Town was once called the local Haight-Ashbury
By Joe Tash
June 14, 2008
OCEAN BEACH – In the summer of 1971, Gary Gilmore hitchhiked from
Michigan to California with a guitar, but no plans or money. He
settled in Ocean Beach because it sat at the end of Interstate 8, and
he soon put his leather-working skills to use at an artisans shop on
Voltaire Street. He slept under the stars on an old mattress on a roof.
Today, Gilmore is married, has two adult daughters and owns a jewelry
shop on Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach's commercial hub.
"When I tell my kids this story, they say, 'Oh, Dad, that's sad,' "
Gilmore said, laughing. "It was good. I felt like I was king of the world."
Gilmore was just one of many young people who landed in Ocean Beach
in the 1960s and '70s, turning the community into a counterculture
destination. The gritty seaside village was nicknamed the
"Haight-Ashbury of San Diego," after the San Francisco neighborhood
that was the center of the hippie movement.
Time has brought change to Ocean Beach in the form of higher property
values, corporate influence – a Starbucks opened on Newport Avenue in
2001 over howls of protest – and gentrification.
But in fundamental ways, Ocean Beach remains true to its activist
past, as seen in the enduring presence of such icons as the People's
Organic Food Market; the O.B. Rag, which has transformed from an
underground newspaper to a blog; The Black, a head shop celebrating
its 40th year in business; and the community's leash-free zone for
the four-legged set, Dog Beach.
Above all, according to locals, is an easygoing outlook toward life
and a tolerant nature on the part of Ocean Beach residents.
"It's still frivolous, still casual, still lackadaisical to a
degree," Gilmore said.
Even a touch of O.B.'s counterculture history remains.
"While I wear a necktie to work, I still consider it's a disguise,"
Many who came to Ocean Beach found themselves putting down roots.
Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach Mainstreet
Association, grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and vacationed with her
family in San Diego each summer. Her parents warned her to stay away
from Ocean Beach, but she failed to heed the advice.
"This is where I came. I loved it," Knox said. She met her husband in
Ocean Beach, and the two ran an art-supply store for more than 30
years before deciding to sell the business.
"We never left," Knox said.
In spite of its "don't worry, be happy" vibe, Ocean Beach has known
its share of conflict. In the early days of the O.B. Rag, the paper
took on the cause of Collier Park, a triangular patch of land at Soto
and Greene streets that had been dedicated as parkland in the early 1900s.
When the city decided to sell part of the property for apartments,
residents were incensed, said Frank Gormlie, an attorney and
ex-hippie who was one of the O.B. Rag's founders. A 1971
demonstration turned ugly when protesters clashed with police,
tossing beer bottles and rocks. Dozens of protesters were arrested
and a few people were injured, according to an account of the
incident on the O.B. Rag Web site.
In the face of community pressure, the city dropped its plans, and
the parcel remains a park.
The O.B. Rag was published for about five years, then went dormant
for more than two decades, Gormlie said.
Fears of excessive development led to another wave of demonstrations in 2000.
On Sept. 11, 2001, protesters gathered outside the new Starbucks
store on Newport Avenue, which was scheduled to open that day.
Residents feared that the presence of corporations such as the global
coffee retailer would cause landlords to raise rents, pricing out
The demonstration coincided with the terrorist attacks on New York
City and the Pentagon, and the mood changed instantly. In the days
after the attacks, the protesters returned, but their message fell on
deaf ears, said Colleen Dietzel, a longtime Ocean Beach resident and
co-owner of the Green Store, a clearinghouse for information on
environmental and peace groups.
While some corporations have moved onto Newport Avenue, the street
has retained its small-town feel in part because of the variety of
shapes, sizes and colors of its buildings.
It's the commercial heart of a neighborhood densely packed into an
area of about a square mile with about 14,000 residents, more than 80
percent of them renters.
Along with its attractions – Sunset Cliffs, a series of "pocket
beaches," the municipal pier and Dog Beach – Ocean Beach stays in the
public eye thanks to events such as the annual street fair and chili
cook-off, set for June 28 this year.
The annual July Fourth fireworks show and Christmas parade are also big draws.
The Christmas parade and community tree were the brainchild of Rich
James, a graphic artist and businessman who died in April at age 61.
James and his four brothers started James Gang Graphics, a T-shirt
screening and apparel company.
"When we started doing these things, it brought the community
together, healed some old wounds and increased community spirit,"
said Pat James, Rich's brother and president of the Ocean Beach
In some ways, the community has changed for the better, James said.
An area known as the "war zone" north of Newport Avenue and west of
Sunset Cliffs Boulevard has been cleaned up, he said. And to a large
extent, Ocean Beach has overcome its stigma of being a "ghetto by the sea."
But the changes also make it more difficult for longtime businesses
and residents to afford the increasing property values and rents.
James said he and his wife and brothers wanted to buy the building on
Bacon Street where James Gang is located, but couldn't afford the
price tag of $2 million to $3 million. The situation is equally
difficult for residents.
"We need places for seniors and surfers and artists, the people who
made Ocean Beach what it is," James said.
Gormlie, of the O.B. Rag, said, "We often say we're one of the last
beach communities in California where poor people can live." But it's
not clear how long that distinction will last.
"I'm a renter; my days are numbered," Dietzel said.
The clash between old and new was illustrated recently by the debate
over a proposal to ban alcohol on city beaches, including Ocean Beach.
The Ocean Beach Town Council opposed the move, based on a survey of
But local merchants – including some critics of the ban – say it has
made a significant, positive difference along the waterfront. Before
the one-year trial ban took effect Feb. 1, several dozen men, many of
them drunk, could be seen perched on the sea wall each day, said
Knox, of the Mainstreet Association. She said her office used to get
five to 15 complaints per day from business owners, residents and
tourists about harassment of pedestrians by people drinking at the beach.
"The day the ban went into effect, it just stopped. It was
unbelievable," Knox said.
Both sides in the debate are waiting to see what happens during the
busy summer beach months.
The struggle to balance lifestyle and development hasn't chased away
many die-hard "Obecians," as locals sometimes refer to themselves.
"I enjoy walking to work in the morning and bodysurfing at lunch,"
James said . "This is where we're meant to be, and we'll stay as long
as we can."
Median household income: $52,524
Median single-family-home value: $854,000
Source: San Diego Association of Governments