In Mission Beach, every foot of space counts. Five surf shops, four bars, a handful of restaurants, a resort hotel, a Turkish-style coffee lounge, and an amusement park all fit within its bounds, packed in and amongst the beachside homes. At North Jetty Road, the southwestern cap of Mission Beach, is a well-known locals-only surf spot; at the north end is the Catamaran Hotel, a ritzy vacation spot with suites costing up to $800 a night.
Hanging on to a true beach-town feel amid the commercialism is no easy feat, but Mission Beach keeps it real. Fourteen streets and 46 walkways cross Mission Boulevard, emptying out onto the brown mud banks of the bay on the east and the tan sand of the Pacific Ocean on the west. Scraps of blue sky peek out from between the rows of homes; clouds pass lazily overhead. Here, boxy stucco houses with tailored lawns sit next to fading wooden shacks whose gardens sprawl haphazardly across the scant patches of front yard. Towels flap on clotheslines; wet suits hang over balcony rails; surfboards lie piled on porches, still dewy from morning sessions. Paint has peeled, façades dulled, and cars rusted, but this only adds to the accessibility of the place. Neighbors congregate on the sidewalks for quick chats; people wave at each other from the windows of cars. Surfers hose down boards, talking amongst themselves; shop owners linger outside storefronts, smoking and chatting and watching the street traffic. Restaurants cater to the sweatshirt-and-shorts crowd and more often than not have outdoor seating. Houses face the streets and walkways, few blocked from view by trees or hedges, which gives the area an open, friendly look. Few people, at first glance, appear stressed; Mission Beach is, it seems, a place to relax.
The most conspicuous feature in Mission Beach is at the busy intersection of Mission Boulevard, Ventura Place, and Mission Bay Drive. This is the home of Belmont Park, part carnival, part shopping mall, part food court. The tracks of the Giant Dipper roller coaster clack as the cars go by overhead; bored vendors stand behind stacks of overpriced wares; small children pull haggard parents toward the fray. The artificial barrel waves at the WaveHouse pound along to thumping music as kids and adults flip and shriek on their boards, flying through the spray. The smell of deep-frying and cooking oil wafts on the breeze as chatter from the outdoor patios spills over onto the boardwalk, where skaters and bikers weave through the slow crowd.
Throngs of teenagers atop the cement seawall lining the boardwalk kick their sneakered feet against its cracking side and tease and jostle each other. Their backpacks and skateboards lie piled like sandbags below them. Bikini-clad girls giggle into cell phones. Oversized sunglasses shield their eyes. Slouching, sweat-shirted boys, cans of beer in hand, alternately shrink from and call out to passing women. In the distance, surfers jet along whitewash, standing and falling and standing again.
From Belmont Park down to the jetty is unofficially called South Mission. "I think the distinction is made because Belmont Park neatly separates the north and south residential sections of Mission Beach," says Scott Crosby, who has owned a house in Mission Beach for three years. "West Mission Bay Drive, the main artery into Mission Beach, hits Mission Boulevard right there, bisecting Mission Beach," he continues. All in all, there are few differences between the two areas, though the north end has more businesses and the south end is almost all residential. "As a result of the no-through-street aspect of South Mission," says Crosby, "it's much quieter and is a bit quirky, in a way not unlike OB is, since only those who have business there venture that way."
Compared to other San Diego beach communities, Mission Beach is a baby. Pacific Beach and Coronado were well into their development stages by the time Mission Beach came into the picture. In 1914, John Spreckels and George L. Barney submitted a plan to the City of San Diego outlining their concept for the area. Spreckels wanted a resort hotel and elegant homes, and Barney jumped on board. But due to poor finances they had somewhat of a false start. The erection of a bridge between Ocean Beach and Mission Beach in 1915 put Mission Beach on the map as accessible, beautiful, and investment-worthy.
The Father of Mission Beach, as he is known, was J.M. Asher, the developer who in 1916 spearheaded Mission Beach's Tent City. Pictures from the era show neat rows of striped, circuslike tents interspersed with grassy, Hawaiian-style cabana huts. Mission Boulevard divides those at the water's edge from those set back from the water. The lots were for sale, and tent sites were available for rent, and while not the most luxurious accommodations, the tents allowed families and individuals to live right on the beach. Asher, in response to the influx in population and in order to cash in on the beachfront market even further, built a bathhouse on Redondo Court to accommodate the crowd. Eventually, more and more people began to stay year-round, having taken to the weather and beach lifestyle, making Tent City not only a viable resort but also a place to live.
Though Asher is called the Father of Mission Beach, none of his developments still stand. Tent City was dismantled in 1922 in response to new, stricter city codes regarding temporary housing and was soon replaced by permanent residences. The Redondo Court bathhouse, once an icon of what is now referred to as Old Mission Beach, was torn down in the '50s, replaced eventually by a parking lot, and still later by condos.
Spreckels had better luck than Asher did; some of what he built remains. In 1925, he constructed what was then called the Mission Beach Amusement Center, hoping to increase real estate interest in Mission Beach. The result was a games carnival, a ballroom, the Plunge swimming pool, and the Giant Dipper roller coaster, which is the second-oldest coaster ride in California. But Spreckels's structures were in for a bumpy ride; the amusement center, renamed Belmont Park in 1957, stalled out in the '60s and '70s, closing in December 1976.