September 08, 2012

Photo Essay: Surfridge, LAX's Beachside Ghost Town—Part One

Unlike Sunken City, Surfridge is an LA area ghost town that fell victim neither to the landscape of a coastal town nor to natural disaster, but to the accelerated growth of a major metropolitan area and the infrastructural expansion necessary to accommodate its ever-growing population.

Surfridge was originally developed in 1921 as a beachside community up the hill from what is now Dockweiler State Beach, as part of a post-World War I building boom. Known then as Palisades del Rey, it occupied the southernmost area of Playa del Rey, and was filled with charming homes and palm tree-lined streets. Back then, the only real competition for the land was by other housing developers.

But by the end of the 1920s, despite the Depression, commercial air travel increased and the City of Los Angeles set its sights on 640 acres of land for its new municipal airport, Mines Field - right next to Surfridge.  The airport, a precursor to present-day LAX, opened for business in 1930.

Over the decades that followed, the Los Angeles International Airport became an ever-expanding venture (especially in the 1950s in anticipation of the jet age), and land to be used for additional runways was at a premium. Even though houses continued to be built in Surfridge without restriction into the 1960s, the proximity to increased air traffic caused the area to be designated a Noise Abatement Zone for fear of potential resident hearing loss from the noise of the jets flying overhead. But in truth, it's more likely that Surfridge was the way. LAX claimed eminent domain and bought most of the homeowners out in the 1960s. The buildings owned by those who refused to sell were condemned. Surfridge was vacated, its residents relocated elsewhere.

And then...nothing.

No runways were ever built.

The condemned houses stood vacant, subject to vandalism and forced entry. The area attracted transients, and became an eyesore and a safety hazard.

So, by 1975, nearly everything was bulldozed. And all that remains in the wake of that demolition from 40 years ago is the skeleton of a city: the paved roads and sidewalks, the power lines overhead, the water and sewer lines underground.

I had to go find it.

Surfridge is easy enough to spot, since the entire area is fenced in. Upon arriving, I witnessed a landscaped path that smelled of lavender, and was greeted by a number of LAX-employed landscapers attending to it, smiling at me with their tanned faces from under the shade of their hats.

My hopes of hopping the fence were dashed.

But, as I reminded myself, there is always a way in.

Planes constantly roar overhead, jetting in a dozen different directions at unpredictable intervals.

You can see plenty of the original street paint - white and yellow lines abound - but it is hard to get away from the very secure, recently-installed green chainlink fence.

And, walking around the perimeter, you are constantly subject to the gawking of passing drivers, wondering what you're up to, camera in hand.

The landscapers apparently aren't paying much attention to the palm trees, some of which appear burned out, or shriveled up (like those found in Desert Center).

Barbed wire also lines the entire perimeter, atop the chainlink fence, also discouraging the fence-hopping I would so readily do.

Fortunately, there's plenty to see from the sidewalk, through the fence, as there's really nothing - no buildings, no trees or shrubbery - blocking the view.

But, I thought as I skulked around, there had to be a way in to Surfridge. The fencing appears to have been plopped right on top of an arbitrary boundary, bisecting sidewalks and cutting off the many roads that once led in. Surely there would be a space big enough to crawl through.

Clearly, they really want to keep people out. What inside is left to destroy? (Supposedly the land has become some kind of protected refuge for the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly, which apparently thrives there, though it did not grace me with its appearance.) Right now, it seems like bird wildlife - which humans are prohibited from feeding - pose a greater risk of interfering with air traffic than humans do.

One area of the fence clear on the other side of Surfridge from my starting point is dimpled, perhaps a sign of attempted entry...

...but everywhere else, the fencing is uncut, flush against the ground, nowhere peeled back as it usually is in other abandoned sites.

Foreboding chains and padlocks abounded.

Some remaining police tape remains twisted and knotted around the links...

...while vast stretches of roads traverse more than 470 acres of abandoned land.

Occasionally, you can find a relic conveniently placed outside the fence, but everything - if there's anything - seems to be inside.

And then I came upon Sandpiper Street, which for years was the only street open to traffic through the property. The street is now blocked for motorized vehicles, and forgotten by Google Maps.

But the street sign still stands. And there is no physical obstacle to pedestrian entry, despite the signs that prohibit it.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Related Posts:
The Road to Nowhere


  1. Great post. Many thanks.

  2. Thanks for posting this. That section was a spot I used to go and take pictures in the 90's when one of the streets was not fenced off. there was a great view of the runway at the crest of the hill.

  3. I used to drive down to Sandpiper Street and watch the planes land and take off. It would be great to see some type of development there.

  4. sweet i so want to go there and take some photos

  5. I live a block away and have always died to get inside there just to explore....maybe someday!

  6. So when is 'Part 2' coming, and what are the plans for that? :)This is so cool, I've been researching this for the past 3 hours, I so gotta check it out! Great post!!

    1. You can find my Part 2 blog post here:

  7. I think there are a few inaccuracies but overall a nice piece. Our palm trees lived for several years there but finally succumbed to the lack of water.
    BTW, Sandpiper was originally "Moscow Street" my parents lived in an apartment there in the late 40s.