Hansen: Canyon is its own world

September 21, 2011|By David Hansen
(Courtesy David…)

There is an underbelly to Laguna Beach, disconnected from the glitz and grazing plates of Coast Highway. Unlike downtown, it's a place that doesn't pose or preen or gossip.

It's Laguna Canyon, filled with rusting trucks and welding tools; oil and grit and mountain bikes; bobcats, rattlesnakes and stray dogs.

It's an ancient, two-sided natural corridor: One side of the street is undeveloped with scrappy open space; the other is off-kilter, unbalanced, like a driver's side sunburn on one arm.

Speckled like an exotic fruit, you want to experience it because you consider yourself adventurous and cosmopolitan, but you're also a little afraid. You've seen "Deliverance."

Indeed, if there were a police bust on a meth lab, it would be in the canyon.

As it happens, there have been drug issues — going back to Timothy Leary — and perpetual mayhem: raids on homeless camps, protests and devastating fires and floods.


But it's also a tight-knit community of can-do craftsmen, artisans and laborers. If Coast Highway is San Francisco, then Laguna Canyon is Oakland.

Inexplicably, it starts with Santa's Workshop, the red-and-white shack that during Christmas sits proudly on Forest Avenue, but for the remainder of the year, sits plopped in the city parking lot at the foot of Laguna Canyon. It's stored in plain site like some unwanted, recycled gift.

There is little respect for the canyon, really. It's a planner's nightmare, pocked with grandfather zoning clauses and mixed uses. Prior to annexation in 1989, the area was left alone — literally.

County building inspectors rarely came to the canyon, so well into the 1960s residents built homes, additions, terraces and pot farms without consulting building or safety codes.

"The history of the canyon has been colorful and dramatic," according to city historical zoning documents. "Its residents and property owners accept its eclectic land use pattern and somewhat rural lifestyle. They appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of where they live and wish to preserve it."

The outcome now is a rich diversity of utilitarian shops and home-based businesses. If you can get beyond the dust and handmade signs, you'll find your way to more amazing shops in the canyon than the whole of Laguna.

Where else can you find exotic Japanese fish and rainbow peacocks; Alcoholics Anonymous and Jehovah's Witnesses; a winery and a mortuary?

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