In Mission Beach, every foot of space counts. Five surf shops, four bars, a handful of restaurants, a resort hotel, a Turkish-style coffee lounge, and an amusement park all fit within its bounds, packed in and amongst the beachside homes. At North Jetty Road, the southwestern cap of Mission Beach, is a well-known locals-only surf spot; at the north end is the Catamaran Hotel, a ritzy vacation spot with suites costing up to $800 a night.
Hanging on to a true beach-town feel amid the commercialism is no easy feat, but Mission Beach keeps it real. Fourteen streets and 46 walkways cross Mission Boulevard, emptying out onto the brown mud banks of the bay on the east and the tan sand of the Pacific Ocean on the west. Scraps of blue sky peek out from between the rows of homes; clouds pass lazily overhead. Here, boxy stucco houses with tailored lawns sit next to fading wooden shacks whose gardens sprawl haphazardly across the scant patches of front yard. Towels flap on clotheslines; wet suits hang over balcony rails; surfboards lie piled on porches, still dewy from morning sessions. Paint has peeled, façades dulled, and cars rusted, but this only adds to the accessibility of the place. Neighbors congregate on the sidewalks for quick chats; people wave at each other from the windows of cars. Surfers hose down boards, talking amongst themselves; shop owners linger outside storefronts, smoking and chatting and watching the street traffic. Restaurants cater to the sweatshirt-and-shorts crowd and more often than not have outdoor seating. Houses face the streets and walkways, few blocked from view by trees or hedges, which gives the area an open, friendly look. Few people, at first glance, appear stressed; Mission Beach is, it seems, a place to relax.
The most conspicuous feature in Mission Beach is at the busy intersection of Mission Boulevard, Ventura Place, and Mission Bay Drive. This is the home of Belmont Park, part carnival, part shopping mall, part food court. The tracks of the Giant Dipper roller coaster clack as the cars go by overhead; bored vendors stand behind stacks of overpriced wares; small children pull haggard parents toward the fray. The artificial barrel waves at the WaveHouse pound along to thumping music as kids and adults flip and shriek on their boards, flying through the spray. The smell of deep-frying and cooking oil wafts on the breeze as chatter from the outdoor patios spills over onto the boardwalk, where skaters and bikers weave through the slow crowd.
Throngs of teenagers atop the cement seawall lining the boardwalk kick their sneakered feet against its cracking side and tease and jostle each other. Their backpacks and skateboards lie piled like sandbags below them. Bikini-clad girls giggle into cell phones. Oversized sunglasses shield their eyes. Slouching, sweat-shirted boys, cans of beer in hand, alternately shrink from and call out to passing women. In the distance, surfers jet along whitewash, standing and falling and standing again.
From Belmont Park down to the jetty is unofficially called South Mission. "I think the distinction is made because Belmont Park neatly separates the north and south residential sections of Mission Beach," says Scott Crosby, who has owned a house in Mission Beach for three years. "West Mission Bay Drive, the main artery into Mission Beach, hits Mission Boulevard right there, bisecting Mission Beach," he continues. All in all, there are few differences between the two areas, though the north end has more businesses and the south end is almost all residential. "As a result of the no-through-street aspect of South Mission," says Crosby, "it's much quieter and is a bit quirky, in a way not unlike OB is, since only those who have business there venture that way."
Compared to other San Diego beach communities, Mission Beach is a baby. Pacific Beach and Coronado were well into their development stages by the time Mission Beach came into the picture. In 1914, John Spreckels and George L. Barney submitted a plan to the City of San Diego outlining their concept for the area. Spreckels wanted a resort hotel and elegant homes, and Barney jumped on board. But due to poor finances they had somewhat of a false start. The erection of a bridge between Ocean Beach and Mission Beach in 1915 put Mission Beach on the map as accessible, beautiful, and investment-worthy.
The Father of Mission Beach, as he is known, was J.M. Asher, the developer who in 1916 spearheaded Mission Beach's Tent City. Pictures from the era show neat rows of striped, circuslike tents interspersed with grassy, Hawaiian-style cabana huts. Mission Boulevard divides those at the water's edge from those set back from the water. The lots were for sale, and tent sites were available for rent, and while not the most luxurious accommodations, the tents allowed families and individuals to live right on the beach. Asher, in response to the influx in population and in order to cash in on the beachfront market even further, built a bathhouse on Redondo Court to accommodate the crowd. Eventually, more and more people began to stay year-round, having taken to the weather and beach lifestyle, making Tent City not only a viable resort but also a place to live.
Though Asher is called the Father of Mission Beach, none of his developments still stand. Tent City was dismantled in 1922 in response to new, stricter city codes regarding temporary housing and was soon replaced by permanent residences. The Redondo Court bathhouse, once an icon of what is now referred to as Old Mission Beach, was torn down in the '50s, replaced eventually by a parking lot, and still later by condos.
Spreckels had better luck than Asher did; some of what he built remains. In 1925, he constructed what was then called the Mission Beach Amusement Center, hoping to increase real estate interest in Mission Beach. The result was a games carnival, a ballroom, the Plunge swimming pool, and the Giant Dipper roller coaster, which is the second-oldest coaster ride in California. But Spreckels's structures were in for a bumpy ride; the amusement center, renamed Belmont Park in 1957, stalled out in the '60s and '70s, closing in December 1976.
For years it remained closed, a prime spot for transients to set up camp. The Giant Dipper caught fire twice in 1981, surviving only to fall into further ruin. The surrounding area, which is now home to Mission Beach's prime strip of tourist shops, began to deteriorate as well. Ventura Place became shabbier and shabbier as years progressed, and it took on a seedy, dangerous air. Shannan Renna, who bartends at the Coaster Saloon, her father's bar on Ventura Place, remembers the mid-'80s as a difficult time for Mission Beach. "Ventura Place looked horrible back then," Renna says, recalling the years before the eventual cleanup. "Everything was run-down, and it was just a place for transients and junkies and stuff like that."
John Renna, according to his daughter, was largely responsible for picking the area up. "His goal was to try and clean up the street," Shannan Renna explains, "and back then, 23 years ago, we were the first to improve the face of the buildings and make it look nicer."
Renna's father also championed the Giant Dipper restoration cause, helping to form the Save the Coaster Committee, which took possession of the coaster in 1982 and began raising funds to restore it. "He has a lifetime pass to go on it," Renna says proudly. "It's really cool."
Threatened with demolition, the coaster had been added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978, affording it some legal protection, and eight years later it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1986, new Belmont Park developers, Paul Thoryk and Graham MacHutchin, came into the picture; their interest in the park was sold to Phase One Development, which opened the commercial center in 1988. All that remained of Spreckels's amusement park was the coaster and the Plunge. Thanks to the efforts of the Save the Coaster Committee, the Giant Dipper was up and running two years later. Its history has been recorded in a book, The Giant Dipper, San Diego, California: A Pictorial History, by Eric Young, which features a dramatic back-cover photograph of the Giant Dipper ablaze with flame. The front shows the Dipper in all its restored glory.
Mission Beach is about to gain another history book. Arcadia Publishing Group's "Images of America" series will soon include a Mission Beach volume. On the cover is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh flying his Spirit of St. Louis with the Mission Beach coastline in the background. The authors, Phillip Prather, 84, and Terry Curren, 73, are longtime friends and Mission Beach residents. In 2004, they gave a presentation on the history of the area to the Mission Beach Woman's Club. They did such a good job that the club invited them back to speak before an even larger crowd. When Arcadia approached the woman's club about contributing a book to "Images of America," Prather and Curren naturally sprang to mind and were handed the project.
And it's no wonder. Between the two of them, Prather and Curren have a wealth of not only historical but firsthand local knowledge. Collectively, they recall an outdoorsy, simple childhood filled with sports, mischief, and long days at Old Mission Beach, the stretch of shore where the old Tent City and Mission Beach Bathhouse once stood. Old Mission Beach was the place to hang out. Kids from all over congregated there to swim, surf, play volleyball, and horse around. The beach was the social headquarters; there was no need to go anywhere else. "If you grew up here, you lived in a bathing suit," Prather says, laughing. "In the wintertime you might put on a T-shirt and a pair of Levi's." Beside him, Curren nods. Prather continues. "We had lobster and abalone, which is the cheapest food you could get, and the bay was full of scallops and clams and fish, so you practically lived off the water. So it was a great life."
This lifestyle, according to Curren, softened the hardships of the Depression. "Nobody had any money, and nobody thought anything of it," he says. "Everybody was in the same boat, and we had a lot of fun. When we weren't playing volleyball, we were bodysurfing. If we weren't bodysurfing, we were getting in trouble doing something," he says laughing. Part of that "something" included beachcombing for items discarded by careless day-trippers. "We would go up on the beach after four, five o'clock, when everyone left, and there'd be swim fins, and there'd be towels and bathing suits that people left," Prather remembers. "I never wore a bathing suit that I didn't find somewhere on the beach," he says, "but we didn't know we were poor."
"We had the biggest playground in the world," Curren adds.
Some of the Mission Beach mainstays grew up in that era. These men have orchestrated several Mission Beach traditions, the best-known of which is a softball spin-off called over the line. As the game's popularity grew, the enterprising lads designed the over the line tournament, an event that started in the '50s with only a handful of young men and a little corner of the beach. At around that time, the same young men responsible for the tournament banded together to form the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, more commonly known as OMBAC, a sporting organization dedicated at first to over the line and volleyball tournaments. The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club now boasts just under 500 members and runs several events, including wheelchair basketball, a surfing contest, and a horseshoe competition.
Delmar Miller was one of the original over the line players. "We decided to throw a tournament," he says. "It got a little bit bigger, so we came down to the very end of the beach and started playing it down there, and it kept growing and growing, so we couldn't play there anymore. So we went to Mariner's Point and started playing there for a few years. And it kept growing, so finally they let us have Fiesta Island. Now, last year, we had almost 1200 teams."
Though billed as a "tournament," over the line is mainly for kicks. "That's the only reason we play, 'cause it's fun," says Miller. "When we were young we played competitively, but as we got older we didn't give a shit. We just drank and had a good time." These days division names include Cannardly (from the phonetic running together of "can hardly") and Cadaver: "We're getting so old now we have a Cadaver division!" quips Miller.
In addition to its roster of sporting activities, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club hosts the annual Coming Out Party, a summertime bash originally held in honor of Delmar Miller's release from a Korean POW camp in 1953. Upon his return home to Mission Beach, Miller was greeted by a flock of friends who had taken up a collection on his behalf. "They had a great big jug full of money, and they started to give it to me," Miller remembers, "and I said, 'I don't need any money. I haven't been paid in two years. Why don't we break it open and throw a great big party?' So we threw a party and had about 100 people." Decades later, the Coming Out Party is a Mission Beach hallmark event that draws thousands. This year's party, held on May 19 at Mariner's Point, was sponsored by big names such as Budweiser and Viejas, a far cry from its grassroots beginning. Still, Miller is modest. "I'm not into the limelight thing," he says.
The Coming Out Party isn't the only bash of the season. Thousands of college kids descend upon Mission Beach during spring break for a seven-day stretch of partying. MTV, which often takes its show on the road to spring-break hotspots such as Cancún and Miami, broadcast live from Mission Beach in 1994 and filmed its popular show Total Request Live from the WaveHouse in May 2006. "Spring break is pretty crazy," says Ray Adhoot, owner and manager of Ray's Rentals, a shop that rents surfboards, skates, and bikes. "I mean, the hooligans are on the beach doing their drinking, and it's nuts. The cops are out in force, on horseback, ATV, motorcycle, bicycle."
Parties aside, the locals have their own watering holes: the Pennant and the Beachcomber on Mission Boulevard, and the Sandbar and the Coaster Saloon on Ventura Place. "It's cool," Adhoot says offhandedly. "You go up here to these bars, and you see everyone you see on the streets during the day. That's what I like about it, anyway."
The population rise in the summer months has its merits, though it means more out-of-towners. "I think that a lot of locals like the tourist season, embrace it, especially guys, 'cause there's chicks around in the summer," Adhoot says. "But I think everyone is definitely ready to see them go when August is ending and they're leaving." July 4, he says, is his busiest time, when he will often rent out all his equipment by phone before the crowds even arrive. "For me, I wish it could be like that all year. I'd be making a killing," he muses. "I could retire early. But I'm ready to see them go, too."
Only some aren't going anywhere. More and more people with padded pockets are discovering Mission Beach. They drop thousands of dollars on vacation rentals or buy houses along the beachfront. Up and down the courts, cottages are being converted to condominiums. Skeletons of two-story houses rise above their more modest neighbors, and Dumpsters in driveways brim with debris.
Todd Bartlett, owner of the Liquid Foundation surf shop on Mission Boulevard, points out the construction sites that line the streets. "Twenty-five years ago when you went up and down all these courts, there were little shacks, little beach houses, and they were full of four and five and six kids," he explains. "They had bunk beds and surfboards, and everybody surfed, and it was like a surfing-culture community. But over the last 10 or 12 years, they knocked down these little shacks worth $250,000 to $300,000 and then sell the land to somebody for half a million, then stick another half a million on it and build a million-dollar condo."
He worries that the area is turning into another Newport Beach, that it's losing its fun, laid-back beach-town vibe. "You've got people with really nice cars and a lot of money, and they want the beach to look a certain way," he says. "I had to take my stickers down two weeks ago because a lady complained. Sixteen years I've been down here, 200 and something stickers on my window. Nice, rich lady bought her new house, doesn't like my shop having stickers on the windows. There's a little law saying you can only have a certain amount of stickers on your window, so she counted my stickers, and I had to remove them." Frustrated, he lets his arms fall to his sides. "So there you go," he says with a sigh.
"Our neighborhood is evolving," says Susan Thorning, who has just finished a term as chair of the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board, a citizens' advisory committee on local planning issues.
"The little places, older people are dying or people in the family are selling," she says. "They want to take advantage of the income, because the market's started shifting, so the dynamic in the whole community is shifting."
Thorning echoes Todd Bartlett when she explains the building boom. "You buy a piece of property, and you spend $500,000 for the land and you're taking the house down," she begins. "Here in the area, a house is probably $700,000 or $800,000 for a shack lot, and you're tearing it down. So what did you just spend for the land? Seven or eight hundred thousand dollars. And then you have to build something on it. And what are you going to do, are you going to put the little cottage back? How are you going to make your money on it?
"Some people are saying that they're concerned that there are boxes going up, because people are trying to maximize building on the space," Thorning says. "They'll say that one developer will put up two buildings side by side, because they'll buy two pieces of property, and the only difference is that one building mirrors the other, that the door is on the opposite side, but they look exactly the same. And they're concerned about that. They want the unique nature of each property being different to be there."
While the precise planning board can do little about the style of the new buildings, ordinances offer some protection of what is already there. On one side of the courts, for example, the roofs of new buildings must be angled a certain way to ensure that sunlight gets into yards to help prevent mildew. Views cannot be impeded by trees, balconies, or any other structure, and buildings must not exceed 30 feet, something that's been a topic of great debate. In some instances, builders have been able to duck the restriction by raising the grade--the starting point on which they plan to build--to gain a few feet. The city council is reviewing the matter.
"People are very concerned about abuse of the grade and the 30-foot height limit, because a lot of them have based their purchases of homes on current views," says Thorning. "View corridors in the beach areas are the prime reason you come here. So even if you have a small postage-stamp view, you have a view."
Another issue is alcohol, which is allowed on the beach between noon and 8:00 p.m. Mission Beach is one of several stretches of San Diego shore where waterfront drinking is allowed. While some embrace that freedom, others find it problematic. The debate prompted District 2 Councilman Kevin Faulconer to form a Beach Alcohol Task Force, which had an impressive community turnout at its inaugural meeting on October 30. House parties, noise levels, bad beach behavior, and DUIs were hot topics, along with the question of how to improve the community. This came on the heels of a drastic turn of events; in August 2006, the Mission Beach Town Council, another citizens' advisory committee, voted 64-5 to ban alcohol on the beach altogether, something that has not been implemented by the San Diego City Council.
The town council faces strong opposition from groups like FreePB.org, an organization opposed to alcohol regulations for both Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. If the ban were to go into effect, it would, according to Adhoot, "suck." "This beach would completely turn into a soft little family beach, which it's totally not right now," he says adamantly. "Right now it's a young party beach, definitely. If you want the nice beach, you go to, like, La Jolla Shores or even to Del Mar, if you really don't want alcohol at all."
Bartlett, though he sees the merit in setting limits, concurs. "They want to claim alcohol causes problems. Well, I agree," he says. "Every time I've been in trouble, I've been drunk." He pauses, leaning against Liquid Foundation's front counter. "But to take away a privilege like this from everyone, when you have thousands and thousands of people coming to the beach a day, and you get a couple of people who ruin it when they're drunk... What they're really doing is taking away your privileges." He grins. "I mean, years ago, it was 24/7. You could drink on the beach all day, all night, down the boardwalk. I'd roll my skateboard down with a keg on the front and fill everybody up along the way." He shakes his head. "They're taking away your privilege once again. The Man," he says sadly. "That's what's going to happen. All the rich lawyers want to push the laws right on through."
But it might not be quite so bad. "There are certainly two sides on this," says Mary Swenson, president of the town council. "There are people who want to ban alcohol on the beach; there are people who want to not have more and more rules." It's not all black-and-white either; while some attendees of both the town council and Beach Alcohol Task Force meetings have staunch opinions, others are willing to work it out. "There were some interesting ideas that came up at the last meeting about possible compromises, like designating areas where you can drink and where you can't drink during certain hours," says Swenson.
Even with the changes, some things stay the same. The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club has a permanent meeting spot, complete with bar, atop the nearby Bahia Hotel. Though it's getting rarer, kids still live six and eight to a house, hanging their wet suits over the railings and parking their surfboards on ramshackle porches. At the Coaster Saloon, Delmar Miller relaxes on his barstool, enjoying the sea breeze rolling in off the ocean. "The people that live here are the same; nobody's changed," he muses, referring to his inner circle. "From the coaster to the jetty, that's our little world." He laughs. "I tell my wife when I die, she can sell," he says good-naturedly. "I'm not moving!"