At first glance, the alleyway off Calle de Los Molinos in San Clemente seems like just another industrial area, where engine exhaust clogs the air and the sounds of the workplace pierce eardrums. The buildings are tightly packed and varying in color, size and layout. Narrow roads weave through the area.
But here, on any given day, the smell of the sea breeze mixes with resin, spray-paint and gas fumes. This area is known as the Surf Ghetto, but it's much more than sun-bleached surfers working on boards. It's a place where grease gathers under fingernails, bodies are coated in foam dust, and T-shirts are stained and ripped and carry an unpleasant odor. This is a place of work, and it's merely a divine bilingual coincidence that the alley that most of the businesses line is called Los Obreros Lane—The Workers.
“Down here, it's blue-collar labor, cutthroat moneymaking, and cash only,” says Matt “Slim” Doherty, smiling from behind a thick handlebar mustache and long brown hair that falls below his slender shoulders. He sips at his beer, and foam catches in his thick whiskers.”Walk in my bay, and if I can't do it, he can do it,” he says, pointing to another garage, “he can do it or he can do it.”
Slim has worked in the Ghetto since 1996. Some of his clientele are among the guys in the various garages along the way. He points, identifying trades: carpentry, metalworking, auto mechanic, shapers, furniture repair, surfboard fins. The Ghetto is in demand; garage availability is limited. Once you get in, you try to not leave. Everyone is laid-back, and the rent is cheap.
“Every room is an individual business making a living,” explains Timmy Patterson, owner of the T. Patterson surfboard label. “Everyone does their own deal, and everyone works hard. And everyone gets along, which is rad. You can't take yourself too seriously down here; if you do, you get made fun of.”
Patterson has been here since 1991. He followed in the footsteps of his dad and two uncles. Starting out as a sander and glasser and eventually a shaper under whoever would have him, Patterson now has a shaping garage, with four stalls and two machines devoted to expertly crafting surfboards by hand; a separate building devoted to glassing them; and a retail store on El Camino Real.
Beyond being a place of industry, the Surf Ghetto also has its place in history. A range of surfing's best-known craftsman spent time working in the garages, and the earliest foam blank producers had their start here. The garage operated by O'Fish'l fins once belonged to Walker Foam, for years second only to Clark Foam in worldwide distribution, according to company owner and third-generation San Clemente resident Mark Stavron. As a kid, Stavron would come to the Ghetto to hang around the different garages and shaping stalls, witnessing board production up close and seeing the surfers he idolized coming in to check on their boards. When a garage opened in 2006, Stavron swooped in; the move has reinvigorated his enthusiasm for the business despite the down economy.
The magic that Stavron remembered as a wide-eyed boy hasn't disappeared; while the Ghetto isn't all about surfing, when the big summer contests come to town, you never know which A-list pro or legend might come walking down the alley to pick up a board at Lost or T. Patterson or Basham or Cole. “Some days, you'll see Kelly [Slater] or MR [Australian legend Mark Richards] walk by, or the Andinos [father Dino and son Kolohe]—all the guys come through,” says Patterson. “It just comes with the area.”
As the clock ticks closer to 5 p.m., the shaping machine in the T. Patterson shaping room hums through its eighth foam blank of the day. Just outside the door, the motor of a cherry-red 1960 Austin Healy revs to life. Just a few garages down, Slim cracks open another Budweiser outside his tool-repair shop.
“The surfers aren't the fun shit; it's the carpenters, the mechanics who make it good,” says Slim, as he leans back in a white-plastic patio chair. “Shit is happening all the time—you just missed the best phone call I've heard in two years!”