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Look at a map of California, or a decent-sized map of the United States. Find Los Angeles. The little bump on the coastline just southwest of Los Angeles (and north of Long Beach) is the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The Peninsula was part of a 19th century Mexican land grant called Rancho de los Palos Verdes. Palos Verdes means “green trees,” possibly referring to forests that covered the Peninsula before 20th century development replaced the trees with tract homes.
A million years ago, Palos Verdes was an island like Catalina. Since then, the channel between the Peninsula and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains silted up to form the Los Angeles Basin.
In some ways Palos Verdes still is an island. If you look south from the the Getty Center’s hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains on a clear day, you’ll see how it rises from the flat “sea” of concrete and asphalt. “The Hill” physically isolates its ocean-side residents from the rest of Los Angeles (including television and FM radio signals). Palos Verdes has a milder climate, better air quality, and some of the best ocean views and coastline in California. But as in much of California, development has been relentlessly eroding much of what makes Palos Verdes special.
Housing tracts began proliferating in the 1950s, and continued at a rapid pace for three decades. Eager to fill them were thousands of white professionals fleeing the congested suburbs closer to Los Angeles, especially after the Watts riots of 1964. My family moved there in 1968. The houses, particularly those with ocean views, were (and are) rather expensive. But they were still affordable for what was then the normal, one-income family, although that one income needed to be quite above average. Palos Verdes was a favored address for engineers in the well-funded Cold War defense industry.
This population produced a largely homogeneous, politically conservative, and rather snobbish community, perhaps reflecting the Peninsula’s insular heritage. The 1977 Palos Verdes High School yearbook shows 565 students in my class, of whom 96.5% were white, 3% were Asian (Chinese, Japanese, or Korean heritage), and 0.5% (3 people) were African-American. Today the percentage of Asians is much higher, as is the requisite income. Soaring real estate prices long ago barred new aerospace engineers and other lower-level professionals from the area; even two of their incomes aren’t enough today. But their manager’s bosses might live there, possibly alongside the engineers’ own aging parents.
The developers who first began converting the cattle ranches of Palos Verdes into homes in the 1920s designed planned communities on the north coast of the Peninsula, modeled after quaint villages along the Mediterranean coast. These developments would offer seclusion from the congestion of Los Angeles to the sort of people who enjoyed golf, polo, tennis, and country clubs (amenities all included in the plans). Malaga Cove, with its landmark Spanish-style plaza, was the only community completed before the Depression of the 1930s put an end to that development. This northern section of the Peninsula became the city of Palos Verdes Estates.
Rancho Palos Verdes is the largest and newest of the Peninsula’s other three cities. It includes the historic Point Vicente Lighthouse, the adjacent park that offers spectacular views of the coastline and the annual whale migration, and the Wayfarers Chapel.
“Rolling Hills 90274” is possibly the poshest and most exclusive address in Southern California, surpassing even “Beverly Hills 90210.” The bucolic byways of Rolling Hills are sequestered behind guarded gates, accessible only at the invitation of a resident. The Peninsula’s fourth city, Rolling Hills Estates, is a mostly residential area that also includes the agglomeration of shopping malls at the top of the hill and the South Coast Botanic Garden.