Getting to Know the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, Part 1: The Founders and the Power of Idealism

by on August 23, 2010 · 25 comments

in Culture, Economy, Ocean Beach, Popular

OBstreet fair-longview

The OB Mainstreet Association sponsors the annual Street Fair, long recognized as one of the best in all of San Diego.

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.

OBMA

1868 Bacon Street. In 1930 it was Froide Foto Finishing (photo courtesy of Helen Froide Gibb.) Now it is the OBMA office. (2010 photo by Becca Lyn.)

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.”

Claudia Jack when she managed Yum-Yum Donuts

Claudia Jack when she managed Yum-Yum Donuts, circa late seventies.

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.

Tile Opening with Denny Knox, Ron Roberts and Linda Small

Tile Opening on Newport Avenue with Denny Knox, then-city councilmember Ron Roberts and Linda Small.

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 brenda@obdays.com.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar doug porter August 23, 2010 at 8:40 am

great start!
anybody remember zeke’s chicken? didn’t he turn out to be some kinda nazi?

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 23, 2010 at 9:04 am

I don’t think Zeke himself was a Nazi, but he did employ a couple of young guys who would turn out in their KKK sheets every once in awhile. Remember the side window where you could order your chicken? Most of Zeke’s establishment was the inside of Newport’s first antique store, I believe.

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

This is our way of saying ‘thanks’ to Denny Knox and Claudia Jack for all their tireless efforts to make OB a better place. These two strong women have more energy and more motivation than most residents or business people ever experience. Plus both of them came up through the ranks of being businesswomen themselves, and thus have dealt firsthand with the problems and challenges of being a small merchant. They have brought much to our community and we all need to take a moment and thank them.

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avatar Brenda McFarlane August 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

Thanks Frank for putting that so well. I was blown away by the commitment Denny and Claudia show towards OB and am glad this place offers one way to express our appreciation.

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avatar Gary Gilmore August 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Nicely done Brenda, I finally moved onto Newport in 1978. It was my burning desire to be on the main drag and when a location finally became available I jumped at the chance and felt that I had finally made the big time. To this day I still feel the same. As an artist, craftsman & businessman I can’t think of a better fit than OB. When I come to the shop in the morning and get to the top of Narragansett I see OB, the pier, the ocean & the sky and I thank my lucky stars that fate sent OB my way. I love this town. Really looking forward to the follow-up article. Thank you.

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avatar Brenda McFarlane August 24, 2010 at 8:08 am

From what I hear, you’ve given a lot back to OB as well. I look forward to meeting the person whose name keeps popping up in OB-related conversation.

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avatar Sarah August 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Hey Brenda-
What a fantastic article. Your writing style is so amazingly upbeat and positive and happy. It is refreshing and wonderful.

And – you gave me my newest favorite quote.

“…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.”

Thank you. You have a true gift for getting to the heart of the people you interview.

Sarah

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avatar Brenda McFarlane August 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ahh! I’m feeling a litte embarrassed by your compliments but I promise you, when I’m feeling down about my writing, I’m going to re-read this note (which I’ve copied to my desktop) and allow them to encourage me, thank you for your words!

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avatar christine wilson August 23, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Nicely done Brenda, kudos. I’ve been going to OB since the mid 1970’s. I remember when the 5 and dime store was located in one of those antique malls towards sunset cliffs. All the pink and blue haired ladies worked there. It was a sad day to see it close. I also remember the dog food store on the corner of newport and I think bacon. That guy was LIVID when they raised his rent! So he shut down his shop. Bummer for all of us local dog owner. He was the coolest guy in town. Always had a kind word and free biscuits for the mutts. But the biggest bummer of all was when they closed doors for good on the theater! I liked OB better before all the “progress”! It was a funky rebel town in the 70’s and 80’s! Had a lawlwss feel to it..living on the edge..it’s getting a little to tame for me now. I do like how folks pick up after their dogs now at dog beach though! For two decades, I guareentee you..they didn’t!!

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avatar Brenda McFarlane August 24, 2010 at 8:03 am

Thanks Christine, It would have been nice to know OB at that time (except for the dog poop).

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avatar Barbara S August 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

what a wonderful story! Denny & Claudia and all the other merchants involved with OB I Thank You!
Can’t wait for part 2 and hopefully more photos of 2 of the most amazing women I know!

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avatar Brenda McFarlane August 24, 2010 at 8:05 am

Thank you Barbara, yes, I agree more photos would be great! I’ll begin working on the next story after labor day (and Burning Man).

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avatar Jim August 24, 2010 at 4:28 pm

As a third generation Obecian, I grew up with Claudia being like Mom to me! Claudia Jack/ Guilmet is “OB”! I have NEVER nor will any of us probably EVER meet anybody so dedicated to our community as Claudia! As a young boy growing up in OB with parents who had their financial ups and downs Claudia would always make sure that I was enrolled in peninsula Little league where she volunteered thousands of hours, days, weeks, months, and years of her time to make sure that ALL of us kids, HER KIDS, where having fun and doing something positive! She has volunteered more time to Ocean Beach than many of us could dream of. Claudia eats, sleeps, dreams, and lives OB! If you have ever been to a OB Christmas parade, OB Street Fair, 4th of July, Chili CookOff, Kite festival, etc… Thank Claudia Jack!!! I love ya Claudia and I am not alone!!!! I VOTE FOR A “Cluadia Jack Day” In Ocean Beach where we all get out and VOLUNTEER our day to Ocean Beach! MUCH LOVE AND RESPECT,
Jimmy Chavarria!

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avatar D.J. Bonin October 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Great article Brenda ! And to Jim, thank you for spelling Obecian the correct way. I have seen it mangled so badly in the past.

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avatar Frank Gormlie October 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Okay DJ Bonin, What are your authorities for the “correct” spelling? There is one version that spells it “OBcean” – putting the “B” in ocean.

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avatar Mike James August 24, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Hi Brenda,
Thanks for the story.
I remember the first marketing we did as the Ocean Beach Merchants Association (later Mainstreet). Mike Knox (Denny’s husband) the first president had bumper stickers made that read “OB is OK.” We needed to keep positive during this transitional time for Ocean Beach and Newport Ave. Many of the businesses were closing because they could not compete with the chain stores and the malls. Dickers Department Store, Horn’s Furniture and Television, Burdine’s Stationery were just a few of the failing businesses. Those who would and still survive had to provide unique services and products to the community.

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avatar Chet August 25, 2010 at 10:55 am

I wonder how many people know that CJ also owns the company the picks up the trash on Newport Ave. Nice chunk of change plus all the other little companies she has that are employed by OBMA. Watch your back Frank.

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avatar Jim August 25, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Hey Chet, It’s something called “Keeping it local” ! It’s something that OB is all about right? Would you rather Waste management of New York or some other city or state had the contract on? Claudia has given more to this community than any amount of contracts she gets. As for back watching, Frank I would guess your back is fine but for you Mr. Chet the sun sets about 6:30 or 7:00 pm I wouldn’t want to get caught out in a dark alley in OB if I were you as Claudia has MANY friends and family that wouldn’t take to kindly to you!

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avatar Jon August 25, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Trudy Levenson, if you’re reading, here is a perfect example of what I was referring to earlier. A perfectly nice and positive story about our community, the good that OBMA has done, and specifically the nice things Claudia has done for us all. However, that becomes overshadowed at times due to the nature of some of the comments, such as the dialogue happening right now between Chet and Jim. Please don’t label the OB Rag as a “negative” thing because of something like that. The author wrote a story, and some people commented nicely, others not so much. Things often get heated with these online blog discussions, but this form of media/social networks/whatever, is not going to go away any time soon.

I’m going to repost my original message to you in reply to your comment regarding Frank Gormlie’s rejection. Just in case you couldn’t find it again….

Hi Trudy,

Thank you for having the courage to comment on this board. It’s not easy to open yourself up to public comment in a forum such as this. You certainly have done a lot for the community, and I don’t think anyone would question that. Also, the majority here, myself included, understand that rules are in place and should be followed accordingly. Chris Moore summed it up in his earlier comment when he said,

“I don’t think if the rules had been applied consistently or in a timely manner there would have been any uproar.
It just seems a little odd that Frank was informed of this decision at the last minute, when there had been no objection to his candidacy when he declared it.”

That is the problem we have here. There definitely appears to be one or more board members that simply do not like Mr. Gormlie and went out of their way to find a loophole to oust him as a candidate.

Also, you mention that you are “very dismayed about this blog.” Would you care to elaborate on that comment? What is it that has you dismayed? As I mentioned in an earlier post of mine, there is a tremendous amount of good that comes from this blog. The real negativity and infighting generally appear in the comment section of controversial stories that appear on the blog when certain folks want to start fights or don’t like a particular viewpoint, etc….

I wish that stories like Brenda’s recent series about our OBMA and their history had half as many comments as the story about an anti-homeless sticker http://obrag.org/?p=23576. I wish my story about building community gardens had 1/4 of the comments that Frank’s being ousted from the OBTC ballot has received http://obrag.org/?p=21426. I wish Shane’s wonderful story about Dr. Jeoff Gordon had more than 9 comments http://obrag.org/?p=19379. But people generally don’t want to acknowledge the positive things that come from this online publication, and would much rather demonize the blog and post frustrated rants and vile things about one particular story. Although this is common practice in the world of internet blogging, it is sad that so many choose to focus their energy on negativity.

Again, thanks for commenting and contributing to our community and this dialogue.

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avatar G August 25, 2010 at 11:19 am

Oh this article just brought tears to my eyes, the comments didnt help a lick. I moved to OB for less than a year, and fell in love with the town the moment I arrived. Claudia made every day for me a wonderful day, and her dedication and love is a constant influence in my life. I refuse to imagine OB without Claudia and her years of service. The pictures with the article are fabulous. OB is a strange community but its stuck together, and its held strong when corporations, and simply negative vibes have moved in. Its evolved and its grown and its done such in a great way, thanks to all the people who have been involved over the years. Im continuing to keep an eye on good ol OB, and send tons of love down South.
No bad Days!

LOVE ALWAYS
Claudia’s daughter,
G

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avatar claudiaj August 28, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Brenda, Your write-up was Fantastic>>>>> You did a Great job>>>> I can’t wait for write-up #2, I’ m digging up some more pictures & thinking of lots of Old School information!!!!

I have a Great Ideal::::: Let’s declare September 6, 2010 (Labor Day) Write something Positive on the Comment Page on the OB Rag !!!!!! Let’s see how people can write something positive about something in OB or OB History ??? Brenda, what do you think??? Claudia

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avatar claudiaj August 28, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Woops:::::::: PS September 6, 2010 (Labor Day) VFW Picnic at Bill Cleater Park, (Off Catalind Blvd) 9am, Don’t miss this fantastic picnic, music, raffle, food, spirits, soda, ice cold water, BBQ (Yum Yum) Fun in the Sun. Come relax & Support the OB VFW!!! Don’t miss out!!!!!!!!!! LOL claudia

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avatar frank James November 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Is anyone willing or able to help one group that has aided people at Xmas,Thanksgiving, and every other time of the year…including Little League Baseball, the Vet’s Stand down. What I am talking about is the Post 1392 VFW. Seems like there are groups that don’t want the Vets here in OB. I’m sorry, but we have done nothing but try and help the community!!!! Maybe some people on the “civic” groups like the OBMA think that we don’t fit, think again….maybe it is you that does not fit the essence of a giving community. Please reply if you have ideas or help for our local VFW

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avatar Frank Gormlie November 14, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Frank James – we posted an article about the plight of the VFW post on last Thursday, the 11th. Please see it.

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avatar frank James November 14, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Nice article Frank.. But I have been in this community a long time, please give me a call at 223-4060 and we can talk about why the VFW is still struggling to find a home.. Thanks

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