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The Palos Verdes Peninsula was an island millions of years ago, perhaps the Channel Island closest to the mainland. Today, it still has some of the sense of disconnectedness from its surroundings that an island might have. While it’s definitely in southern California—dominates the horizon, in fact, from much of the Los Angeles basin—it’s not entirely of southern California.
Palos Verdes is a little over 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, a green hill (the name translates from the Spanish “green sticks”) that climbs to almost 1,500 feet.
Topographically, the Palos Verdes Peninsula feels like many other foothill areas of southern California. But climatically, it’s usually about 20 degrees cooler, and often under the thick gray clouds of the marine layer. It is, after all, a peninsula, so by definition it sticks out on three sides into the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike many other southern California coastal areas, which slope toward the ocean, the Palos Verdes Peninsula drops—sometimes several hundred feet straight down into the surf. It has cliffs similar to, though smaller than, what you’d find in Big Sur, several hundred miles to the north.
Historically, the entire peninsula is part of the grant the King of Spain gave to Juan Jose Dominguez in 1784 for his military service with Gaspar de Portola exploring California and later with Father Junipero Serra establishing religious and military outposts. The grant amounted to more than 100 square miles of what is now southern Los Angeles County, used primarily for cattle grazing.
Early in the 20th Century, a syndicate formed by East Coast banker and real-estate investor named Frank Vanderlip purchased the entire peninsula for $1.8 million with the intention of developing it as homes and resorts. Vanderlip enlisted the landscape architects who designed New York’s Central Park, the Olmstead Brothers, to create civilization on The Hill.
Plans for development came and went, through wars and financial crises. Some things, particularly some town centers for the peninsula’s four incorporated cities, got built; other things, many of them recreational, never did.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lloyd Wright, son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designed and built Wayfarers Chapel, still one of the peninsula’s architectural highlights. Also known as the Glass Church at Portuguese Bend, the chapel’s all-around transparency is central to the Swedenborgian concept of oneness with nature. The church is one of southern California’s most sought-after wedding sites.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula retains its air of exclusivity. Rolling Hills, one of its four incorporated cities, is gated. It boasts the 14th highest median income in America. While locals make class distinctions based on street addresses, the entire peninsula seems very upscale, especially compared to some of the flatland communities a few miles down the hill.
Soon enough, I meandered around one last curve and found I had left this land of ocean-front opulence, had exited the multi-million-dollar mansions to mere million-dollar beach-front homes on a coastal strip of Torrance called the Hollywood Riviera. I’m still not sure why Palos Verdes seems so different. Maybe it’s the trees. Perhaps the cliffs. Possibly the views. Whichever factors make it what it is, it remains the island it once was.