The ghost town by the beach

If you’re in an airplane taking off from LAX flying over the ocean, look down and you’ll see a wide stretch of empty streets, block after block, cutting through nothing but brown land.

KCRW listener Jenn Manning lives near the abandoned looking land and wrote in about the property and described the fenced off area like this.

“Dead grass and some trees and roads broken up and there’s weeds growing in and out of them,” said Manning. “There’s light posts, but the base of the light post- the bulbs, the glass part, is all missing.”

Manning went on to say, “It looks like a community that was about to be built and didn’t get built or it was a community that was torn down and they left the roads in there.”

Jenn Manning stands in front of empty land owned by LAX. Photo: Jenny Hamel
Surfridge and its homes, as seen from the sky.
Surfridge today. Image via Google Maps

This area used to be an upscale community called Surfridge. It ran along Vista Del Mar south of Playa Del Rey and for decades, people lived there in hundreds of homes with amazing ocean views. However, they all had to contend with the sound of jetliners flying directly overhead, all day long; and that’s ultimately what led to the community’s demise.

Surfridge was first established in 1921 by a real estate developer named Fritz Burns. Burns saw pristine dunes above the ocean and thought the land would be an easy sell – a paradise by the sea for the rich and famous.

“In those days, it was 26 miles between Surfridge and downtown LA and there was a lot of empty space in between,” said LA historian Duke Dukesherer. “When you travelled those 26 miles you travelled there specifically to get lost.”

Even in the early days of the Surfridge neighborhood, there was an airport next door. At the time, it was a parcel of farmland with a dirt air strip called Mines Field and was used to host air shows. In 1928, it became Los Angeles’ city airport.

Meanwhile, Surfridge had become an enclave for the Hollywood elite. Cecil B. Demille owned a home there, as did Mel Blanc who was the voice of Bugs Bunny. It was great beach front living for decades. However, LA and the airport were growing and with the ‘50s and the ‘60s, came the jet age.

“These big planes got much bigger,” said Dukesherer. “They took off and landed over Surfridge. I understand you literally couldn’t hold a conversation most of the time. You’d have to stop and wait for the plane to go over.”

In addition, soot from the jet engines would fall over the community and residents complained about respiratory issues. Airport officials realized they had a real problem on their hands – this neighborhood directly under the flight path was no longer inhabitable.

In the early ‘60s, city officials decided to invoke eminent domain and started buying up the homes in Surfridge. Many of the residents were resistant to selling and some of the last standing in the neighborhood had to be forced out by police.

“They didn’t want to leave, this was their homes,” said Dukesherer. “Some of those people had been living there 20, 30 years. Where were you going to find that location anywhere else and not have to spend a tremendous amount of money for it?”

Dukesherer said rather than have their homes demolished, many had them hauled off to other parts of Los Angeles. The empty land where Surfridge once stood was never developed. However, LAX officials discovered it was home to a colony of endangered blue butterflies that fed off the barley in the nearby dunes. So in 1986, a conservation effort began and the aiport introduced the El Segundo Blue Butterfly preserve.

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