — laid-back, friendly, low-key, down-to-earth, uncrowded — like a mantra. But it wasn’t always this way.

“The town had a well-deserved reputation in the old days for its rowdy bars along the beach,” says Peter Holder, talking about the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. “There were lots of bikers and pretty unsavory people — but it’s changed slowly.”

Lifeguard Alvarez lends his thoughts on the transformation of the town once nicknamed Whiskey Flats. “We were the first beach to eliminate drinking [in 1995]. Once they closed specific bars and got the bikers out, things really cleaned up.”

 “It used to be a drunkfest at the beach, so tough around here,” Captain Stabenow adds.

“My wife and I debated whether to stay when we had kids. But now they go to a good school and can walk to the beach. Just the other day, cheerleaders were practicing in Pier Plaza. That would have never happened 10 years ago. You’d have a bunch of weirdos yelling things at them. You really gotta give credit to the sheriff’s department.” (The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has been policing Imperial Beach ever since 1983, when the city was in financial distress and did away with its own force.)

Speaking of law enforcement, as I leave the lifeguard tower, five police cars and vans suddenly pull into the nearby lot, and the city girl in me tenses. All the men in blue hop out of their vehicles simultaneously — and gather convivially, heading to Subway for a beachside lunch.

Next, I stumble on Mike Underhill and his bulldog, Murphy, enjoying the afternoon sea breeze. I’ve only been here for a couple of hours, and I’m already bumping into people I know. As I head down Seacoast Drive, I pass an older gentleman who bends over and scoops up a piece of trash off the street; a woman walking a harlequin Great Dane; and a group of wet-haired teenage boys in half-zipped wetsuits carrying their boards. I hear Peter Holder’s voice saying, “It’s Mayberry down here, and nobody else knows it.”

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