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In any Los Angeles-area guidebook, the Santa Monica Pier will probably be at the top of the list of attractions in seaside Santa Monica. (Depending on the guidebook, it might show up after the Bergamot Station arts complex.) On a summer day, or on a sunny weekend at any time of year, the pier is thronged with families visiting the amusement park, along with visitors who enjoy strolling, fishing, watching waves break on the beach, and viewing the sunset. The 1940-vintage gateway sign above the bridge leading to the Pier is itself an iconic landmark.
The Pier has over a century of history, some of which the local chamber of commerce has stretched or embellished to suit their needs. In 2009, the City (and all the businesses on the Pier) took full advantage of the Pier’s official centennial. But the Santa Monica Pier is actually two separate adjoining structures, only one of which existed in 1909. The Municipal Pier that opened on 9 September 1909 was an austere support for pipes that sent Santa Monica’s sewage 488 meters out to sea. Despite the sewage, it soon became a popular fishing spot.
It didn’t take long to recognize the pier’s potential for development as a tourist attraction. In 1916, Charles Looff, the carousel designer and amusement park entrepreneur who developed Coney Island in New York, built a Pleasure Pier attached to the south side of the Municipal Pier. The new pier— often called the Newcomb Pier after one of its subsequent owners— included a hippodrome, a carousel, a wooden roller coaster called the Blue Streak, and various thrill rides. The Newcomb Pier extended about half the length of the old Municipal Pier, which is why the (combined) Santa Monica Pier narrows in the middle.
After Looff died in 1918, the Pier went through several owners who had different ideas. They replaced the amusement park with a large ballroom and an arcade. By 1973, a collection of Southern California theme parks with bigger and better attractions had made the Santa Monica Pier quaint and sedate in comparison. With the decline in visitors, the City Council made plans to demolish it in favor of a grandiose scheme involving an artificial island with a resort hotel.
But the politicians underestimated the regard their constituents had for the Pier. A petition drive, and the electoral defeat of three Council members who advocated the destruction of the Pier, compelled a change of plans from demolition to refurbishment. Santa Monica residents similarly rallied around the Pier ten years later, after a winter storm destroyed a third of it. The Pier became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. And by 1990 it had all been rebuilt, including the Harbor Patrol office, bait shop, and restaurant at the end of the Municipal Pier.
Pacific Park®, a revived successor to Charles Looff’s Pleasure Pier amusement park, opened in 1996. Its twelve rides make the Pier a popular summer and weekend destination for families from near and far. The signature ride is in keeping with the environmental awareness on which many Santa Monica residents pride themselves: The 26-meter Pacific Wheel is the only solar-powered Ferris wheel in the world. I don’t know what they do when the “marine layer” of heavy overcast smothers the sunlight, as it (too) often does during the summer months.
There’s also the West Coaster, a 17-meter-high roller coaster (made of steel, not wood); and a bumper car ride called “SigAlert,” the uniquely Southern Californian term for a serious freeway traffic jam. But the cars are billed as environmentally-friendly “electric vehicles,” and equipped with protective head rests and special shock-absorbing rubber bumpers that should satisfy even the most paranoid lawyers. Many of the ten other rides are named for the park’s mascot, a purple cartoon octopus called “Inkie.”
There’s no admission charge for Pacific Park itself. Visitors pay only when they board rides, play arcade games, or eat junk food. (A wrist band is available that allows unlimited access to the rides.) Those who don’t have children in tow are free to walk around and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear sunny morning, that’s a great time to bring a camera to the deserted park and capture a wealth of very colorful details.
The Santa Monica Pier is the “official Western Terminus” of Route 66, the former 4000-kilometer highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, renowned as the “Mother Road” for Depression-era emigrants seeking opportunity in California. There’s a prominent sign proclaiming “the end of the trail.” And of course, you can buy assorted Route 66-themed souvenirs and T-shirts from merchants and cart vendors on the Pier.
But this exploitation of Route 66 literally stretches historical truth almost to the breaking point. In reality, the “Mother Road” never reached the Pier. As originally completed in 1926, it ended at the intersection of Broadway and 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles. A “realignment” in 1936 did extend it to Santa Monica, but it stopped several kilometers east of the Pier. That’s where the real “end of the trail” remained when the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials— the organization responsible for highway numbering throughout the United States— officially decommissioned Route 66 in 1985. (Though by then all the segments of Route 66 in California had already been decommissioned, so the highway actually ended at the Arizona/California border.)
The Pier received its “official Western Terminus” designation from the Route 66 Alliance soon after the 2009 centennial celebration. The Route 66 Alliance is a national organization devoted to preserving, protecting, and promoting what’s left of the historic highway. It receives major support from the many businesses on or near the old route, all of which surely stand to benefit from such preservation, protection, and promotion.
The most common response to pesky concerns about historical accuracy is an assertion that the Pacific Ocean (and by implication, the Santa Monica Pier) represents the true spiritual end of the Route 66 journey, irrespective of any physical location commissions or maps might have specified. Promoters also like to point out that Route 66 had numerous “realignments” during its active life. Extending it to the Pier is thus consistent with historical precedent, even when it’s 24 years after the highway itself ceased to exist.
The easiest way to reconcile history with commerce might be to recognize that Route 66 has now become as much a myth— in the sense of cherished folklore rather than fiction— as an actual highway. So maybe we shouldn’t begrudge the desire of Pier merchants and their customers to claim (and to profit from) their own pieces of that myth.
There’s no dispute that the Pier— specifically, the bridge that leads from Colorado Avenue through the famous archway sign to the foot of the Pier— is the “official southern terminus” of Palisades Park. The park is 10.5 grassy hectares of meandering paths, in a narrow strip 14 blocks long, sandwiched between Ocean Avenue and the edge of the palisades (cliffs) that overlook Pacific Coast Highway and the beach.
Palm trees grow throughout the park, providing a clichéd scene suitable for postcards and travel books. (But photographers for those publications avoid the fog or “marine layer” that often turns the sky an unphotogenic gray.) The park also has a collection of monuments, including a Veterans Memorial with five granite blocks paying tribute to those who served in each military branch.
The Pier is two blocks from Santa Monica Place and the Third Street Promenade. These two adjoining malls have merged to create a very popular shopping and dining complex. The “anchor” at the south end is Santa Monica Place, a three-level shopping mall with upscale shops and restaurants. Originally an enclosed mall designed in 1980 by Frank Gehry (who also designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall), it was renovated as an outdoor mall that reopened in 2010.
The three blocks of the Third Street Promenade were first converted into a pedestrian shopping mall in 1965. An extensive makeover in 1989 included fountains with topiary dinosaurs spitting water from their metal mouths. The renovation also added an assessment levied on tenants to fund the Promenade’s $13 million annual operating costs. That may have encouraged many of the old mall’s local businesses to relocate elsewhere, making way for the current collection of national chain stores and restaurants. But critical complaints about the sanitized sterility of the Third Street Promenade do not seem to have deterred the crowds of shoppers.