Beach Boulevard Breakdown

A history of OC's infamous thoroughfare

At 1 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1997, as El Niño pounded the street, a New Mexico man leaned out the window of his Calico Motel room at 500 S. Beach Blvd., aimed his high-powered rifle at the Circle K across the street, and put a bullet into an employee's head. For the next 14 hours, SWAT teams surrounded the motel, tossing flash bombs and tear-gas canisters into the room. At 5 p.m., shortly after the man announced he had grenades, his room exploded. The SWAT team later found him and his rifle obliterated. Police never explained the man's actions or why he chose the Calico Motel.

There are terrible stories of gunfights, shoot-outs, murders, beatings, robberies, rapes and prostitution linked to Beach. Its car dealerships, amusement parks, theme restaurants, fast-food joints and gas stations are readily familiar. It cuts the county in two, connecting seven otherwise unconnected cities.

Walking the street makes you feel naked. Unlike streets running through Balboa, Orange and Santa Ana, Beach Boulevard doesn't cater to pedestrians. There's no place to sit. Going to the bathroom is tricky; it usually involves restaurants selling some sort of combo meal.

I know because on July 23, 1998, I walked the 20 miles of Beach Boulevard from the La Habra foothills to the Huntington Beach shore.

Walking 20 miles in a day was nothing two centuries ago. Vacationing in Scotland in 1818, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge walked nearly 300 miles. Richard Wagner often walked from Dresden to Leipzig and back-120 miles roundtrip. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln walked 34 miles "just to hear a speech."

People worked then. Earning pay required hiking, chopping, splitting and running. Hands shaped metal, arms swung axes, legs pumped cranks. Industrial society still fit snugly around the human body. Shops pressed close against narrow city streets. The cobblestone in those streets, with rocks larger than a fist, made walking tiring and coach-riding dangerous.

Beach Boulevard is exactly the opposite. The center lanes are paved smooth for machines moving 10 times faster than those of the early 1800s. Cars dominate Beach, and county government is right there helping them out. For the past 14 years, the Orange County Transportation Authority has been widening key stretches of Beach and synchronizing traffic signals. It's part of a vaunted "Smart Street" program, which is designed to make automobile traffic on Beach more efficient.

But no one is doing anything for pedestrians. Once the center of traffic, walkers now crouch along the edges, hopping and dashing over sections lacking pavement, dodging cars that could bring instant death.

Walking past multiple incarnations of Carl's Jr., Burger King, McDonald's, Jack in the Box, 7-Eleven, Chevron, Mobil, Unocal and Texaco is one thing. But trying to cross under freeways is murder. Cars roar underneath in seconds, but it took me nearly 10 minutes.

I began my walk at 10 a.m. At 12:30 p.m., I passed the Po' Folks restaurant next to the Movieland Wax Museum. The sign out front read, "All-you-can-eat country-fried steak, $9.29."

I dined on a grilled-chicken sandwich and lemonade at the McDonald's next to Knott's Berry Farm; it's the McDonald's with the big virtual-reality ride that sits on the bones of the old Alligator Farm. Today the park is quiet enough, but when I walked by, there was a short, tough-looking man standing on the thin strip of grass in front of the theme park and flashing a thumbs-up sign to passing cars. He had a grizzled beard and a straw fedora and introduced himself as Joseph Tinnerirello of the Carpenter's Union Local 803. He said he'd been out there since April of that year, protesting Knott's Berry Farm's decision to hire a nonunion firm to build the West Coast's largest wooden roller coaster.

"They've ordered me off the property," he said, occasionally waving at passing truck drivers. "They've obstructed me from passing out fliers; they've even bumped into me the way a kid throws a tantrum. I've also had water thrown on me."

A few minutes later, I was in the part of Anaheim dopeheads and hookers call home-and where families visiting Knott's who can't afford to stay in a real hotel find rooms for the night. Nothing much was happening at the row of Howard Johnson-style motels when I went through at 2 p.m. I passed the Americana Motel first-for only $19.99 per night (plus tax), you, too, can stay in an "Alcohol N Drug Free Motel." A couple of doors down is the beige-and-blue Pacific Inn. The Calico, where the fellow from New Mexico decided to shoot up the Circle K, is next door. Two blocks south is the Ramada Limited, where police say a 33-year-old man drowned his ex-girlfriend in January 1998 in one of the bathrooms. His apparent motive: the woman refused to return their engagement ring. Across the street from the Ramada is the whitewashed Covered Wagon Motel. Known from 1961 to 1994 as the Razzmatazz Motel and Dinner Theater, it acquired a fearsome reputation when it closed. Anaheim Code Enforcement called it the worst motel on Beach because of all the drug dealers and homeless people who moved into its carcass.

Sleep tight.

"To reduce contact with untouchables," wrote Mike Davis in City of Quartz, his 1990 history of Los Angeles, "urban redevelopment has converted once-vital pedestrian streets into traffic sewers." It's an observation that's truest of Beach Boulevard as it cuts through Stanton, a city as hot and dusty as any old wild West town. Battered by midafternoon sun, mild humidity, and four hours of dust and pollen, my throat was dry and scratchy. I passed infinite iterations of auto-repair, welding and radiator shops. Stanton Radiator-once a boarding house and chop suey restaurant for Japanese laborers in the 1920s-is a dark gray box with multicolored windows designed to look like radiators.

Stanton Park, across from a brickyard, is a strip of grass a few dozen yards wide, running alongside the narrow, rocky Stanton storm channel. Except for the Hispanic family resting on wooden benches near the gun-metal gray merry-go-round, the park was empty. Sociologist William Whyte said a city was only as good as its comfortable places to sit. On Beach Boulevard, Stanton Park is it.

Exactly 11 years before I passed the Jack in the Box at Beach and Ellis in Huntington Beach, a 31-year-old man left the restaurant after telling patrons he'd left a bomb in the men's room. Police found him a block away, sitting quietly on a short wall, his hand concealed in a black shaving bag. He told police to stay away or he'd trigger the bomb. After a half-hour of negotiations, the police tired and ordered their K-9 German shepherd Baron to attack. Police found nothing in the bag or the restroom.

A few moments beyond Jack in the Box, a mute man handed me a slip of paper that read, "Ye Must Be Saved." I asked him what it was for, but he just kept walking. A half-hour later, a man with a dead stare passed me carrying a considerable length of pipe. I didn't try talking to him.

Except for a strip of white light blazing over the western horizon, the sky was completely overcast as I walked past the Huntington Beach wetlands and oil refineries. The air smelled of salt and oil. The sidewalk disappeared again, so I walked in the street. Then it reappeared in front of digital parking meters-25 cents for eight minutes, according to the angry girl I passed.

At exactly 6:50 p.m.-a woman at Beach and Pacific Coast Highway asked me for the time-I completed my walk, crossed the street, and walked onto the beach. There was a small party on the sand in front of Zack's Too, where a bicycle cop was musing about his partner's whereabouts. The guitar music was quick and cheerful. I sat down in the sand-between them and a sign warning all of us to get off the beach by 10 p.m.

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