Opinion: Finding Meaning

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The Seven Wonders of Laguna

By Skip Hellewell

Waiting my turn in the Laguna cultural institution known as Wally’s Barbershop, though run by Rudy Campos, the conversation turned to Dick Metz’s bravo performance at the Laguna Beach Historical Society. Metz regaled a standing room-only audience with memories of growing up in Laguna and got a standing ovation. Driving home, I pondered the uniqueness of Laguna and made a list of notable achievements—the ‘seven wonders of Laguna.’

They don’t count because they were shaped over eons by nature, but Laguna’s 30 or so coves and bays set the scene that attracted the first artists. And those artists, often starving, created our first two wonders as a way to sell their art: the Laguna Art Museum, originally a gallery built from the first town hall, and the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters.

The next wonder was Main Beach. Metz recalled in his talk how it was formerly a row of businesses blocking a view of the ocean. Citizens led by Harry Lawrence pushed a campaign for a “window to the sea.” The breakthrough came when the Pageant offered to accept a rent increase sufficient to fund a bond to buy the Main Beach properties. What other city raises funds to reverse development and return valuable property to nature?

Consider the Laguna Greenbelt, the Quixotic vision of bookstore owners Jim and Jeanette Dilley. Jim studied for a Ph.D. at Harvard Divinity School but wound up the amiable pipe-smoking host at Dilley’s Books in Laguna. He enjoyed visiting England and was inspired by the garden city movement, a post-Industrial Revolution effort to stay in touch with nature by preserving woodlands and farms around cities. Dilley’s vision was the ultimate impossible dream, no one thought the developers could be stopped, but in Laguna, the dream came true. Laguna is an oasis surrounded on three sides by a Greenbelt with a ‘blue belt’ on the other.

The fifth is our churches which collectively support the moral culture essential to the survival of democracy. When prosperous Riverside orange growers first summered in Laguna, a woman, Sabra Ferris, wanted church on Sunday. The Riversiders funded that first town hall as a place to meet, which grew into today’s Laguna Presbyterian. Joseph and Catherine Yoch, founders of the original Laguna Hotel, bought the old Mormon Schoolhouse for a Catholic church, later the first home of Little Church by the Sea. A group of Christian Scientists gathered in Arch Beach, then built the church, now the Hare Krishan Temple, before moving to Boat Canyon. And a charismatic character named Percy Clarkson talked his way into being ordained a minister and founded two of our churches, St. Mary’s Episcopal and tiny cathedral, St. Francis by the Sea.

Sixth is our care for the homeless and those in need. Inspired by the Biblical phrase “the least of these,” Laguna’s churches” came together to help. The result was a program of feeding and caring helped by our Community Clinic, which offered medical care without regard to ability to pay. The Friendship Shelter opened its facility, later joined by the Alternate Sleeping Location. The Pantry similarly helps those who might go hungry.

Last but not least is the preservation of our village character. Whether it’s our protection of historic structures, our limit on building height, or our avoidance of chain food outlets, there is a ‘village’ feeling that makes Laguna unique. This was reinforced by the recent Patriot’s Day parade featuring what seemed like 100 beneficial Laguna groups. Considering these seven wonders of Laguna, it’s most notable that they got their start from caring citizens working together. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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