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A stroll down a historic pier

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A century old, the Santa Monica Pier has an intriguing cast of characters both young and old.

By Andrew Khouri

As the air warms and the daytime extends, the pattering of footsteps on the last remaining amusement pier on the West Coast grows from a steady stream to an outright stampede.

At night, lights emanating from the nine-story Ferris wheel, pier lamps, and other rides glisten off the Pacific Ocean as waves crash onto shore, and couples stroll down the beach.

The pier is a landmark. When one thinks of the beaches in and around Los Angeles, Santa Monica and its storied pier jump to the forefront of the mind.

“I am happy to be here with my husband and see something different,” said Nadia Drayton, who toured the pier on a recent weekend during her vacation from Florida.

Drayton and her husband Ryan said the “activity driven” beach scene has been enjoyable to witness, whether it’s activities on the pier or down below on the sand.

That activity, which today includes an expansive amusement park, an arcade, street performers and more was not always available at the end of Colorado Avenue.

“In 1907, Santa Monica was a popular beach retreat community and as such it was a growing town and part of what was growing was their problem with what to do with their sewage,” said Jim Harris, author of “Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.”

To rectify the problem, the city constructed the Santa Monica Municipal Pier, and ran a pipeline out to sea to dump treated sewage into the ocean.

“It was originally built as public utility, not as the amusement pier you see today,” said Harris, who serves as pier historian and community venue liaison for the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation.

A shorter, wider pier opened alongside the “public utility” in 1917, joining a series of amusement piers that dotted the coast at the time.

The pier is actually a combination of these two structures.

After weathering neglect and attempts to tear it down--both by the Santa Monica City Council and the Pacific--the pier, with its 4 million annual visitors, is as vibrant as ever.

On a recent brisk Saturday night, Javier Perez moved to the beat of a clapping audience. Perez sped up when they sped up; he slowed down when they slowed down.

“I get people involved as well, not just me dancing, not just me doing robotics, I get people laughing as well,” Perez said.

While the pier attracts many performers, it also has its share of long-time residents.

Marlene Gordon, who—along with her family—still owns the Playland Arcade that her father and uncle opened on the pier in the early 1950s, said generations of families come to play her games, which range from modern hits like Guitar Hero to the classic skeeball.

“The beauty of [the arcade] is that when [people] come in here, they have fun,” she said. “Where can you go in life and say: ‘I’m just going to have fun?’”

Gordon said the business has become her “passion,” and today she constantly checks all the games herself to ensure they are in working order.

“If you like it, you’ll be sure the customer will like it,” Gordon said.

Gordon, who grew up around the pier, described the arcade’s location as the “perfect place for me and my family.”

“This place just makes you feel good. You come down to do work and walk out, and feel the fresh air and say ‘God I’m glad I am here.’”

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Hollywood Park | Night at the Museum | Night Golf | Night Productions | Santa Monica Pier | Starry Night | Wig Out

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Background photo by MikeFinkelstein