In the same way people are always saying the world is going to end, we also like to identify the deaths of specific places—for instance, “San Francisco died when the yuppies pushed out the artists” or “South Park died when people started calling it South Park” or “The Chicken Pie Shop died when it moved to El Cajon Boulevard.” Whether or not a place is literally dead, what we really mean is: A place that we like has changed, and we are reminded of the impossibility of returning to the times we had there.
But you never hear “Ocean Beach died when....”
In fact, you hear the opposite: O.B. is perceived by almost everyone familiar with the iconic little beach hamlet as stubbornly resistant to the virus of change.
That's why so many who once lived in O.B. eventually return: I-8 West is a time machine. It doesn't much matter what happened to you in the outside world. In the People's Republic of Ocean Beach, there's always an old beach cruiser, a set of waves, a bonfire, a beer, a joint, an organic tomato, some old or new friends—a slice of eternal unpretentiousness to welcome you back. Whether you've hustled enough to buy a bungalow, swing the rent, land a couch to crash on or settled for even less, O.B. is pretty much how it was before, and—voilà—so are you.
Radical stasis, though, has its fissures and perils. As it grows more and more distinct from the homogenizing corporate culture that wants to swallow up every last bit of human community on the planet and vomit it back out as a beige strip mall, Ocean Beach seems always simultaneously on the verge and defiant: It has the feeling of a town battening down the hatches during the calm before the storm—so it comes as no surprise that when it starts raining Starbucks and Subways, O.B. residents get nervous and hunker down.
Change fills the committed OBecian's heart with a sense of foreboding that tends to erupt in action, not because any individual change necessarily spells doom in itself, but because so much is at stake. It's not the character of the place slipping away that makes O.B. fight; it is its survival in spite of the odds.
You can see this protectionism at work in the recent furor over Newport Avenue jewelry store Blondstone's battle with the O.B. Farmer's Market. Blondstone's owner arguably had a legitimate gripe over the sale of cheap imported jewelry at the weekly Wednesday event, but by dragging everyone from the police to the mayor into it, he ended up alienating himself from the community.
This perception of besiegement, the belief that O.B. may be the last stand in preserving the small-scale, live-and-let-live, laid-back Southern California experience makes it fair game to question even the effect of a recent massive increase in popularity of O.B.'s beloved burger joint, Hodad's.
One of the main threats to the character of O.B. is overexposure. You may recall that I harshly criticized the now-cancelled Fox / CBS series The Ex-List for using O.B. as its setting last year. The worst thing about the show filming in O.B. wasn't the disruption of lives à la David Mamet's State and Main; it was that the show's make-believe, squeaky-clean fantasyland was actually called “Ocean Beach.” I pointed out in my column that Pacific Beach didn't really become a permanent MTV Spring Break until after it was literally the site of MTV's Spring Break program. People find what they're looking for by creating what they're looking for.
Hodad's has been an independent, family-owned business for more than three decades. It has always been popular, but until this year, it was mostly a favorite of locals. I've always liked their fries and shakes, and as I don't eat meat, I appreciate that they offer a veggie burger. Then last year, Hodad's was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and, soon after, CNN named Hodad's one of the five best hamburger joints in the country. These days the line to order winds around the block. They're flocking to Hodad's and inadvertantly discovering Ocean Beach.Because of its geographical isolation—ocean to the west, river channel to the north, peninsula to the south and no coastal freeway exit—O.B. has never been on the way to anywhere. But now it's on the way to Hodad's.
Nonetheless, I gauge the popularity of Hodad's as positive.
Unlike Starbucks' fake approximation of a neighborhood coffeehouse, or The Ex-List's fake appropriation of a cool beach town, Hodad's is authentic O.B. People come here because the food is generously prepared and the employees are down to earth. In an interview with Frank Gormlie of the excellent O.B. Rag blog (www.obrag.org), Hodad's owner Mike Hardin described attempts at overdevelopment in O.B. as “get-rich quick schemes.”
“They see dollar signs,” he told Gormlie. “I see a community.”
The very reason people seek out Hodad's is because it's not McDonald's. We can only hope that this translates into an appreciation for all that is offbeat and anti-corporate about the 'hood. Let them come to Hodad's, from New York, Iowa, Japan—wherever. And if they have an authentic California dream, let them move to Ocean Beach and realize it by joining in the effort to keep the place alive and weird. They'll likely come to feel, as Hardin does, that “the People's Republic of O.B. is true in my heart.”Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.