Where's the real Surf City, USA?

Far from Iraq turmoil, rising oil prices, and London bombings - and admittedly petty by all such comparisons - there's a new battle being waged in America's end-of-the-rainbow state.

Mirroring other longstanding rifts that divide California north and south, the issue is about identity and basic values, cultural world views, and capitalism.

Or, to be a bit more specific ... surfing.

City officials here in Huntington Beach last week announced a new worldwide advertising offensive marketing the town as "Surf City, USA." It comes complete with government-registered trademarks and signed deals with merchandisers of everything from snorkels-and-fins to furniture. The move could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into town coffers.

The only trouble is, officials in coastal Santa Cruz, several hundred miles north, say their town is the true "Surf City, USA." They have filed a formal complaint with the US Commerce Department, challenged Huntington Beach city council members to a surf-off, and opened a propaganda campaign - albeit a friendly one - of their own. At stake, they say, beyond the royalties paid by such agreements, is their very tangible identity as a worldwide tourist destination.

"I know that on one level, this isn't the most important thing in the world, with famine, and terror and war going on elsewhere," says Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin. "But to tell you the truth, there are a lot of angry people up here. We have long had a better claim to that title and we're not going to just sit idly by and let them have it."

The mayor has written his own lyrics to the famous 1960s pop hit, "Surf City":

"Well, Huntington Beach, we'd like to be pals now/But when you steal our name, you're acting like Vals now ... We'll shred the Lane and you will say/That we're Surf City, USA."

By both towns, by some independent accounts, have solid claims to such a title.

Santa Cruz's claim

History books say the first surfing in the continental US occurred at Santa Cruz, a rockier and colder clime. It took root after three Hawaiian princes visited and were so impressed with the waves they commissioned a local lumber company to make them boards and then surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River.

Today, Santa Cruz claims the longest-running, competitive surfing event on the West Coast and 11 "world-class" surf spots, as designated by top surfing magazines. Huntington Beach, a flat, straight beach that lacks the diverse array of wave-generating coves of Santa Cruz, has none.

"Huntington Beach is offering the world a logo and a brand name and that's fine," says Christina Glynn, communications manager for the Santa Cruz Conference and Visitors Council. She says Santa Cruz has retained more of its local character over the years as Huntington Beach has gentrified and added hotels and franchise food outlets. "What we offer them is the true, organic experience of real surfing without all the commercial overlay."

Just hold onto your surfboard wax, say Huntington Beach aficionados.

First: they host the US Open of Surfing every July, the largest surfing competition in the world, which draws competitors from Australia to Africa to Hawaii. Besides 40 other competitions a year, several billion-dollar surfing and lifestyle companies are headquartered here as well as a Surfing Hall of Fame and Surfing Walk of Fame.

Unlike Santa Cruz - where surfing is a lonely and more dangerous pursuit by top surfers who have to don wetsuits because of the cold water - Huntington Beach has long been the center of surf culture, both beginner and expert, they say. That means a place where surfers hang out together on the beach, sun themselves, play music, spear fish and barbecue late into the evening.

"It was the surf media which first dubbed this place Surf City," says Dean Torrance, half of the singing duo Jan and Dean, who, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, penned the famous song "Surf City." He says it is Huntington Beach which embodies the song's spirit of freedom and California fun.

By trademark law, Huntington Beach has a two-year, wait-and-see period in which formal challenges, such as Santa Cruz's, will be weighed by the US Department of Commerce. Besides the number of such complaints, considerations include what happens to Santa Cruz businesses - Surf City Produce, Surf City Coffee - if Huntington Beach wins the trademark bid.

Chiranjeev Kohli, a marketing professor at Cal State, Fullerton, says the Huntington Beach idea to market itself as a way to distinguish itself from other California destinations - if valid - is economically sound. But he says if Santa Cruz's claim proves worthy, Huntington Beach might have to pay damages and suffer loss of credibility.

"The moment someone makes a credible claim against your trademark, you are in trouble and it raises the question of how much trademark research you did," he says.

Other candidate cities?

Some say Malibu or San Diego could present equally forceful complaints, while others say the title should rest with Hawaii or a US town already dubbed "Surf City"- Surf City, N.C, Surf City, N.J. Others say "Surf City, USA" is a state of mind. "Anywhere the surf is up and the waves are good is Surf City, USA for that moment," says Harry Mayo, a lifelong surfer working as a volunteer in the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

The proposed - and somewhat tongue-in-cheek - surf-off between the two city councils to settle the matter has been scheduled for Sept. 3. But some observers say a more serious surfing championship should help decide.

"Honestly a running competition might be the best answer," says Chris Mauro, editor of Surfer Magazine. He says both cities have legitimate claims to the title. "They should let the title shift back and forth based on who wins each year - that would be a great incentive for both to work for the privilege."

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