The invisible rope
Culture Club South Bay erases barriers at Bruce’s Beach
by Mark McDermott and Ryan McDonald
A rope went up on the beach below Bruce’s Lodge on June 23, 1912, the very first Sunday the resort that welcomed Black beachgoers to Manhattan Beach was in operation. Though the man responsible for roping off of the beach was one of the city’s founders, George Peck, the rope itself was hardly just symbolic. It was accompanied by “No Trespassing” signs and deputy constables who told Black beachgoers they could not cross the beach.
The owners of the resort, Charles and Willa Bruce, along with the dozens of guests who’d come to Bruce’s Lodge, responded peacefully, yet resolutely. Black beachgoers walked a half mile, around the ropes, constables and no trespassing signs to get to the water.
“I think they believed in God in the sense that you can love your neighbor,” said Anthony Bruce, the great, great grandson of the Bruces. “They did not have hate in their hearts….Willa and Charles could have lashed out. They had so many opportunities. The best response was to be humble about your circumstances, and try to deal with it as best you can.”
A century later the rope is long gone. Bruce’s Beach has recently earned recognition as a civil rights site, and the descendants of Willa and Charles are on the cusp of having the land where Bruce’s Lodge stood returned to their family by Los Angeles County. Yet the intention of that rope has had a lingering impact. Black beachgoers remain sparse, and Black surfers, though few in number, still sometimes face hostility in Manhattan Beach.
Last year, Allison Hales tried to be part of the political movement seeking change at Bruce’s Beach. Hales, who is Black, was removed from the City of Manhattan Beach Bruce’s Beach Task Force for allegedly intimidating other task force members. But instead of instigating a confrontation, Hales decided to take a more peaceful route. She founded Culture Club South Bay, a volunteer group that hopes to bring a greater sense of inclusion and more diversity to the area, and to do so in a way that is fun for everyone involved.
“There has been so much heaviness around this issue,” said Hales, who lived across the street from Bruce’s Beach park for three years, but is originally from London and later lived in New York City. “At the time, at the beginning of the pandemic and going right into the racial unrest around the country, everything was just so heavy. And then being in Manhattan Beach, but coming from such a diverse background, I just really felt it personally just being one of the only people of color in my area, and not having access to the same cultural diversity that I would have prior to the pandemic. So that was a shift for me. I wanted to do something that was uplifting.”
She founded the South Bay Culture Club, which held a sound healing ceremony in Bruce’s Beach Park last May, and over the past four Saturday’s launched a youth engagement program at the beach below the park, bringing kids from different backgrounds to Manhattan Beach to learn how to surf, play beach volleyball, and meet kids who live here. The lack of diversity locally is a two way street, Hales notes — knowing people from other cultures is enriching for both the kids who visit and for those who live here.
“It is not to make a judgment on Manhattan Beach…but it happens to be that in this area, in the Sand Section, there is less than 1 percent of Black and brown people in that section,” Hales said. “That is just a fact. And it’s not that I am trying to figure out a way to change it, because that is not something I can do. But what we can do is something really simple.”
The idea is to bring kids together. The Culture Club brings 24 kids each week, and they are met not only by surf instructors and volleyball coaches, but by local kids who welcome them to the beach.
“This includes the beach community, because they are paramount to the success of the program,” Hales said. “Everyone gets to meet different cultures, because it’s not a field trip to see how the wealthy live at the beach. It’s inclusion. They build relationships. It’s bridging the gap between that feeling, that uncomfortability factor. It’s also healing. If we are going to be human about this, if you are only around a certain culture, a certain race, a certain type of food, and you don’t get exposed to anything else…There is going to be a barrier. That is only natural.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn’s office helped put out the word in communities not far from the beach. but far enough that a lot of their kids rarely, if ever visit, much less surf or play beach volleyball. More than 250 out of area parents applied on behalf of their kids within 48 hours. The kids came from Hawthorne, Lawndale, Torrance, Gardena, and other nearby communities. Despite the proximity, many had never been in the ocean before.
Hahn said this program had special significance for her because of its location.
“I learned to swim in the ocean at El Porto just a few blocks away from Bruce’s Beach,” she said. “It was such a special part of my childhood, but too many kids in LA County don’t have the same opportunities I did. The Culture Club beach program is an impressive and intentional effort to get more kids access to our beaches and, all the fun that they can provide.”
When the kids arrived two Saturday morning’s ago, dense morning fog shrouded the surf as Ohana Surf volunteers laid out soft top boards. By 8:15 a.m., as the first lesson got under way, the fog lifted and eventually gave way to the brilliant sunshine and mellow offshores that characterize early October in Manhattan Beach.
Speakers played an unending series of “Beach Boys” tunes. Wetsuits hung from pop-ups in the sand. Gray Ohana rash guards were given out to both volunteers and kids. Bagels, coffee and snacks stacked on folding tables provided sustenance for kids and volunteers. “Exhausting,” said one Ohana volunteer with a broad smile, huffing and puffing as he returned from giving lessons. “Those kids have so much energy.”
Each budding surfer was paired with an instructor. Lessons began with an initial consult on the sand. Ohana Surf Club founder Billy Corvalan began by going over a bit of surfing lingo: “nose” and “tail” for the front and back of a board, “deck” and “rails” for the top and sides.Then the pair ventured into the surf. They began by riding the crumbling “white wash” of waves that had already broken. The kids usually remained prone, on their bellies, to get a feel for the wave energy. Gradually, they would get to their knees, then advance to standing up. Instructors would push the kids into waves, then lie on the board’s tail to provide stability once the board got going. Some students began paddling into waves on their own, the instructors remaining close enough to hoot encouragement, like “Ride of the day!”
This was the progression for Kanice Davis and Sai Knoten, both 9, and enjoying their first day of surfing. Knoten said the tips instructors provided helped her feel more comfortable amid breaking waves. By the end of their session, both were begging instructors for more time on their boards.
“I like going fast,” Davis said. “The worst part was that we didn’t get to see any whales.”
To make sure each kid was paired with an instructor, groups broken up by age, rotated in, and out of surf lessons. Meklit Lealem, Immanuel Lealem, and Brandon Moore passed the time before their session at a volleyball station sponsored by the AVP.
The three had been to the Culture Club surfing event the previous weekend, which marked their first experience surfing.
“It was hard to get up at first, but it got easier,” Immanuel said.
The enormous joy surfing can bring sometimes remains hidden by its difficulty and the unpredictability of the ocean. Having a designated instructor made it easier to catch waves, and the rush of a ride overwhelmed their fears. Moore said he could feel himself progressing.
“It was kinda scary at first,” Moore said. “But then it was fun.”
“It made me feel happy,” Meklit added. “But I still fell a lot.”
Hales recalled that two girls the previous week had expressed something similar.
“A couple of kids had never been in the water before. One was an Ethiopian young lady,” Hales said. “Billy and the Ohana crew were just incredible…Just the smiles on kids’ faces. And this other Hisplanic young lady, she said she hated all other sports, and she had finally found the one.”
“She actually stood up and rode on her own,” Corvalan said. “She had her arms raised in the air. It was so cool.”
Corvalan remembers a different set of barriers to the ocean when he was growing up on Long Island. Good waves were infrequent so when they came, older surfers weren’t thrilled by the presence of groms.
“We had a pretty gnarly sort of local crew, and they were not the nicest,” Corvalan said.
Hales said that after she founded the Culture Club, Corvalan was one of the first people to offer help. Like a lot of people, the pandemic had really hit home for Corvalan, as had the awakening about Bruce’s Beach history. He’d lost work because of the pandemic, and his 12 year old son, Ben, lost a year of Junior Guards, so he’d decided to expand Ohana Surf Club. Ohana means “family” in Hawaian, and his intention in joining forces with the Culture Club was exactly that — to expand his son and his son’s buddies’ sense of family by having them help bring other kids to the ocean.
Watching his son help a little boy catch his first wave helped make the world feel just a little bit more hopeful for Corvalan on that first Saturday morning.
“It was such a cool experience,” he said. “Just to see the smile on their faces. It was incredibly rewarding.”
Trevor Verbiest, a senior at Mira Costa High School and a lead volunteer with the program, got involved because his brother, Justin, was passionate about the issue of Bruce’s Beach and became a key organizer for the Culture Club. Verbiest said the experience of the last four weekends changed him.
“It was a celebration of diversity, inclusion, and friendship,” Verbiest. “It’s really fun to build relationships with a group of kids I’ve never met before. Most of them have never surfed before. So the best part of the experience was seeing their reactions, like standing up on a wave and just being so excited. I mean, they just have a huge smile across their entire face, from ear to ear. It’s just been a good experience for me and definitely changed my outlook on kids at the beach — It’s such a normal thing for me and my friends, the beach is right next to us. But for these kids it has been like the only four times they have been to the beach. It’s crazy.”
One of the big takeaways, Verbiest said, was how much in common Culture Club kids had with local kids. “At the end of the day, they’re all just kids who want to have fun.”
Each Saturday morning, the kids would rotate between surfing and playing beach volleyball (as well as a few other games, such as dodgeball). Alexis Courmier, a club volleyball coach who, with the help of AVP stars Zana Muno, Falyn Fonoimoana, and Corrine Quibble, taught the kids beach volleyball, said few had much interest in beach volleyball when they first arrived at the beach.
“The first week no one wanted to play beach volleyball,” Courmier said. “They were like, ‘Volleyball? Can we get in the water?’ I would say, ‘Serve,’ and they thought I said ‘Surf.’ ‘No, serve the ball.’ But by the end they were running over to my court excited to play volleyball. Even if they were not the greatest at it, they were learning the basics and just having fun.”
Courmier, who is Black and grew up in Fresno, far from the beach, said that she’s taught diverse kids while coaching club volleyball, but that there is a big difference — those kids come from more privileged backgrounds. She’d always dreamed of coaching kids who didn’t have access to beach volleyball.
“We work with a lot of diverse groups of kids, but they have money,” she said. “So it’s a different experience; they get exposure that other kids don’t get. And so this has been a gem to my heart, because I didn’t have that exposure growing up.”
Another barrier for a lot of kids was simply having no access to beach culture. Locally, kids grow up knowing that beach volleyball is a part of beach life, but for those who show up to the beach from another community, the volleyball courts aren’t a place just to hop into a game. And learning how to surf isn’t something that happens even a few miles inland.
“Cost is a factor,” she said. “A lot of people don’t do stuff because of money, and a lot of people don’t do stuff because they’re not familiar with it. I mean, there’s a lot of obstacles that people aren’t aware of and that is why kids five miles down the road have never been to the beach. So this is very special.”
Culture Club South Bay also made it a point to have some coaches and instructors who were people of color.
“That was important to us,” she said. “We wanted the kids to know that everybody, every color, plays a sport — every color surfs, every color plays beach volleyball. That’s why we have Black surf instructors and Black volleyball instructors…That’s an important part of the story, too, to let kids know there are leaders in these positions and that there is diversity in sports.”
After a morning of surfing and volleyball, the kids were served meals by Lenora Marouani, who along with her husband Adnen own Barsha restaurant, which specializes in Tunisian-inspired food. “This was in perfect alignment for the kids to be fed and learn the history of different cultural foods and culinary skills at the same time,” Hales said.
She said the location of the Culture Club’s first youth engagement program, at the 26th Street tower, was deliberate. It was meant to honor Willa and Charles Bruce.
“It is a historical, special site, and so it was very important to pay homage to the pioneership of Willa and Charles Bruce, and keep their legacy alive in a way that is independent from the land,” Hales said.
On the Saturday afternoon, after the program’s second week, she received a text message from one of the kids’ parents that showed how a different sort of history was being written.
“Thank you so much for another wonderful Saturday,” the parent wrote. “On the way home, Kexin said to me, ‘Mommy, I wish we can have this program every Saturday. I love it.’ I think that tells everything…We are part of the Culture Club South Bay family and community now. Thank you so much. And see you next week.”
See CultureClubSB for more information or to sign up to participate. The club intends to expand its programs next spring. ER