Looking at Imperial Beach today, there are two things to remember — make that three. First, after six decades of sewage hell, the end is in sight, ground has been broken. That’s right, buckaroo, phase 1 has begun: a 42-inch-diameter pipeline to be finished by December 1995. That line will return overflow sewage to the Tijuana sewer system. Next, a $338 million advanced primary treatment plant, capable of treating 25 million gallons of sewage a day. That’s supposed to go online in 1996. Then, in 1997, a secondary treatment plant. Finally, in 1998, a 3.5-mile sewage-discharge tunnel, pumping treated sewage far out into the ocean. Six, seven, eight years from now, IB’s polluted beaches will be bitter memory. There will be some inevitable delay; you can’t build anything big in this country without lawsuits, and some have already been filed on this project. Certainly, the project will go over budget, and there will be further delay grubbing for more money, but in the end, in the foreseeable future, the fix is on the way.
The second thing to remember is that IB has a distorted reputation in regard to crime. According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), crime in Imperial Beach is below county average and well below Chula Vista and National City.
Year of Survey: 1991
- Violent Crime Rate (Willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault)
- Victims (per 1000 residents)
- National City 16.7
- Chula Vista 11.0
- San Diego County Overall 9.7
- Imperial Beach 8.7
- Property Crime Rate (Burglary, larceny theft, and motor vehicle theft)
- Victims (per 1000 residents)
- National City 76.7
- Chula Vista 66.8
- San Diego County Overall 58.5
- Imperial Beach 42.9
The third thing to remember is that local politics in Imperial Beach is, frankly, quite insane. There is a viciousness, a personalization of issues that goes beyond the pale. There are two camps, each with a local publication behind them, roughly little-growth vs. growth, and both sides go for the throat, the belly, and the jugular. Interaction between the two factions is done by way of slander and innuendo. Civil discussion of public issues has, for some time, been impossible. Since most of us simply live in cities — we go to the store, we have friends over, send our kids to school, drop by the local pub, and have a life without ever interacting with city politicians — this unhappy situation should pose no particular problem for anyone considering living in IB. But if you have a taste for local politics, beware.
According to the 1990 census, the population of IB is 26,512, broken down to 59 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian/Pacific Islands, 4 percent African-American. The average three-bedroom house sells for $165,000, rents for middle-class houses run from $795 to a $1000, apartments start at $350.
Imperial Beach has not escaped the national trend, to wit: our country is getting poorer. One way that fact shows up is the percentage of owner-occupied housing units. From 1970 to 1990, owner-occupied housing units in Chula Vista dropped from just at 60 percent to just at 50 percent. National City went down from 45 percent to under 30 percent. Imperial Beach sank from 40 percent to 27 percent.
The way cities get a good portion of their money is through property taxes and retail sales. In 1970 IB had less than $1000 in per capita retail sales while National City and Chula Vista trapped a little more than $2000 in per capita retail sales. By 1990 Chula Vista had grown to $8000 per capita retail sales, and National City was above $16,000. Imperial Beach fell far behind, under $2000. Imperial Beach has had to fight to remain a city.
Alan Winkelman owns Ye Olde Plank Inn, founded in 1890. It’s a neighborhood beach bar located on the corner of Palm and Sea Coast, Imperial Beach. The ambiance outside is British pub, Midlands; inside it’s American, West Coast beach, employed.
We sat on his patio sipping coffee in the morning sun. Winkelman is past 60 years of age and stands tall, well over six feet. He has long, long, gray hair tied in a ponytail and an oval, clean-shaven pixie face, the kind that has a smile waiting to break through. He speaks in a soft, slightly slurred, sweet voice. I asked where he was born.
“I was born in Chicago. I was 20 when I came into the Navy for the first time. I retired in ’72, here in San Diego. My wife passed away in December of ’87. We had no kids.
“I bought this place in February of ’69. Then, the walls were painted flat black, the ceiling was Spanish blue enamel, the floor had old linoleum with concrete showing through. There was a small bar for eight people. Customers had written whatever they wanted to on the walls. It looked like graffiti paradise.
“Having been in the Navy for many years, and single much of that time, I spent a lot of nights and weekends in bars. After a couple of beers, I’d look around and redesign the bar in my mind’s eye. I’d think, ‘If I had this bar, I’d change this or I’d do this.’ So when I bought this place, I’d already remodeled a thousand bars.
“I bought this place on a Tuesday, put a temporary permit on the window, took over that same evening: 6:30 we had inventory, I paid for the stock on hand, and the register was mine. The next day I put in for leave and came down here and started cleaning. I knew I had to. There was no business and the place could not operate the way it was.
“Imperial Beach in 1972 was very similar to what it is now. There’s been very little construction. Further on down, south of Imperial Beach Boulevard, most of that is new, or half of it anyway. But from the Boulevard down to here, there’s very little that has changed.