By Denise Di Novi
Every summer, Diane, my dear friend from Laguna Beach High school leaves her home in Texas and returns with her large family in tow for the month of September. From the first morning walk down to Laguna Coffee, she glows. “It’s the air” she says. “The light, the smell. The Sun is different here. “And even though I live here, I think these same thoughts almost every morning myself. What is it about this place that gets under your skin so much it becomes hard to live anywhere else? And if you do, you often feel like you’ve made a mistake and long to come back? When my hippie parents made the brilliant decision to move here in the ‘70s from the San Fernando Valley, I was 14 and starting high school. I had a nightmare before the first day of school that I’ve never forgotten. I dreamt I was flying over the Village, swooping over all the beautiful tall trees, the thousands of flowers in the cottage gardens, the turquoise white capped ocean glinting like diamonds, the clear smog-free sky. I heard a voice say not unkindly, “This is a magic place, but you can’t stay here forever”. Though it turned out to be true for large swaths of my life, I have spent a lot of time making sure this place remains my home. In my field, the movie business, there is something called a “Love Letter”, a critics’ review that is filled with gushing appreciation and little if any criticism. I have been writing that review of Laguna Beach in my head since I was in the ninth grade. What is it in the DNA of Laguna Beach that makes it something we all treasure with such intensity that it sparks such intense and bitter arguments, almost a microcosm of our country, fighting about what to protect and what changes to allow?
I asked my friend Mark who was a Laguna Beach lifeguard in his youth. “There is a diversity of beaches here like nowhere else in the world” he said with the authority of a world traveler, and I agree. From the tucked in vibe of Thousand Steps with the crazy shore break, to the perfect southwest-facing elegance of Crescent Bay, from the dramatic plein air worthy rock formations of Woods Cove to the hidden charms of Fishermans Cove; almost seven miles of coastline with 30 coves, every street ending with a set of stairs down to a completely distinct beach, with its own personality and often its own set of loyal and passionate locals. Thanks to our fight for the Greenbelt in the 70s we have 20,000 acres of open space and 37 of the best hiking trails in California. My neighbor who is a Sawdust artist says this was one of the best summers she’s ever had which she believes proves that Laguna is still and will always be about making art accessible to everyone. How many places could pull off the volunteer-driven Pageant of the Masters for 88 years? The quirky and historic cottages, the stunning modern hillside homes, Main Beach right in the heart of town, these are all “so Laguna”.
I’m as terrified as many of you are that we could turn into one of these other beach towns that shall not be named. But in my heart I just don’t believe that will ever happen. I am convinced there is something in that unique DNA of Laguna Beach that will never change. We could grow to more than the yearly 6.5 million tourists; we could lose a few battles on new buildings or parking spaces; we could have one too many noisy restaurants or hotels with pools on the roof. But what makes Laguna truly special will never change. I am not suggesting that we stop fighting the battles to protect the architectural and cultural integrity of our town, but I refuse to succumb to the “everything was better in the old days and it sucks now” lament. I still see and feel the inclusiveness, the tolerance for eccentricity, the love of theater, art and music, the appreciation for nature, the respect for tradition. There are still my beloved places I’ve been going to for decades like The Stand (though I still call it The Have a Stand), Orange Inn and Zinc Cafe. I’m delighted with Forest Avenue and most of the new stores and restaurants. For the most part my favorite beaches are unchanged. I get a big smile on my face when I see so many female surfers these days, coming from an era where it was almost unseen. My heart still sings when I stand at the View Point on Top of The World. What if each and every resident took the time to write their own love letter to Laguna Beach, and we made them available to everyone including our representatives at City Hall? The volume might get turned down just enough for us to actually hear each other. Gratitude has a way of doing that.
Denise is a film and television producer and director at PatMa Productions and Di Novi Pictures and a longtime resident in the Village neighborhood of Laguna Beach.