Ocean Beach Works to Erase the 'OB Stigma'

Times Staff Writer

June Mahoney, a self-described conservative Bostonian, heard plenty about the perils of Ocean Beach when she was choosing a San Diego County community in which to live and run a business.

OB, as the locals call it, was violent. OB was a haven for drug addicts and bikers. OB was crime-ridden. OB was not the place to invest.

"When I came out here from Massachusetts, people told me to go anywhere but OB," said Mahoney, who several years ago defied the advice and, with her son, opened a sandwich shop in Sunset Strip, the modern beachfront development at the foot of Santa Monica Avenue in Ocean Beach.

"But I checked out the other beaches and I was completely turned off--they were everything people told me to watch out for in Ocean Beach," she said as she gazed contentedly across the patio at Sunset Strip to the sun-drenched beach across the street, waving occasionally to fellow merchants and young skateboarders alike as they weaved their way through the OB business district.

"The other beaches were congested and dirty. And I didn't care for the people that I met. So I came to Ocean Beach, and found a tight, low-key, small beach community. It's a place where you see a lot of camaraderie; a lot of people working together for the good of the community. That's a rare thing these days, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

That camaraderie has coalesced into ambitious plans for Ocean Beach, a community that for decades has wrestled with an image problem.

To outsiders, the strip of coastline extending from the mouth of the San Diego River south to Sunset Cliffs has long been regarded as a danger zone, replete with crime, drifters and drug dealers. While Ocean Beach residents might describe the scores of crowded cottages and bungalows as quaint, outsiders often view them as dens of iniquity that add to the community's suspect image.

That image was sculpted during the turbulent '60s, when Ocean Beach became a center for San Diego's counterculture. The influx of people seeking alternative life styles brought to Ocean Beach a mix of businesses and a demand for services that were foreign to other neighborhoods in the city. The prevalence of drugs and other accouterments of the era led to the establishment of head shops, health food stores, even a free clinic, which for years offered health care without charge until recent budget cuts forced its closure.

As a result, while Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and other coastal areas became prime targets for upscale development, Ocean Beach remained virtually unchanged. The community staunchly resisted outsiders who attempted to build there, and few developers were willing to gamble on the area in the face of its image and such opposition.

But the turbulence of the last 20 years has recently given way to a new mix that includes yuppies as well as drifters, families as well as transient singles, and a new breed of businessman that is bent on improving the community's image.

These new-style merchants are taking dilapidated shops and bungalows and replacing them with modern, upscale buildings housing tenants far wealthier than their predecessors. To aid in the upgrading efforts, the Ocean Beach Merchants Assn. has applied for $575,000 in federal block grant funds for projects designed to spruce up and attract shoppers to the beachfront business district.

Still, while there may be more shoppers in Ocean Beach's future, the community's population of about 11,500 is not likely to increase. There's little chance of that, said Vicki Touchstone of the City of San Diego planning department, "because, really, the area is almost entirely built out." Indeed, Ocean Beach's population is more than 30% greater than was anticipated in a study preceding the adoption of the city's growth management plan in the mid-'70s.

The new residents who have managed to elbow their way into the community have added stability to what was virtually a nomadic population until this decade. But a recent study by area real estate agents showed that the average OB resident stays in one dwelling for only eight months before moving.

"We've got a long way to go, but the new residents are more apt to make a real investment in their futures here than they were 10 years ago," said Mike Akey, a merchants' association member who is known among locals as the community's historian.

Police have markedly increased their presence in Ocean Beach. Foot patrols, instituted in March, have resulted in a dramatic decrease in crime and in the number of transients.

"We've had a super relationship with the community," said San Diego Police Capt. Dave Worden, who directs the Ocean Beach patrols from the department's western division office. "A lot of OB residents have been concerned for a long time about turning around the Ocean Beach image. And we share that concern."

Newcomer Mahoney, who has emerged as one of the community's most enthusiastic boosters, did not accept as gospel what is commonly referred to as the "OB Stigma." But she and local activists on the merchants association and town council agree that their community's transition will not be complete until that stigma is wiped out.

Akey, 32, Ocean Beach born and raised, reflected on the stigma as he munched Mexican food at Nati's, a local restaurant he has patronized since he was a pre-adolescent "OB Brat."

He grumbled that the community's unsavory reputation was reinforced several weeks ago when a gun battle erupted between San Diego police and suspected drug dealers living in an apartment building dubbed "The Pink Palace." One suspect was killed, and the life of a police narcotics officer he shot was saved only because the officer was wearing a bulletproof vest.

"That kind of stuff happens everywhere, but somehow people get the idea that it's the norm in Ocean Beach," Akey said. "OB has come to be known as a violent, drug-ridden community. The locals know better, but, to make real progress here, we've got to convince the outsiders."

In fact, Worden said, Ocean Beach had re-emerged as a center for narcotics dealing and other criminal activity before the foot patrols and other police beach details began work in March. The beachfront, particularly the parking lot at the foot of Voltaire Street, had again become a center of criminal activity, much as the OB Pier had been in the late '70s before similar foot patrols and development of a boardwalk and beachfront park cleaned up that area.

"We wanted to see the same thing happen north of the pier that we accomplished in the business district," said Tanya Burke of the Ocean Beach Town Council. "The foot patrols cleaned up that area, and now everybody can enjoy the pier, whether they want to fish or just take a sunset stroll."

According to Worden, the beachfront activity "was much more than the usual drinking and disorderly conduct you know you're going to experience during the summer at the beach. It wasn't a seasonal problem."

The parking lot at Voltaire Street, the largest area offering beach access in OB, "had just about been taken over by the criminal types that came to congregate there, deal drugs and engage in other illegal activities," Worden said. "It got so everybody else was afraid to go there."

Since March, Worden's foot patrols have logged 234 narcotics-related arrests, working largely in the beachfront area. And they have made an estimated 5,700 "contacts," (anytime someone is questioned by police) of which, Worden said, all but 300 were due to suspected criminal activity.

Other statistics recently compiled by police support the contention that their presence has significantly decreased crime in the area. Comparing police statistics from January through August of 1984 with those from a similar time period this year, robberies in Ocean Beach have decreased by 50%, burglaries by 21% and thefts by 11%. Auto theft increased, but by only 1%, far below the increase citywide. Arrests for "car prowls," incidents where people are breaking into cars, increased by 19%, while citations for "drunk in public" were up 34%.

The foot patrols also have been working to reduce Ocean Beach's sizable transient population, which merchants say increased after construction of Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp Quarter redevelopment uprooted scores of homeless people from downtown San Diego.

"We did a recent assessment, and it's our opinion that the number of transients is down drastically from a year ago," Worden said. "It's always going to be a problem at the beach in a warm climate, particularly in a forgiving community like Ocean Beach. But transients were really frustrating the efforts of the merchants to clean up the business district."

Like many Ocean Beach residents, Worden said beach-related crime is far more serious in neighboring Mission Beach and Pacific Beach.

"You hear a lot about Ocean Beach, because of its past reputation and because the residents here have not been afraid to admit they had a problem that had to be dealt with," Worden said. "In Mission Beach and PB, the crowds are getting bigger, and there's more in the way of night life to attract people. The problems there seem to me to be much greater."

Akey staunchly defends the new Ocean Beach, but, at the same time, longs for the idyllic, family oriented beach neighborhood he knew as a boy, before the influx of "bikers and hippies" in the '60s.

"Life here was simpler when I was a kid," he said. "It was always a small, close-knit community. There weren't a lot of newcomers. Kids could be out wandering until 11 at night, and their parents would know they were safe. The merchants stuck together and helped each other out. They trusted the kids, and we had the run of the town."

Longtime residents say that Ocean Beach has retained that special community camaraderie throughout its 80-year history. It began, Akey said, shortly after the turn of the century, when Ocean Beach, then controlled by a single landowner, was subdivided into vacation home lots where prominent San Diegans spent their summers.

Businessmen took the Santa Cruz Street streetcar over the hill to catch a ferry boat downtown from what is now the area at the foot of Rosecrans Street, while their families enjoyed the beach and an amusement park that featured a roller-coaster larger than the one at Belmont Park, before it was wiped out in the 1919 flood.

Community spirit persisted during two decades of extraordinary growth in OB--the 1940s, when great numbers of military families inhabited what once had been vacation cottages, and the 1960s, when a population boom of a decidedly different type earned Ocean Beach the moniker of "San Diego's Haight-Ashbury."

"Ocean Beach has always been a special place--in the early days, when the businessmen sent their families here for the summer; during and after the war, when so many military families started out here, and during the '60s, when people were welcomed here who would have been kicked out of a lot of other neighborhoods in town," Akey said.

To many local residents, the first joining of the crazy-quilt of minds in a community that has long been home to a myriad of countercultures came in 1978, the year the Great Doughnut War was fought at the corner of West Point Loma Boulevard and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, the gateway to Ocean Beach. The protagonists: Winchell's Donut House chain, hoping to open a franchise at the choice location, and a motley crew of locals calling themselves PAW (People Against Winchell's), who were willing to take extreme measures to keep fast-food chains out of OB.

For several months, the skirmishes in the Great Doughnut War were not unlike the scores of land-use controversies that have touched virtually every San Diego neighborhood. Winchell's was decried at community meetings in Ocean Beach and at public hearings at City Hall, but its building permit was approved by the City Council. The battle seemed lost, until fate, or possibly PAW, intervened.

First, a Winchell's in Pacific Beach was firebombed. Several days later, a Winchell's in North Park was the target of a similar attack. The perpetrator of the crimes was never apprehended, and whether PAW or its followers were involved officially remains a mystery. But a lot of people in Ocean Beach find it hard to suppress knowing chuckles when they tell you that part of the story.

Perhaps the timing of the bombings was coincidental, but Winchell's wasn't taking any chances; plans for its Ocean Beach shop were scuttled within days. Bob Miller, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council at the time, said he was sorry to see Winchell's relent because, "You have to stand up to terrorism."

To this day, while fast-food chains have proliferated in neighboring Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, Ocean Beach residents buy their hamburgers, tacos, pizzas and takeout chicken from the scores of mom-and-pop restaurants dotting the beachfront streets.

"That shows the kind of community spirit there is here," Mahoney said. "But it shows something else--that Ocean Beach does not want big developers and does not take well to change. Seen through the eyes of an old New Englander, that's an admirable attitude. We all want to see the area improve, but we don't want to be a copy of La Jolla or the other so-called 'high-class' beach areas."

Akey predicted that simple economics would continue to push Ocean Beach in what he sees as a positive direction. "Pretty soon, the only people that will be able to afford to move here are young professionals," he said. "You can't live here anymore unless you have a decent job."

At the same time, however, Akey said "the unique Ocean Beach personality never will be lost."

But wasn't the aimless, out-of-work drifter part of that distinct personality?

"Well, that's going to change, I guess, and some people will say we've lost some of our charm," Akey said. "But that's a good sign, if you want to see Ocean Beach thrive and lose that stigma."

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