Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks, starting with the chapters written by SD Free Press writers. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “…San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.” To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.
By Doug Porter
The San Diego Door and its antecedents were a big part of the alternative media scene in America’s Finest City over a eight year period starting in October,1966 when the Good Morning, Teaspoon published its first edition.
By December, 1971, when I first climbed up the steps of the paper’s Victorian stick mansion at 2445 Albatross Street just north of downtown, the paper had gone through ‘free love’, hippie druggie and counterculture phases and a half-dozen names. It had evolved to become a publication with anti-establishment news and alt-culture reviews, featuring powerful graphics and color.
Solid support from local businesses, regional concert promoters and national record companies meant the paper often published in two sections. Two hundred fifty or so vending machines around the city combined with regular radio advertising on local rock stations gave the Door a higher profile that one might expect for an “underground” newspaper.
I came to the Door via the OB Rag, a spunky and radical underground paper with a strong neighborhood bent. The collective publishing the Rag was scattering to the winds (it was re-born several times and exists as a blog today). As a blue 1964 Plymouth Valiant cruised by our Muir Street house on the evening of January 6, 1972, a gunman fired two shots through the front window, wounding one woman and narrowly missing another.
Although it would later turn out that the driver of the car was an FBI informant, the local daily paper and at least one television station ran stories suggesting the shooting was staged by our group to gain sympathy for San Diego State economics professor Peter Bohmer. He was part of the group and, as the highest-profile radical in the city at that point, subject to attempts to gain his dismissal from the school along with regular harassment from various police agencies.
The shooting was the last straw for the collective and our landlord; we’d endured months of threats and small acts of vandalism by a group calling itself the Secret Army Organization.
On the night of the shooting I was meeting with a Door editor about becoming a contributor.They had questions about me being too radical; I was concerned about sexism in the paper’s classified ads.
I guess it worked out. A week later I was living at the paper’s headquarters. My first story concerned Black Panther Huey P. Newton. Soon after the women working on the paper brought about the end of the offensive classified ads.
The house on Albatross was part office, part group house and part meeting place. The popular notion of the hippie commune being an oasis of sex, drugs and constant parties was a million miles away from the reality of the Door house.
The Victorian structure dated from the 1870’s, we were told, and came complete with a widow’s walk outside the west-facing master bedroom overlooking the harbor. Little work on the interior was done in since the 1920’s, when Mr F.O. Carlson acquired the property. There were chandeliers in three of the first floor rooms, equipped for both gas and electric. The overgrown yard gave it the image of being a haunted house.
City directories show the property being unoccupied starting in 1966, and we presumed that was when the widow Carlson died. More than one Door staffer reported seeing or hearing strange things in the house.
Then-publisher Bill Maguire rented the property in 1969. It was cheap, centrally located and had plenty of both space and privacy. The only downside was noise from the jets flying in on what was then the approach to the airport. You could literally see treads on the tires as the planes flew over.
There were usually kids underfoot–several women with children were senior staffers– and the constant smell of paranoia kept the aroma of burning ganja to a minimum. The big-time social event at the house was the Friday night Risk board games, where all of us anti-imperialist types got to hone our strategic military skills.
The steep flight of aging wood steps up from the street functioned as an early warning system, so when the authorities stopped by to visit, we knew they were coming. The house was raided by the cops a handful of times on the pretext of a search for AWOL sailors. None were found.
They never did look in the backyard tree house where (unbeknown to most of us) Sam, the staff cartoonist, had a crop growing. Eventually the police settled in with an unmarked car parked down the block; on occasion the FBI suits would park their car on the opposite side of the street. I don’t think we ever locked the front door over the two years I lived there.
Although the Door had as many as three dozen staffers at times, only eight to ten of us lived in the six bedroom house. The oversized living room on the first floor served as a production room with homemade glass-topped light tables lining the walls. The room I always imagined as the Victorian library served as our office, with meetings and meals taking place around an oversized dining room table next to the barely functional kitchen.
People came and went from the Door and the house with great frequency. One of our ace reporters and his significant other simply disappeared one night, not long after telling us they we working on a blockbuster story about organized crime and land developers. They eventually surfaced in the bay area. And those of us remaining pieced together the story from notes they’d left behind.
The Door had its lighter moments. In 1973, the paper published a parody edition of the San Diego Union, complete with the headline “Nixon Declares Martial Law”. We responded to a letter from the daily’s law firm asking us to cease using their logo with note of condolence, regretting that so many of their attorneys at the firm were deceased. And when fast food king Ray Kroc bought the local baseball franchise from the Copley newspaper empire, the team was promptly dubbed the “San Diego Big Macs”.
The subject matters that the Door took on, given its finite resources, look all the more impressive after four decades. Issues that were given regular and unstinting coverage included the war in Vietnam, the struggles of the Farmer Workers Union, abortion rights, energy prices, US intervention in a wide variety of third world nations and sexism in the educational system. Anti-war protests large and small, along with every trial of protesters (and there were lots of trials, this being good ol’ reactionary San Diego) were reported on.
Lots of other local stories found its way onto the papers’ pages, news that the local establishment press omitted or buried. Stories about (libertarian) tax protesters, police harassment of local Chicanos on immigration charges, community opposition to development plans, sources and of funding for local political races and even sub-rosa tactics being used by the city government to evade controls on municipal sewage discharge (something that’s still going on!) into the Pacific Ocean all graced the pages of the Door.
Over time some of our best sources turned out to be reporters from the daily paper who were disgusted by the openly reactionary agendas espoused by their bosses. We’d go downtown to the Press Room bar across the street from the Union-Tribune, drink a few beers and keep our ears open. More than one front page story started out that way.
News editor Bob Hartley and I had a Sunday talk show on KSDO radio. After a few months of death threats–their regular audience was sorta right wing–our broadcast careers came to a screeching halt after we interviewed Jane Fonda. …Or maybe it was the track from the Firesign Theater album for the “Famous Judges School” we ran as an ad.
Movie, record, book and concert reviews appeared throughout every issue of the paper, sometimes competing with “hard news” for front page headlines. Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s role as a 15 year music reviewer at the Door was chronicled in the movie Almost Famous.
The paper featured many interviews, including one with Mohammed Ali. Reporter Bill Ritter interviewed local radio and television station people and got their take on the state of the electronic marketplace—which was ironic, as he went on to become the anchor for ABC News’ New York affiliate.
The handwriting was on the wall by late 1973 as changes in the publishing industry and the political landscape impacted the Door and other papers around the country. Pressure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the music industry dried up an important source of ad revenue. In San Diego, a free and apolitical weekly (The Reader) appeared with support from some of the same businessmen the Door had offended with its investigative reporting.
In November 1973 we got word that our Victorian mansion on Albatross Street was slated for destruction. A half-block long wall of condominiums now takes up that side of the street.
The San Diego Door lasted for another year or so, publishing out of another house in Golden Hill. I left the paper in the spring of 1974 to seek my fame and fortune in Washington DC as an editor for CounterSpy. To this day I cannot drive up the steep hill on Laurel Street from Little Italy without thinking wistfully about life in the days at the Door.
(Parts of this story were published in the OB Rag Blog in 2009.)