I moved from New York to San Diego in 1985. After spending the first five years landlocked in a dumpy Clairemont complex, I relocated to a neighborhood in the northwest end of Ocean Beach called the War Zone.
My friends had warned me about the WZ. They told stories of stabbings, shootings, muggings, burglaries and arson. They said the place was brimming with biker gangs, surfer gangs, skateboard gangs, skinhead gangs, James Gangs [shout out], crackheads, militants, pickpockets and worst of all disgruntled hippies beating up newbies with rolled-up petitions.
Local lore claims the War Zone got its name from the battles waged in '60s between the Hells Angels and rival biker gangs. In the '70s and '80s it was still living up to its name. By the time I arrived circa 1990, it had tamed significantly. But it was still more menacing than any place I had ever lived.
I remember my first night. My apartment was directly behind an infamous bar on Bacon and Voltaire called Dream Street. To celebrate my new digs and excited to see what kind of establishment I would be living beside, I walked into the beige, windowless building to see about five old, mostly-bearded, drooling drunks. I pulled up a stool and nodded to an intimidating Grizzly Adams type sitting nearby. He scowled and pulled back his jacket to reveal the hunter's knife that was sheathed to his belt.
I nodded again, as if to say, "Message received" and left without ordering. Then I moseyed up Voltaire Street toward the delicious sound of delta blues piping out of a bar. Inside was heaven.
The Texas Teahouse (now known as The Tilted Stick) was a legendary dive bar. It quickly became my War Zone go-to joint because it had three things I adored: Missile Command, Genesee Cream Ale and great live music, such as the Sidewinders, The Jacks (R.I.P. Mighty Joe), various incarnations of The Beat Farmers and legendary Delta bluesman Tomcat Courtney, who was stabbed in this very bar along with my friend Nick Rusnak and two others.
And that's how it was for my first five years living in the WZ with the stabbings and the shootings and the muggings and manhunts all under the spotlights of police choppers and the whup-whup-whup applause of helicopter blades like an enormous Broadway stage production.
But why? Why does this little patch of land lend itself to such lowbrow villainy? I mean, crackheads shouldn't be able to afford the rent in a SoCal beach town! Well it's the planes of course. We are directly under the flight path. They have to fly right over us before they can ascend—every 5-10 minutes, starting at 6:30 a.m.—the jet engines roaring so loudly they cause the phone calls and the face-to-face conversations to wait for the plane to pass. It's called The OB Pause and nowhere in this town is it louder than the War Zone. Naturally, this kept the property values so low that anyone with a crack pipe and a clerk job could afford the rent.
Indeed, in 1994, when my family bought a little four-unit apartment complex here, our one-bedroom apartments were going for $350 per month! One of them was occupied by a punk band and its lackeys. There were about 10 guys crashing in a 400-square-foot cottage which was mostly trashed because, well, because a punk band was living there. They couldn't afford utilities so, when the power went out, they left the perishables in the refrigerator to rot—for months—until the smell was so bad they dragged the fridge outside rather than clean it.
It was right around then that the real estate bubble began to form, and the interest rates dropped, and the local property owners began to realize—Hey, this is beach front property! I can refinance and remodel and get some real rent up in here. But gentrification happens slowly, and crazy shit kept happening. Like the night a rock-smoker crashed his bicycle on my stoop. When I opened the door he was sprawled out and groaning. When I asked if he was OK, he stood up and threatened to kick my ass for having the gall to, um, ask him if he was OK.
Another time I was sitting in my house and a fugitive jumped the fence and ran across the patio and into the backyard. I stepped outside to investigate and was startled when about 10 cops swarmed over the fences and patio. "Where'd he go?" they shouted, guns drawn. I found out later he stabbed someone. Stabbing, it seems, is the preferred method of violence in the WZ.
Then there was the time my brother and I chased a night prowler from our premises. The guy came back with a van full of friends and drove back and forth in front of our house threatening to kill us—probably with knives.
Ah, I miss the good old days!
Today, with the WZ gentrification nearly complete, things are calmer. I mean, the potential is there—but it never seems to erupt. It's more of a cold War Zone now. And, yes, there are times I miss the danger. But I'm glad the tweakers are gone. And I'm glad the stabbers are gone. And I'm glad the planes are still here. Because they still help keep OB relatively lowbrow. No matter how beautiful and inviting this place continues to become, the noise will always keep the hordes away. Or at least give them pause. An OB pause.