Often, when one walks by the Starbucks in OB at the corner of Newport and Bacon, there doesn’t seem to be that many customers inside. Unless it’s a weekend or a crowded holiday. There’s many more people sipping java and staring at their laptops down around the corner at Newbreak on Abbott.
Homeless people and petition hawkers still congregate in front, though, so the corner itself seems busy. People stand in line to get the ATM next door, but they don’t go into the controversial coffeehouse. Locals walk by, ignoring it. Sure, tourists go in, so do college students from Nazarene. But to this day, there is a stigma – although slight – attached to any “conscious” OBcian who enters the glass doors and purchases something off the menu inside. Such is Starbucks in today’s OB.
It’s amazing to think about how time flies by. It’s been ten years since part of Ocean Beach rose up to oppose the planned opening of the Seattle-based corporate giant in the village. Numerous, well-attended rallies were held, a town hall meeting jammed the Rec Center, leaflets and fliers abounded, especially on Farmers’ Market days. A concerted campaign by OBcians to block the store’s opening by public pressure was initiated ten years ago this Spring.
And whatever side you stood on back then, at least you knew about it. It was one of most publicized political campaigns in recent Ocean Beach history.
Because of the decade gone past, we can acknowledge that temporal status, and perhaps some discussion can be held of the controversial storefront and the controversial movement that attempted to stop it.
With that as a goal – a discussion – allow me to outline some of the history, the reasons behind the campaign, and offer an analysis of what had gone down ten years ago.
The Campaign Against Starbucks Is Sparked
The large building at the corner of Newport and Bacon had stood vacate for years. Trash, graffiti accumulated around it. Homeless and musicians crowded what little space the place offered in front. The once tall edifice had been the original Bank of America in OB, then later it was the Left Bank – a combination crafts store, book store, community meeting space, and office for the OB Rag when we were in paper. This was in the mid-seventies. A few years after, Peninsula Bank moved in, and stuccoed the outside and ruined the high ceilings.
Later it became a well-known coffee house, Java Joe’s, known for where Jewell got her start. Then they moved, somebody else moved in, but wasn’t successful. So, it just stood there, empty. Homeless folks slept up on the roof. Local merchants complained about it, about the mess in front. But nothing was done. The then owner never stepped in and cleaned anything up. It was ignored by its owners and managers.
Around that time, a new grassroots group had exploded into community activism. OBGO (OB Grassroots Organization) had formed back in the Spring of 2000 and was growing rapidly. The need for political activism around a number of local and regional issues had been apparent, and OBGO answered the call. The individuals who formed the group had agreed upon principles of support for human rights, the environment, diversity, and democracy.
Meanwhile, EXXON was threatening to move into OB again. SeaWorld was attempting to circumvent the surrounding communities with a new roller coaster ride. A potential leaking toxic dump was remembered close by and needed addressing, as there were questions about what kind of poisons were flowing down San Diego River. The City and hotel developers were itching to turn Mission Bay and the neighborhoods around it – including OB – into a tourist mecca and playland.
OBGO brought a sense of renewed activism to Ocean Beach. For a community saved and re-born in the seventies, grassroots activism had laid dormant for a number of years in the late nineties. During the mid part of that decade, there had been a successful effort at blocking a planned board walk across the beach. But except for some activists on several park and planning boards, it had been quiet in OB for nearly half a decade.
There was an activist spirit in the air. 300 OBcians had crowded into the Rec Center gym to show their opposition to EXXON – that was in early September 2000. OBGO also held a town hall meeting at the Women’s Club in early December of that year and over a hundred attended. Membership jumped after that meeting. And OBGO was regularly having 30 to 40 people attend its bi-monthly meetings. OBGO activists were dealing with Sea World’s transgressions, running for the local planning committees (both OB and Peninsula), educating the community about all the hotels the city was going to allow, planning public pressure on the city to deal with the potential toxic dump.
Yet, at the March 22, 2001 OBGO meeting Kip Kruegar had a complaint.
Kip, a well-known green activist in OB for years and partner of the Green Store on Voltaire, explained how he and a few others had heard that Starbucks planned to move into the old, empty bank building at Newport and Bacon. This was terrible news for local activists. Starbucks symbolized so many things – and much of them negative. Why, even a video promo on OB put out by local merchants had declared that Ocean Beach was so quaint that “it didn’t even have a Starbucks.”
For many at that OBGO meeting that night, Starbucks was seen as the quintessential, yuppy, latte-sipping symbol of gentrification cruising to change our community in a very bad way. Beyond this image, Starbucks was a giant corporate franchise, and as OB’s main street was basically bereft of such animals, it would represent a first, a break-through for future franchises to make their way onto Newport Avenue. The more and more franchises that broke through the barriers of community morals, the less and less OB would remain itself. With franchises dominating the heart of the neighborhood, it would lose its character altogether.
Kruegar explained that a group was going to hold a demonstration at the building that Sunday, three days away, in protest of Starbucks’ plans. He was hot against corporations taking over OB. He wanted us to put energy into finding someone else to move in. The building owner wanted $5,000 a month. The owner, Kip said, doesn’t understand OB. He complained also about Starbucks predatory business practices, how they take over, undercut, and oust other local coffee-serving businesses. Right then, OB had a dozen or so coffee houses right in and around the main street.
The discussion and tone against Starbucks continued. “By keeping them out,” someone said, ” we’d raise the value of what makes Newport unique.” Someone else agreed, and added, “If they come in, other chains will come.”
There were other issues about Starbucks brought up. They used milk that had the bovine growth hormone. They didn’t treat Guatemalan coffee plantation workers well. Others discussed “doing something pro-active” by promoting local coffee places.
Kip announced that a group had sprang up to lead the anti-Starbucks campaign, and it was the Coalition to Save OB. Most that night supported his efforts and acted like they wanted to join in. The discussion then reverted to the other issues on the agenda: Sea World’s EIR for their expansion, a toxic dump demonstration coming up, and other more mundane matters.
With the dusting off of the old “Committee” or “Coalition” that would “save OB” – a name that OB activists had used over the years when they wanted an instant name for an instant cause – Kip and others were implicitly signaling that OBGO had forgotten issues right here in OB that needed to be dealt with. With OBGO focusing on issues outside OB, like SeaWorld, like the hotels, like the toxic dump, it was ignoring concerns right under our nose. Starbucks could open up right there on Newport.
And in looking back, Kip was right.