Pacific Beach - the Other Jewel
By Terry Leahy
You do not know San Diego if you do not know P.B.
The historic Crystal Pier
If you’ve never been there, seated among the midweek people-watchers, lingering over refreshments at a sun-drenched Pacific Beach sidewalk cafe, you do not know. If you’ve never strolled the boardwalk at sunset amid the raucous sounds of cheering “green flashers,” or happily yielded right-of-way to a crosswalk-deviant pedestrian, you do not know. If you’ve never window-shopped on a Sunday afternoon or joined the Friday-night “club procession” along Garnet Avenue, you simply cannot know.
Just as a tour of San Francisco or New York would be incomplete without a glance into North Beach or the Village, you cannot understand the intrinsic appeal of Southern California living if you don’t have at least a sense of the beach lifestyle. You’ve got to go beyond the safety glass to connect with a city.
One of San Diego’s oldest suburbs—established in 1887—Pacific Beach has a pioneering history. In fact, the P.B. Women’s Club, formed in 1888 and still meeting today, was founded by internationally acclaimed poet Rose Hartwick Thorpe and claims to be the first such organization in the nation.
Yet it wasn’t until its second half-century that Pacific Beach’s core identity began to emerge. Early San Diego land speculators had discovered a diamond in the rough. But from the beginning, it was a tough sell. An 1872 San Diego Union newspaper article warned prospective buyers against the inflated price of $25 and $100 bayside acre lots. And even though P.B. was the first neighborhood to adopt streets named after states of the union, the San Diego City Council officially transferred the rights to University Heights in 1900; P.B. ultimately opted for the gemstone street names that remain today.
It takes a discriminating eye to appreciate an uncut precious stone.
Set 8 1/2 miles north of downtown, P.B. encompasses some 4 square miles of neatly arranged commercial and residential gridwork, starting near I-5 on the east and wading into the Pacific Ocean on the west. Mission Bay marks the southern boundary, and Pacific Beach stretches just past Turquoise Street on the north—although the precise geographic boundaries vary with the source. But then the locals define P.B. less in terms of latitude than attitude—an attitude aptly expressed in the still-popular bumper sticker There Is No Life East of I-5.
Indeed, during its first 50-odd years, there wasn’t a whole lot of life in Pacific Beach west of what’s now I-5. Growth through the pre-war years was unhurried, and P.B. seemed destined to remain a rural outpost. Until then, it seemed, little thought had been given to the unique recreational potential afforded by oceanside property. But by the end of World War II, that changed, and Pacific Beach led all San Diego suburbs in new population growth.
Land values began their rapid ascent in the post-war years, with beachfront properties leading the way. By the early 1970s, growth in Pacific Beach had advanced so swiftly that limitations became urgently debated, and for the first time moratoriums were placed on certain building specifications and land uses, further escalating housing prices.
Liz Hoffman, sales associate for ReMax of Rancho Bernardo—and owner of two apartment complexes in P.B.—has watched the market for more than 25 years, and she knows the territory. “Can’t go wrong in Pacific Beach,” she insists. “The property value will never go down. Demand may go in cycles, but it will never be a bad investment.”
Maximizing occupancy on such premium land accounts for the hefty number of rental complexes and has long established Pacific Beach as one of San Diego’s more transient communities. Of the 41,000-plus residents, some 70 percent rent temporary (more or less) housing. But that’s no deterrent for prospectors seeking the Gold Coast standard of living. It goes with the territory.
“It’s the zeal of the convert,” says John Fry, president of the P.B. Historical Society and author of A Short History of Pacific Beach. “I can remember—20 years ago—having public meetings about the crowding of this and that, and a couple who had moved here from Brooklyn said, ‘What crowding?’”
What brings most of the converts, of course, is the Pacific. And the historic crowning glory of the P.B. waterfront is Crystal Pier. Initially constructed during the Roaring Twenties, it featured a full-scale ballroom at its terminus, and it promised to be a social attraction of the grandest scale. Alas, almost immediately after opening, construction flaws were detected, and San Diego’s first “pleasure pier” became embroiled in a legal battle that kept it closed for a decade. When the repaired structure finally reopened in 1936, the pier was lengthened and cottages replaced the ballroom.
The boardwalk near Crystal Pier
The P.B. boardwalk and beach draw hordes of sun, sand and surf worshipers. On the boardwalk, an ordered chaos exists, encompassing as many pedestrians as humanly (or inhumanely) possible. Most are traveling nowhere in particular, on foot and wheel. By any standard, the boardwalk qualifies for freak-show status, drawing raised eyebrows and smirks from non-P.B.ans but nonetheless fueling weekend tourist fancy and postcard folly.
And of course, there is the surf. Pacific Beach even has a park specifically designated for surfing: Tourmaline Surf Park. The surf culture here has propagated some world-renowned talent. Gordon & Smith and Rusty’s are two homegrown surfboard manufacturers that grew into global enterprises. Skip Frye, one of the owners of Harry’s Surf Shop on Felspar, is a local legend who parlayed a successful competitive career in the ’50s and ’60s into a comfortable living. And he’s still stoked.
“It’s totally a way of life,” Frye says. “I’m as enthused about it now as I was when I first started.” And he was plenty enthused then. Frye was the number-two-ranked surfer in the United States in 1967 and finished in the top 10 at the World Surfing Championships in ’68.
Bill “Hadji” Hein is part of the coterie of surfers remaining from the early days.
“After I got out of school in 1936,” Hein says, “I came out here from Buffalo, New York, with some friends. We got in my Model-A Ford, headed west and ended up in San Diego.” That was 53 years ago, and Hadji still joins a group of his buddies for daily 7 a.m. surfing sessions at Tourmaline. He’s 80.
The commerce—and much of the entertainment value—of Pacific Beach blossoms in the 10 blocks of Garnet Avenue west of Ingraham. The destination of tourists and residents alike, this 1-mile stretch is a haven for specialty shops, although a Darwinian theory of small business frequently weeds out the weakest, leaving the retail crop with occasional thin patches. Among the survivors lies a healthy feast of diversity and uniqueness, with franchise and independent operators in a comfortable balance. New and “vintage” clothing shops and varied-cuisine restaurants coexist in harmony.
An evening crowd at Mr. Sushi on Garnet Avenue
There’s a casual neighborhood warmth extended to almost anyone who bellies up to the sushi bar at Ichiban; travel east a block and a half to find a similar friendliness at Mr. Sushi. Sushi, naturally, is big in Pacific Beach. The yellow pages of the P.B. Blue Book list nine sushi restaurants, eight of which are within a few blocks of this busy stretch of Garnet. Each does a steady business, and at peak times any or all may have a line out front.
You can get smart, cheap, at Pennywise Pre-Owned Books (it’s okay to say “cheap” —there’s little pretense in P.B.). Or if you’re in need of a java pick-me-up, three distinctly different coffee shops rest within a block of the landmark corner at Garnet and Cass. Zanzibar is the hipster hangout, housed in the historic Dunaway Drugs building. Cafe Crema sits kitty-corner, attracting the academia set. Cafe 976, one block north on Felspar in a converted turn-of-the-century house (with outdoor porch or garden seating), provides a quieter klatsch for pulp poets and caffeine connoisseurs.
Most of the old-time neighborhood grocery and meat markets have given way to the trendy dance and nightclub variety of meet market. And numerous tattoo parlors have left an indelible mark on the town’s image as well as its patrons.
To say P.B.’s business district is Taylor-made is an easy pun; there are few buildings in the area that don’t have some connection to the Taylor family. Earl Taylor moved to Pacific Beach in 1923 and became a major force in shaping the commercial district, including paving the town’s streets and contracting construction of the pier. After World War II, his son, Vernon, added a long list of commercial projects along Mission Boulevard and Garnet, including Seacoast Square, Longs Drugs and the Promenade. As a tribute to their parents, Vernon and his sister, Erma, funded the new Earl & Birdie Taylor Pacific Beach Library on Cass Street, which occupies an entire square block.
Pacific Beach boasts scores of civic and neighborhood groups that encourage community activities, ranging from the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings at the Promenade to the annual P.B. Block Party. The Community Foundation, the P.B. Town Council and Discover P.B. (formerly the Business Improvement Association), primarily volunteer groups, contribute to local activities and beautification of commercial and residential properties.
Anchoring Pacific Beach at its southwest border is the civilized calm of the Catamaran Hotel. Built in 1959 by the Evans family and given a major renovation in the early ’90s, the original two-story structure was later augmented by the 13-story east tower. A scenic gateway to Sail Bay—the northwest corner of Mission Bay—the Catamaran also is a rental outlet for various nonmotorized watercraft, as well as the docking site of the Bahia Belle and William D. Evans party boats.
The beach and boardwalk around Sail Bay attract San Diegans from around the county for family-oriented recreation. On the water, the silent, colorful beauty of gliding catamarans and windsurfers provide peaceful contrast to the leaps and guttural shrieks of Jet Skis. Activity here somewhat parallels that on the ocean-side beach and boardwalk. People young and old, from fit to fat, are drawn to the bay-side beach in search of waterfront entertainment, too—if in a more conservative style than their ocean-side brethren. This is where beginning ’bladers, bikers and ’boarders cut their teeth.
And at the end of a given workday, traffic on the bay-side boardwalk does its best imitation of the I-5/805 merge at rush hour. The key difference, of course, is that these folks are here because they want to be.
Day’s end in Pacific Beach seems to come more peacefully, and if you blink, you might miss it. But if you’re there as the sun sinks like a stone into the Pacific horizon—even if you don’t see the legendary green flash the natives all watch for and swear to—you’ll know.