It was once known as a gritty military town, but Oceanside's rough-and-tumble image is softening. The Irving Gill-designed building that was City Hall has been remodeled into a museum as part of a Civic Center revitalization. This, along with vibrant new housing, has sparked the start of a downtown renaissance in the San Diego County community.
Oceanside's first inhabitants were the Luiseño Indians who lived in the San Luis Rey Val- ley. Franciscan missionaries reached the valley in the mid-1700s and founded the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in 1798. The "King of the Missions" served a large Indian population and was the biggest of California's 21 missions.
The early California period was the time of massive Mexican land grants. Rancho Margarita and Las Flores, a large tract given to Pío Pico and his brother Andreas in 1841, changed hands several times throughout the years and is now the site of the Marines' Camp Pendleton.
Andrew Jackson Myers, the founder of Oceanside, received a homestead land grant in the early 1880s and built the first house in a small township near the mission. The construction of the railroad linked Los Angeles to San Diego and played an important role in the development of the city. Growing at a fast clip, the city's population was roughly 1,000 when it was incorporated in 1888. The new highway from L.A. brought more development and prosperity in the 1920s.
World War II sparked a growth spurt. With the construction of Camp Pendleton, the city's population grew to 18,000 in 1952. The Marine presence put the city on the map and helped Oceanside make the leap from small coastal town to bustling city by the 1960s. The population today is more than 170,000.
Oceanside has three miles of white sandy beaches. Harbor Beach, the largest, features barbecue grills, picnic tables and fire rings. The 950-slip Oceanside Harbor is nearby; the Cape Cod-style village at the marina has shops, restaurants and a lighthouse. Oceanside Pier, 1,942 feet long, is a popular place to fish.
Within walking distance of the pier is downtown, a throwback to the '50s that is a work in progress. Uniform stores and barbershops catering to Marines have some new neighbors — a Coldstone Creamery and a multiplex theater, among others. There's also a library and the Oceanside Museum of Art.
Gentrification is most evident in downtown's new, upscale residential district. Most striking are the houses on Tremont Street, colorful two-story homes on narrow lots just a couple of blocks from the beach.
Oceanside's 42 square miles include many diverse neighborhoods. St. Malo is a gated 1920s beach community built to resemble a Norman village and often compared to Malibu Colony for its low profile and code of privacy. At the other end of the spectrum, the eastern half of the city has newer master-planned communities.
Dan Callaway, 45, a lawyer and owner of Hill Street Cafe, a "green" restaurant on Coast Highway, moved here 15 years ago from L.A. "Oceanside had a bad reputation, but I moved to be near the beach. I paid $350 for a one-bedroom apartment," Callaway said.
"My wife and I bought our house six years ago, at the bottom of the market, near the restaurant — the cat was not out of the bag yet," he said. "Now different pockets are getting yuppiefied, and the beach is getting beyond yuppiefied in spots. The diversity and demographic of the area is changing significantly, but it's still Oceanside, still has character."
Victor Villaseñor says he wouldn't live anywhere else. "I grew up riding a bicycle all over Oceanside, to the beach, in the hills and the backcountry," said Villaseñor, the author of "Burro Genius" and a longtime resident. "Now freeways have come, shopping centers have sprung up everywhere and I can still ride my bike all over North County and to the beach. What a joy. What freedom."
Good news, bad news
"Oceanside offers something for everyone," said Kurt Kinsey, owner of Blue Pacific Realtors. "If you are a beach dweller, you can live in one of the many row house villages of North Beach. And there are over 500 new condominiums in the pipeline to be built over the next 18 months." But the city is struggling with affordability issues.
John Daley, a 55-year-old real estate entrepreneur and co-owner of the 101 Cafe, a diner on Coast Highway, said his family has lived in Oceanside since 1904.
"The difference in population is staggering," he said. "The beach area has gone from rentals to Hispanic families to sales to young couples and/or early retirees. Who can afford $700,000 for a small cottage?"
At the beginning of November, there were nearly 500 single-family homes for sale in Oceanside. Beachfront homes and hillside homes with views command top dollar; there are a number of starter homes as well. Properties range from modest dwellings in the low $300,000s to multimillion-dollar estates.
On the California Department of Education's "2004 Accountability Progress Report," Academic Performance Index scores for Oceanside elementary schools, on a scale of 1,000, ranged from 618 at Ditmar to 828 at McAuliffe. Scores for the three middle schools were: Jefferson, 676; Lincoln, 692; King, 736. At the high school level, El Camino was the top-scoring school, at 707; Oceanside High scored 666.
Historical values Single-family detached resales:
Year...Median Price 1990...$168,500
*Year to date
Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; San Diego Assn. of Governments, http://www.sandag.org ; realtor.com; Chamber of Commerce, http://www.oceansidechamber.com ; Oceanside Historical Society, http://www.oceanside-ca.com ; City of Oceanside, http://www.ci.oceanside.ca.us ; California Department of Education.