Posted Monday, Dec. 13, 2010; 1:18 p.m.

Los Angeles Ghost Town: At the Hands of LAX
The neighborhood of Surfridge was demolished in the 1960s and 1970s after the airport essentially forced residents to sell, leaving the prime beachfront property of cracked, overgrown street and rubble untouched.

Planes take off and land directly over the land that used to be the neighborhood of Surfridge.


Drive through Playa del Ray and you will find one of the smallest and coziest of the California beach towns. But, continue down Vista del Mar and the warmth of the town evaporates into a vast, barbed-wire preserve. Inside is the skeleton of the neighborhood formerly known as Surfridge, a ghost town created at the hands of the Los Angeles International Airport, known as LAX.  

Only the rubble of over 800 homes now remains on the 470-acre site between the Pacific and Los Angeles International Airport. Overgrown, waist-high weeds sprout through the cracked roads, the only inclination that a community once stood past the chain link fence and barricades.

Surfridge was an old beach colony developed in the 1920s right along the Pacific Ocean at Dockweiler Beach. Even Hollywood luminaries and writers settled in the Pacific Palisade- like neighborhood, comparable in charm and topography. Even Cecil B. DeMille was known to have had a cottage here. Now, the land sits barren year after year.

The original Surfridge was developing along with LAX until its demolition.

LAX opened in 1928, a tiny airport that would eventually expand and absorb nearby towns. By the mid-1960's when the condemnations of Surfridge began the annual passenger volume of LAX had grown to 7 million whereas today, the number is 67 million, making it the third busiest airport in the world.

As the airport grew, the thunder of first-generation jetliners rattled beachfront homes making life near the airport increasingly impossible for Surfridge residents. Over 66% of homeowners elected to be bought out in a 1965 referendum. Between l965 and l975, 2000 people relocated leaving 822 homes to be condemned. The $60 million cost was 75% reimbursed by the federal government. The encroaching airport essentially forced purchases at a fraction of what the land alone would be worth today. With four rounds of condemnations, the city solved the noise and safety concerns they faced with the growing expansion of the airport.

“The property was purchased with Federal Grant money for noise mitigation and safety purposes,” said Nebu John, a project manager in the Environmental Services division of Los Angeles World Airports.

"The property was purchased with federal grant money for noise mitigation and safety purposes"- John Nebu, LAX

Strict federal restrictions on jet landings and takeoffs, expanding runways, and fear of potential liability for hearing loss were all contributing factors for the obliteration of Surfridge. The demolition was an inevitable battle between the airport and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Historic buildings were lost in the crossfire and eradicated. One of the first demolished was a 6,400-square-foot Spanish-Moroccan mansion that locals called "The Castle" in 1967. The airport bought the property for $86,000 and ripped it apart with bulldozers rather than let it draw vandals and transients.

Between the home demolition and the 1980’s, only airport radars and equipment were put on the land immediately behind the LAX runways that butt into the property. Airport officials proposed a scheme in the early eighties that included an 18-hole golf course, a viewing area to watch the planes take-off, a 12-acre sand dune preserve and an 80-acre habitat for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.

Vista del Mar park is the only accessible area remaining in Surfridge.

Ultimately, concerns for the butterfly eradicated all other plans. Only two acres were developed into Vista el Mar Park with a few picnic tables and a small playground set across the street from the beach. The remaining land, lampposts, fire hydrants and all, became the domain of the butterfly.

“The existing roads provide access for maintenance of the preserve and critical navigation aids located in the preserve” said John.

Instead, the plan of LAX is no plan at all. The rest of the property will remain home to the butterfly and naturally convert into its original form: a sand dune.

“To convert the land would cause more disturbance and harm to the preserve and the natural habitat,” said John. “Regular maintenance to remove harmful, non-native, and invasive plant species is on-going and the land will naturally convert, eventually taking over any man made materials.”    

See Satellite View of Surfridge here