Good times in a Marine town mean seven full barber chairs and a line of men out the door. When the same men take their desert cammies to the dry cleaners by the thousands to have their names sewn on, it's a sign the tough times are about to begin.
Downtown Oceanside is home to businesses that for decades have catered to Marines stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton: used car lots, quickie loan joints, supply stores stocked to the ceiling with combat boots. And barbershops where 6 bucks buys a whitewall around the ear and no more than 3 inches on top -- though nowadays, there's often not enough hair on the floor to make a decent toupee.
These are uncertain times in this working-class business district 40 minutes north of San Diego, and not just because 30,000 potential customers have left for the Middle East since January. An effort to turn this place into a trendy resort town threatens to sweep away numerous family-owned businesses that have repeatedly survived the lean times of war only to find themselves under pressure from the skyrocketing value of California beach property.
Row houses fetch $700,000 on land where a railroad switching yard stood. A performing arts company now resides in a theater that years ago was devoted to porn. Third Street, 5th Street and 6th Street are the past. The future resides with their new names: Pier View Way, Sportfisher Drive and Surfrider Way.
"They want businesses that attract tourists: restaurants, antique stores -- boutique-type stores like they have in Del Mar and La Jolla," said Donna Tompkins, owner of ABC Laundry & Surplus, whose aging roof sign is meant to spin but doesn't because Tompkins can't waste money on the electricity. "They don't want businesses like ours."
They is the Oceanside Economic Development and Redevelopment Department and the City Council, which four years ago placed a moratorium on new downtown "personal service" businesses -- shorthand for those serving primarily Marines.
In the last decade, the city has spent nearly $53 million on a gleaming civic center, landscaping, street improvements and other projects in a 375-acre zone whose lifeblood has long been the military's local payroll.
The effort has many seeing dollar signs in a business district that looks like it was ripped from the pages of Life magazine -- circa 1965. It also reflects the tensions present in any military town where the sacrifices of relatively low-paid troops come up against the upwardly mobile dreams of even the most patriotic civic leaders.
"I try not to think about it," said Jerry Alexander, who owns Dorothy's Military Shop and Laundry, one of six such businesses in a two-block area. "If you want to be pessimistic about it, I guess the message is, 'We want the coast for the people who know how to use it. The rest of you, stay away from here, go somewhere else.' "
It's not that Alexander is against efforts to clean up downtown Oceanside. No one is. The prostitutes who once roamed the streets have largely been run out. Same with the bucket-of-blood bars that Alexander said once led a men's magazine to dub Oceanside one of America's 10 toughest towns. The tattoo parlors are long gone, and the city bought -- and closed -- a strip club in the city's center last year.
Yet the stigma of those earlier times remains.
"Oceanside has so much more to offer than the negative things that people talk about," said John Daley, a real estate broker and owner of Cafe 101 on Coast Highway, which locals still call Hill Street. "People come here, look around and think it's paradise. We haven't fully taken advantage of that."
To Daley, a third-generation Oceanside resident and local historian, the city is simply trying to return to its roots as a beach destination that drew Hollywood stars before the military showed up in the 1940s to build the nation's largest Marine base.
Because of Camp Pendleton, Oceanside's population nearly quadrupled from 1940 to 1952. But that alone didn't shape its character. The rerouting of Highway 101 in the 1950s and subsequent loss to Carlsbad of the chance to sprout the region's first shopping mall and new-car auto mall vacuumed the economic life out of Oceanside.
Clothing stores, grocers, theaters, new-car dealers and JCPenney all moved out. But unlike so many small downtowns devastated by highway realignments and big-box merchants, Oceanside had a savior: the Marines and their money.
Nevertheless, Carlsbad's march toward trendiness was looked upon with envy. Still is.
"Oceanside does not have a high esteem of itself," said Carolyn Krammer, who heads Citizens for the Preservation of Parks and Beaches, an area environmental group. "They keep, unfortunately, trying to compare themselves to Carlsbad.... The city does not want to be known as a military town anymore. They want to be a tourist town and they will do whatever they have to do to get that image changed. The message is: Don't stand in the way."
Krammer's group won the battle over a proposed mega-resort that would have plopped two 12-story towers and two six-story buildings at the base of the city's pier, with the help of $15 million in tax breaks and other incentives from the city.
The California Coastal Commission rejected the plan last year, but other plans are in the works for nine blocks of prime oceanfront -- timeshares, condos and eventually another hotel project.
Krammer endorses the city's desire to update but sees downsides to a resort economy: less public access to the beach, the here-today-gone-tomorrow revenue from out-of-towners, the costlier housing. And the diminished viability of businesses that offer haircuts for the price of a grande soy latte and biscotti.
"There's nothing wrong with them, except that they are identified with the Marine Corps," she said. "Maybe if they called themselves salons instead of barbers, they'd be more accepted."
That's what Norma Rincon figured. Rincon, 40, grew up with hair tonic in her blood. She is a third-generation barber who learned the art of the buzz cut from her father; his razor has been an Oceanside fixture for 32 years.
Rincon's shop was much like her dad's: no atmosphere, no nonsense, just a row of chairs and an American flag on the wall. Then, last year, the building she worked in was sold for the performing arts theater. Rincon was forced to move. City officials, she said, initially balked at her proposed relocation site downtown, pointing to the moratorium on new personal service businesses.
"They were saying no more barbershops in the area," she said. "I know they want something different, a different crowd, which was fine. But it nearly took my 14-year business away from me."
Eventually, Rincon prevailed and opened a shop downtown -- not a barbershop but a salon offering everything from manicures to Brazilian bikini waxes.
The new shop is not a drop-and-give-me-twenty kind of place. But young Marines came; they liked the atmosphere. And despite the deployments, business has remained good, with women, kids and other civilians largely making up for lost Marine customers.
It was the right move, Rincon said, but one that left her with mixed emotions -- about how it happened and about Oceanside's relationship with the Marine Corps.
"I think it's very disrespectful of the military," she said of the desire to eliminate businesses that serve Marines. "Camp Pendleton and Marine families have put money into our pockets for years. Basically, they supported me and my family. I am where I am because of Camp Pendleton."
To Jane McVey, who heads the economic development agency, the city's gilded vision for itself is not a slap at the Marines. "We love taking their money. It's green," she said.
The issue isn't the color of money but the amount waiting to be tapped in the form of increased sales and hotel occupancy taxes.
Oceanside isn't the same town it was in the 1960s -- its population has increased fourfold to 170,000 while the number of Marines has stayed relatively steady between deployments. Camp Pendleton represents the last boom. The recent relocation of a San Diego biotech company, which is spending $1.2 billion to build a campus here, is the future.
"Hello -- we're in Southern California, we have one of the most temperate climates in the world and four miles of beach," McVey said. "It's all a function of geography and time, supply and demand. The change is inevitable.
"Someday we'll have a Starbucks and a Trader Joe's downtown," she continued. "The people who are buying $800,000 homes ... want places where they can buy nice wine and fresh pasta."