Friday, May 12, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

It clings to the bottom of the San Diego map like some seaside outpost, one last whole community unfurled atop a familiar grid before the rural desert of the Tijuana estuary brushes up against the border line and the United States stops.

One must deliberately look to catch Imperial Beach down there, which either partly explains or subconsciously produces the feeling of remoteness, even isolation that lingers on its long boulevards and empty beaches.

There’s no eminent reason for the place to feel like the Twilight Zone: The drive west from I-5 along Palm Avenue is studded with a normal-enough assortment of Taco Bells and tire shops, with packs of automobiles surging in the streets to fill them. But cut left where Palm takes a turn for the Pacific, and the comfortably compact – if undeniably rundown – beachside business district appears in a charmingly dilapidated robe of faded stucco apartment buildings and low-slung wooden houses along palm-speckled streets.

Maybe it’s the stiff ocean breeze – or the mysterious gray expanse of the Pacific – that cements the place’s anachronistic detachment. The aged cool of Imperial Beach, coupled with its geography, makes it feel like a long-lost camp for some surf-obsessed cult. There just isn’t much there (in the beachside area), and what exists covers the essentials: Just enough commerce so that residents mustn’t leave their breezy bubble for either a checkup or a beer.

It’s sad that this state of affairs is considered less-than-ideal, because in its current mode (change is ahead; see below) Imperial Beach encapsulates an idyllic oxymoron – the working class Southern California beach town. From Santa Barbara south, almost no other municipality combines both seaside charm and genuine affordability to the same extent as IB – its only counterpart in San Diego County would be Oceanside, which has a few years of upscaling progress on the county’s southernmost beach town.

The relative accessibility – 2 bedrooms on the sand for $1,500 a month – gives the village a humane presence, where the class divisions between those who come to enjoy and those who can afford to own are not so great. The after-lunch pier-strollers don’t avert their eyes from the sun-baked men and women who catch their meals from the ocean. And the daily life of the place isn’t so concerned with the stylish costumes and behaviors that spread a gloss of superficiality over Mission and Pacific beaches.

Yet the charming humility – some might say commercial stunting – of Imperial Beach comes largely as a result of an international environmental tragedy: the toxic plumes that seep out of the Tijuana river and flow, by ocean current, north to what should be the nicest parts of Imperial Beach. Drawing the California/Mexico border along the 32nd parallel set the stage for a conflict by separating the river’s source from its mouth, and despite decades of international effort, a solution still remains bitterly embattled.

The result was 83 days last year where the waters at Imperial Beach were so loaded with dangerous sewage particles that authorities were forced to close them. Yet even when the beaches aren’t completely closed, enjoying the water requires a level of bravado that evidently few possess, with sinus and gastrointestinal disorders reported by frequent beachgoers. And just imagine the nightmares of potential property owners perusing the animated models of sewage particles transported by ocean currents that the folks at Scripps Institution of Oceanography provide online.

The Bajagua water treatment plant is being touted as a solution to the pollution problem. But the plan has divided the environmental community, with disagreement on whether the proposed solution – a new, partially U.S.-funded treatment facility in Tijuana – will actually make a difference. (Critics say that unless the unserviced homes over the border are plumbed, heavy rains will still flush gallons of untreated grime into the ocean; proponents argue that expanding treatment capacity is a necessary step towards plumbing residences.)

The answer will bear heavily on the future of Imperial Beach, which just this year signed off on a redevelopment effort that would try to change the face of this community forever. The plan would emphasize the typical mixed-use projects to attract major retailers to the area while simultaneously upping the quality of residential property – which sounds a lot like the gradual eradication of the grainy hodgepodge that makes IB unique.

But town boosters are fooling themselves if they think any major improvement in the town’s fortunes would come without a major change in the water quality situation. The bittersweet reality of Imperial Beach is that there’s good reason for this place to feel like an ocean-side colony set aside from the rest of the world: Its setting is soiled. Until it can attract more than just the bravest ocean-lovers, waterfront property in IB will remain like a restaurant table where you only get to look at your food.

Yet the polluted water creates a paradox, a place where the marvelous absence of hordes comes with a heavy price. Economic stagnation has worn a unique character into Imperial Beach, incubating a grainy, communitarian hamlet that’s escaped the plasticization that mars nearly all of California’s coastal communities. Maintaining that authentic quality should be a primary goal of the area’s redevelopment efforts – let the town at the bottom of the map always remain a little different.

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at

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