Ryan McDonald

Plan for slackline park on Hermosa sand sinks amid stiff opposition

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A slackliner finds his balance on a temporary line set up on the beach near 22nd Street in Hermosa. Photo by Ron Siegel

by Ryan McDonald

The fate of slacklining in Hermosa Beach may have been sealed with a coincidental appearance from a pair of internet comedians. At its April 3 meeting, Hermosa’s Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Advisory Board had been set to discuss a proposal for a park on the beach for slacklining, a growing but still niche sport that involves balancing on a length of webbing tied to two fixed points and suspended in the air. But several commissioners couldn’t make it, and the meeting was cancelled at the last minute due to lack of a quorum. The city announced that issues scheduled for April would be taken up at the commission’s May meeting.

Word did not reach everyone interested. On April 30, Hermosa’s City Council held a study session about the fiscal year’s capital improvement program. With an agenda heavy on data-laden presentations and no votes to be taken, it would not have been surprising for the meeting to draw zero interest from the public. But a dozen so attendees lingered near the entrance to the council chambers, many of them young and with a fresh-from-the-beach appearance, a contrast to the accumulated years and commute-harried air of most people who address South Bay city councils. Several of them were slackliners and evident newcomers to local government, who had not known to look at the meeting’s agenda and see that it contained nothing about slacklining, and that therefore no action on the sport could be taken.

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Appropriate forum or not, though, they had shown up, and petitioned their government.

Slacklining is “a really cool way to move your body, and do a moving meditation,” said Hermosa resident Aiden Blood, and he hoped the council would consider a park proposal soon.

The slackliners, however, were not the only sun-kissed speakers that night. They were preceded by two people identified by the acting city clerk as Chad Kroeger and J.T. Parr. “What up, council?” Kroeger began. Wearing a pink Hawaiian shirt, he urged Hermosa to rename the “Edward C. Little Water Center” the “Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ Water Center.” (The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility, in El Segundo, is operated by the West Basin Municipal Water District.) Parr followed with multiple verses, sung with conviction if slightly out of key, of “Toxic,” Spears’ 2003 hit about corrosive lust.

“Kroeger” and “Parr” are alter-egos for two webcomics who have gained a measure of fame by appearing at local government meetings throughout Southern California, where they provide public comment advocating for the needs of the vacuous uber-bros that they play with Colbert-esque commitment. They have spoken in Los Angeles against restrictions on house parties in the Hollywood Hills, and in Manhattan Beach in favor of creating an “extra Fourth of July.” The fact that they chose to appear in Hermosa at a public works study session, and that slackliners mistakenly thought that the same study session was the meeting when a slackline park would be addressed, was a coincidence. But, blur your eyes, and there is some resemblance between the characters of Parr and Kroeger and the real people there to talk about slacklining.

“Me and my buddy were on a road trip and out of nowhere, he’s like, ‘Let’s go to Utah, let’s stand on this Highline that’s 500 feet in the air,’” a slackliner named Jeremy told the council, his cadence, and intonation not far from that of Jeff Spicoli. “And I’m like, ‘Holy Crap, that’s insane!’ And I did it and I’m so much more stoked on everything that I do in life now.” 

The coincidence was an unfortunate one for slackliners. The still-emerging sport has yet to shake off its “Far out, man” reputation, and the whiff of counterculture has slowed its integration into civic culture. In Hermosa, slackliners have struggled to prove that their passion is worthy of the attention given by the city, let alone the investment of resources that a park on the beach would require.

The slackliners eventually got their own day before the parks and rec commission: two of them, in fact. At a meeting earlier this month and another one in May, an outpouring of residents helped sink proposals for beach slackline parks in various locations throughout town. The small number of those in support of slacklining, with none at all showing up at the most recent meeting, lent the gatherings the feel of a pointless exercise, put-out property owners defending themselves against obvious lunacy.

But as it is easy to lump slackliners in with the stereotypes acted out by Kroeger and Parr, there has also been something grotesque about Hermosans’ reaction to the park proposals. Whether or not a slackline park on the beach in Hermosa is a good idea — and there are reasons to think it is not — the proposal has brought out a venomous, reactionary edge in the Best Little Beach City.

Peter Nolan said the park would attract nothing but “hipsters who want to come down here and play on the slackline and smoke dope.” Wanda Johnston said that Hermosa’s sand is already too crowded, and that currently “children can’t play on the beach for fear of whatever.” And Rob Kole said that slackliners gathered on the beach would be the latest in a stream of out-of-towners increasing the risk of criminal activity.

Brian Topolosky at the Original Muscle Beach Slackline Park in Santa Monica. Photo by Ryan McDonald

“The three houses closest to me have been burglarized. The wide opinion is that they were burglarized by people who were working construction sites that had an inconspicuous spot to sit and watch the activity, and see when cars go in and out. I don’t want people being able to sit in front of my house, watch when my wife pulls in, watch when she pulls away, watch when I go to work,” Kole said.

Nolan, Johnston, and Kole live on The Strand. Everyone who spoke against the proposal lives either on The Strand or within a block of it, and several speakers own multiple beachside properties; one opponent owns five. This is in part a reflection of who knew about the meeting. Under city noticing rules, people receive mailers about upcoming meetings based on the proximity of their address to projects being considered. And many said that, based on conversations with other Hermosans, had more residents been notified, opposition would have stretched eastward for blocks and blocks. 

Resident and slackliner Ron Siegel sees another factor at work. Though it was his proposal that was being debated in August, he did not show up. Some speakers accused him of being intimidated by the overwhelming opposition. Reached for comment, Siegel said that he was returning home from his father’s funeral on the day of the meeting. But he could clearly anticipate the kinds of arguments he would be facing. 

“The last thing I want to do is come home and argue with a bunch of millionaires who think they own the public beach,” Siegel said in an email.

Whose line is it?

Most slacklining origin stories have it that the sport grew out of rockclimbing culture. Slackademics, an exhaustively detailed slacklining website, contains a 2018 interview with Scott Balcom, who rose to fame by walking across a line strung at Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite Valley in 1985. Balcom said he and others were inspired by walking across chains in a Yosemite parking lot. But he also connected slacklining to an older tradition of circus performers, updated and accessible for the 20th century.

“And the real thing about slacklining is that it broke down the barrier — you could have your own circus. You could do it yourself,” Balcom said. 

Hermosa resident Janna Wenz said that she began slacklining about three years ago. She saw some people who had rigged up a line and asked if she could give it a try. They were happy to accommodate, she said, and she was taken by their friendliness.

These days, Wenz and a group of friends meet up and attach slacklines to Hermosa Pier pilings. She said they have not been hassled while practicing, and that most of the people who approach them are curious and want to give it a try. She said she helped Siegel gather signatures to demonstrate support for a park, and has a hard time understanding why people are so opposed to it.

“It’s definitely frustrating to have people get mad about you wanting to be outside,” Wenz said.

Along with evaluating plans for a dedicated place for slacklining, the city is also grappling with how to apply its municipal code to the new sport. In an email exchange in the summer of 2018, Bob Rollins, a Hermosa code enforcement official, wrote to Siegel that there were three sections of Hermosa’s municipal code relevant to slacklining: a restriction against “playing any game” except in a space set aside for that purpose; a requirement that “outdoor fitness classes” receive permits; and a prohibition on damaging trees and fixtures belonging to the city. At the time, Rollins said that the city’s Public Works Department and City Attorney’s office had concluded that slacklining was “not allowed on Hermosa Beach city property.”

But at the August meeting staff seemed less confident that existing law could be used to prohibit slacklining. Community Resources Manager Kelly Orta said that the code was “not 100 percent explicit.”

“Although it seems explicit here and we thought that it was, since code enforcement has started, I would say in the past year or two when we’ve seen an uptick in slacklining, since they’ve started enforcing this, there have been questions,” Orta said.

Orta did not have precise figures available, but said that there had been at least one citation given out recently to slackliners at the beach, and others in parks. The uncertainty, however, may have prompted a temporary pause in issuing citations. On the 4th of July, Hermosa resident Sean McKnee received a warning for slacklining at Noble Park. Siegel was issued a warning for slacklining on the beach at 22nd Street the same day.

It is fair to question the wisdom of erecting taut, space-consuming lines on the busiest and most booze-soaked day of the year for Hermosa’s beaches. And even on non-holidays, the lines compete for space with lanes needed for lifeguard trucks. But neither Siegel or anyone else has submitted a formal proposal for a facility inside one of the city’s parks. The slacklining community is tilting toward the beach and away from parks, out of a desire for more cushioned falls over sand rather than grass.

Troy Hollebeke balances on a slackline at Noble Park. Slackliners prefer practicing on the beach over parks, because falling on sand is gentler than on grass. Photo by Kevin Cody

That includes Max Gordon, an avid slackliner who said he once broke his arm in a fall while slacklining over grass, and is more confident practicing over-sand. Gordon is now an undergrad at the University of Denver, but he grew up in Manhattan Beach, and still spends summers and breaks here. He has been slacklining for about four years, and began when a friend’s father purchased the equipment at REI. Gordon grew up playing team sports, and found that slacklining offered him something different. There are lessons to be learned, he said, from an activity in which each step can be frustratingly slow.

“I felt like I had a hard time reaching my maximum potential. With slacklining, I found a mind-state and was able to really propel myself to get better,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s injuries may also be part of a trend. Dr. Carol Frey, who has a sports medicine practice in Manhattan and owns two homes on The Strand near the locations of proposed slackline parks, said her practice has seen an uptick in slacklining injuries as the sport has grown in popularity, including both those new to the activity, and seasoned veterans pushing themselves too far. She said that she has treated broken wrists, broken arms, and even a broken jaw, and pointed to a page on her clinic’s website talking about the increase. Like other opponents, Frey speculated that injuries stemming from installing a slackline park could lead to massive liability for Hermosa.

“It’s a pretty hazardous sport,” she said.

However, the risk inherent in slacklining could ironically be the very thing that limits cities’ exposure to litigation. Under California law, public entities and their employees are immune from liability over injuries sustained in the course of “hazardous recreational activity.” The law defines “hazardous recreational activity” as one that creates a substantial risk of injury, to a participant or spectator, and goes on to provide a list with many examples, including “rocketeering,” spelunking and “tree rope swinging.”

Slacklining is not specifically mentioned, but the statute makes clear that the list is not meant to be exhaustive. And it is frequently updated to reflect the evolving obsessions of active Californians. Scuba diving, for example, was added in 2010. The law’s most recent amendment, in 2016, generated a response in Hermosa, when the legislature added scooters to the types of craft covered by municipal immunity for operating a skatepark. 

Delinquent activities

Construction on the Hermosa skate park finished in late May of 1999, but Mike Flaherty, who was the city’s public works superintendent, said the cement needed a few weeks to cure. The city set an opening date of June 18. But skateboarders were so eager to tackle the rails and ramps, that they began sneaking in before the park’s debut, forcing the city to hire round-the-clock security.

When the big day finally came, the skatepark — or “skate track” as it was called at the time — was mobbed. Police officers turned away dozens who showed up without pads and helmets. Four days after the park opened, a 24-year-old man, skateboard in hand, was hit by a car while jaywalking across Pier Avenue to get to the skatepark. Even elected officials got in on the act: Sam Edgerton, then on the City Council, broke both arms while riding a skateboard to the park ribbon cutting.

Skateboarding’s rise in popularity and marketability obscures the years in which it was scorned and criminalized. Although he voted against the recent slacklining proposal, Parks and Rec Commissioner Jani Lange brought up the example of the skate park, and said that Hermosa’s history of supporting alternative sports should not be disregarded.

“This is a town that was home for surfing, volleyball, skateboarding, all of which were once delinquent activities. And now they’re world-renowned, billion-dollar industries, and we can call them ours,” Lange said 

Hermosa resident Robert Aronoff is a former parks and rec commissioner, and served on the subcommittee responsible for shepherding the park to completion. He said the idea of a skate park had been circulating in various forms for years, and that, as with slacklining, people found fault with every location proposed. Aronoff recalled that Roger Bacon, the longtime owner of the shopping center at the northeast corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Aviation Boulevard who died earlier this year, volunteered to donate $1,000 to the project so long as it was not constructed near his property. Eventually, a charismatic gaggle of children presented the city council with hundreds of signatures calling for a skatepark. The council assigned the project to parks and rec. Aronoff said that others on the commission were initially opposed to the construction of a park. But eventually, they changed their minds.

“I started calling for hearings to talk about it. In the end, what happened was, it had momentum,” he said.

Momentum is what slackliners have struggled to show. Aronoff supports Siegel’s push for a slackline park, but concedes that the sport is far less popular than skateboarding was at the time people began seeking a skatepark.  

In recent years, commissioners have grappled with proposals to expand the number of volleyball courts on the beach, convert tennis courts to pickleball courts, and allow a series of beach tennis courts near 15th Street. Each of these had proponents and objectors, and commissioners, sensitive to the commission’s mission of encouraging recreation in the city’s public spaces but wary of backlash, seemed to find no better metric to rely on than public perception. The commission shot down plans to add more than a dozen new volleyball courts south of the pier. But years of lobbying and multiple appearances at meetings eventually helped pickleballers and beach tennis players find a home.

As with the other proposals, the slackline plan called for the installation of new infrastructure on city property. Resident Kent Burton wrote to the commission that he and several friends have been playing volleyball on the courts between 24th and 26th streets — one of the two locations under consideration in August by the commission — for more than 30 years. That location has volleyball posts but no permanent netting, which Burton and his friends tie and untie each time they play. Approving the slackline park, he said, threatened both their volleyball home and the way Hermosans have used the beach for decades.

“This seems to be the way that Hermosa’s beach has been enjoyed going back to 1907. People bring their toys, enjoy the beach, and leave, taking their toys home and leaving the beach the natural wonder that it deserves to remain,” Burton wrote.

But what Burton describes — bringing a length of netting to the sand that would be tied to permanent posts, and then removed when finished — is what would happen at the proposed slackline park. Though not made clear in the staff report, Siegel said that nothing in his proposal called for permanently installed lines. Rather, they had proposed sinking several permanent posts into the sand, leaving slackliners to bring and take down the netting.

Erecting the posts, though, would not come without costs. It would likely mean the loss of at least some volleyball courts. And City Manager Suja Lowenthal said that installing the posts, even without webbing stretching between them, would require a permit from the California Coastal Commission. 

Burton and others also raise an even harder-to-answer question: Just how far should Hermosa’s tradition of supporting alternative recreation go? Many questioned why the commission was devoting any time to the proposal at all, and wondered whether a request for, say, an amusement park on the beach could get a hearing.

In an email, Orta said that the commission receives resident requests for the installation of “any recreational facility or attraction,” and that, if a majority of commissioners support formal discussion, then city staff will analyze the proposal and agendize it for a future meeting. Siegel’s application was submitted on a form used to request the installation of a volleyball court, but the city is working on a “generic application” for future requests, Orta wrote.

Parks and conservation

For much of the nation’s history, the pairing of “parks” and “recreation” would have been an odd one. Until about a century ago, to the extent that public entities got involved with parks, they acquired land and then did nothing with it. Encouraged by philanthropists, some of whom gifted tracts of land to government, the “conservation” philosophy of parks held sway through the Progressive Era. Under this vision, parks were places set aside against the encroaching — and presumptively corrupting — influence of cities; the idea of recreating some semblance of city life inside them by building permanent infrastructure was anathema to these park boosters.

The idea of interspersing recreational facilities in larger, publicly owned open space started to take hold in the 1920s, thanks in part to Robert Moses, the imperious Master Builder of New York. As Moses biographer Robert Caro relates in “The Power Broker,” Moses’ plan for the New York State Park System, issued in 1922 and revised in 1924, was revolutionary in its calls for baseball diamonds, tennis courts, public golf courses and more. “Conservation,” Moses wrote, had to be combined with “recreation.” But it quickly became clear that these two uses were not easy to harmonize. “Peace and quiet and solitude were in general obtainable only at a far remove from the shouts and frantic activity of the playing field,” Caro wrote.

And as soon as parks became about recreation, they also became about class. The combination of parks and recreation was the result of societal transformations that allowed the working poor access to leisure. And pleas for conservation of open space increasingly came from the upper classes aiming to keep out the “rabble.” The choicest slices of nature were often adjacent to the estates of the wealthiest — Moses rerouted an expressway, intended to carry people to state beaches on Long Island, by several miles in order to keep it away from a mansion belonging to Otto Kahn, the mustachioed financier who some believe was the inspiration for the Monopoly Man — and by the time government got around to creating recreational facilities, it had become challenging to access them. 

It is not a straight line from the estates of the robber barons to Strand home in Hermosa Beach. Slacklining is a challenging issue because both sides claim to be fighting for the beach. And they are doing so at a time in which access is far easier than it once was. According to the Los Angeles County Lifeguards, 50 million people visited the county’s beaches over the course of 2018; those of the South Bay are among the most popular. The issue is instead another example of Hermosa trying to suss out what kind of town it wants to be, and doing so over its most sacred terrain.

The Original Muscle Beach Slackline Park lies a few blocks south of the Pacific Park Pier in Santa Monica. The surrounding area is unlike anything found in Hermosa, or the rest of the South Bay. The park is centered on a broad swath of sand on the east side of the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, meaning that slackliners are kept apart from those playing volleyball, sunbathing or waxing up surfboards. It also abuts a bustling commercial zone, with dense development and some buildings reaching 10 stories high. There are several large parking garages, and the area is served by buses and a light-rail line. 

Despite the name, the majority of the structures at the Santa Monica park are dedicated to vaguely acrobatic activities other than slacklining. Most notable is a series of metal poles, bent into semi-circles and aligned to resemble the rib cage of an enormous whale, that rise perhaps 20 feet in the air and support dangling chains fitted with rings at the bottom; people swing among them as if they were jungle vines. Farther north, people huddled around a set of parallel bars engage in what looks like a cross between gymnastics and break dancing. The overall vibe is more playground than gym and, indeed, children generally take to slacklining far more quickly than adults.

The slacklining infrastructure consists of a series of polls of varying heights, scattered across the sand. Slackliners bring their own rigging, and take it down when they leave. Last Saturday afternoon, there were three lines supported by five posts — one post was doing double duty — and a dozen or so people took turns trying out the lines in between rests under umbrellas. Some were friends, but at times a person would ride up on the bike path and, evidently not knowing anyone, ask if they could give the line a try. 

One of the lines had been put up by Santa Monica resident Brian Topolosky. Topolosky has been slacklining for about three years, and said he comes by the park almost everyday. Told about opposition from residents in Hermosa, Topolosky groaned. “Let me guess,” he said. “They’re worried about druggies and the homeless?”

He said he was used to the stereotypes, and brushed them off as the inevitable growing pains of a new idea taking root. He pointed to families enjoying the park, and said more would come as the day got cooler.

Topolosky had relatives in town and was introducing them to the sport. He had put up a relatively loose line, which he said is better for beginners because it leaves them closer to the ground. Just to the east, a taut line, meant for “tricklining” was hung about five feet above the sand. Slackliner Alex Johnson was using it to demonstrate slack surfing, standing with his feet perpendicular to the line and using his hips to swing back and forth, like a surfer carving a wave. To the north, another group had hung a line that was just 0.6 inches thick.

Topolosky said that the variety of lines available meant that slacklining could accommodate different styles. Perhaps hopeful that the sport will shed its reputation, Topolosky crafted a metaphor about how the tension on lines could be adjusted to fit the mood and personality of the person trying to find balance.

“The best way I can describe it is like a guitar: each string has its own vibration,” Topolosky said.

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