Sitting in a circle with four friends on the sand at Ocean Beach, Mark Ragowski sips from a beer can wrapped in a brown paper bag.
At his back, surfers bob on the rolling waves. A homeless man spouts unintelligible phrases from a dirty cement ledge.
The way Ragowski sees it, this is the best of San Diego.
“There’s more people to hang with here,” he says, bleached-blond hair peeking out from a backwards baseball cap, wraparound shades shielding his eyes from the strong summer sun.
In a city better known for its political conservatism and military institutions, Ocean Beach is a pocket of nonconformity hanging out at the end of Interstate 8.
Ocean Beach--O.B. to locals--is where the twin cultures of music and surfing intersect. Where grungy skateboarders and laid-back Rastafarians converge on beat-up Schwinn bicycles. Where hippiedom still reigns.
Tie-dye is big here. So is the Grateful Dead. But don’t chalk it up to the ‘70s revivalism sweeping the nation. Those things never left O.B.
“O.B. is not a place; it’s an attitude,” said San Diego police officer John Madigan, who still lives in this neighborhood, where he grew up.
For the underemployed slackers and never-employed dropouts here, skateboards and bicycles are the prime modes of transportation. “You don’t need a car to get around,” said Monty Nolder, 26, who cooks at Hodad’s hamburger joint.
And where else could you lie on the sidewalk in front of your house in your swimming trunks on a Tuesday morning, conducting business on a cellular phone, and still look normal?
Yvon Bordeaux, an actor-model-boat washer-construction worker-painter in his 20s, does just that most days outside his tiny blue bungalow.
“It’s a quiet, peaceful community,” said Bordeaux, the cellular phone and a pager resting next to his suntan lotion.
Unlike Southern California beach communities such as Santa Monica or Belmont Shores in Long Beach, O.B. never went yuppie. It stayed scruffy.
The nearest Starbucks is miles away. Million-dollar mansions don’t exist. Instead, tiny restaurants, bars and discount stores cluster along palm tree-lined Newport Avenue, next to The Black, a ‘60s-style tobacco shop that opened in 1970 and still sells a mind-numbing array of pipes, psychedelic posters and lava lamps.
O.B’s history began modestly in the mid-1880s when developers laid out a few streets. Those days it was a two-hour drive to downtown San Diego, said local historian Ruth Held, whose family settled in Ocean Beach in 1912.
In 1909, streetcars came in and people could live in Ocean Beach conveniently year-round.
Today, many matchbox-sized parcels still remain in the flatlands closest to the beach. Worn-out cottages and bungalows provide cheap rentals.
Everyone has theories about why the beach shacks still stand and the rents remain low: Its rundown reputation scares people; the noise from jets flying into Lindbergh Field keeps away prospective buyers; the lots are too small for sprawling houses.
“O.B. was always chopped up into little, tiny parcels owned by everybody,” said Welton Jones, an architectural writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It was hard to solidify.”
In the ‘60s the neighborhood was a minor hub for counterculture types and drug dealing. And just like the love beads and old beach houses, O.B. has not shaken the druggy image. It’s no secret the neighborhood is a hot spot for methamphetamine dealing, and gangs are creeping in.
A homeless encampment by the railroad tracks adds to the general aura of seediness. But crime is no worse here than anyplace else in town, Madigan said.
As far as surfboard shaper Albert Elliott is concerned, you can search the world for paradise. But what’s the point when you already live in Ocean Beach?
Elliott figures he has the perfect setup. From his vantage point at Rocky’s Surf Shop, towering palm trees sway against a clear blue sky. He rides his tandem bicycle to work each morning, his 5-year-old daughter strapped in the back seat. He ducks out of his corner workshop anytime he wants to catch a wave.
“We’re not a bunch of ‘hey dude’ dumbbells,” Elliott said. “You’ve gotta be smart to live at the beach and not have a job.”