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.
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.”
Before the Bischofs came along in the ’70s, the parcel that would become the Village was a tomato field. Josef had developed a German-themed shopping center in Torrance a few years earlier, but after completing it, he decided he wanted something even more authentic: a place where people could live and work, like they did in the old hamlets of Europe, complete with a hotel for guests and a church for weddings. And with the late-1970s gasoline crunch brought on by the OPEC embargo, Dolores says, the idea of eliminating commutes by putting businesses below residences seemed like a “godsend.”
The city of Huntington Beach certainly liked the idea of 53 new retail units on the north side of town. A few years earlier, Surf City had lost out to Westminster in a deal to build what would become Westminster Mall. So Josef got the permits, filled out the paperwork, took out a few construction loans and gathered some lawyers to draw up a document whose idea was relatively novel at the time: a guiding set of covenants, conditions and restrictions—CC&Rs—for a private residential community. Homeowners’ associations had only come into fashion as a tool for developers a decade earlier. Even more exotic, though, was the idea of CC&Rs for a community that would mix business and residences. So, Dolores says, the lawyers did their thing and submitted it to the city. She guesses that the majority of people who bought into the brand-new Old World Village didn’t even read the bylaws.
In many ways, the Bischofs, by taking inspiration from the past, created a community that could be described as ahead of its time. To ease pollution and increase quality of life, development planners have increasingly come to embrace the idea of “New Urbanism” in the past two decades, looking for ways to create walkable communities by consolidating homes and businesses. “[The Village] sounds like it was an early effort toward the things we are working on now,” says John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, a research and consulting firm. “Now, we say it was forward-thinking, but back then, we might have thought it was crazy. It’s an effort to re-create a very traditional form of housing. In Orange County, though, that’s very unusual.”
In its first decade, the Village bustled. The board of directors planned festival after festival to bring in customers, from the traditional Oktoberfest celebration to antiques fairs to car shows to “Irish Day” (Dolores is quick to point out that the Village isn’t just devoted to Germany. It’s a monument to the entire “Old World”—which, judging from appearances, includes the British Isles and northern and western Europe.) The sound of oom-pah music drifted out of mounted speakers at nearly all hours of the day, and, yes, about four-fifths of store owners worked resplendent in lederhosen and dirndls.
Kasko says she has a hard time describing all of that—the Village of her childhood—to her young son. He likes living in the Village, she says, but it certainly isn’t a nonstop party. “It’s really turned into a ghost town,” Kasko explains. To walk through the Village in 2009 is to feel like you’re being watched. Most of the ground-floor units have their blinds drawn and their doors locked; it’s rare to see anyone outside. There certainly aren’t any tourists or customers walking through to browse the shops. Anyone who is at Old World is there with a purpose: either to live and work where they own property, or to visit some single business they read about online (or, perhaps, to compete in or coo over the monthly dachshund races). “The only time we do business is during Oktoberfest,” Heidi Miller says. “Overall, if I break even in a year, I’m lucky.”
Shopping centers around the country—including at Bella Terra mall across the street from the Village—now face the fallout of the worldwide economic recession, with fewer people shopping and store owners forced to shut down. But Village residents say the financial downturn came to their cobblestone streets years ago. “Generally, business is going down,” says Phillip Larschan, who opened a wholesale importing company in the Village in 1995. “But in Old World, let’s say two less people are coming [because of the recession]. From my time in the Village, there’s never been any foot traffic.”
Larschan, a homeowners’-association board member whose company operates via business-to-business sales, is on one side of a debate in the Village. On the other side: Kasko and the handful of other residents who still run retail shops that rely largely on serving customers in person. Larschan says the Village is doomed to fail solely because of the mistakes of Josef. The Bischofs say it’s tenants like Larschan and other “paper pushers”—tax offices, loan agencies, chiropractic clinics and other closed-shutter services—who have killed both the Village’s commerce and spirit.
“I wanted to build a living village, and it was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Josef, age 79, says. “All these idiots live here now.”
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Old World used to have a mountain. A 70-foot-long, gray styrofoam mound sat on the corner of Center Avenue and Huntington Village Drive, a landmark for the Bischofs’ restaurant’s beer garden. But it was originally meant to house a petting zoo. The zoo never happened, and in 2006, the Bischofs made plans to have it torn down and replaced with a wall featuring festive images and the Village’s trademark red roofing.
The mountain is gone now and the new wall has been built. But the renovation of the Bischofs’ restaurant triggered a lawsuit from the Village’s board of directors, alleging that the Bischofs had deviated from the plans that they originally submitted. The association’s lawyer asked for a drastic remedy in court: to halt construction of the wall and move it back—even though the foundation has been in the same place for 30 years.
A judge turned down that request, but a request to have the Bischofs pay all legal fees is pending. Also pending is a countersuit from the Bischofs against the three members of the board of directors, alleging “oppressive, malicious” actions taken out of “spite, ill-will” and a desire to “retaliate for a long-standing grudge.”
Neither Larschan nor board president Marie Tran, both of whom are named in the countersuit, would comment on the matter. Paul Krueger, the third member of the board of directors named, did not return calls from the Weekly. Kasko says the lawsuit against her family is a sign of the attitudes held by the current board majority: hostile to the Bischofs and anyone in the Village who wants to get retail business going again.
“We’re doing things nicely, we’re making things better, and now they want us to tear down the building,” Kasko says. “I’m thinking, ‘My God, these people must have such a hatred toward my family.’”
It isn’t the first time that Village residents have sued one another. The Bischofs and Weisses were served with papers from the board in 2007 during a dispute over fumigation, in which Larschan told the court in a declaration that the Weisses were “not to be trusted.” May of 2006 saw the conclusion of a drawn-out lawsuit between the Old World Owners Association and Alfred Skistimas, owner of the Edelweiss Inn in the Village. The appeals judgment in that case—ultimately, against Skistimas, who claimed unfair treatment in the process of foreclosure on his property—reads like a history of the problems in Old World: accusations of selectively enforced bylaws, descriptions of hopelessly vague CC&Rs, and reports of death threats against board members and intimidation by board members.
Larschan says his actions on the board of directors, on which he has served on and off since 1997, have always been for the good of the Village. “I am very dedicated to what I do,” he says. “And I have a thing called integrity. I just don’t bitch and moan.” But he doesn’t have many kind things to say about the Village’s founding family. He calls Kasko’s complaints about the board’s actions, including the decision to stop paying the Bischofs to maintain bathrooms for public use, “sour grapes.” And he blames Josef Bischof for creating a community that was destined to fail. “He screwed it all up,” Larschan says. “Totally screwed it up. Sorry.”
Larschan is referring to a combination of factors that he calls the Village’s “death knell.” Foremost is the fact that each of the 53 units in the Village is individually owned and has few restrictions placed upon it. In a traditional mall, Larschan points out, policies regulate store hours and the kinds of goods and services each business can provide. The Village’s CC&Rs contain no such policies.
That’s what allows so many dim-window, locked-door establishments in the Village to exist—including Larschan’s own. The CC&Rs specify that each business unit be used for “‘crafts-shop’ type commercial purposes,” a provision that has, in recent years, been loosely interpreted to allow everything from real-estate agencies to notaries to optometrists into the Village.
Larschan and the Bischofs agree on the core diagnosis for what allowed business to spiral down over the past two decades. Both Josef and Dolores Bischof have said that one of their greatest regrets was the decision to sell off all 53 units to individual buyers back when the Village was built. Dolores says that the need to pay off construction loans left them with no choice. Still, she and her husband didn’t anticipate what it would mean to relinquish control of the Village they built. “We didn’t realize that people are people,” she says. “They have minds of their own. We were stupid.”
That realization first started to creep in when some store owners, even in the early days of the Village, began opening and closing at strange times. “The husbands would work elsewhere and leave their wives here, stuck in the store,” Dolores says. “The wives didn’t like that; they wanted to go out to their tea parties and such, so they wanted to hold their own hours.”
The Village’s original slate of traditional mom-and-pop-type merchants gradually expanded to include some of the oddball stores that exist in the Village today, from the Living Temple—a purveyor of raw-foods cookbooks that holds occasional psychic readings—to stores specializing in home electronics and yoga. Heidi Miller points out that traditional costumes became less common in the Village when “Orientals” moved in—people who, understandably, did not feel comfortable dressing up like cast members from The Sound of Music. And there’s absolutely no provision in the bylaws related to the clothes residents could wear.
The inability of anyone to truly exert control over the Village even applies to the thread of Nazi and/or white-supremacist activity that has bubbled forth there over the years. Even in Huntington Beach, a town that’s known as a haven for skinhead gangs like PEN1 and Fuck Shit Up (yes, that’s their name), Old World Village has been dogged with the perception that it’s a hang-out for the whitest of the white-pride crowd. An October 2000 Los Angeles Times article lays out the public controversies over anti-Semitic activity in the Village. In a 1986 legal dispute surrounding advertising-assessment fees, one shop owner accused Josef of singing Nazi songs in front of her window. A Holocaust-revisionist group, the Institute for Historical Review, held a meeting at one of the Bischofs’ banquet halls in 1989. And in 1992, a club of neo-Nazis celebrated Hitler’s birthday at the Bischofs’ Old World Restaurant.
The Bischof children insist their father—who once said that the Santa Barbara County Supervisors allegedly encroaching upon his property rights should get the “Auschwitz treatments”—has been misunderstood time and again. Kasko says the 1992 incident was enough to make the Bischofs change their policies: No reservations accepted for known Nazi groups, and their security guards are told to turn away any skinheads trying to enter their restaurant during Oktoberfest.
“Just because we’re German doesn’t mean we support Nazis,” Kasko says. “We think that those kind of people are completely ridiculous and a disgrace to the German people, too. It’s horrible. It’s a mockery.”
But even with the Village’s largest restaurant now discouraging their business, skinheads still regularly patronize the Rathskeller bar and purchase merchandise from Miller’s shop, according to the Weisses. And Miller, while saying she doesn’t endorse the viewpoints of all of her customers, welcomes their business.
“They don’t bother anybody,” Miller says of the skinheads. “You can’t tell them to go and leave us alone. They’re always nice, always respect me. I have no problems with them.”
* * *
But in the Village, ethnic and religious tensions have sometimes been mended. The Bischofs were vocal opponents of the Weisses in the 2000 flap over the Israeli flag. Kasko says that their problem was political, not racial: With the Village serving clientele of all nationalities—including Middle Eastern—they had received complaints about the flag. Michele Weiss just thinks Josef Bischof believes Jews don’t belong in the Village. The fallout from the spat left the two families not speaking to each other—until a few years ago, when their similar-age children befriended one another and Weiss and Kasko realized they both wanted the same thing for the Village: more retail. The ascendancy of “services” over “shops” in recent years, they both say, threatens to destroy the Village if something isn’t done.
Jeff Adachi, 40-year-old owner of the incongruously hip DJ Culture record store—which sustains itself largely through independent advertising and the sale of rave tickets—agrees that the lack of retail stores depresses business. “You go into a grocery store, and if there aren’t enough groceries, you leave,” he explains.
Don Rand, owner of Classy Collectibles, moved into the Village in 1987. He says he plans to close his shop by the end of the year, and he expects that within a few years, the Village will consist almost entirely of services—essentially becoming a picturesque office park.
Larschan says he originally joined the board of directors with a slew of ambitious plans to revive the Village as a tourist destination. But every time the board attempts to turn things around with festivals and events, bickering gets in the way. “Even during the farmers’ market, you had [residents] on the balconies, screaming down at the people, ‘Get the hell out of here,’” he recalls. “I can tell you, I had wonderful, wonderful ideas here. Can you imagine this being a botanical garden? There are so many good things it could be. But: 53 separate owners, 53 separate ideas, 53 everything.”
Kasko, too, has had visions for a Village rebirth over the years. But unlike Larschan, she doesn’t see those visions as a lost cause. She imagines that with the right blend of funky stores and relevant advertising, the Village could become a retail destination à la the Lab in Costa Mesa, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or 5 Points Plaza in Huntington Beach. “It’s such a unique feel, so cool,” Kasko says. “It’s a great place if you have a clothing boutique and you’re used to paying all this mall rent.”
In April 2008, Kasko founded the Old World Merchants Association, independent of the homeowners’ association, to encourage that kind of transformation. The idea came to her after talking to the owner of Scuda, one of the Village’s vintage clothing shops. So far, Kasko says, the going has been slow, and the economic downturn isn’t helping things. Early meetings were well-attended, but, she says, it’s tough getting the Village’s businesses to work together, contribute money and agree on ideas. And just a few weeks ago, Scuda closed up and moved to Long Beach.
Still, she’s hopeful that a promotional DVD set to be completed this month will help attract new businesses to the Village—though she wishes the homeowners would help with the effort. Instead of providing money for the merchants’ association, members of the homeowners’ board are looking to cut the amount of advertising they provide for the Village.
Some take that as a sign they’re abandoning any chance of a turnaround. Larschan objects to that idea. “We’re not giving up anything,” he says. “You look around the village: Is it clean? Our job is to maintain.”
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And for Kasko, who wants to do more than maintain, there’s the matter of that lawsuit between her family and the board-of-directors majority, set for a hearing in April.
“It seems like this Village has some weird omen above it that doesn’t let anybody move past it,” Kasko says. “All these tales from the past keep haunting us.”
For more photos, please see our slideshow here.