In Newport Beach, California, longtime residents of small community Balboa Island found their nautical traditions threatened by newcomers. Politics and tradition butt heads on this inlet, and I got to report on it.
I’ll put it up here in a few installments, as it is a pretty long piece.
Let me know what you think. Thank you for reading.
By Maxine Wally
A vessel approaches—a ferry. The antiquated wood moans under the pressure of the mother-daughter tourist duo, a silver Lexus SUV and two Captains standing on either side of the helm steering. Groups of boats in variant sizes—from tiny, powder blue tugboats to forty-foot yachts—glide by in the distance. Turn around, look across the water: there’s Palm Street, down by Bay Avenue. A merry, multicolored ferris wheel turning far too quickly carries a few brave couples sitting in the orange, lime green and yellow metal seats. A sea of neon lights crashes from the Balboa Fun Zone, an arcade deserted during the winter-off season. In the summer, however, the Balboa Peninsula—not to be confused with Balboa Island across the bay—receives waves of foot traffic from visitors, tourists, beach bunnies from over across the Peninsula, young folks on summer vacation, old folks sitting on the benches watching the kids run by. Attractions of all sorts, (a merry-go-round, bumper cars, whale watching tours, water sports rentals) beckon on a kaleidoscopic platter. The ferry, named Commodore, continues toward the Island as seawater splashes the freshly painted red railings guarding passengers and automobiles. Turn back around. The sign ahead reads, “Welcome to Balboa Island.” Directly behind it, another sign that reads J.A. Beek in dark blue, wooden lettering. That would be Joseph Allan Beek. The family name is famous on the island, for Joseph was a founding member of this area. Just down the road there, on South Bay Front, lives Seymour Beek, son of Joseph Allan. His mint green house with white trim sits right at the shore, facing boats tied up to docks and slips. Seymour and his two brothers,Allan and Barton, grew up in that house on South Bay Front, which his father built in 1912. The house has wide, four-paned windows that look onto the bay. There’s a mighty glare on those four-paned windows at dusk, when the sun’s going down.
At 78 years old, Seymour has lived around Southern California—Costa Mesa, various areas of Newport Beach—but has now settled back in the home of his childhood. He spent summers on the water a mere 50 feet in front of his house. He watched tourists come on and off the island, watched the ferry he now owns and manages go back and forth about a million times. He has five children, all of whom he is extremely proud. They’re all college graduates. His youngest, Cynthia, the only girl of the siblings, is in law school. Seymour always knew he wanted to raise his kids in the boating tradition, the same one that nurtured him. The three oldest boys Tom, David and Clark, were raised on the Peninsula of Newport Beach, so they were into surfing at an early age. More surfing happens over on the Peninsula, where great waves from the Pacific are perfect for a waxed board. Clark sailed around the world on a 40-foot-boat. His father accompanied him for certain legs of the trip. He is proud of his son’s recent article, published in a British yachting magazine. He fixes two of his boats on the roof of the house on South Bay Front. He has wise, milky eyes that are a shocking shade of sky blue.
His father Joseph Beek first visited Balboa in 1907 when he began working in real estate for a man by the name of William S. Collins, who has one street named after him, (Collins Avenue) and another for his late wife, (Apolena Avenue). Beek attended Pasadena City College in his hometown of Pasadena, CA when Balboa Island first lured him. Perhaps it had to do with the promising harbor, the body of water that presented a beneficial financial endeavor. Perhaps the island’s plight—just then, it faced bankruptcy—piqued his interest to purchase. Maybe it was just the peaceful nature of the untouched, rolling waves that held heaps of life. A place where he could practice a nautical way of life, carry on the tradition of sailing and boating, swimming and fishing. Living by the water. Whatever the reason, he became a sales agent for William Collins, and bought a lot of land for 50 dollars. Ever the enterprising entrepreneur, Beek took on The Balboa Island Ferry service in 1919. A ferry existed before, but it was unreliable. Beek souped up the business, adding two more barges. He also worked on other lots and projects, among them: Harbor Island and Beacon Bay, over by Bayside Drive. He even developed some properties between Roseville and Folsom Lake up in Northern California. Lakeview Hills, and Hidden Valley—the first Hidden Valley, before the ranch dressing. He dammed various streams on these properties, creating lakes. Seymour went there to sail and fish during summer vacations. He loved it—he even had a girlfriend up there.
Back then, Balboa Island was fun. Good for kids, lots to do. Most importantly, there were no restrictions. About 10,000 people lived in Newport Beach. Seymour could ride his bike out to Irvine Ranch and mess around with his friends, nobody cared. He surfed, swam, and sailed all up and down the bay, out to the Peninsula and into the Pacific, and no one cared. He couldn’t even buy clothes on the Island—had to go to Santa Ana, or else LA, or Pasadena.
During the summer, Balboa Island was always packed. The area was congested, even back then. But in winter, when the notorious off-season left only the locals, Seymour and his friends played football in the street and if someone came and parked in the way of the makeshift field, they’d ask the driver to move his automobile. Still, parking was a problem year round, even in the depths of winter. Now, there are many more cars than ever before.
In those days, Seymour worked for Ford Aerospace as a program manager, not with his father Joseph over on the docks. A man named Bob Snyder managed the ferry at the time and took care of everything. His Dad’s manager, Evan Jones, worked on the business end.Mom and Dad signed checks. It was easier. Now, there’s a lot more to do, and everything’s more complicated. Paperwork and forms exist that didn’t used to. Coast guards inspect all the time, and Seymour says they didn’t used to poke around like this, not anywhere near, before. Random drug tests and regulations and irritating little rules…
Seymour took over the business 20 years ago after his father had a stroke. Up until this point, he stayed close with his family, had raised his children with good morals and a penchant for seafaring activities. At that time, he was in his third marriage. He employed a woman named Marcia to act as accountant for the business side of the Balboa Island Ferry, a man with a round belly named Tom to work the maintenance shed that’s settled across the street from the ferry, and his son David Beek to work the fuel docks.
Seymour sits on the cement step outside his house weaving his fingers together, his knobbled knuckles flexing. Every so often he takes off his light blue baseball cap and wrings it in his wrinkled palm, then puts it back on his head. Three painters stand on his porch, deliberating where on the house to apply color first. Seymour stares straight at them, his feet tapping madly. He throws a look over his shoulder toward the water, thinking about the gang of reporters and news vans that waited outside his ferry maintenance shed a while back, waiting to catch a quote from a guy who rescued two kids and their dad when a minivan shoved off the ferry and into the water. There have always been reporters on Balboa Island writing about something or another, but recently there has been extra coverage, thanks to a couple feuds between the State, City Council, home and business owners on the Island.
Balboa Island’s Bay, the harbor that surrounds their 1.71 mile-large enclave, is becoming a source for tension. An LA Times article mentioned Balboa Island as an area of Newport Beach under great threat from rising sea levels. A 2008 city-commissioned study on climate change cites rising water levels, eroding beaches and very high tides as reasons to bring the houses on the beach further up and build a higher sea wall to protect the Island. The study offered dire numbers: by 2025, floods and storming could submerge homes at the shore by half a foot. By 2050, three quarters of the buildings might be immersed in close to two feet of seawater. Suddenly, the bay—the Island’s livelihood, their source of entertainment, what brings both scores of tourists and citizens of the area—the sustainable force keeping marine tradition alive, was an enormous bone of contention between the Council and the old-timers who had lived there for years. The city council proposed a tax on the business and homeowners on the waterfront, asking for a 20% cut of their gross yearly income, which, in part, would go towards funding the heightened wall. Seymour’s son David and fellow waterfront businessman John, who runs J.D.’s Big Game Tackle across the way, both agreed that the water poses no threat. How could such an asset lead to the eventual ruination of the island? On top of that, how could they ask for such a high tax increase? Twenty percent would kill some businesses, leaving others to their own devices for further funds.
Additionally, a 20% tax increase would force a rise in fuel prices to compensate for lost industry. It currently costs between 500 and 1000 dollars to drive a boat to Catalina Island or San Clemente Island, and this number could quite possibly double after such an increase. Some citizens of the Island saw this as a challenge to the boating community, as high prices could force people to use their boats more sparingly. Residents said the City Council wanted to squeeze money out of the harbor that wasn’t there. Besides, rising sea levels were somewhat of a myth—global warming wouldn’t affect the island for years, if it was even, in fact, real. It wasn’t an issue, and didn’t warrant this kind of financial blow. The business and homeowners fought back in multiple council meetings, insisting that the city-commissioned study was not up to date. The numbers were off. 2008 was four years ago—how could the politicos make any assertion about rising sea levels with such old information? Eventually, the backlash from citizens who lived on the Island was so intense that the Council conceded, returning to the drawing board.
J.D.’s Big Game Tackle is completely silent, save a light buzz of sports commentary on a grey radio sitting before John, the owner of the sport fishing supply store. Fishing poles line the walls, alongside red t-shirts bearing the Balboa Island Ferry emblem, sun hats and tchotchke gifts, fly rods and reels, swivels, snaps and hooks. A red, white and blue triangular flag with “September 17th, 1949” written in fading marker is tacked up next to a photo of a 950-pound halibut and the fisherman who caught it.
John wears khakis and has a head of completely white hair. He has been a traveling salesman selling tackle since he first came to the Island, and doesn’t want a bunch of thugs over here, because this community doesn’t accept it, and this community doesn’t allow it. That’s what Balboa Island is—truly, a little community. He considers the Island a blessing, because it’s geographically different from other areas of Newport Beach: there’s a moat around Balboa that can be controlled in an emergency— the Island will completely close off, the ferries stop. Overall, it’s nice. It’s a breath of salt air. It relieves people of their stress when they’re here, insulated from the outside world. John goes fishing at four o’clock in the morning and maintains a marine lifestyle. Thinks that’s important. John also thinks that the people who proposed the 20% tax, the people who claim the rising water will kill off their kin, are out of touch with reality. These are weather related changes, as they always have been. This is an excuse based on the weather, and can’t be blamed on anybody but God.
That’s the nature of being on the water—businesses are at the mercy of the bay. The waves control life if it’s a nautically centralized one. Thus, Balboa Island’s economy is upheld by the seasons. Most of the revenue used to come in from late May until September. Now it’s cut back as a result of schools’ schedules not meshing—subsequently, there is a longer off-season. Used to be that owners could try to make enough money during the summer, tourist season, to sustain for the rest of the year. Months have been cut now. Also, lately, there’s been this June gloom, and it hasn’t been so hot— not many have come through. Despite all this, John still sits behind his wooden counter every day, staying in contact by walkie-talkie with fishermen out on the water, updating his personal website with photos of fish caught by friends and neighbors. He sits there, watching the ferry go back and forth about a million times. New businesses come in, then they pass away, and a new group moves in. That’s just the way it goes. John feels the change. He’s had to change too, as he recently has made the move from selling hard goods to soft goods. Not only does his store offer rigging tools, gaffs and tag sticks, he’s selling hats, now, too, for God’s sake.
Seymour watches the white paint chip off his house on South Bay Front as a painter picks at it with a metal scraper. His place is a relic of the old days. Back then, there were many of what he calls sea shanty homes—little cottages made of wood, bearing circular ceramic tiles with pictures of boats and the house’s address. Some still exist today, to be sure; most of them are still occupied by folks who raised a few generations on the Island. Lately, though, many mansions have been going up. Drive up and down the streets of Balboa—past Coral, Sapphire and Ruby Avenues—and see what’s happening. Instead of those classic, one-story beach houses, there are now enormous, three-story abodes that don’t look appropriate to Seymour. And there’s that construction underway a few doors down. A new neighbor has moved in, although Seymour doesn’t know anything about him. Hasn’t seen him before, but he’s heard his name whispered among the old timers on the block. They’re fed up with all the noise. All the blocking of the street—more parking compromised. Now, he is not an architect, but he rails at the city’s feeble attempts to regulate the construction on multiple-story, couple-thousand square feet mansions. It’s disruptive. The builders should offer a letter of apology to the community and the neighborhood.
It’s not just the houses, though. Neighborhoods change and things shift around, especially in a place like Balboa Island where there is a high turnover rate during the summer season, when folks rent out beach houses, staying from late June to August. It used to be that summer season was from about May to September, but what with the economic downturn and all, what with schools’ schedules being all fractured and all, now that’s changed.
Despite the fact that the Island is, undoubtedly, open to the public, Balboa Island old-timers still worry about outsiders. What will these new houses bring? Seymour shakes his head, clutching his baseball cap once more. He will calm himself by walking—yes, he’ll walk down South Bay Front today. He walks southeast on South Bay Front Avenue, and hangs a left over there on Marine Avenue, the main street on Balboa Island. That’s where all the stores are, that’s where people go and shop, hang around, or eat a frozen banana—Balboa’s claim to fame. There’s Dad’s and Sugar and Spice; they both contend for the top spot as far as frozen bananas go. Over there, that’s J.P. Maxwell, a men’s clothing store where Seymour’s third ex-wife works selling linen button down shirts with tropical prints. Next door, a post office that looks like one from a Western film. Further down the avenue: stores that sell t-shirts, flip flops, little gifts, and a Swiss-French restaurant that seats 24 patrons and serves traditional foods like Raclette cheese.
I’d never been in falling snow until this afternoon. I was at work as the flurry began—in fact, I was ringing up a customer when I looked out the frosted windows and saw falling pieces of what seemed like cloud. I clapped my hand over my mouth, blushed and explained to the bewildered but slightly amused patron that I was from California, and this was my premiere experience in a blizzard.
“Go!” My coworker called from the back. “Go outside! Before it stops!”
Whether or not she mocked me in that moment, I’ll never know—I raced out the door that merrily jingled upon my exit. I squealed like a child and twirled down Broome Street. A Danish man in tortoise shell glasses and a grey coat took a picture of me while I screamed, “Your lens cap is still on!” Vision blurred by descending flakes.
There was a color gradient from sky to sidewalk. When I looked up, all was grey—the horizon, the color of cement. At eye level, dove-hued dots fell down to my feet, onto the blackened cobblestone ground.
Now I understand why kids love snow. It’s kind of wondrous. The way it floats down, sits on surfaces. Pristine piles of powder.
View from my fire escape in Brooklyn
The snow provides a new kind of freedom. One I’ve never felt before. It brings new meaning to Winter. More than that, though, it is a very final and decisive departure from the West Coast. I’ll have to learn how to walk in snow, how to avoid something called “black ice”, which, apparently, is far more slippery than regular ice, (how that is even possible, I’ve no idea. I nearly killed myself walking home, stepping like a linebacker in high heels over puddles and slush). But I welcome the novelty, the wonder and all the lessons, for seasonal changes will now be a large part of my life.
There’s nothing else like construction in New York City. It’s quick, easy, plenty will do it and it will certainly do.
The place we found in Crown Heights looked as though a bomb had gone off in it, but the broker assured us that it would be done in 10 days. 10 days? I couldn’t imagine two rooms being done in 10 days back home in California. It’s just the pace here.
The pace: quicker than I’d realized hitherto. Everyone always goes, moves, works, constantly. And if they’re not working, they’re talking about work. And if they’re not talking about work, they’re probably working. It’s all about doing something here, purely so the doer can keep up with the pace. It is a cyclical, well-oiled wheel that turns by its citizens’ power as they exert unwavering effort— pushing, always pushing forward.
It’s a motivating atmosphere, to be sure. LA also had a motivating atmosphere, and people work there a lot as well. Residents always seek out new projects and endeavors. But the purpose isn’t to keep up, it’s to have something to do apart from the day job, some creative outlet in a world of traffic and celebrity.
New York’s work environment stands in stark contrast to anywhere I’ve ever been employed. I intern at a literary agency. I edit proposals, do research and read manuscripts that writers send, to-be-novels in hopeful manila envelopes, then write reports telling agents whether or not they should look into the project. I am commissioned amongst hardened lawyers, perky assistants and book-lovers turned publishing agents. The office is bright, airy, with floor-to-ceiling book displays, light wood and white walls. I find I’m much more fidgety than the bulk of my coworkers. While they rapidly buy lunch, return to their desks and eat/work, I sit in Union Square on a leisurely break, taking in the sun. Careful: I fear my California is showing.
I wonder if my pace will also change, become significantly more rapid. I suppose it already has.