Old World Village's Rep As a Haven for Skinheads Is the Least of the Huntington Beach Oddity's Problems

Old World Disorder
Lawsuits, shuttered shops, threats, finger-pointing: Turns out Old World Village’s rep as a haven for skinheads is the least of the Huntington Beach oddity’s problems

Huntington Beach’s Old World Village is nothing if not quaint. It has cobblestone streets, red-shingle roofs, pretty little planters, and stucco walls painted with floral designs and bucolic murals. But Michele Weiss and her mother, Patricia, woke up one day in February 2003 to find a new addition to the décor: dog shit, wiped all over their windows.

Skinheads. “They’re at it again,” Weiss thought when she saw the brown mess on the surfaces of her shop. It was gross, annoying and saddening, she says, but not a shock. She knew what she was in for when she opened Michele’s Jewish Gifts eight years ago. After all, her family had lived in the Village since 1986: The shaved-head, swastika-tattoo crowd that would spill out of the Rathskeller Pub and buy Third Reich memorabilia from the shop across the way were just a part of the scenery. And it wasn’t like there hadn’t been incidents before. There was that time in the ’90s when she and her mother stumbled across a banquet for Hitler’s birthday in a neighbor’s restaurant and saw a little baby with a swastika armband. And there was the guy who told her mother that the ovens in Germany during the Holocaust were “all for baking.” Disturbing, Weiss says, but bearable.

illustration by Stephen Weigl
While she still operates Gourmet Lollipops, Michele Weiss (center, 
next to mother Patricia and son Miles) says there's not enough business to keep her Jewish Gifts store open
John Gilhooley
While she still operates Gourmet Lollipops, Michele Weiss (center, next to mother Patricia and son Miles) says there's not enough business to keep her Jewish Gifts store open

This time, the Weisses called the cops, filed a report, cleaned up the windows and kept on with their business. A little more than a month later, their Star-of-David sign was stolen. In June of 2004, a window was broken. Every so often, Weiss would pick up the ringing telephone to be told her family wasn’t long for this earth. She tells a hilarious story about the week in August 2004 when the skinheads left a new scratch on her brown Buick every night—until one night when they mistakenly targeted the similarly colored car of a German neighbor.

Weiss and her mom, who also run a bakery called Gourmet Lollipops, insist the anti-Semitism they occasionally encounter in the Village isn’t a huge problem. And even if it were, they say, there’s little that can be done about it. Because that’s how it goes in the Village: People do things, and there’s no one to tell them they can’t. That’s actually how the Weisses’ Jewish gift shop got opened in the first place. In 2000, the family displayed an Israeli flag among the array of “old world Europe” flags in front of the mixed business-and-residential development. A few neighbors flipped, took down the flag and told them it had no place in Old World Village. So the Weisses converted their generic gift shop into a Jewish gift shop. Their intention was subversive, but in a way, it was also ordinary for the Village, where the idea of a unified Bavarian utopia just off Interstate 405 is constantly stretched to accommodate some distinctly un-German business ventures and residents.

The Village has changed a great deal since it opened in 1978, but it’s a still a quaint place. For the most part, residents say, everyone gets along. But over the years, the struggle over the identity of the Village has led to lawsuits and police calls, harsh words and hurt feelings. And recently, the Weisses did something else that’s become common in the Village. In the window of Michele’s Jewish Gifts, they placed a sign: “Going Out of Business.”

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The Village’s old-timers miss many things, but what Heidi Miller seems to miss the most are the dirndls. The 74-year-old German native, her white hair cropped close, owns Heidi’s Imports, a small shop where she sells T-shirts and beer steins emblazoned with Iron Crosses and panzers (and, according to some neighbors, the occasional swastika). Miller moved to the United States with her American G.I. husband in 1958. And when the Village opened in 1978, she worked as a bartender at the Old World Restaurant. At that time, nearly all the shop owners in the place wore traditional Bavarian dresses or lederhosen. She now has a picture on the wall of her shop showing a woman in a colorful dirndl; she gestures to it and smiles when she talks about the way the Village used to be. “When I came, I was amazed,” she says, her voice accented and hesitant. “We all had to wear this clothing in the store. It was nice.”

Cyndie Kasko is 33, friendly, blond and fashionably dressed, so she perhaps can’t be considered an “old-timer.” But what she misses is the fun. She’s the daughter of Josef Bischof, the German-born developer who built the Village. She and her family christened the place when she was just 2 years old. “It was like growing up in Disneyland,” she says. “It was such a blast. You’d open your door, and there’d be all these people, with some girl selling pretzels on a stick.”

Her mother, Dolores, seems to miss the feeling of starting something new. “We were very excited to have fulfilled a dream that we could have a little bit of my husband’s homeland,” she says of her emotions when the Village opened. But now, she laughs. “We’ve gotten old at Old World, literally.”

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