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Oceanside – finally hip

Fewer young Marines, gangs not the same, property expensive

My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside.
My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside.

I’m sitting at a table in the Q&A Oyster Bar in the restored Brick Hotel complex in downtown Oceanside, a block and a half from the pier. The decor is elegant, but not overdone: polished wood tables, black leather booths, and old brick walls that may or may not date back to the original 1888 Schuyler Hardware Store. I’m munching on pricey, chargrilled East Coast oysters and enjoying a $15 craft cocktail, a breezy concoction called the Sunshine Spritz that is made with strawberry-infused Aperol, Elderflower liqueur, and prosecco.

My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside. One is Ted Badillo, a retired schoolteacher, and charter school founder, with whom I shared a homeroom at the old University of San Diego High School in Linda Vista. The other is Tim Aldrich, who with his family owns the building and oversaw its restoration.

We’re discussing the renaissance of Oceanside, which happened so quickly, after years and years of false starts, that anyone who’s been away for even four or five years would hardly recognize it. Two parking lots on Pacific Street, directly across from the pier, where transients used to congregate, are now home to a pair of boutique resort hotels, the Seabird and the Mission Pacific, which opened in May 2021. Both hotels, modest mid-rises painted in soft pastels, are operated by Hyatt Resorts. The six-story Seabird Resort has 226 hotel rooms, a rooftop patio bar, and the Valle restaurant, one of only five in San Diego County to be awarded the coveted Michelin star. The seven-story Mission Pacific Hotel has 161 guest rooms and suites that flank the restored Graves House. The historic structure, famous for its appearance in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, is now a museum and coffee house whose specialty is the High Pie, filled with locally grown fruit and topped with mascarpone ice cream.

A block down Pier View Way is Aldrich’s Brick Hotel complex, which opened in June 2022 after a five-year renovation project. The structure was disassembled, brick by brick; retrofitted; and then reassembled with the original bricks. On the ground floor is the oyster bar and, next to it, Frankie’s, a San Francisco-style long bar that replaced a succession of seedy dives and their drug-dealing employees. Floors two and three, the latter added several decades ago, are home to 10 guest rooms. And on top is a charming rooftop bar, the Cococabana, a Caribbean-style cocktail lounge with lots of neon, panoramic ocean views, and a menu of inventive craft cocktails and small plates.

The back door of the Brick Hotel leads to the Succulent Café coffeehouse and an outdoor patio and “tap room” operated by the Stone Brewery. Across Tremont Street from the tap room is Senor Grubby’s, a gourmet Mexican restaurant famous for its inventive tacos and burritos.

One block to the west, where the railroad underpass empties onto Cleveland Street, is SALT, a mixed-use development with 52 rental apartments wrapped around a five-story parking structure, with most of the 438 spaces reserved for public use. On the ground floor of the building, which opened in 2019, are shops and restaurants, including Parlor Doughnuts, one of the new breed of fancy donut shops. Like Seabird and Mission Pacific, the SALT site was once a parking lot.

What’s happened in downtown Oceanside over the last few years, Tim Aldrich says, is the fulfillment of a dream many old-timers have harbored for years.

Most recently, a historic building on Cleveland Street, one block north of the Pier View Way pedestrian underpass, was taken over by Pannikin Coffee & Tea, an upscale coffeehouse that also has locations in Leucadia and the San Diego Airport. The two-story brick Bunker House, built in 1886, had a checkered past, once serving as a brothel and then a flophouse where a murder occurred in 1976.

What’s happened in downtown Oceanside over the last few years, Aldrich says, is the fulfillment of a dream many old-timers have harbored for years but feared would never come: a rather sudden, and most dramatic, transformation from the seedy stepchild of coastal North County into a thriving, sophisticated resort town that attracts visitors from all over the world.

“We’ve been trying to do this for 30 years, maybe more,” Aldrich says of downtown Oceanside’s dramatic makeover. “It’s almost like everyone else matured and we were the last ones left — and we were the jewel. No one else has a pier, or a harbor, or the Strand. As beautiful as Carlsbad is, you don’t get as close to the water most of the time. Much of Carlsbad’s waterfront is on the bluffs. What happened is that our assets finally became so valuable that this became a financial move that was made largely with outside money. It’s long been said in financial circles that nobody wants to invest in a redevelopment area until there’s a Starbucks, and now there finally is one. Companies are seeing there’s an opportunity here.”

Aldrich says the “new Oceanside” is a product of a perfect storm of positives, including the soaring value of property near the water; state housing mandates that pushed cities to increase densities near transit; and a growing willingness by the Oceanside City Council to greenlight big new developments in the hopes of boosting tax revenues.”

Another factor is the city running out of patience with the riffraff. The Oceanside City Council, faced with a growing shortage of police officers — 42, at last count — brought in private security to clean up the streets. Even minor infractions were penalized, much as they did in New York City during the 1990s reign of police commissioner Bill Bratton. One of the first targets was the pedestrian railroad underpass at Pier View Way, a popular hangout for transients and drug dealers. (I remember one day in 2017 when there was a shirtless, bloodied man lying on his back, straddling the curb between the walkway and landscaping, pants mid-thigh, urinating like a fountain, as a family with two small children walked by.)

“We had been getting complaints from police about that spot, and the problem was they could not see what was going on down there when they drove by on patrol,” says Chuck Lowery, a former deputy mayor who served on the Oceanside City Council from 2014 until 2018. “So we made it a no-smoking area, so everyone down there who smoked was cited and told to get out of there. Another thing we did was install a sound system playing loud classical music, not rock or rap — and people don’t want to hang out and do their deeds under classical music.”

Cracking down on what polite society would call “undesirables” is a rather recent development. Fixing the source of the problem was a long time coming. For years, Oceanside city leaders cited the proximity of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base as the primary reason why the city’s repeated attempts to clean up its act — particularly its gritty downtown area — had consistently and dramatically failed, even as the hearts of coastal towns further south — Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach — had been transformed into vibrant, sophisticated and hip shopping, dining and nightlife destinations. Downtown Oceanside remained a seedy sea of check-cashing joints, dive bars, arcades, and surplus stores.

Aldrich’s Brick Hotel complex opened in June 2022 after a five-year renovation project. The structure was disassembled, brick by brick; retrofitted; and then reassembled with the original bricks.

After each failed attempt at gentrification, with each report of another downtown shooting, stabbing or bloody fistfight, city leaders wasted no time in pointing fingers at those young men in uniform, many of them from flyover country, who had never lived on their own before. When they weren’t on duty, they wanted to raise hell — and to make matters worse, they also proved easy prey for the gangs of east Oceanside — mostly Mexican and Samoan, with names like Barrio Posole Locos, Deep Valley Bloods, and Deep Valley Crips.

The gangs, for the most part, were homegrown. The San Luis Rey River Valley was predominantly agricultural, and the farmworkers were mostly Latinos who had been brought into the United States through the federal government’s Bracero program, whichbegan during the Second World War, when labor was hard to come by. The city’s huge Samoan population is descended from the U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton during World War II, and is concentrated in the Back Gate area. As their children became Americanized, they did not necessarily share the same work ethic as their parents, particularly when there was more money to be made with drugs and the victimizing of young, naive Marines.

Downtown Oceanside is where the Marines and the gangs that preyed on them met. The streets were an open market for drugs, prostitution, and robberies, while the businesses, as businesses tend to do, catered to the local population. And as the downtown of what had once been a sleepy seaside village grew and at the same deteriorated, the area became a magnet for other societal outcasts – the drunks, the drug addicts, the bums and the grifters.

My friend Ted Badillo remembers that during the Vietnam War, “a huge influx of military” moved into the area. “The young Marines would get paid and then go crazy,” he recalls. “You’ve got a bunch of 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, who had never been away from home before, and they would buy cars and rev them up and drive all over downtown, smoking and drinking and just living the great life.”

The influx of so many young, naïve Marines led to a flurry of used car dealers, barbershops, check-cashing joints, liquor stores, dive bars ,and even a topless club or two. A number of furniture rental stores also opened up, as many of the Marines opted for off-base housing. The green jarheads proved easy prey for unscrupulous businesspeople as well as the gangs to the east. Drug dealing and prostitution flourished. “I had friends who would take saccharine, foil it up and tell them it was acid,” Badillo recalls. “And the streets were filled with cars — the Marines, before they got deployed, would park them out in the street, jack them up so the tires wouldn’t go flat, and pretty much abandon them until they got back — if they got back.”

Ted Badillo laments the taller buildings that have become commonplace in downtown Oceanside. “We used to have beautiful views of the ocean and the horizon,” he says. “Now, we have these gigantic buildings that block the view.

After high school, Badillo briefly worked at a liquor store across the street from what is now Frankie’s — which at the time was a bar called the Townhouse that catered to a black clientele.

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“It must have been 1980, 1981,” Badillo recalls. “I walked into the liquor store just as the night manager had gotten into fistfight with two Marines who were mad because he wouldn’t sell them beer because they were under 21. He was a big guy, and he was just throwing them around like rag dolls. I walked in right when it was happening, and he said, ‘Teddy, you want to work here?’”

Badillo worked at the liquor store for about a year, and befriended the manager of the Townhouse because he would frequently cash checks for her employees. “Directly across from us was a titty bar, and then next to that was the Townhouse,” he recalls. “The manager was this big black woman, and she let us in and give us drinks. Some of the black guys would bump into us and stare us down, but she would get right up in their faces and say, ‘Don’t be messing with my boys.’ I remember every now and then the vice squad would walk in, and everyone knew right away who they were because they were white. It was crazy down there — the Marines would get blasted and then go next door to the titty bar, which is where a lot of the drug dealers hung out.”

Tom Bussey, a retired Oceanside Police Officer who still works two days a week as a department spokesman, worked the streets of downtown from 1975 to 1985. “It was pretty tough when you came downtown,” he recalls. “There were a lot of folks hanging around what I call the low bars, and we had a lot of gang activity and prostitution. Some of our biggest fights were right in the middle of what we used to call Third Street. We had the Townhouse right next to a half-naked bar, and across the street from that was the USO. Boy, we used to get some hellacious fights, enough to call for seven or eight officers, which was about everyone who was working down there.”

Despite all of this chaos, Oceanside city leaders tried their best to clean up their town, particularly after they saw how San Diego transformed its once-dilapidated Gaslamp Quarter, which came to life in the ‘80s with the opening of the Horton Plaza shopping center, but didn’t really flourish until the following decade, with its rash of residential construction.

Up in Oceanside, a new downtown Civic Center and library were completed in 1990 on the other side of the Coast Highway, which at the time was still called Hill Street. The complex, designed by Charles Moore in the style of Irving Gill, boasted white arches and plain white walls, along with a sizeable public square, complete with a central fountain.

The Pier View Way pedestrian underpass
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In 1995, Coaster train service began between downtown Oceanside and San Diego, followed a year later by the numbered street names being changed to reflect their proximity to the shore. Second Street had been renamed Mission Avenue back in the Fifties, but in 1996 First Street became Seagaze Drive, Third Street became Pier View Way, Fourth Street was renamed Civic Center Drive, Fifth Street became Sportfisher Drive, Sixth Street became Surfrider Way, Seventh Street became Windway Way, Eighth Street became Neptune Way and Ninth Street was renamed Breakwater Way. That same year, Hill Street was changed back to its original name, Coast Highway, and historic 101 signs went up all along the route through Oceanside.

In 1999, a 16-screen movie theater opened on Mission one block west of the Coast Highway as the anchor of Ocean Place Plaza, an ambitious 22,000-square foot retail and dining center. A year later, the Downtown Business Association — formed a decade earlier to combat drug sales, prostitution, and gang activity through the hiring of private security — was certified by the state of California as an official Main Street organization and rebranded MainStreet Oceanside, which according to the Main Street website, “signifies a strong commitment to preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.”

MainStreet Oceanside’s activities include a weekly Thursday morning Farmers Market and Thursday evening Sunset Market that attract hundreds of people to downtown. The railroad underpass was completed in 2001, turning Pier View Way between Cleveland and Myers streets into a pedestrian walkway. In 2002, the city paid $1.5 million to buy the core downtown area’s last remaining strip club, the Playgirl Club on Pier View Way, and promptly shut it down (the location is now home to the California Surf Museum). And in 2008 came the first high-density, blufftop residential structure on Pacific Street: Wyndham Oceanside Pier, consisting of 168 timeshare units and several street-level restaurants, including 333 Pacific.

But despite these and other improvements, Oceanside was still a place where parents didn’t want their kids hanging out, particularly after dark. Even in the late ’80s and ’90s and into the 2000s, when other coastal towns began the swift and lucrative march toward gentrification, downtown Oceanside remained rough — and dangerous. In 1995 alone, the city counted 24 homicides, nine of them gang-related. That was about the same time that residents of neighboring cities began to derisively refer to Oceanside as “Oceanslime.” And as recently as 2004, a San Diego Union-Tribune article suggested gang violence was once again becoming “a big issue in Oceanside” after several years of cooling down, prompting the city’s decision “to strictly enforce a 10 pm curfew for juveniles under the age of 18 who are hanging out or loitering on city streets.” The article noted that the “wave of violence … comes as the city is courting developers to build a downtown resort hotel, which many officials believe is the linchpin to the city’s redevelopment plan.”

Oceanside hotels under construction in March 2020

Aldrich likens the movie theater complex, condo building and restaurants like 33 Pacific and Hello Betty as islands in a sea of continued blight. “They just sat there for four or five years without any support around them,” he says. “We must have had a dozen or more false starts.”

But even before the city began aggressively going after the troublemakers, Aldrich says, the demographics in Oceanside were changing for the better. “The problem with the Marines during the Vietnam era was the quality of recruits in the ‘70s and even for a while after that, into the ‘80s,” Aldrich says. “Back then, if you were in a small town and you were a problem kid, you were given the opportunity by the judge to either go to jail or join the Marines to straighten out. So you had a lot of troubled kids. Now, the Marines don’t take kids unless they’re high school graduates with no record whatsoever, so the Marines that come in now are generally good citizens. The other thing that’s happened is the makeup of the base. There was a time when there were 40,000 military personnel at Camp Pendleton, while the population of Oceanside was only about 65,000, 75,000. Now, the city has 175,000 people, and the military has a much smaller presence, maybe 25,000.”

The gang culture, too, has softened with time, says Chuck Lowery, the former deputy mayor. There are still gangs in Oceanside, centered around the eastern part of the San Luis Rey River Valley and the back gate of Camp Pendleton, but “thanks to community groups, city-funded programs, and several nonprofits, there’s an upward movement,” Lowery says. “The kids are realizing they can’t keep doing that gang activity if they want to survive.”

There is a downside to all this gentrification, however. Skyrocketing home prices — the median sales price over the last five years has shot up from the low $500,000s to $830,000 as of February 2024, according to Redfin, a real estate technology company — has led to an influx of investors and speculators who often turn homes into short-term rentals.

“That’s why we don’t have enough full-time rental housing in the market,” Chuck Lowery says. “There is nothing for rent around here; an investor buys a home for $1 million, rehabs it, and rents it out at $400 or $500 a night as an Airbnb because otherwise they can’t afford the payments. The loss of housing to investors is a very big issue.”

The historic Graves House, famous for its appearance in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, is now a museum and coffee house whose specialty is the High Pie, filled with locally grown fruit and topped with mascarpone ice cream.
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For his part, Ted Badillo laments the taller buildings that have become commonplace in downtown Oceanside. “We used to have beautiful views of the ocean and the horizon,” he says. “Now, we have these gigantic buildings that block the view. I mean, it’s capitalism — you’ve got to pay for the building. And everything is cleaner, and there’s all this cool new stuff. Like any resort town, it looks beautiful — but for some of us who have lived here a long time, everyone’s charging an arm and a leg and you can no longer enjoy a burger down there.”

Like it or not, there’s more coming. Last June, developers submitted preliminary plans for two eight-story apartment buildings, with up to 360 units, for the last two vacant blocks in the pier area, on either side of Pier View Way just west of the railroad tracks. Currently used for parking, the sites would also include street-level restaurants and retail businesses.

Three blocks to the south, the Oceanside Transit Center will be getting a major overhaul over the next couple of years. Preliminary environmental documents submitted last August to the Oceanside Planning Division call for the 10-acre train and bus station property on Tremont Street to include a public plaza, a multi-story office building, retail shops, three parking garages with room for 1800 cars, a 165-room boutique hotel and a huge residential development with up to 547 apartments — 15% of them set aside for lower-income residents.

“The concept is to get young people who work in Los Angeles or San Diego to be able to take the train home and live in Oceanside on the beach,” Aldrich says. “And when you start flooding all these people into the area, all of a sudden you have enough volume to support not just restaurants and nightclubs but also grocery stores, drugstores and other types of businesses that cater to residents and not just tourists.”

Oceanside Pier looking east toward hotels

Aldrich says he empathizes with those who lament the loss of downtown Oceanside’s small-town vibe, seedy as it might have been. “I know there are a lot of people in the community who resent what’s happening here,” he says. “They liked it when you could park your car near the beach and not worry about all the tourists. But I tell you, it was rough — the people were rough, the bars were rough, the town was rough. And I find the big hotels exciting, because they are drawing families. I have a video from 30 years ago, when I was the local KOCT-TV guy. I was embedded with the vice squad, and we were on john patrols. We had a young girl from the sheriff’s academy posing as a prostitute, and we were picking up johns left and right — in the same exact area where these hotels are, and where families with young children are making their way to the beach.”

The Oceanside Police Department’s Tom Bussey shares Aldrich’s enthusiasm. “What a big change,” he says. “We don’t have anywhere near the crime we used to have downtown – it’s just all upscale, pretty much.”

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Front-yard chalkboard charms OB passersby

Questions asked, stories told, neighborhood celebrated
My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside.
My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside.

I’m sitting at a table in the Q&A Oyster Bar in the restored Brick Hotel complex in downtown Oceanside, a block and a half from the pier. The decor is elegant, but not overdone: polished wood tables, black leather booths, and old brick walls that may or may not date back to the original 1888 Schuyler Hardware Store. I’m munching on pricey, chargrilled East Coast oysters and enjoying a $15 craft cocktail, a breezy concoction called the Sunshine Spritz that is made with strawberry-infused Aperol, Elderflower liqueur, and prosecco.

My two companions are, like me, in their sixties. They have spent their entire lives in Oceanside. One is Ted Badillo, a retired schoolteacher, and charter school founder, with whom I shared a homeroom at the old University of San Diego High School in Linda Vista. The other is Tim Aldrich, who with his family owns the building and oversaw its restoration.

We’re discussing the renaissance of Oceanside, which happened so quickly, after years and years of false starts, that anyone who’s been away for even four or five years would hardly recognize it. Two parking lots on Pacific Street, directly across from the pier, where transients used to congregate, are now home to a pair of boutique resort hotels, the Seabird and the Mission Pacific, which opened in May 2021. Both hotels, modest mid-rises painted in soft pastels, are operated by Hyatt Resorts. The six-story Seabird Resort has 226 hotel rooms, a rooftop patio bar, and the Valle restaurant, one of only five in San Diego County to be awarded the coveted Michelin star. The seven-story Mission Pacific Hotel has 161 guest rooms and suites that flank the restored Graves House. The historic structure, famous for its appearance in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, is now a museum and coffee house whose specialty is the High Pie, filled with locally grown fruit and topped with mascarpone ice cream.

A block down Pier View Way is Aldrich’s Brick Hotel complex, which opened in June 2022 after a five-year renovation project. The structure was disassembled, brick by brick; retrofitted; and then reassembled with the original bricks. On the ground floor is the oyster bar and, next to it, Frankie’s, a San Francisco-style long bar that replaced a succession of seedy dives and their drug-dealing employees. Floors two and three, the latter added several decades ago, are home to 10 guest rooms. And on top is a charming rooftop bar, the Cococabana, a Caribbean-style cocktail lounge with lots of neon, panoramic ocean views, and a menu of inventive craft cocktails and small plates.

The back door of the Brick Hotel leads to the Succulent Café coffeehouse and an outdoor patio and “tap room” operated by the Stone Brewery. Across Tremont Street from the tap room is Senor Grubby’s, a gourmet Mexican restaurant famous for its inventive tacos and burritos.

One block to the west, where the railroad underpass empties onto Cleveland Street, is SALT, a mixed-use development with 52 rental apartments wrapped around a five-story parking structure, with most of the 438 spaces reserved for public use. On the ground floor of the building, which opened in 2019, are shops and restaurants, including Parlor Doughnuts, one of the new breed of fancy donut shops. Like Seabird and Mission Pacific, the SALT site was once a parking lot.

What’s happened in downtown Oceanside over the last few years, Tim Aldrich says, is the fulfillment of a dream many old-timers have harbored for years.

Most recently, a historic building on Cleveland Street, one block north of the Pier View Way pedestrian underpass, was taken over by Pannikin Coffee & Tea, an upscale coffeehouse that also has locations in Leucadia and the San Diego Airport. The two-story brick Bunker House, built in 1886, had a checkered past, once serving as a brothel and then a flophouse where a murder occurred in 1976.

What’s happened in downtown Oceanside over the last few years, Aldrich says, is the fulfillment of a dream many old-timers have harbored for years but feared would never come: a rather sudden, and most dramatic, transformation from the seedy stepchild of coastal North County into a thriving, sophisticated resort town that attracts visitors from all over the world.

“We’ve been trying to do this for 30 years, maybe more,” Aldrich says of downtown Oceanside’s dramatic makeover. “It’s almost like everyone else matured and we were the last ones left — and we were the jewel. No one else has a pier, or a harbor, or the Strand. As beautiful as Carlsbad is, you don’t get as close to the water most of the time. Much of Carlsbad’s waterfront is on the bluffs. What happened is that our assets finally became so valuable that this became a financial move that was made largely with outside money. It’s long been said in financial circles that nobody wants to invest in a redevelopment area until there’s a Starbucks, and now there finally is one. Companies are seeing there’s an opportunity here.”

Aldrich says the “new Oceanside” is a product of a perfect storm of positives, including the soaring value of property near the water; state housing mandates that pushed cities to increase densities near transit; and a growing willingness by the Oceanside City Council to greenlight big new developments in the hopes of boosting tax revenues.”

Another factor is the city running out of patience with the riffraff. The Oceanside City Council, faced with a growing shortage of police officers — 42, at last count — brought in private security to clean up the streets. Even minor infractions were penalized, much as they did in New York City during the 1990s reign of police commissioner Bill Bratton. One of the first targets was the pedestrian railroad underpass at Pier View Way, a popular hangout for transients and drug dealers. (I remember one day in 2017 when there was a shirtless, bloodied man lying on his back, straddling the curb between the walkway and landscaping, pants mid-thigh, urinating like a fountain, as a family with two small children walked by.)

“We had been getting complaints from police about that spot, and the problem was they could not see what was going on down there when they drove by on patrol,” says Chuck Lowery, a former deputy mayor who served on the Oceanside City Council from 2014 until 2018. “So we made it a no-smoking area, so everyone down there who smoked was cited and told to get out of there. Another thing we did was install a sound system playing loud classical music, not rock or rap — and people don’t want to hang out and do their deeds under classical music.”

Cracking down on what polite society would call “undesirables” is a rather recent development. Fixing the source of the problem was a long time coming. For years, Oceanside city leaders cited the proximity of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base as the primary reason why the city’s repeated attempts to clean up its act — particularly its gritty downtown area — had consistently and dramatically failed, even as the hearts of coastal towns further south — Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach — had been transformed into vibrant, sophisticated and hip shopping, dining and nightlife destinations. Downtown Oceanside remained a seedy sea of check-cashing joints, dive bars, arcades, and surplus stores.

Aldrich’s Brick Hotel complex opened in June 2022 after a five-year renovation project. The structure was disassembled, brick by brick; retrofitted; and then reassembled with the original bricks.

After each failed attempt at gentrification, with each report of another downtown shooting, stabbing or bloody fistfight, city leaders wasted no time in pointing fingers at those young men in uniform, many of them from flyover country, who had never lived on their own before. When they weren’t on duty, they wanted to raise hell — and to make matters worse, they also proved easy prey for the gangs of east Oceanside — mostly Mexican and Samoan, with names like Barrio Posole Locos, Deep Valley Bloods, and Deep Valley Crips.

The gangs, for the most part, were homegrown. The San Luis Rey River Valley was predominantly agricultural, and the farmworkers were mostly Latinos who had been brought into the United States through the federal government’s Bracero program, whichbegan during the Second World War, when labor was hard to come by. The city’s huge Samoan population is descended from the U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton during World War II, and is concentrated in the Back Gate area. As their children became Americanized, they did not necessarily share the same work ethic as their parents, particularly when there was more money to be made with drugs and the victimizing of young, naive Marines.

Downtown Oceanside is where the Marines and the gangs that preyed on them met. The streets were an open market for drugs, prostitution, and robberies, while the businesses, as businesses tend to do, catered to the local population. And as the downtown of what had once been a sleepy seaside village grew and at the same deteriorated, the area became a magnet for other societal outcasts – the drunks, the drug addicts, the bums and the grifters.

My friend Ted Badillo remembers that during the Vietnam War, “a huge influx of military” moved into the area. “The young Marines would get paid and then go crazy,” he recalls. “You’ve got a bunch of 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, who had never been away from home before, and they would buy cars and rev them up and drive all over downtown, smoking and drinking and just living the great life.”

The influx of so many young, naïve Marines led to a flurry of used car dealers, barbershops, check-cashing joints, liquor stores, dive bars ,and even a topless club or two. A number of furniture rental stores also opened up, as many of the Marines opted for off-base housing. The green jarheads proved easy prey for unscrupulous businesspeople as well as the gangs to the east. Drug dealing and prostitution flourished. “I had friends who would take saccharine, foil it up and tell them it was acid,” Badillo recalls. “And the streets were filled with cars — the Marines, before they got deployed, would park them out in the street, jack them up so the tires wouldn’t go flat, and pretty much abandon them until they got back — if they got back.”

Ted Badillo laments the taller buildings that have become commonplace in downtown Oceanside. “We used to have beautiful views of the ocean and the horizon,” he says. “Now, we have these gigantic buildings that block the view.

After high school, Badillo briefly worked at a liquor store across the street from what is now Frankie’s — which at the time was a bar called the Townhouse that catered to a black clientele.

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“It must have been 1980, 1981,” Badillo recalls. “I walked into the liquor store just as the night manager had gotten into fistfight with two Marines who were mad because he wouldn’t sell them beer because they were under 21. He was a big guy, and he was just throwing them around like rag dolls. I walked in right when it was happening, and he said, ‘Teddy, you want to work here?’”

Badillo worked at the liquor store for about a year, and befriended the manager of the Townhouse because he would frequently cash checks for her employees. “Directly across from us was a titty bar, and then next to that was the Townhouse,” he recalls. “The manager was this big black woman, and she let us in and give us drinks. Some of the black guys would bump into us and stare us down, but she would get right up in their faces and say, ‘Don’t be messing with my boys.’ I remember every now and then the vice squad would walk in, and everyone knew right away who they were because they were white. It was crazy down there — the Marines would get blasted and then go next door to the titty bar, which is where a lot of the drug dealers hung out.”

Tom Bussey, a retired Oceanside Police Officer who still works two days a week as a department spokesman, worked the streets of downtown from 1975 to 1985. “It was pretty tough when you came downtown,” he recalls. “There were a lot of folks hanging around what I call the low bars, and we had a lot of gang activity and prostitution. Some of our biggest fights were right in the middle of what we used to call Third Street. We had the Townhouse right next to a half-naked bar, and across the street from that was the USO. Boy, we used to get some hellacious fights, enough to call for seven or eight officers, which was about everyone who was working down there.”

Despite all of this chaos, Oceanside city leaders tried their best to clean up their town, particularly after they saw how San Diego transformed its once-dilapidated Gaslamp Quarter, which came to life in the ‘80s with the opening of the Horton Plaza shopping center, but didn’t really flourish until the following decade, with its rash of residential construction.

Up in Oceanside, a new downtown Civic Center and library were completed in 1990 on the other side of the Coast Highway, which at the time was still called Hill Street. The complex, designed by Charles Moore in the style of Irving Gill, boasted white arches and plain white walls, along with a sizeable public square, complete with a central fountain.

The Pier View Way pedestrian underpass
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In 1995, Coaster train service began between downtown Oceanside and San Diego, followed a year later by the numbered street names being changed to reflect their proximity to the shore. Second Street had been renamed Mission Avenue back in the Fifties, but in 1996 First Street became Seagaze Drive, Third Street became Pier View Way, Fourth Street was renamed Civic Center Drive, Fifth Street became Sportfisher Drive, Sixth Street became Surfrider Way, Seventh Street became Windway Way, Eighth Street became Neptune Way and Ninth Street was renamed Breakwater Way. That same year, Hill Street was changed back to its original name, Coast Highway, and historic 101 signs went up all along the route through Oceanside.

In 1999, a 16-screen movie theater opened on Mission one block west of the Coast Highway as the anchor of Ocean Place Plaza, an ambitious 22,000-square foot retail and dining center. A year later, the Downtown Business Association — formed a decade earlier to combat drug sales, prostitution, and gang activity through the hiring of private security — was certified by the state of California as an official Main Street organization and rebranded MainStreet Oceanside, which according to the Main Street website, “signifies a strong commitment to preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.”

MainStreet Oceanside’s activities include a weekly Thursday morning Farmers Market and Thursday evening Sunset Market that attract hundreds of people to downtown. The railroad underpass was completed in 2001, turning Pier View Way between Cleveland and Myers streets into a pedestrian walkway. In 2002, the city paid $1.5 million to buy the core downtown area’s last remaining strip club, the Playgirl Club on Pier View Way, and promptly shut it down (the location is now home to the California Surf Museum). And in 2008 came the first high-density, blufftop residential structure on Pacific Street: Wyndham Oceanside Pier, consisting of 168 timeshare units and several street-level restaurants, including 333 Pacific.

But despite these and other improvements, Oceanside was still a place where parents didn’t want their kids hanging out, particularly after dark. Even in the late ’80s and ’90s and into the 2000s, when other coastal towns began the swift and lucrative march toward gentrification, downtown Oceanside remained rough — and dangerous. In 1995 alone, the city counted 24 homicides, nine of them gang-related. That was about the same time that residents of neighboring cities began to derisively refer to Oceanside as “Oceanslime.” And as recently as 2004, a San Diego Union-Tribune article suggested gang violence was once again becoming “a big issue in Oceanside” after several years of cooling down, prompting the city’s decision “to strictly enforce a 10 pm curfew for juveniles under the age of 18 who are hanging out or loitering on city streets.” The article noted that the “wave of violence … comes as the city is courting developers to build a downtown resort hotel, which many officials believe is the linchpin to the city’s redevelopment plan.”

Oceanside hotels under construction in March 2020

Aldrich likens the movie theater complex, condo building and restaurants like 33 Pacific and Hello Betty as islands in a sea of continued blight. “They just sat there for four or five years without any support around them,” he says. “We must have had a dozen or more false starts.”

But even before the city began aggressively going after the troublemakers, Aldrich says, the demographics in Oceanside were changing for the better. “The problem with the Marines during the Vietnam era was the quality of recruits in the ‘70s and even for a while after that, into the ‘80s,” Aldrich says. “Back then, if you were in a small town and you were a problem kid, you were given the opportunity by the judge to either go to jail or join the Marines to straighten out. So you had a lot of troubled kids. Now, the Marines don’t take kids unless they’re high school graduates with no record whatsoever, so the Marines that come in now are generally good citizens. The other thing that’s happened is the makeup of the base. There was a time when there were 40,000 military personnel at Camp Pendleton, while the population of Oceanside was only about 65,000, 75,000. Now, the city has 175,000 people, and the military has a much smaller presence, maybe 25,000.”

The gang culture, too, has softened with time, says Chuck Lowery, the former deputy mayor. There are still gangs in Oceanside, centered around the eastern part of the San Luis Rey River Valley and the back gate of Camp Pendleton, but “thanks to community groups, city-funded programs, and several nonprofits, there’s an upward movement,” Lowery says. “The kids are realizing they can’t keep doing that gang activity if they want to survive.”

There is a downside to all this gentrification, however. Skyrocketing home prices — the median sales price over the last five years has shot up from the low $500,000s to $830,000 as of February 2024, according to Redfin, a real estate technology company — has led to an influx of investors and speculators who often turn homes into short-term rentals.

“That’s why we don’t have enough full-time rental housing in the market,” Chuck Lowery says. “There is nothing for rent around here; an investor buys a home for $1 million, rehabs it, and rents it out at $400 or $500 a night as an Airbnb because otherwise they can’t afford the payments. The loss of housing to investors is a very big issue.”

The historic Graves House, famous for its appearance in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, is now a museum and coffee house whose specialty is the High Pie, filled with locally grown fruit and topped with mascarpone ice cream.
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For his part, Ted Badillo laments the taller buildings that have become commonplace in downtown Oceanside. “We used to have beautiful views of the ocean and the horizon,” he says. “Now, we have these gigantic buildings that block the view. I mean, it’s capitalism — you’ve got to pay for the building. And everything is cleaner, and there’s all this cool new stuff. Like any resort town, it looks beautiful — but for some of us who have lived here a long time, everyone’s charging an arm and a leg and you can no longer enjoy a burger down there.”

Like it or not, there’s more coming. Last June, developers submitted preliminary plans for two eight-story apartment buildings, with up to 360 units, for the last two vacant blocks in the pier area, on either side of Pier View Way just west of the railroad tracks. Currently used for parking, the sites would also include street-level restaurants and retail businesses.

Three blocks to the south, the Oceanside Transit Center will be getting a major overhaul over the next couple of years. Preliminary environmental documents submitted last August to the Oceanside Planning Division call for the 10-acre train and bus station property on Tremont Street to include a public plaza, a multi-story office building, retail shops, three parking garages with room for 1800 cars, a 165-room boutique hotel and a huge residential development with up to 547 apartments — 15% of them set aside for lower-income residents.

“The concept is to get young people who work in Los Angeles or San Diego to be able to take the train home and live in Oceanside on the beach,” Aldrich says. “And when you start flooding all these people into the area, all of a sudden you have enough volume to support not just restaurants and nightclubs but also grocery stores, drugstores and other types of businesses that cater to residents and not just tourists.”

Oceanside Pier looking east toward hotels

Aldrich says he empathizes with those who lament the loss of downtown Oceanside’s small-town vibe, seedy as it might have been. “I know there are a lot of people in the community who resent what’s happening here,” he says. “They liked it when you could park your car near the beach and not worry about all the tourists. But I tell you, it was rough — the people were rough, the bars were rough, the town was rough. And I find the big hotels exciting, because they are drawing families. I have a video from 30 years ago, when I was the local KOCT-TV guy. I was embedded with the vice squad, and we were on john patrols. We had a young girl from the sheriff’s academy posing as a prostitute, and we were picking up johns left and right — in the same exact area where these hotels are, and where families with young children are making their way to the beach.”

The Oceanside Police Department’s Tom Bussey shares Aldrich’s enthusiasm. “What a big change,” he says. “We don’t have anywhere near the crime we used to have downtown – it’s just all upscale, pretty much.”

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