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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.

Barbara Cobb, the current town council president, spends much of her time keeping everyone up to date. "Membership consists of about 500 people, so I answer to them," Cobb says. "I put out a newsletter. I try to do one every other month, but I also have everybody on e-mail so that when the city sends out notices--and they do it all the time; they send us notices for the Planning Commission projects or anything that's happening--I just forward them on to the membership so they know what's going on."

Since the Mother Cardiff days, the town council has been instrumental in getting Cardiff recognition. One of their biggest efforts, to have "Cardiff-by-the-Sea" listed under the Birmingham Drive exit sign on Interstate 5, which required lobbying and negotiating with Caltrans, ended in triumph.

While the town council champions residential issues, the chamber of commerce has focused its efforts on community events that generate revenue for the town, especially the schools. "For ten years, we put on the Hansen-Machado Surf Classic," says Barth. "We did it as a community fund-raiser. Some funds went to the chamber to do other things, but also we would give money to the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, to Surfrider Foundation. We sold chili at the Halloween carnival and things like that, which made us more of a 'Main Street' than a chamber of commerce."

Cardiff is still working to start its own Main Street program, a nationwide approach to rejuvenate traditional business districts. "It's about enhancing the community as it is," Barth explains. "It's not a redevelopment idea where, you know, you level everything and start over. Things do change, like the Seaside Market area renovated and changed the fade, and it's much more contemporary than it used to be, but the essence of the shopping center is still there. It's still a grocery store. It's still a community-based retail area, and Main Street programs work on that theory."

Yet despite the efforts to keep Cardiff the way it always has been--with a bit of a facelift--there's still more than a murmur of discord. Rick Mildner, owner of Seaside Upholstery ("since 1973"), has been in town for 31 years, ever since he "set [his] Volkswagen van right across the street," on Chesterfield Drive, just off the main drag of San Elijo Avenue. "They're tearing down all the old houses and putting up new ones," he laments. "The quaint little Cardiff community is turning into the Newport Beach-wannabe, look-alike community, you know? 'Cause people are coming here now, like, in droves." His building is one of the oldest in Cardiff. The shop walls are covered with posters and photos and trinkets accumulated over the years, many of them documenting life and times in Cardiff. Most of them feature surfers. Yellowing flyers advertise local events; a Dick Dale concert advertisement peeks out from behind a mounted fish head.

"They build all these houses, but they still have the same sewer system," he points out. "They're building millions of houses. What's gonna happen in the first earthquake? The water...it's a desert, you know? How much can they be allowed to build before they figure out the sewage and all this stuff and stop polluting the ocean with all the newcomers? It was polluted when there was just a handful of people, and now it's really worse." He shakes his head. "They're sure building and knocking down everything, and they're wrecking what they came for."

Others agree. "Now it's just crowds of people out there," remarks Billy, a local musician, cradling his guitar in one hand as he points across the parking lot toward the ocean. He and his friends have gathered at VG Donut, a local hangout on San Elijo Avenue, to jam, which they do between conversations. Lisa (not her real name), an old friend of Billy's who has stopped by VG on her way home, nods in agreement. "They should spay and neuter," she says with a wicked smile, then softens. "Cardiff was a great place to grow up," she says. "VG was open all night, and we'd come down here--we'd all be stoned--and buy doughnuts. Anytime. Day or night. It was grand." She deepens her voice and branches into a faux-English accent. "It was grand," she repeats.

Billy continues where she left off, walking his own memory lane. "That park wasn't even there," he says, indicating the strip of planted greenery separating the town from Highway 101. "We could just walk our surfboards right straight down to 85-60s, and there was nobody out there." Billy has been in Cardiff since 1964, or "before the freeway," as he says. Mildner defines his tenure in Cardiff the same way. "When they first built it, we were wondering, 'Why'd they build this thing? We don't need this big freeway!'" he exclaims, then pauses. "We used to skateboard on it in the middle of the night, when they were building it," he says, with a laugh, remembering. After Interstate 5 was finished, the population increased. "They started taking away our dirt roads and our freedom," he laments, explaining that the land was eaten up by outsiders. "Before, we could go everywhere," he says, "nobody cared 'cause we all knew each other. Now it's more like, 'Oh, who are you?' you know? 'What do you mean, who am I? I've been here forever. Who are you?' You know?" He sighs. "It's different now. There's money."

Mildner remembers the days when he could see the water from the back window of his upholstery shop. "When I got here, it was nothing but dirt," he explains, "everywhere. So I used to be able to look out from this back table and watch my friends surf South Peak. I used to be able to see the surf right there. And I could identify my friends by their styles of surfing and I'd go, 'Oh, Mark DeCotes is out, I gotta get out there, man!'" Darryld Kitaen, owner of the Good Morning gift shop, a trinket-filled hangout that evokes a '60s-era generation gone by, says, "Everything and everybody has changed. The ocean's still there. That's about the only thing that hasn't changed too much."

By and large, though, there is little visible--or verbal--tension between locals and newcomers. "I don't get mad easy," says Mildner. "I just go with the flow." He leans back, hands on his worktable. "You can't pick the newcomers out of the herd anymore. There's almost more of them than locals. There are more new people, people coming in the last 5 to 10 years, than people who have been here over 20. So, you know, you just gotta... They don't bother me; I don't bother them. Just go with the flow."

Kate Smith, manager of the Cardiff-by-the-Sea Surf Shop, which is adjacent to Mildner's upholstery shop--so close that they have conversations through Mildner's open front door--enjoys the dichotomy of old and new. Originally from South Carolina and with a telltale drawl in her voice, Smith moved with her husband to Leucadia six months ago. "I think that's one of the most interesting things that's happening in North County," Smith says, sitting behind a glass counter full of stickers and surf wax, "the fact that the old-school guys with a bunch of character are living right next door to really wealthy people. And everybody seems to be getting along quite well. I mean, just because you have money doesn't mean you're a yuppie snot. And just 'cause you don't doesn't mean you... So I'm really impressed with it. There's just this all-around love-of-the-ocean, local feel, which is cool."

Along with its hey-how-ya-doin' beach-town atmosphere, Cardiff possesses an air of insular safety. Isabelle Caudle, a pro skateboarding mother of two, wouldn't raise her kids anywhere else. "Growing up in the inner city, there was so much going on, my parents didn't have a clue," she says. "I mean, they couldn't keep track of what you were doing, and here, I think, it's easier to be a family." A Chicago native, Caudle moved to California to attend school and has stayed ever since. "San Diego's very appealing," she says, "especially, you know, when it's 60 below in Chicago with the wind chill."

Flanked by her 16-year-old son, Russell, and his 17-year-old friends, Andy and Evan, Caudle is the ultimate cool mom in her "Ladies Longboard Classic" sweatshirt and wide-set skate shoes. The camaraderie between her and Russell is apparent. Russell doesn't affect the generic Bored Teenager look so many boys his age have perfected; his face is open and smiling. "Straight-A student," Caudle boasts, patting him on the back; he grins, shrugging it off.

His friends are equally easygoing, trading high fives with Caudle and joshing gently among themselves. Evan is originally from Northern California, while Andy hails from Boston--"The East Coast is like the other side of the world," comments Evan--and both attend the local alternative high school with Russell. Both boys relocated when their fathers landed jobs in the area and have assimilated flawlessly, adopting the slang and the manner of their native contemporaries.

Kitaen at Good Morning knows Russell, Evan, and Andy by name and no doubt sold the boys the hemp necklaces that poke out from under their shirt collars. Kitaen sings their praises. "There are two major things these young guys here in Cardiff are into that maybe the decade before them wasn't," he says from his seat behind a makeshift counter laden with goods, "and that's sharing and caring." And where does that attitude come from?

"Maybe it's the surf breaks that are more low-key," Caudle muses, "but it just doesn't seem so arrogant here. It seems just more humble. A humble place to live. We have a nice lifestyle instead of sitting on the sofa going, 'Damn, where's the party?'"

The kids don't need a party; they have the ocean as their own personal backyard. Surfing is so ingrained in them that they greet each other with a rapid-fire query of "got waves today?" or some close derivative. Even though there are "parties and stuff," according to Evan and Andy, they make it clear that the young people in Cardiff would sooner surf than do anything else.

Jon Peck, manager of Patagonia's first surf store, which happens to be on Cardiff's main drag, learned to surf at age 5. "My dad surfed," he says, by way of explanation. "He was a sailor and pretty much just a waterman kind of guy." Peck, 26, moved to California from Connecticut when he was 3 or 4, first to Carmel Valley and then to Cardiff. Like Andy and Evan, his family relocated when his father found a job out West. "I just love being in the ocean and doing anything," he says, "from diving to swimming to paddling." He, like many die-hard surfing residents, laments the demise of the Hansen-Machado Surf Classic, which was halted due to increased state fees for the exclusive use of the beach. The first ever Roxy Jam Cardiff, held in September and sponsored by Quiksilver's female-focused sister company, didn't mend the loss. "The Machado contest was such a fixture of the community for so long," says Peck, "so when that wasn't going to happen, people got kinda bummed. And then to have just a women's event, some of the men felt kind of excluded from having a big contest that they'd had every year." Despite the setback for the pro-surfing set, soul surfing put Cardiff on the map, and a surfing town it remains.

Of course, there are days when there are no waves. When it's flat, blown out, or just plain bad, kids skate. Grown-ups, too, get in on the fun. Caudle has her own skating team, the Downhill Divas, and runs a skate club for the students at El Camino High, where she teaches geometry. She's also involved with a national association of skateboarding moms, a group that promotes not only older (read: over the age of 30) women in the sport but families as well. "We never get bored, 'cause we board a lot," she quips, and Russell echoes her, "You can skate when the surf's bad, and when the surf's good, you can surf," he says simply, "so you have the option of doing either two." Evan chimes in. "I don't even have, like, television," he says. Andy agrees. "I don't watch TV," he says. "I just go in the ocean a lot."

While Cardiff life may be unfettered, even newcomers are feeling differences, especially in housing prices. "It's crazy," Caudle says. "If you're not a millionaire, you can't really buy." Andy affirms that. "I moved here when my house was, like, $300,000," he says, "and now [ten years later] it's, like, $700,000." Caudle puts an arm around her son. "I tell 'em, if you don't get a college degree, you can't afford to live here," she says. "You can grow up here, but you're gonna have to move somewhere else. We can raise our children, but if they're not professionals, where are they gonna..." she trails off, thinking, then continues, "'cause even rental properties here are expensive."

But is anyone leaving? Selling high and getting out? Too fed up with the changes to stay? Lisa, though her house is worth an estimated $1.5 million, isn't parting with her property. Kitaen, too, seems content. "Yeah, times have changed," he says, "but there's always somebody who's making it a little better or doing something a little better than the rest of them." Mildner wouldn't think of leaving. "Where would I go?" he asks, with a grin.

Smith recalls something Mildner said a while back during one of their through-the-door chats. "I was talking about the good old days one day, and I was, like, 'Man, you've been here for 30 years, you must have seen so many awesome things,' and he was, like, 'No, these are the good old days. This is it.' He's somebody who's been around here for a long time and watched a lot of change. So for him to take it with that kind of attitude shows that things are going well," Smith says. Though Caudle enjoys visiting her hometown, she's always relieved to land back in Cardiff. "Chicago rocks 24/7," she says. "Here, it's sleepy. But you know what? Sleep is good for you. You'll live longer."

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