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Not one but two signs on San Elijo Avenue inform visitors — and locals — that they’ve arrived in Cardiff. The first and more prominent stands before a group of low-lying palms, the fronds cut back gracefully from the sign’s façade. “Cardiff by the Sea,” boasts the sign in bold script, “Founded 1911.” On it, a wave turns, creating the surfer’s perfect tube, flanked by pink primroses. A moon hangs over the d, ambiguous in that it could be rising or setting, greeting morning or evening traveler alike.

The other, much older sign is tucked behind succulents, part of a narrow park that separates two blocks of San Elijo Avenue from the train tracks and traffic on South Coast Highway 101. Made by local schoolchildren, the sign is weathered, its edges scalloped from wear or amateur carpentry, the letters carved into the wood and stained an off blue. It is pockmarked and slightly makeshift.

And therein lies the dichotomy that characterizes Cardiff-by-the-Sea, or Cardiff for short. The town is a mix of old and young, natives and newcomers, residents and visitors. Graying men with ZZ Top beards duck in and out of Beach City Burrito as gaggles of high school girls in dark makeup chat in the parking lot, boys looking on. Granola couples traipse across the Coaster tracks from the San Elijo State Beach campground to grab what they need from the Seaside Market or 7-Eleven, bikes slung across their shoulders, as wet-suited locals pass them by on their way to the beach, surfboards under their arms. Barefoot preteens sit outside the Starbucks, decked out in skater couture, clutching their cell phones, as a homeless man in Coke-bottle glasses sits under the shopping center directory, babbling to himself. Even the residences, closely spaced, bear striking differences. Boxy, pastel-colored seaside cottages sit beside three-story concrete postmodern manses featuring turrets and sweeping entrances. Glass brick abounds on one corner, clapboard on the other. Everyone seems to have a place in Cardiff. It's a laid-back kind of town.

In the four-block business district on the east side of San Elijo Avenue, any and all needs can be met, be they a new body piercing or a quart of milk. East of the avenue on a steep hill leading heavenwards is the residential area of Cardiff. Narrow backcountry roads wind as the altitude increases, the beach visible as a strip of blue, dotted with palms and the bobbing heads of surfers. The air is cool, the smell of salt and kelp rising up from the ocean.

The Cardiff story starts in Ohio, as Irene Kratzer details on the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce website. According to Kratzer, the Mackinnon family--Mom, Dad, and three little ones--caught the western bug in 1875 and set their sights on California. Though not credited as the founders of Cardiff, the Mackinnons setting up a farm, orchard, and school on their 600 acres.

Not so hot on their heels came a Bostonian named J. Frank Cullen, a painter by trade, who showed up in 1910 fresh from the East Coast. A year after his arrival, his artistic desires waned and he turned to a more lucrative field: real estate. Sensing the allure of a seaside town, he bought the Mackinnons' farm and got to work selling off parcels. And the name? At his wife's behest, Cullen dubbed it Cardiff for Mrs. Cullen's home in Wales, and he named the streets after British towns: Edinburgh Avenue, Dublin Drive, Manchester Avenue. Kratzer speculates that some years later a German musician named Victor Kremer may have added "by-the-Sea" to the name, taking it from the song "By the Beautiful Sea."

However small, Cardiff-by-the-Sea has everything a resident might need. The town boasts a dentist, a slew of chiropractors, several restaurants ranging in price and menu selection, a gourmet supermarket, a surf shop, a tattoo parlor, two bars, and a Starbucks.

Cardiff has its own zip code, 92007, unlike the other four towns that make up Encinitas. "We incorporated 20 years ago," explains Barbara Cobb, president of the Cardiff Town Council, as she leans against the pool table in her home. "See, we were all under the county, which means if we wanted to talk to an elected official, we had to go downtown. And so we decided to incorporate, which is not easy. I say it lightly, but it took a lot. There was Cardiff, Leucadia, New Encinitas, Old Encinitas, and Olivenhain. There were five communities. We incorporated together, and the name that seemed to be acceptable was Encinitas, as long as we each kept our own identity. And we've done pretty much that.

"We each have a town council," Cobb continues, meaning one for each community, "but we work on a lot of the same projects because we're lobbying the council to do things for our individual cities that we want them to do." The Cardiff Town Council is "a voice for the residents of Cardiff" inasmuch as its six directors speak in front of the Encinitas City Council on issues that Cardiff residents feel need addressing.

Teresa Barth, a longtime Cardiff resident, is a newly elected member of the Encinitas City Council. Her win came as a double triumph. "Cardiff hasn't had a member of their community on city council for some time," says Barth. Barth, whose family has a history of involvement in local politics, retired from her job at the Del Mar Racetrack three years ago. With a grassroots campaign that cost her a good 30 grand less than that of her best-funded competitor, she and her family--not to mention the town--were surprised at her victory.

The Cardiff Town Council was formed in 1977 by a fierce Cardiff activist named Pat Rudolph, who was, for her efforts, nicknamed "Mother Cardiff." Such a champion of the town was she that once, enraged by a cut in city council funds for Cardiff, she threatened to sit atop the town's flagpole in protest, which, with the aid of a cherry picker, she did for about 15 minutes. At the time, she was nearing retirement age.

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