What was perceived as a bad reputation, combined with a 40% vacancy rate on Newport Avenue, brought a group of idealistic shop owners together in the mid-Seventies to pump optimism into the abandoned main street of the beach town they love.
I dropped by the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association (OBMA) the other day to learn more about the group that organizes my favorite event of the year, the OB Street Fair & Chili Cook-Off. It turns out that this active organization is not only a rich source of news about their own activities but have some great stories to tell from the past.
The first thing I wanted to know more about was the origins of the OBMA. Denny Knox, Executive Director and the Associate Director, Claudia Jack, sat down with me at the large table in the office just off Newport Avenue on Bacon Street near Nati’s restaurant between Seams to Me and Surf N Sea Custom Wetsuits and Repair. The OBMA office is spacious and open, a fitting design for a group who is tasked with the challenge of bringing together the disparate group of individuals and merchants who are Ocean Beach business owners.
In order to capture the essence of the OBMA story and because I am a newcomer, I encourage them to tell me some of their memories of OB. In the 1950’s, with the Mission Beach Bridge demolished, OB was a small, isolated community. Claudia Jack grew up on Amiford Drive and she describes it as a simple dirt road with just three homes; the house her father had built, the Parson’s house and Judge Fitzgerald’s house. She recalls:
“Residents rarely needed to leave. We had everything here. There was a Denny’s, 2 grocery stores, a movie theater and even a fancy clothing store with angora sweaters. I remember buying fresh produce from Mr. Young by the bridge.”
Things began changing for OB with the advent of surfing in the late 50’s, OB pier opening in 1966, the completion of the I-8 connecting OB to San Diego in 1967 and, most significantly for the Ocean Beach merchants, city planners selling out the Mission Valley recreation area to commercial interests and allowing the construction of Fashion Valley, which opened 1969.
OB was no longer secluded and businesses had more outside competition. Greater accessibility brought even more of the social change that was spreading throughout the country. Hippies, full of new ideas seeking havens to experiment with new life style choices, flocked to places like San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury and Vancouver’s Tofino. Perfect weather, a nice beach, plentiful affordable housing and a mixture of urban convenience with unique geographical separateness made Ocean Beach the ideal hippie town.
These newcomers brought the exciting ideas and the refreshing message of peace, love and freedom to Ocean Beach but, while this counter-culture would become a cherished and permanent part of the OB fabric, some were intimidated, frightened and disapproving of this new way of being. Denny tells me her parents, like many parents, strictly forbade her from going anywhere near OB. And, because it was off limits, OB became even more attractive to young people eager to become a part of the revolution. No doubt, the sheer volume of young people in OB, some true hippies and others just looking for a party, deterred many who had traditionally patronized the stores on Newport. It got so bad, the women tell me, that many people avoided Ocean Beach entirely because it was thought of as a dirty and dangerous place.
Whether it was the Mission or Fashion Valley Malls, a fear of hippies, poor urban planning or an inability for OB merchants to adjust to the changing times quickly enough, the late 60’s and 70’s was a very dark time for OB merchants. Newport businesses that had been on the street for years began to fail. According to Denny, there was a 40% store vacancy rate on Newport Avenue by the mid-70’s.
There were plenty of new merchants too and some say Newport Avenue has never had as an exciting array of stores and restaurants as existed in the 70’s. Unfortunately many had trouble surviving and while their short life may have been due to lack of funds, unrealistic business models or inexperience, more customers on Newport wouldn’t have hurt.
In the mid 1970’s there was an attempt to revitalize Ocean Beach through the establishment of a business and residents association. This optimistic effort was probably doomed from the beginning as residents and business owners seemed incapable of trusting each other or finding common ground. This was not surprising, not only do residents and businesses often have opposing goals but it was a time of polarized opinions and everyone felt that their lifestyle was under immediate threat. Even with a true vision of peace and love, it wasn’t simple to achieve and people were fighting for their ideals. So, it is not surprising that it was internal discord that crushed this first organization. As often happens when lofty goals fail, a few good people were left disillusioned and bitter, convinced that the failure proved it couldn’t be done.
However, in 1978, a new group of idealists formed a rag tag bunch who believed they could organize to improve Newport Avenue business. Denny and her husband Mike Knox were among the first 4 members, although it’s hard to pinpoint the “official” original membership since it wasn’t very formal at the time. Denny remembers that Mike James, Theo Dornbusch, Gary Gilmore, and John Burdine were all involved that first year.
“We had stars in our eyes” laughs Denny, “we just couldn’t imagine why everyone in town wouldn’t immediately want to join us to achieve this dream.”
The group certainly didn’t imagine the strong and vocal opposition they received. One disenchanted shop owner who had tried to form the unsuccessful business and residents association did not take kindly to these young upstarts thinking they could do what he had failed to do.
He scoffed, “You won’t be able to get OB Merchants to agree on the same book let alone get them all on the same page.”
He had a point. The group quickly learned that many shop owners just aren’t joiners.Denny tells me;
“Business owners are a naturally independent lot and just don’t easily fall into lockstep with others. I went into one store to let the owner know about all the great things we were planning to do and he just said; ‘GET OUT’. Of course, I was shocked. I left the store and immediately started crying. My husband and a few of the others found me blubbering on the sidewalk. I told them what happened and they probably became almost as upset as I was. ”
Not only are merchants not “joiners” as a whole but it couldn’t have helped that it was a time when any group of people, whether a group of police officers, hippies or religious followers, were viewed suspiciously and seen as potentially dangerous.
As I consider the achievements these young business people’s efforts made, I think of how lucky it is they did not know how hard it would be or how long it would take for them to achieve success. Without idealism perhaps they would not have endured being yelled at, laughed at and ridiculed.
“We started small, very small” Denny recalls, smiling, “I remember going around to the merchants giving away free brooms trying to get store owner to sweep the sidewalks. Our big goal at first was to get trash cans for the street.”
The OBMA story makes me think of what a shame it is that we work so hard to stomp out naiveté. It seems to me that sometimes it is the only thing that allows us to achieve the impossible. It took 6 years before the group’s hard work began to pay off. As more shop owners and residents began to support the OBMA, they were finally in a position to formally organize the Association and begin to think bigger. Their efforts would lead to far greater achievements than providing Newport Avenue with trashcans.
In my next article on the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, I will explore the story of its growth and success.
Please comment with your stories, memories and points of view. I wasn’t there so I’d love to hear from people who were.
Also, I am seeking pictures of those times and, if you don’t mind if I publish them on the web, feel free to send digital copies to firstname.lastname@example.org.