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Ocean Beach – the Haight Ashbury of San Diego

Dirty Sally's, the Black, the In-Between

"If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you." - Image by David Covey
"If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you."

During the day Dave likes to hang out on the wall separating the sidewalk from the sand at the foot of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, enjoying the sunshine, and watching, as he put it, “all the little honeys” walking by in their bathing suits. At night, he said he sleeps wherever he can: on the beach, in the alley, on the back porch of some building, or at the homes of friends. He lives off of the few dollars he makes every week selling blood to the plasma center two blocks up Newport, and eats most of his meals free at the Point Loma Methodist Church on nearby Cable Street. His long, sunbleached blonde hair drapes past the shoulders of his lean frame; his nose is blistered from the many hours he spends outside each day in the sun. His wardrobe doesn’t vary much more than his daily activities: a couple of drab T-shirts, a pair of faded Levis, leather thongs, and a turquoise lightning bolt hanging from a silver chain around his neck.

July, 1969 San Diego Union: “Anyone who has been to the west end of Newport Avenue will share the concern of the people of Ocean Beach and Point Loma over the incipient human blight there."

“I moved down here about two months ago from Santa Barbara,” Dave said late in the afternoon on a recent weekday, sitting on his favorite spot right at the center of the wall facing the intersection of Newport and Abbott Street. “I’ve been traveling all over the country for years, and in January I met this family, a couple and their two kids, who were livin’ in their car in the Santa Barbara parking lot. About six months ago they moved down here ‘cause the weather’s nicer and the atmosphere is mellower, and when they came back in June to pick up a welfare check, I came down here with ‘em. I love it here. The beach is great.” He paused a moment to watch a shapely young woman pass by. “Awoo, hon-ey,” he yelled out after her, and then added, “You know, the only problem down here is the cops. They hassle you all the time. They bust you for drinkin’ a beer and take you down to Detox; you just get jacked off by ‘em for no reason at all. Every Friday that the Navy guys get paid, there’s a real heavy drug flow down here, and the cops ride around all day and all night. If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you, just out of the blue. I even get hassled at night when I’m trying to sleep – they come around with their flashlights and tell you to get the hell out of there.”

Dave, who is twenty-five years old and isn’t into last names, used to be called a hippie. Most people today would probably call him a bum, but he’s not the kind of bum you find downtown on skid row. The sandy beach and warm sunshine are his bottle of wine; the memories that keep him alive are not of past accomplishments, but of a recent era of peace and love and rebellion, of turning on and dropping out. Most of the several dozen beach people who spend their time on the 5000 block of Newport Avenue and its adjacent stretch of beach live a lot like Dave does. Many discovered acid and pot while in high school in the late Sixties; they tuned into Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary, to flower power and free love; they rejected the work ethic; they let their hair grow. And also like Dave, many have drifted into O.B. for the carefree beach life. But regardless of their origins, the beach people along Newport Avenue remain largely unchanged from the way they and their predecessors were when Grace Slick sang of white rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars. No shiny Porsches to be seen; they haven’t put money down on a condo in Mission Valley.

Along the block down to the beach, sights still abound that recall the ambiance associated with the “counterculture.” Dirty Sally’s Boutique is a new-and-used store advertised as offering “colorful bikinis for guys and dolls.” A sign on the window, handwritten and taped in place at all four corners, proclaims, X-rated film sold here.” Inside, Dirty Sally herself – a comely woman in her sixties with long, flowing hair as white as the sand on the beach, and who usually wears a flowered, backless sun dress – waits on her customers. The Black, just a few doors down, is one of San Diego’s largest headshop/boutiques and offers an enormous selection of underground comics, many dating back to the Sixties. The four bars on the block – Le Chalet, Tony’s, the Cavern, and the Sunshine Company Saloon – are dark, tiny establishments where the musty odor of carpet and leatherette mixes with the occasional wisps of fresh salt air that breeze in through the open front doors. The San Diego Police department’s community relations office, which was opened in mid-1969 at the height of Ocean Beach’s social and cultural upheaval, is now staffed solely by Officer Nancy Hawkins, who three years ago used to pump gas at the Mobil station two blocks up Newport. The block’s sole haircutting establishment is called Curl Up and Dye. And down near the water are the ever-present beach people, congregating on the wall, separating the sidewalk from the beach, or at the two west corners of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street, just as they’ve always done.

On a recent afternoon, a burly man with a graying, bird’s-nest beard, faded blue overalls with torn pockets and frayed straps, and an olive Smokey the Bear hat sat on the north end of the wall and plucked notes on a guitar, a scratchy, russet-colored instrument that produced clear, surprisingly resonant tones. As people strolled by he would look up, smile almost leeringly, and mumble, “Have a nice day,” his eyes half closed and his head bopping up and down like an offshore oil pump. Farther south on the wall, a shirtless younger man with tousled blonde hair and piercing blue eyes stared straight ahead, motionless. A short haired man in light blue T-shirt and beige corduroy shorts rode up on a bicycle, an expensive-looking import with raylets of sunshine bouncing off its metallic frame. He butted the bike’s tire against the wall and sat down just a few inches from the blonde youth. “Got any pot?” The blonde continued staring, acknowledging neither the question nor the questioner. After a few seconds, the newcomer shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He looked down at his feet and began tapping his hands against the inside of his bare thighs. Suddenly the blonde young man looked at him – his trance apparently unbroken – and said in a boldly loud voice, “You wanna buy some?” The newcomer nodded his head. “Follow me,” the blonde said, getting up, and the pair walked north on Abbot Street, the short haired man walking his bike and neither of them speaking. At the edge of the parking lot, two teenage girls in string bikinis were walking away from the beach amid whistling from three or four long-haired men sitting on the hood of an old Ford, drinking cans of Lowenbrau. One man shouted, “Hey you wanna beer? Come here.” The taller girl turned toward the heckler and expressionlessly shot him the finger. “Okay, then fuck off you bitch!” he yelled after her, his face red with anger. His companions erupted in laughter. After a moment, he laughed too.

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Edmund Adler has owned Adler’s Pharmacy on Newport Avenue, just east of where Newport crosses Bacon Street, since June, 1960. He remembers the scene at the foot of Newport during the late Sixties, when the nationwide “hippie” movement had just started and young people were flocking to coastal areas such as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. “They started arriving around 1966, I recall,” he said. “What it originally was, they wanted to go south of the border into Mexico, but right about that time Mexico began closing its borders to young people whose hair was past a certain length. So all these young people were being turned away at the border with no place to go, and they settled in San Diego. Why they picked Ocean Beach I don’t know; your guess is as good as mine.” Whatever the reason, by 1969 Ocean Beach’s transient population had increased enormously, with most of the newcomers centered around the foot of Newport Avenue and the stretch of beach to its west. The cement wall between the sidewalk and the sand had become a popular place to hang out, with up to a hundred young people clustered there at a time, particularly in the early evenings and on weekends.

“We saw a lot of panhandling, hitting people up for money,” Adler recollected. “Most of it was going on down in front of Zeke’s Antique Shop – that’s where the pizza parlor is now, across the street from us. They were bothering our customers, asking everybody who came by for money, but fortunately they hardly ever crossed the street. It’s funny, they always stayed in the 5000 block of Newport Avenue. There seemed to be a curtain drawn along the center of Bacon Street that prevented them from crossing.” (From my own recollection of this time, I was attending Sacred Heart Academy, Ocean Beach’s only Catholic grade school, housed in the same boxlike two-story building on the corner of Saratoga Avenue and Cable Street it’s been in since the middle Fifties. Every Thursday after school, I walked two blocks down Cable to Newport Avenue, where I turned west and continued for another block to the Betina Mango guitar studio just off the corner of Newport and Bacon Street, where I was taking lessons. Marching along Newport with my bulky guitar case, I would see clusters of young people with shaggy hair and drab, often dirty clothes milling around the storefronts across Bacon. Occasionally, I would stop by Zeke’s – which also had a small café inside – for a quick snack. Like vultures the longhairs would approach me as I left the shop: “Buddy you wanna buy some pot?” “Hey, you got a dime you can spare?” “Lemme see your guitar, man.” I would tell my mother about these experiences and I remember her sternly warning me, “Don’t ever go down there again. If they want to sell you drugs, call the police. But stay away from them.”)

The January, 1968 opening of the In Between, a youth-counseling center originally sponsored by the Point Loma Methodist Church located at what is now the Ocean Beach Community Services headquarters at 5041 Newport Avenue, didn’t help matters much; it seemed to attract as many troublemakers as it did young people sincerely in search of help. Kurt Dornbush, who’s twenty-five years old, used to surf in the waters off the foot of Newport Avenue while in his teens. He’s now the manager of The Black. “It was almost dangerous for us kids to hang out there,” he recalled. “I remember one time I stopped by the In Between, this was when I was thirteen, and witnessed a stabbing over a pool game. This happened right inside what was supposed to be a church-run counseling center, in front of all us kids. A lot of the problems were due to the transients, but what could you do?”

San Diego reacted with near hysteria. Every crime in O.B. was blamed on the beach people. Businesses complained to the police, to the papers, to anyone who would listen, that the presence of long-haired freaks drove away customers. One café even went so far as to charge anyone whom they considered a “hippie” a dollar for a cup of coffee that they sold to anyone else for fifteen cents; refills that had always been free cost longhairs seventy-five cents. In July of 1969, a group of businessmen and residents formed a group called Peninsula Aroused Citizens and formally petitioned the San Diego City Council to investigate the “youth problem” in Ocean Beach that, the petition claimed, was in danger of turning the seaside community into the “Haight-Ashbury of San Diego.” On July 7 of that year, the San Diego Union published an editorial which read: “Anyone who has been to the west end of Newport Avenue on a recent evening or weekend will share the concern of the people of Ocean Beach and Point Loma over the incipient human blight there. The area is without a doubt the equivalent of ‘Haight-Ashbury’ in San Francisco, a focal point for promiscuous sex, dope and retreat from responsibility by the dregs of youth. And the festering immorality is in one of San Diego’s prime tourist areas. The city’s major public fishing pier and a beautiful beach is [sic] right at the location. The concern of Ocean Beach over this threat should be a concern of each of us wherever we live in San Diego. Like any blight, the Ocean Beach hippie movement will spread unless disinfected.”

Within weeks, the petitioners claimed victory. The city council ordered Walter Hahn, then city manager, to investigate the Ocean Beach “youth problem,” which was centered around the 5000 block of Newport Avenue and its beach. A few months later the investigation was completed, and based on its results, Hahn called for stricter enforcement of all laws – from loitering and panhandling to prostitution and drug dealing – and beefed up police patrols in the area. A police community relations office was opened at 5025 Newport Avenue in a storefront with plastic windows. “Everybody was afraid of the police back then,” said a long-time surfer who gave his name only as Rick. “They were harassing everyone. They would stop people all over and check their IDs, it was really radical. But there were an awful lot of low-lifes who caused trouble. Even today the whole zone stinks. A friend of mine who works with me came in the other day wearing sunglasses. He took them off and showed me a black eye that had required six stitches. He’d just been sitting in his car with his girlfriend in the parking lot by the beach and some goon came up and punched him in the face for no reason at all. I’m all for having more cops down here now. They should really do something to get rid of all the goons.” Rick, who is now twenty-nine years old and works as a surfboard shaper, added, “Don’t use my last name, okay? I don’t want some goons looking for me.”

The next few years saw a gradual betterment of the area. “The police cut [the crime rate in] everything, and the number of loiterers decreased somewhat,” recalled Edmund Adler. “They were doing a lot of drug busts in the parking lot by the beach, and that really helped clean the area up.” But in early 1974, something happened that caused the police and the whole community to crack down on the remaining beach people like never before.

Early on the morning of February 22, 1974, Officer William Ritter Jr., was sitting in his patrol car in the public parking lot at the foot of Newport Avenue, working on some reports. The thirty-year-old Ritter had been on the force for several years, and over the past few months had befriended several residents of police beat 612, which encompassed much of Ocean Beach. His car was backed up to a high concrete retaining wall and faced the intersection of Newport Avenue and Abbott Street. Shortly after eight, a man in a cotton flannel coat who was later identified as Peter M. Mahone walked up to the patrol car, withdrew a pistol from the bag he was carrying, and calmly shot Ritter in the face. He then put the pistol back inside the bag and casually walked away, heading north on Abbott Street to a tiny house three blocks away. A newspaper carrier who had witnessed the shooting and tailed Mahone to the house notified police of Mahone’s whereabouts, and within minutes two police officers – Detective Gene Spurlock and Officer Michael De Bruler – went inside the house 2014 ½ Abbott Street. As they opened the door to the room in which Mahone was hiding, three or four shots were fired, hitting De Bruler in the arm and the back. Spurlock returned the fire and dragged De Bruler out of the house.

By that time, more than a hundred police officers had surrounded the house and a command post was set up at Robb Field. After three tear gas grenades were tossed through a window, Mahone came out through the front door and surrendered. He had been shot in the arm. In September of that year he was convicted of two counts of attempted murder for the shootings of Ritter and De Bruler, and received a sentence of twenty years to life. Ritter and De Bruler, the two wounded police officers, recovered from their injuries but retired on disability shortly after the incident. After Mahone’s apprehension reporters from the San Diego Union questioned his mother, who claimed to live in the house on Abbott Street, as to why she thought her son had shot the two police officers. “Who likes pigs?” she shouted in response. “Do you?”

Once again police patrols in the area were increased, and once again even the most minor laws were strictly enforced. Crime was cut noticeably and families once again started coming to the beach at the foot of Newport Avenue. The In Between, long at odds with the local business community, was finally shut down in 1975. But the beach people stayed. Today, although drug traffic is still heavy, the overall crime rate for serious offenses – including rape and other sex crimes, assault, burglary, robbery, grand theft, auto theft, and petty theft – in Ocean Beach is almost one-third that of Mission Beach (the latest police records, for May and June of this year, show that there were fifty-four serious crimes per census tract in Ocean Beach as opposed to 157 per census tract in Mission Beach).

Lieutenant Claude Gray, of the police department’s western division, is perhaps more familiar with the police department’s view of Ocean Beach than anyone else. “We know there’s a lot of narcotics activity in Ocean Beach; that’s our main problem there,” he said. “Our officers have witnessed narcotics transactions and made arrests, business people and residents have witnessed narcotics transactions and called on us to make arrests. But you have to understand that there’s lots of drug activity in any beach community. Ocean Beach was the site of a lot of trouble of all kinds during the Sixties, but it’s now the Eighties. Like any beach neighborhood, Ocean Beach is a transient area where the people don’t really have roots, so you have more problems than you do elsewhere. But you’ve got so many responsible citizens who go there for the same reasons as the troublemakers – the sun, the beach. Recently, there was almost a decision to close down our storefront office, but the citizens of the neighborhood wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We’re keeping it open as a result.

“I know a large number of people who are loitering around the area are dealing in narcotics, and many are even furthering their own habits. Many commit burglaries to support these habits. We also have a problem with people sleeping in the alleys and on the beach. When we spot them, they’re warned. The course of action we take depends on where we find them. If they’re sleeping on someone’s property, the owner is contacted, and if he’s had problems with transients before or wants to file charges, we cite them for trespassing. If we find someone sleeping on the beach, we cite him, too. If we find the same guy sleeping on the beach or in the alley over and over again then a physical arrest is often made and he’s taken to jail. But these people are a minority, just a few people are responsible for all the trouble in the area, just like anywhere else. You don’t indict a whole community for an individual’s actions.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, two scraggly looking young men were sitting on the beach wall at the foot of Newport. One had frizzy, light-brown hair, several days’ growth of beard on his chin, and was wearing a dirty pair of Levi’s cutoffs and a light-blue denim shirt. The other had short brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He was wearing a pair of dark-brown corduroys and no shirt, revealing a tan almost as dark as his pants, and a light-yellow cloth hat with a bright yellow-and-orange band around its apex. Both looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Empty beer cans lay on the sidewalk around their bare feet. They were talking in somewhat hushed tones about the state of their sex lives. “Man, I haven’t been laid in about two years, not since I humped this twenty-two-year-old fox who I met right here on this beach,” the man with the cloth hat said wistfully. “But I paid for it, man. Did I ever pay for it. I ended up getting’ some weird kind of V.D., sorta like gonorrhea but not quite as bad.”

The other man nodded his head sympathetically. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said. After a few seconds of silence he looked up and said, “I feel like getting’ some food in a little while. I just made nine bucks from the plasma center.”

His friend looked up and a broad smile came to his face. “All right! You’re doin’ your part. Sellin’ plasma to save America, right here in America’s Finest City.” A few more seconds of silence. “You been sellin’ any dope lately?”

“Shit, I haven’t sold anything, not even a little bit, in two or three weeks. I coulda sold some acid, but I don’t want to risk the rap for that. Just a couple of tabs and…”

At that moment a third man walked up, an older, heavyset fellow with a reddish complexion and a ridiculous-looking sailor’s cap atop a shock of bright-blonde hair. He was huffing and puffing as though he’d been running; perspiration stains dotted his T-shirt, and tiny beads of sweat were glistening on his forehead. “Hey Bonzo,” the man with the cloth hat yelled out. “How ya doin’?”

“Oh man,” Bonzo said, trying to catch his breath. “I think I’m dyin’ at middle age.”

The man with the cloth hat laughed and said, “Hope I make it to middle age, brother.”

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"If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you." - Image by David Covey
"If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you."

During the day Dave likes to hang out on the wall separating the sidewalk from the sand at the foot of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, enjoying the sunshine, and watching, as he put it, “all the little honeys” walking by in their bathing suits. At night, he said he sleeps wherever he can: on the beach, in the alley, on the back porch of some building, or at the homes of friends. He lives off of the few dollars he makes every week selling blood to the plasma center two blocks up Newport, and eats most of his meals free at the Point Loma Methodist Church on nearby Cable Street. His long, sunbleached blonde hair drapes past the shoulders of his lean frame; his nose is blistered from the many hours he spends outside each day in the sun. His wardrobe doesn’t vary much more than his daily activities: a couple of drab T-shirts, a pair of faded Levis, leather thongs, and a turquoise lightning bolt hanging from a silver chain around his neck.

July, 1969 San Diego Union: “Anyone who has been to the west end of Newport Avenue will share the concern of the people of Ocean Beach and Point Loma over the incipient human blight there."

“I moved down here about two months ago from Santa Barbara,” Dave said late in the afternoon on a recent weekday, sitting on his favorite spot right at the center of the wall facing the intersection of Newport and Abbott Street. “I’ve been traveling all over the country for years, and in January I met this family, a couple and their two kids, who were livin’ in their car in the Santa Barbara parking lot. About six months ago they moved down here ‘cause the weather’s nicer and the atmosphere is mellower, and when they came back in June to pick up a welfare check, I came down here with ‘em. I love it here. The beach is great.” He paused a moment to watch a shapely young woman pass by. “Awoo, hon-ey,” he yelled out after her, and then added, “You know, the only problem down here is the cops. They hassle you all the time. They bust you for drinkin’ a beer and take you down to Detox; you just get jacked off by ‘em for no reason at all. Every Friday that the Navy guys get paid, there’s a real heavy drug flow down here, and the cops ride around all day and all night. If you look weird, they stop you and push you up against the wall and search you, just out of the blue. I even get hassled at night when I’m trying to sleep – they come around with their flashlights and tell you to get the hell out of there.”

Dave, who is twenty-five years old and isn’t into last names, used to be called a hippie. Most people today would probably call him a bum, but he’s not the kind of bum you find downtown on skid row. The sandy beach and warm sunshine are his bottle of wine; the memories that keep him alive are not of past accomplishments, but of a recent era of peace and love and rebellion, of turning on and dropping out. Most of the several dozen beach people who spend their time on the 5000 block of Newport Avenue and its adjacent stretch of beach live a lot like Dave does. Many discovered acid and pot while in high school in the late Sixties; they tuned into Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary, to flower power and free love; they rejected the work ethic; they let their hair grow. And also like Dave, many have drifted into O.B. for the carefree beach life. But regardless of their origins, the beach people along Newport Avenue remain largely unchanged from the way they and their predecessors were when Grace Slick sang of white rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars. No shiny Porsches to be seen; they haven’t put money down on a condo in Mission Valley.

Along the block down to the beach, sights still abound that recall the ambiance associated with the “counterculture.” Dirty Sally’s Boutique is a new-and-used store advertised as offering “colorful bikinis for guys and dolls.” A sign on the window, handwritten and taped in place at all four corners, proclaims, X-rated film sold here.” Inside, Dirty Sally herself – a comely woman in her sixties with long, flowing hair as white as the sand on the beach, and who usually wears a flowered, backless sun dress – waits on her customers. The Black, just a few doors down, is one of San Diego’s largest headshop/boutiques and offers an enormous selection of underground comics, many dating back to the Sixties. The four bars on the block – Le Chalet, Tony’s, the Cavern, and the Sunshine Company Saloon – are dark, tiny establishments where the musty odor of carpet and leatherette mixes with the occasional wisps of fresh salt air that breeze in through the open front doors. The San Diego Police department’s community relations office, which was opened in mid-1969 at the height of Ocean Beach’s social and cultural upheaval, is now staffed solely by Officer Nancy Hawkins, who three years ago used to pump gas at the Mobil station two blocks up Newport. The block’s sole haircutting establishment is called Curl Up and Dye. And down near the water are the ever-present beach people, congregating on the wall, separating the sidewalk from the beach, or at the two west corners of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street, just as they’ve always done.

On a recent afternoon, a burly man with a graying, bird’s-nest beard, faded blue overalls with torn pockets and frayed straps, and an olive Smokey the Bear hat sat on the north end of the wall and plucked notes on a guitar, a scratchy, russet-colored instrument that produced clear, surprisingly resonant tones. As people strolled by he would look up, smile almost leeringly, and mumble, “Have a nice day,” his eyes half closed and his head bopping up and down like an offshore oil pump. Farther south on the wall, a shirtless younger man with tousled blonde hair and piercing blue eyes stared straight ahead, motionless. A short haired man in light blue T-shirt and beige corduroy shorts rode up on a bicycle, an expensive-looking import with raylets of sunshine bouncing off its metallic frame. He butted the bike’s tire against the wall and sat down just a few inches from the blonde youth. “Got any pot?” The blonde continued staring, acknowledging neither the question nor the questioner. After a few seconds, the newcomer shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He looked down at his feet and began tapping his hands against the inside of his bare thighs. Suddenly the blonde young man looked at him – his trance apparently unbroken – and said in a boldly loud voice, “You wanna buy some?” The newcomer nodded his head. “Follow me,” the blonde said, getting up, and the pair walked north on Abbot Street, the short haired man walking his bike and neither of them speaking. At the edge of the parking lot, two teenage girls in string bikinis were walking away from the beach amid whistling from three or four long-haired men sitting on the hood of an old Ford, drinking cans of Lowenbrau. One man shouted, “Hey you wanna beer? Come here.” The taller girl turned toward the heckler and expressionlessly shot him the finger. “Okay, then fuck off you bitch!” he yelled after her, his face red with anger. His companions erupted in laughter. After a moment, he laughed too.

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Edmund Adler has owned Adler’s Pharmacy on Newport Avenue, just east of where Newport crosses Bacon Street, since June, 1960. He remembers the scene at the foot of Newport during the late Sixties, when the nationwide “hippie” movement had just started and young people were flocking to coastal areas such as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. “They started arriving around 1966, I recall,” he said. “What it originally was, they wanted to go south of the border into Mexico, but right about that time Mexico began closing its borders to young people whose hair was past a certain length. So all these young people were being turned away at the border with no place to go, and they settled in San Diego. Why they picked Ocean Beach I don’t know; your guess is as good as mine.” Whatever the reason, by 1969 Ocean Beach’s transient population had increased enormously, with most of the newcomers centered around the foot of Newport Avenue and the stretch of beach to its west. The cement wall between the sidewalk and the sand had become a popular place to hang out, with up to a hundred young people clustered there at a time, particularly in the early evenings and on weekends.

“We saw a lot of panhandling, hitting people up for money,” Adler recollected. “Most of it was going on down in front of Zeke’s Antique Shop – that’s where the pizza parlor is now, across the street from us. They were bothering our customers, asking everybody who came by for money, but fortunately they hardly ever crossed the street. It’s funny, they always stayed in the 5000 block of Newport Avenue. There seemed to be a curtain drawn along the center of Bacon Street that prevented them from crossing.” (From my own recollection of this time, I was attending Sacred Heart Academy, Ocean Beach’s only Catholic grade school, housed in the same boxlike two-story building on the corner of Saratoga Avenue and Cable Street it’s been in since the middle Fifties. Every Thursday after school, I walked two blocks down Cable to Newport Avenue, where I turned west and continued for another block to the Betina Mango guitar studio just off the corner of Newport and Bacon Street, where I was taking lessons. Marching along Newport with my bulky guitar case, I would see clusters of young people with shaggy hair and drab, often dirty clothes milling around the storefronts across Bacon. Occasionally, I would stop by Zeke’s – which also had a small café inside – for a quick snack. Like vultures the longhairs would approach me as I left the shop: “Buddy you wanna buy some pot?” “Hey, you got a dime you can spare?” “Lemme see your guitar, man.” I would tell my mother about these experiences and I remember her sternly warning me, “Don’t ever go down there again. If they want to sell you drugs, call the police. But stay away from them.”)

The January, 1968 opening of the In Between, a youth-counseling center originally sponsored by the Point Loma Methodist Church located at what is now the Ocean Beach Community Services headquarters at 5041 Newport Avenue, didn’t help matters much; it seemed to attract as many troublemakers as it did young people sincerely in search of help. Kurt Dornbush, who’s twenty-five years old, used to surf in the waters off the foot of Newport Avenue while in his teens. He’s now the manager of The Black. “It was almost dangerous for us kids to hang out there,” he recalled. “I remember one time I stopped by the In Between, this was when I was thirteen, and witnessed a stabbing over a pool game. This happened right inside what was supposed to be a church-run counseling center, in front of all us kids. A lot of the problems were due to the transients, but what could you do?”

San Diego reacted with near hysteria. Every crime in O.B. was blamed on the beach people. Businesses complained to the police, to the papers, to anyone who would listen, that the presence of long-haired freaks drove away customers. One café even went so far as to charge anyone whom they considered a “hippie” a dollar for a cup of coffee that they sold to anyone else for fifteen cents; refills that had always been free cost longhairs seventy-five cents. In July of 1969, a group of businessmen and residents formed a group called Peninsula Aroused Citizens and formally petitioned the San Diego City Council to investigate the “youth problem” in Ocean Beach that, the petition claimed, was in danger of turning the seaside community into the “Haight-Ashbury of San Diego.” On July 7 of that year, the San Diego Union published an editorial which read: “Anyone who has been to the west end of Newport Avenue on a recent evening or weekend will share the concern of the people of Ocean Beach and Point Loma over the incipient human blight there. The area is without a doubt the equivalent of ‘Haight-Ashbury’ in San Francisco, a focal point for promiscuous sex, dope and retreat from responsibility by the dregs of youth. And the festering immorality is in one of San Diego’s prime tourist areas. The city’s major public fishing pier and a beautiful beach is [sic] right at the location. The concern of Ocean Beach over this threat should be a concern of each of us wherever we live in San Diego. Like any blight, the Ocean Beach hippie movement will spread unless disinfected.”

Within weeks, the petitioners claimed victory. The city council ordered Walter Hahn, then city manager, to investigate the Ocean Beach “youth problem,” which was centered around the 5000 block of Newport Avenue and its beach. A few months later the investigation was completed, and based on its results, Hahn called for stricter enforcement of all laws – from loitering and panhandling to prostitution and drug dealing – and beefed up police patrols in the area. A police community relations office was opened at 5025 Newport Avenue in a storefront with plastic windows. “Everybody was afraid of the police back then,” said a long-time surfer who gave his name only as Rick. “They were harassing everyone. They would stop people all over and check their IDs, it was really radical. But there were an awful lot of low-lifes who caused trouble. Even today the whole zone stinks. A friend of mine who works with me came in the other day wearing sunglasses. He took them off and showed me a black eye that had required six stitches. He’d just been sitting in his car with his girlfriend in the parking lot by the beach and some goon came up and punched him in the face for no reason at all. I’m all for having more cops down here now. They should really do something to get rid of all the goons.” Rick, who is now twenty-nine years old and works as a surfboard shaper, added, “Don’t use my last name, okay? I don’t want some goons looking for me.”

The next few years saw a gradual betterment of the area. “The police cut [the crime rate in] everything, and the number of loiterers decreased somewhat,” recalled Edmund Adler. “They were doing a lot of drug busts in the parking lot by the beach, and that really helped clean the area up.” But in early 1974, something happened that caused the police and the whole community to crack down on the remaining beach people like never before.

Early on the morning of February 22, 1974, Officer William Ritter Jr., was sitting in his patrol car in the public parking lot at the foot of Newport Avenue, working on some reports. The thirty-year-old Ritter had been on the force for several years, and over the past few months had befriended several residents of police beat 612, which encompassed much of Ocean Beach. His car was backed up to a high concrete retaining wall and faced the intersection of Newport Avenue and Abbott Street. Shortly after eight, a man in a cotton flannel coat who was later identified as Peter M. Mahone walked up to the patrol car, withdrew a pistol from the bag he was carrying, and calmly shot Ritter in the face. He then put the pistol back inside the bag and casually walked away, heading north on Abbott Street to a tiny house three blocks away. A newspaper carrier who had witnessed the shooting and tailed Mahone to the house notified police of Mahone’s whereabouts, and within minutes two police officers – Detective Gene Spurlock and Officer Michael De Bruler – went inside the house 2014 ½ Abbott Street. As they opened the door to the room in which Mahone was hiding, three or four shots were fired, hitting De Bruler in the arm and the back. Spurlock returned the fire and dragged De Bruler out of the house.

By that time, more than a hundred police officers had surrounded the house and a command post was set up at Robb Field. After three tear gas grenades were tossed through a window, Mahone came out through the front door and surrendered. He had been shot in the arm. In September of that year he was convicted of two counts of attempted murder for the shootings of Ritter and De Bruler, and received a sentence of twenty years to life. Ritter and De Bruler, the two wounded police officers, recovered from their injuries but retired on disability shortly after the incident. After Mahone’s apprehension reporters from the San Diego Union questioned his mother, who claimed to live in the house on Abbott Street, as to why she thought her son had shot the two police officers. “Who likes pigs?” she shouted in response. “Do you?”

Once again police patrols in the area were increased, and once again even the most minor laws were strictly enforced. Crime was cut noticeably and families once again started coming to the beach at the foot of Newport Avenue. The In Between, long at odds with the local business community, was finally shut down in 1975. But the beach people stayed. Today, although drug traffic is still heavy, the overall crime rate for serious offenses – including rape and other sex crimes, assault, burglary, robbery, grand theft, auto theft, and petty theft – in Ocean Beach is almost one-third that of Mission Beach (the latest police records, for May and June of this year, show that there were fifty-four serious crimes per census tract in Ocean Beach as opposed to 157 per census tract in Mission Beach).

Lieutenant Claude Gray, of the police department’s western division, is perhaps more familiar with the police department’s view of Ocean Beach than anyone else. “We know there’s a lot of narcotics activity in Ocean Beach; that’s our main problem there,” he said. “Our officers have witnessed narcotics transactions and made arrests, business people and residents have witnessed narcotics transactions and called on us to make arrests. But you have to understand that there’s lots of drug activity in any beach community. Ocean Beach was the site of a lot of trouble of all kinds during the Sixties, but it’s now the Eighties. Like any beach neighborhood, Ocean Beach is a transient area where the people don’t really have roots, so you have more problems than you do elsewhere. But you’ve got so many responsible citizens who go there for the same reasons as the troublemakers – the sun, the beach. Recently, there was almost a decision to close down our storefront office, but the citizens of the neighborhood wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We’re keeping it open as a result.

“I know a large number of people who are loitering around the area are dealing in narcotics, and many are even furthering their own habits. Many commit burglaries to support these habits. We also have a problem with people sleeping in the alleys and on the beach. When we spot them, they’re warned. The course of action we take depends on where we find them. If they’re sleeping on someone’s property, the owner is contacted, and if he’s had problems with transients before or wants to file charges, we cite them for trespassing. If we find someone sleeping on the beach, we cite him, too. If we find the same guy sleeping on the beach or in the alley over and over again then a physical arrest is often made and he’s taken to jail. But these people are a minority, just a few people are responsible for all the trouble in the area, just like anywhere else. You don’t indict a whole community for an individual’s actions.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, two scraggly looking young men were sitting on the beach wall at the foot of Newport. One had frizzy, light-brown hair, several days’ growth of beard on his chin, and was wearing a dirty pair of Levi’s cutoffs and a light-blue denim shirt. The other had short brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He was wearing a pair of dark-brown corduroys and no shirt, revealing a tan almost as dark as his pants, and a light-yellow cloth hat with a bright yellow-and-orange band around its apex. Both looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Empty beer cans lay on the sidewalk around their bare feet. They were talking in somewhat hushed tones about the state of their sex lives. “Man, I haven’t been laid in about two years, not since I humped this twenty-two-year-old fox who I met right here on this beach,” the man with the cloth hat said wistfully. “But I paid for it, man. Did I ever pay for it. I ended up getting’ some weird kind of V.D., sorta like gonorrhea but not quite as bad.”

The other man nodded his head sympathetically. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said. After a few seconds of silence he looked up and said, “I feel like getting’ some food in a little while. I just made nine bucks from the plasma center.”

His friend looked up and a broad smile came to his face. “All right! You’re doin’ your part. Sellin’ plasma to save America, right here in America’s Finest City.” A few more seconds of silence. “You been sellin’ any dope lately?”

“Shit, I haven’t sold anything, not even a little bit, in two or three weeks. I coulda sold some acid, but I don’t want to risk the rap for that. Just a couple of tabs and…”

At that moment a third man walked up, an older, heavyset fellow with a reddish complexion and a ridiculous-looking sailor’s cap atop a shock of bright-blonde hair. He was huffing and puffing as though he’d been running; perspiration stains dotted his T-shirt, and tiny beads of sweat were glistening on his forehead. “Hey Bonzo,” the man with the cloth hat yelled out. “How ya doin’?”

“Oh man,” Bonzo said, trying to catch his breath. “I think I’m dyin’ at middle age.”

The man with the cloth hat laughed and said, “Hope I make it to middle age, brother.”

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