Ocean Beach: A Lifestyle Frozen in Time
By Rick Dower
An elderly couple—she in a lime-green blouse, he in baggy pants and flip-flops, each with a matching cockatoo on the shoulder—shuffles past tables laden with baskets of fresh strawberries. A man equipped with combat helmet and golf club rummages among the baby zucchini and carrots. Bleached surfer daddies push strollers with little pre-surfers along the sidewalk as affluent-looking couples from up the hill wheel their own offspring through the throng. Business guys with loosened ties hover over homemade cookies. A one-man band clanks above a clutch of badly amplified Andean musicians, while a convoy of llamas hauls toddlers up and down Newport Avenue. Vendors proffer samples—buffalo jerky and blood oranges, chile-spiced pistachios and organic peanut butter. Maybe you wonder: So, tie-dye making a comeback?
Welcome to the Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market, a weekly scramble of erstwhile hippies, boomer yuppies, surfer dudes, beach rats, Gen-Xers, college kids, pink-kneed Midwest transplants and oldtimers who remember way back when Ocean Beach was ... well, pretty much the way it still is. The market is typical of what people say they love best about living in O.B.
Backed against the Pacific, saddled with a slightly unsavory reputation left over from the ’70s, cursed—or maybe blessed?—with limited auto access, Ocean Beach exhibits symptoms of the frozen-in-time syndrome. Barnacle-like, it clings tenaciously to its quirky identity. Attitude-wise, O.B. is way cool. It may have the most social iconoclasts and ancient VW vans of any place around town, the fewest cellular phones and luxury sedans. No high-rises. No glitz. Not much chance of seeing a Gap or Starbucks anytime soon.
Well, deal with it. Locals like it that way. Just an ocean, a tight-knit community and a strong sense of SoCal beach-village funkiness.
By the time the waves roll in to the beach, they've been tamed by the Ocean Beach Municipal Pier, which diffuses their force
"We’re really like a small town surrounded by the big city," observes Mike Akey, O.B. native, local real-estate agent and longtime activist, in what is an oft-heard refrain around here. "People here really like the beach-town atmosphere and knowing your neighbors, knowing what’s going on." He adds that in recent years he’s noticed a trend: People who grew up in O.B., but moved elsewhere to start careers, have begun moving back with their families.
To get to O.B., take Interstate 8 west almost to the ocean, then go left and follow the palm trees on the right. Crammed within just a square mile or so are tidepools, tennis courts, gnarly surfing, cliffside trails, soccer and softball fields, palm trees aplenty, scenic bike paths, a big fishing pier.
Residents cherish the laid-back atmosphere, the walk-to-everywhere lifestyle, the offbeat local characters, the cozy old wood or stucco cottages and beach bungalows, the eclectic mix of mom-and-pop shops. And they zealously protect "the O.B. flavor," lest Ocean Beach ever begin transmogrifying into another Redondo Beach, Laguna Beach, La Jolla, Del Mar or—the horror!—Pacific Beach, once-charming seaside towns that were squashed by forces of tourism, beach cutesy kitsch and condomania.
Can any other local community of 12,000 boast one of the last of the authentic ’60s hippie head shops (The Black), the highest percentage of registered Green Party members in the county (including five of 12 seats on the community’s planning board), a beach exclusively for dogs, the longest pier on the West Coast, and seven Mexican restaurants within three blocks?
OBecians, as some refer to themselves, may claim more planning and civic-betterment groups in their neighborhood than any other community of comparable size. On a given weeknight, there may be a meeting of the town council, merchants association, preservation league, historical society, planning board, citizens patrol, or committees on tree planting, beach cleanup, homeless people, street litter, plans for a new entryway to the community.
A survivor of the Seventies, the natural-food cooperative known fondly as O.B. People's
There are hallowed annual events to prepare for: the Kite Festival, the Chili Cookoff and Street Fair, the 4th of July Fireworks, the Holiday Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting, the Pier Pancake Breakfast, the Dog Beach Cleanup. And all of them draw the crowds. Three hundred people turned out in April for a tree-planting project.
"O.B. is about the only small-scale, old-time beach town left on the whole coast," observes Priscilla McCoy, chair of the Ocean Beach Planning Board, who lives with her husband in a snug Cape May Avenue cottage, a Frisbee toss from the surf. "It’s pretty clear that O.B. isn’t exactly upscale, and that gives people a certain ease here. It isn’t pretentious, like so many places. We’re anti-pretentious, in fact. Everybody’s out on the streets all the time. And everybody loves all our community involvement."
McCoy concedes that so many interest groups and activists can butt heads at times. She tactfully describes Ocean Beach as "a town of divergent thinkers." Somebody else suggests that getting O.B. locals to agree on things is not unlike herding cats.
Like anywhere interesting, Ocean Beach has its own yin and yang. One person’s funkiness may be another’s blight. O.B.’s old sidewalks are grubby and gum-splotted. Grungy young panhandlers multiply as you approach the beach. Some yards resemble weed farms; certain quaint old cottages on closer inspection appear near collapse. Weekend nights, a sometimes-rowdy bar scene erupts. Crime rates creep a bit higher than elsewhere.
But this is mere quibbling. An old-fashioned spirit like O.B.’s is tough to find these days along the urban landscape. And places like Ocean Beach face a singular challenge: how to preserve that unique sense of spirit and identity, yet move forward with services residents need and amenities they want.
"Like most people here, I want to keep O.B. the way it is. But sometimes you have to change with the times in order to keep things the way they are," says accountant Frank Rosso, one of those natives who moved back to O.B. after living elsewhere for years. "If you just say no to everything proposed, that’s naive; that’s not managing what’s going to happen very well."
A case in point: Five years ago, a city-proposed boardwalk along a less-accessible stretch of beach polarized the community. After months of raucous debate, stirred mainly by a loosely organized group calling itself the O.B. Preservation League—whose members argued that the boardwalk would open the door to Pacific Beach–style development—the modest walkway was finally scrubbed. (The $400,000 block grant went to—where else?—Pacific Beach instead.)
Next, controversy flared anew last year as freshman San Diego City Councilman Byron Wear offered to include parts of Ocean Beach in a North Bay Redevelopment District survey his office was preparing. But hundreds of people turned out—so many the planned meeting had to be moved to larger quarters—to protest the mere idea of dumping O.B. into some deal controlled by "outsiders" (that is, City Hall). They slammed the proposal, effectively derailing chances Ocean Beach might qualify for potentially millions in new tax money for future improvements. Wear says he got the message.
The councilman takes a personal view of O.B. politics. He grew up around here, was a summer lifeguard at the beach and cut his political teeth as treasurer with the Ocean Beach Town Council. Though his Second Council District ranges from La Jolla to the Mexico border, Wear admits he is especially attentive to purely Ocean Beach matters.
"O.B. is probably tougher than any of the other areas I represent. You have to go slow and always make sure everyone is on the same page," Wear says one hazy Saturday, steering his Volvo along narrow streets cheery with purple bursts of oleander and bougainvillaea.
The 1972 Point Loma High graduate asserts that, as a bona-fide local boy, he understands the O.B. culture and is well versed in the issues. "I feel like I can debate anybody, make my decision and go home knowing I did the right thing," Wear proclaims.
Well, maybe. Then again, O.B. has almost never met a politician it liked.
"We OBecians, we’re a leery bunch," confides Kip Krueger, a leader of the local Green Party and one of those five Greens on the O.B. Planning Board. Krueger runs an odd little place on Voltaire Street called The Green Store, sort of a clearinghouse/nerve center for environmental and progressive types. Next door to a new hemp-products shop, The Green Store is filled with books, magazines, pamphlets, flyers, announcements—ephemera of lost causes and future campaigns. "Yeah, maybe we’re even a little paranoid," Krueger continues. "But we’ve got to keep an eye on these guys."
AT FIRST GLANCE, Newport Avenue, the three-block-long heart of O.B.’s commercial district, seems prosperous enough. Weekdays, the sidewalks bustle with shoppers. Weekends, lines of breakfast-goers snake out the doors of the Little Chef and the Newport Bar & Grill. It looks like Hollywood’s idea of Small Town, U.S.A., coastal version.
But many Newport businesses have struggled in recent years. A drugstore, a florist, a bike shop, a shoe store, several clothing shops, the Cornet 5 & 10 and the venerable Strand Theatre all gave up. Especially painful, Paras Shop, for more than 30 years a beloved O.B. gathering spot for book-lovers, closed last year. The vacancies began filling with one, two, three antique stores, then a multi-vendor mall, then another. Before long, Newport was transformed into a beachside Antique Row. Locals bear mixed feelings about the changes.
"Personally, I’m happy we have those antique stores," says Denise Knox, owner of an art supply/stationery store on Newport, a 30-year O.B. resident and activist. "They’re clean, they employ people, and they sure beat the alternative, which is empty storefronts. I wish those other stores had thrived, but if they had, they wouldn’t have gone out of business in the first place."
Still, there’s a realization that maybe 11—it may be a dozen by now—antique stores is enough. "I think it’s just a cycle. We do want a variety of businesses in Ocean Beach, especially of the mom-and-pop type that give O.B. its flavor," says Akey, president of the Ocean Beach Merchants Association. The group recently commissioned a marketing study to find out what sorts of new businesses might be desirable for O.B.
For starters, the Town Council would love to get its hands on the shuttered 71-year-old Strand Theatre (where many locals saw their first movie) and turn it into a community theater and cultural center. But they’ve been stymied by the $900,000 selling price set by its Los Angeles owners.
Among the signs that Newport Avenue is bouncing back: A 99-cent store recently opened and is crowded with bargain-hunters, along with a pizza-and-subs shop, a juice bar and a discount bookstore. Ocean Beach Hardware, one of those classic hardware stores with solicitous staff, survives. A youth hostel took over the old Newport Hotel a few years ago and now draws an international backpacker set that seasons the street with French, German and Aussie accents.
Over near Voltaire, O.B.’s second, slightly seedier business district, two of San Diego’s better-known continental restaurants, Thee Bungalow and the Belgian Lion, keep packing in the gourmands. A few blocks east, past the Zen Bakery and Dago Choppers, the Ocean Beach People’s Natural Foods Market, an O.B. icon dating to the 1970s hippie days, still draws customers in search of spirulina, bulk bulgur and organic honey.
Author Richard Louv, a Union-Tribune columnist and former resident of Ocean Beach during the rock-and-roll ’70s, maintains it is no accident that O.B. has such a strong sense of community. Its physical design, based on a pattern of residential streets surrounding the business core and set on a human-oriented scale, is what make Ocean Beach so interesting and fosters character, Louv thinks.
"O.B. is laid out just right, with an old-fashioned main street and a grid pattern, in a way that encourages people to get to know each other. It’s exactly what we ought to be doing in the suburbs but haven’t," says Louv. "There’s an actual physical component to forming a close-knit community. People don’t realize that. A place like Pacific Beach was built for cars. But Ocean Beach was built for pedestrians."
A CENTURY ORSOAGO, Ocean Beach wasn’t much besides sand dunes, tidepools and brushy hillsides. Toward the end of the 19th century, a handful of hardy fishermen, campers, mussel gatherers and picnickers began making the arduous trek by horse or wagon around San Diego Bay from the fledgling city. In 1887, young dreamer-schemer-promoter William H. Carlson and partner Frank C. Higgins got the idea to buy 600 acres, build a fancy resort hotel and run a rail line out to O.B. from the ferry landing at Roseville, near present-day Shelter Island.
According to Beach Town, the late O.B. historian Ruth Varney Held’s account of the early days, Carlson and Higgins managed to open the Cliff House Hotel in 1888 to gala crowds and sold 300 bare lots. But the railroad, key to the scheme, never panned out. It ran only a short time before the real-estate bubble burst. Higgins committed suicide, and the flamboyant Carlson sold off the ornate oceanfront hotel and moved on to other deals (he became San Diego’s "boy mayor" at age 29 —but years later, and long out of local politics, landed in jail for fraud).
The Cliff House Hotel, situated between present-day Newport and Niagara avenues, lasted but 10 years before burning down. Ocean Beach faded, reverting to the tourists and the picnickers until developer Colonel D.C. Collier showed up. Collier began subdividing and selling lots in 1907, brought in utilities and water, built a streetcar rail line from downtown, began paving streets and established a school. This time, the little settlement took. By 1910, 100 houses had been built.
Restaurants, bathhouses and crowds followed. A band of investors built Wonderland, a Coney Island–style amusement park, at the foot of Voltaire Street. The park included a dance pavilion, swimming pool, zoo, 650-seat diner and a fun zone with games and rides, including the West Coast’s biggest roller coaster. Twenty thousand people came to Wonderland’s grand opening on July 4, 1913. But in 1915, the famous Panama-California International Exposition staged in Balboa Park siphoned away Wonderland’s crowds. A big Pacific storm the next year wrecked the roller coaster, finishing off the place.
Other entrepreneurs erected a huge dance ballroom, merry-go-round and saltwater plunge near lower Newport. And Ocean Beach remained a popular weekend jaunt for local urbanites into the 1920s, when it was eclipsed by the rise of Mission Beach as the fashionable beach resort.
O.B. has seen its share of the rich and famous. Old-timers recall an intense young pilot named Lindbergh who used to hang around the lunch counter at Kraft Drug Store on Newport while waiting for the Spirit of St. Louis to be finished at near-
by Ryan Aircraft. Local teenager Florence Chadwick, later to gain fame as the first American to swim the English Channel, practiced her strokes off Ocean Beach. Actress Fay Emerson grew up in O.B. before becoming a Hollywood starlet in the 1940s and marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Elliott.
O.B. blossomed again in the 1960s and 1970s as a bastion of the counterculture, San Diego’s version of Haight-Ashbury. In the spirit of the era, local activists founded the Ocean Beach Free School, community gardens and the People’s Food Co-op. At about the same time hippies were gravitating to Ocean Beach, so were less-savory types; O.B. developed a reputation as a haven for druggies and other miscreants, a reputation that lingers—unfairly, residents complain.
DESPITE license-plate mottos proclaiming "Ocean Beach: An attitude, not an address," O.B.’s formal planning area runs from the beach to Froude Street, and from Sunset Cliffs almost to the San Diego River Channel. The 12,000 or so residents these days are almost equally divided between renters and homeowners.
The area’s median house price earlier this year was $277,000, half again as high as the citywide median but still a bargain for coastal real estate. Rents aren’t much higher than elsewhere in the city, however, even with the Pacific Ocean for a backyard.
Notwithstanding its oft-repeated claim to diversity, Ocean Beach is not very racially mixed—90 percent of residents are white. Their median age is 31, about the same as for San Diego as a whole. Families tend to live east of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, up the hill where home prices rise with the view. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, and in keeping with its iconoclastic roots, O.B. boasts an unusually high percentage of Independent and other third-party registrants.
O.B.’s reputation as a tolerant hangout for transients has proved a vexing problem over the years. Residents and merchants routinely complain of people sleeping in yards and alleys, urinating under bushes, rooting through Dumpsters and "general-
ly making people feel unsafe," as Ocean Beach Town Council president Eileen Histen puts it. Opinion is split on just what to do about it.
The council sparked a new round of debate this spring when it considered a resolution barring the weekly feeding of homeless people in Saratoga Park by a local group. The merchants association has been working with officers from the San Diego Police Department’s Community Services office to get a better handle on the problem, helping some of the transients with psychiatric or substance-abuse problems to find assistance in getting off the streets.
Jane Donley, who owns a busy self-service dog wash on Voltaire Street, heads the O.B. Citizens Patrol, a volunteer neighborhood-watch group. She thinks O.B.’s transient problem, if not exactly solved, is at least getting some constructive attention. "The citizens finally had to say ‘Enough,’" says Donley, squirting a soapy ring of dog fur out of a tub.
Of perhaps more pressing long-term concern to O.B. residents is the specter of future development. In response to contractors who began tearing down historic homes and throwing up shoeboxy apartment buildings in the 1970s, the Ocean Beach Planning Board was established in 1984 to help preserve the community’s character, primarily through downzoning. Today, about 200 pre-1919 cottages survive, mainly in the quiet, narrow streets of north O.B., in various states of repair. Planning Chief McCoy is compiling an inventory of the old houses that would qualify for inclusion in a "historic" category she hopes the city will agree to establish.
Many O.B. lovers’ worst fear is that developers and speculators sooner or later will realize how undervalued property is in Ocean Beach—Louv says he’s amazed it hasn’t already happened—leading to the beginning of the end of O.B. as they know it. Others insist that scenario is doubtful; residents would never permit it.
Maybe some official body should declare O.B. an endangered habitat, like a rain forest, just to make sure it survives. Pleasant, authentic, walkable, interesting neighborhoods will probably always be at risk of being "improved" by well-meaning outsiders, chewed up by developers, strip-malled or homogenized to resemble all the other dull ’burbs and sterile enclaves we’ve created.
Whichever path Ocean Beach ultimately follows, locals say they—not outsiders, City Hall bean-counters or commercial interests—should decide what’s best for their small-town-in-the-big city out by the Pacific. That’s a point on which even divergent-thinking OBecians could probably agree.