May 24, 2016

Surf's Up: A Quest to Create the Malibu Historic District

  • By: Lauren Walser
Malibu, California

photo by: Jon Steele Photography

Michael Blum is on a mission: to protect the iconic surf breaks of Malibu, California.

While serving as president of the Malibu Surfing Association several years ago, Blum developed an interest in surf breaks and the coastal conservation opportunities they present. After stepping down as president, he enrolled in Duke University’s Master of Environmental Management program, where he studied ways to protect California’s surf breaks with existing policy.

He turned his focus to the National Historic Preservation Act, which he saw as a way to recognize the historic and cultural significance of the Malibu coast, in particular, while also providing a legal mandate for its protection.

“What I’m interested in is bringing together environmental conservation and historic preservation,” he says.

Blum submitted his nomination for the Malibu Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places in December. The approximately 145-acre stretch of land is located entirely on public property and includes popular Malibu Lagoon State Beach and the Malibu Pier. He identifies the years from 1945 to 1959 as the period of significance for this stretch of the coast as a time when Malibu made three important contributions to surfing history and culture.

First, there are the cultural contributions. When people think of surfing and surf culture in the United States, he says, they think of Malibu. He points to Gidget, the fictional character whose surfing adventures at the beaches of Malibu were chronicled in books, television, and movies.

“Malibu helped to define that template for what surfing looked like in the minds of the general public,” he says. “This is everything that happened on the beach, this is how surfers talked, this is how they looked, this is how they described and critiqued surfing.”

Second, Blum says, there were important advances in surfboard design that took place in Malibu. Surfboard designers and shapers there embraced new materials and shapes for boards, changing both how they looked and how they performed.

And with these new designs, Blum points to Malibu’s third major contribution to surfing history and culture: a new style of surfing. With the new, more maneuverable surfboard designs, he says, surfers were able to take harder turns and hug the waves more tightly.

Malibu was named the first World Surfing Reserve in 2010.

As he awaits next steps on his National Register nomination, Blum continues to study that link between environmental conservation and historic preservation.

“When you look at where and how places along the coast are protected, almost invariably the reason to protect them have to do with habitat and species protection,” he says. “They’re increasingly rare, special, or endangered places, and we need to conserve that portion of our national heritage. That work is vital and important and necessary.

“But what has received less attention,” he continues, “has been places where people have interacted with those natural environments to develop places of community and culture and history. And I think those places are also part of our shared history, and are available for interpretation and protection. If we consider these kinds of places to be important and recognize their place in history, they should be protected.”

A Change.org petition was launched recently to gather signatures in support of Malibu’s historic designation.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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