A Line in the Sand

Before it was incorporated as North Manhattan Beach, the El Porto neighborhood oozed with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Take a time machine back to days when pilots, rock stars and drug dealers outnumbered the Realtors, restaurants and yoga instructors.

Start in Playa del Rey and point your car south toward the expanse of Vista Del Mar Boulevard’s coastal straightaway. Go past the ghost town of Surfridge, a fenced-in community of rubbled roads and driveways to nowhere that sits on LAX’s beachside doorstop. Go past Chevron’s 1,000-acre El Segundo refinery and its 1,100 miles of pipeline. Go past the surfers at Dockweiler Beach who cutback on the extra tasty waves born from the depths of the Redondo Canyon. When Vista Del Mar becomes Highland Avenue at 45th Street, you’re there. Count to 30. Now you’re gone. 

It’s a geographical footnote at the southwest corner of El Segundo, no more than 528 yards from end to end. Within its 34-acre border, there is one stoplight on your way in, one in the middle and one on your way out. 

Once upon a time, this neighborhood was under the not-so-watchful eye of Los Angeles County—a latchkey kid with a checkered biography written by bootleggers, train robbers, drug dealers, movie stars, gamblers, football players, surfers and stewardesses. It was patrolled by sheriffs stationed nearly seven miles away—an eternity by LA standards—and earned the nickname Dodge City by the people who deposited paycheck after paycheck into the tills of its many bars.

The town is called El Porto, and technically it does not exist. In 1980, almost 70 years after its land was subdivided by prominent local developer George H. Peck, El Porto was annexed by its well-to-do neighbor to the south: Manhattan Beach. Fire and police services came in-house, and parents could now consider the much closer Grandview Elementary as a school choice for their kids. 

Its cultural and geographical DNA, however, remained uniquely El Porto, which seemed to sit well with its residents but not so much at city council meetings. Around 2007, a campaign kicked off to rebrand the area as North Manhattan Beach. 

Light pole banners with the new name went up. The collegiate lionesses from LMU who frequented Harry O’s were replaced by the cougars who prowled the new Upper Mavnhattan Martini Lounge. El Porto resident Michelle Murphy remembers one particular meeting where a business owner expressed the desire to “attract the kind of people who ‘get’ valet parking.”

“From the start, El Porto was engineered like a classic American muscle car: Priority #1 was a good time, and safety came in at a distant second.”

“It’s not the renaming as much as it’s the rebranding that’s the scary thing,” says Michelle, who is also president of the Manhattan Beach Resident’s Association. “Where you live shouldn’t be a brand name. It should be your home. But progress happens, whether you like it or not.”

From the start, El Porto was engineered like a classic American muscle car: Priority #1 was a good time, and safety came in at a distant second. Its tiny lots—meant for beach shacks, not family dwellings—were developed to accommodate two bite-sized residential units. Zoning created an abundance of bars and rental properties, usually managed by absentee landlords who preferred to live further inland.

“Young people were told that you don’t go to El Porto. It was off-limits,” says Jan Dennis, the mayor of Manhattan Beach from 1987 to 1988 and the area’s foremost historian. “Number one, the bars. Then the drugs. Lots of drugs. It was a good-time area, and the only reason you’d be there would be to partake in the good time.” 

The debauchery and excess of the late ‘60s through the early ’80s made nationwide headlines. Blow, the 2001 film starring Johnny Depp, recounted the history of drug trafficker George Jung who, with the help of a local hairdresser named Richard Barile, plied coke and marijuana all throughout El Porto and the beach cities. But the groundwork for the area’s nefarious activity was laid much, much earlier. 

In the early 1900s, when El Porto housed a red-light district, trolleys bound for Playa del Rey made multiple stops in Redondo, Hermosa and lower Manhattan but didn’t service anything north of 26th Street. “The railroad didn’t see a reason to stop in El Porto,” says Jan. 

With Prohibition came bootlegging, and in 1931, $30,000 worth of alcohol offloaded from a nearby ship was seized by the FBI and local police. During the war the ever-popular Poncho’s was off-limits to servicemen due to its gambling and raucous environment. El Porto gained a reputation for being, as Jan describes, “wide open”—and it only got wilder.

“It was a bit of a perfect storm,” says former El Porto resident Bob Brand. “After World War II, the entire South Bay exploded. The area opened up. There were more roads, more jobs, more people. LAX was expanding. I was a just a teenager, but my older brother, he would just surf and chase girls.”

“At that time, the people that settled in El Porto weren’t looking to have the typical family experience. The area wasn’t laid out that way,” says Paul Gregory, whose father owned the Chevron station at the corner of 45th and Highland from the early ’60s through the early ’80s. “It was a different community.”

There was the 20-year-old rich kid across Highland who blared Led Zeppelin all day, and the perpetually oiled-up, middle-aged, Magnum, P.I.-wannabe who, for no explicable reason, would carry a volleyball with him wherever he went. There was the troop of beach burnouts in a 28-window VW Samba—perpetually on the prowl for a bigger and better buzz, and the white bourgeois in their convertible Jags and Porsches, cruising the boulevard for one thing and one thing only: stewies.

With their silk scarves, calf-high boots and skirts so short they’d make today’s rebellious teen girls feel shown up, stewardesses of the 1970s were the epitome of in-flight entertainment. And El Porto was the airline industry’s prime destination for extracurricular activity. 

The cycle went something like this: Locals chased stewies, stewies chased pilots, pilots chased everything. And everything was in walking distance: Poncho’s, Cisco’s, OB’s, Brennan’s, the Hatch Cover, the Blue Book, Orville & Wilbur’s, the Pelican. 

Tanker crews offloading at the refinery would down beers at the Penguin until 2 a.m., and if its owner didn’t fire a few rounds from his .45 into the ceiling to clear out the bar, they’d probably have stayed later. The Frigate was bisected by the property line on 38th Street dividing LA County and Manhattan Beach. The cash register, of course, sat on the side with the lower tax rate.

“There were lots of barroom fights, just complete chaos,” says John Navarro, a retired Manhattan Beach firefighter who also worked at Players Liquor on Highland. “Paramedics had to deal with a lot of pills and overdoses. Every weekend it was something new.”

Bars were plentiful, but if you were really looking for a good time, you went to a little salon near the intersection of Highland and 33rd and saw Richard Barile. Portrayed in Blow by Paul Reubens under the fictional name Derek Foreal, Richard was the local dope dealer George Jung ran with before they partnered up with the Medellín cartel.

“It was like something out of Haight-Ashbury,” says a former neighbor who prefers to remain anonymous. “The bongs, the curtains, the macramé. It was the only barber shop that had a bar in it. He threw parties all the time and had cigarette boxes filled with cocaine, and you could help yourself. Nobody was trying to hide anything. The flight attendants, they would bring in the cocaine in their suitcases. That’s how they got it in and out of the area.”

“He threw parties all the time and had cigarette boxes filled with cocaine, and you could help yourself. Nobody was trying to hide anything.” 

“Because El Porto was under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department—and they were busy in other areas—those folks down there pretty much did what they wanted,” remembers Fred McKewen, a 28-year veteran of the Manhattan Beach Police Department. “It was kind of a game in those days. ‘If you catch me, you catch me, but I’m not gonna call you a bad guy for doing your job.’”

Since moving from Nichols Canyon to El Porto in 1973, Ab Lawrence has operated two businesses in the area: Brennan’s (where Sharkey’s currently sits) and Poncho’s, which he’s owned since 1976.

“Forget (what’s now) downtown Manhattan Beach,” he laughs. “That was virtually nothing. Poncho’s, Cisco’s, the Frigate. These places were jumpin’. When I lived in Hollywood and worked at Channel 5, we used to drive all the way down here several nights a week. They called it the Golden Triangle. Guys and girls wanting to meet the opposite could go from one place to the other, but it got out of hand.”

Poncho’s wasn’t just the preferred spot for locals. Raiders owner Al Davis would call down big takeout orders for the coaching staff, and Ab Lawrence always had a case of blackberry brandy—the team’s preferred shooter of choice—on hand for impromptu parties, like the one thrown for NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks on his birthday. It featured the Raiderettes, a stripper, a boa constrictor, a limo driver named Gonzo and was all broadcast live on Casey Kasem’s radio show at 6 in the morning.

“There’s a really big identity here, and everybody knows it,” says Ab. “People are very proud to say they live in El Porto. It’s always been a special area.”

When Manhattan Beach annexed El Porto from LA County in November 1980—a decision Jan Dennis describes as “strictly economic”—it softened the town’s rough edges. The new tax base helped offset the cost of fire and police, and with more civil servants came more ordinances, more patrols and more safety. The nightlife migrated south of 15th Street, and the pressure between the two neighborhoods slowly started to equalize. 

Today’s downtown scene is modest, vibrant and healthy. But the harder members of the beau monde push to advance economic progress, the more El Porto’s old guard push back. It’s a hot-button topic in the beach cities from Hermosa to Manhattan: “Keep our neighborhood our neighborhood.” 

Michelle Murphy is cautiously optimistic that the city council will eventually drop the rebranding experiment and reinstate the old name, but in time that may be a moot point. 

“As long as Manhattan Beach keeps getting fancier,” she says, “so will El Porto. Just a little slower and a little funkier.”

Jan Dennis has written six books about Manhattan Beach and has been active in city politics for more than 40 years. Her passion for beach culture is palpable, but she’s not one to whitewash history. And she speaks freely and intelligently about the city’s sometimes salacious past. 

She’s also realistic about its future. The three-story, multimillion-dollar megastructure currently going up behind her home in the Hill Section is a constant reminder of why progress isn’t always measured in revenue and property value.

“It’s a losing battle,” says Dennis. “I’ve been here 52 years, and the area has changed so dramatically. The buildings, the mansions, the money. Sometimes the money isn’t the most important thing. Sometimes it’s pride.”

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