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."

 

In many ways, geography has been kind to this community of 28,243, restricting development and allowing the small-town feeling to remain intact. I.B. is surrounded by wide beaches, the Pacific, the Silver Strand to Coronado, San Diego Bay and a 2,500-acre coastal wetland called the Tijuana Estuary, where the river meets the sea. This massive reserve surrounding Border Field State Park, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California State Parks, is a riot of flora and fauna, home to more than 370 species of migratory and ­local birds, with the light-footed clapper rail its most famous resident.

Walking the trails, I spot birders with long lenses slinking quietly along through the brush in hopes of seeing osprey, egrets and yellow-horned heron. Brown bunnies hop and lizards skitter along the edge of the path, the air redolent of sage and the slightly sulphuric scent of a tidal marsh at work. Hiking and equestrian trails through the estuary lead to the beach, for cantering horseback along the coast (the only place in the county one can do so) or the chance to stand on the most southwestern point of the continental United States, with Tijuana’s bullring looming in the distance. But this place of halcyon beauty is also where pollution from the Tijuana River enters the ocean, one of Imperial Beach’s biggest problems (see sidebar).

Back in town, I find more evidence of artistic endeavors. Local do-gooder Howard Woodward, a retired sales and marketing executive, established and solely finances The Art Kids of San Diego program. The children meet each Saturday; their colorful paintings of oceanscapes, horses, unicorns and mermaids can be found on the town’s power boxes, Bibbey’s Shell Shop’s mural and the mermaid sign welcoming you to Katy’s Café.

If every small town is defined by its cast of characters, then the hub of surfers and socializers on Seacoast Drive provide a true window into the flavor of I.B. For four years, Katy Fallon, a.k.a. Rapunzel (for her signature long braid), has welcomed surfers, Navy boys and families into her café, which feels more like a cozy living room. Chalkboard menus, shell art and ubiquitous mermaids add to the charm; even the bathroom is a seascape of three-dimensional art. Locals munch on "kelp patties" (veggie burgers) and other gourmet nibbles. Fallon makes vats of "freaky le pook" (blood-orange iced tea with honey) and serves it in oversized polkadot glasses to locals, who are often heard saying, "That sandwich was the freakin’ best ever," in reference to her tuna and pesto on fresh sourdough. If Katy’s not at the café, she’s probably surfing by the pier.

Raised in Coronado, Fallon moved to Imperial Beach with her son, Joey, 19 years ago and joined the leagues of moms on the pier watching their 5-year-olds learn to surf. "I.B. was the antithesis of Coronado." she says, smiling. "It had a little shantytown feel — no hustle and bustle." When her son grew up, Fallon took over the café, which coincided with the filming of HBO’s John from Cincinnati, based loosely on some of the town’s characters and created by surf noir writer Kem Nunn (author of Tijuana Straits). The show didn’t exactly thrill the locals with its dark portrayal of their corner of the world.

At the sandwich bar, an energetic 20-something with dreadlocks points out with great pride the bronze mermaid sculpture he made for Katy. When I ask him who he is, he hands me his card, which reads: "Professional Dreamer." Perfect.

Next, the Tschakert women enter for iced mochas and are quick to share stories about their four-generation family with roots planted here in 1921. Their grandmother’s house was razed to make room for the freeway. Their grandfather used to shoe horses for the cavalry in Coronado.

"Back in the day, we used to grab blankets and camp out at Boca Rios [the beach near the sloughs, where they camped in the 1950s and ’60s]," says Phyllis Tschakert. "We’d have wild beach parties and clam digs by the sloughs. When the bikers took over with their gang wars, the beach became off-limits to us as kids. It still had its scary moments in the ’70s, but now it’s real friendly and safe."

Her niece Teri proclaims, "I love I.B. We came back home a few years ago. My husband did his residency in St. Louis, and we could have lived anywhere, but we wanted to be right here."

Teri’s mother adds, "Everybody who moves away from I.B. eventually comes back.

The magic of nature seems to resonate most with Imperial Beach inhabitants. Wildcoast executive director Serge Dedina says, "I love that I can surf the south end of the beach with my sons before they go to school. We paddle out while watching the sun rise over the Tijuana Estuary — a place I helped to conserve as a wildlife ref­uge — and ride great waves with the resident pod of bottlenose dolphins, with almost no one else on the beach.

"When the water is clean and the waves are good, I.B. is a great place to be." 

 

Keep It Clean

While millions of dollars from the Port of San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach have led to redevelopment and beautification of Imperial Beach over the last several years, the town faces an ongoing issue in regard to water contamination: The nearby Tijuana River and its effluence spills directly into the ocean at the U.S.-Mexico border, polluting the Sloughs surf zone and coastline for miles, especially after hard winter rains. Both the United States and Mexico have taken significant steps to address this environmental concern, but beach closings and illnesses like hepatitis and ear infections are still a reality for swimmers and surfers in these waters.

In 2009, Imperial Beach’s swim area along Seacoast Drive was closed 14 times; after the torrential rains earlier this year, that number may be even higher for 2010. Here’s what several key people have to say about the clean-water issue that continues to taint the image of Imperial Beach.

Mayor Jim Janney: "It disappoints me that it always becomes such a major issue. We’re located between two major watersheds, one being the Tijuana River, the other the Otay Valley. Two-thirds of the Tijuana watershed is in a foreign country. In regard to Mexico, I am proud to say that I think they are moving forward even within their own infrastructure, and there has been progress, as the wastewater system organization has invested a great deal into it and has received a lot of foreign capital assistance. The partnerships between the federal government and Tijuana are really trying to make it work. Imperial Beach is always 24 hours behind before the beaches can be reopened. No one else is next to such a big river shed and a foreign country."

Lifeguard Oscar Alvarez: "Rains and storms out of the south bring the sewage right here. Our streets are also draining into the ocean, which adds contamination. Sometimes it’s so bad I don’t even want to be on the beach — there’s that chlorine smell of treated sewage. So you’re swimming in both chemicals and sewage."

Realtor/Surfer Peter Holder: "In my opinion it’ll never get solved unless the USA goes over [to Mexico] and fixes it. It’s not the collected sewage; it’s the uncollected stuff. All the talk about treating it more is baloney until they are able to rectify the situation of the uncollected sewage — everything that runs down the hills into the Tijuana River basin. Mexico is probably not going to do it. We’d be lucky if they even allowed the USA to deal with it — even if the U.S. is paying for it."

Tijuana Estuary education coordinator Anne Marie Tipton: "The majority of the year, the water is fine. In my opinion, sewage is not our biggest issue — it’s sedimentation. An estuary’s job is to filter pollutants and be a sponge. This is one of the last estuaries, a natural biofilter of the watershed that also helps clean runoff from our streets. When you have too much sediment in there, the coastal wetland turns into solid land. That’s why we’re working in Mexico to stabilize the slope to stop the sediment from filling the estuary."

Wildcoast executive director Serge Dedina: "Ocean pollution has had a significant impact on public health in Imperial Beach and will require a coordinated transboundary effort to resolve the issue. Wildcoast launched its ‘Clean Water Now’ campaign in 2004. Since that time, there have been a number of positive developments, including: 1) Construction of a new secondary sewage treatment plant on the U.S.-Mexico border; 2) Construction of three new sewage treatment plants in the Tijuana-Rosarito area; 3) Improvement of management of border sewage collector systems by Veolia Water, with improved oversight by the International Boundary and Water Commission; 4) Proactive leadership to deal with the tidal wave of plastic and tires coming out of the Tijuana River through the efforts of the Tijuana River Valley recovery team; 5) Signing of legislation by Governor Schwarzenegger to provide funding through the state tire fund to deal with the issue of waste tires in Tijuana [tires and plastic clog sewage collector systems, in addition to clogging up the Tijuana Estuary and flowing into the ocean. We have seen less pollution these days, especially since there has been an improvement in managing sewage collector systems." 

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