When Fort Ord closed in September 1994, many feared it would be disastrous for Seaside, the home that so many military families would have to leave behind.

But Seaside's loss turned out to be a gain for the rest of the Monterey Peninsula.

With so many houses vacant, people who previously couldn't buy in other surrounding communities were able to become homeowners in the mid-1990s.

"It's still the most affordable place on the Peninsula," says Carol Lynn McKibben, director of the Seaside History Project and author of the Images of America book "Seaside," which will be published March 23.

Seaside has always been somewhat overlooked in the past, according to the city's present mayor.

"Historically, Seaside has been the working community of the Monterey Peninsula. It's always been the blue collar town, " said mayor Ralph Rubio, who grew up in Seaside and recalls life there before the streets were paved.

The influence of the U.S. Army presence at Fort Ord, which brought in people from diverse backgrounds, shaped Seaside into a unique melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, and the influence of that can be felt today.

"There's a lot of diversity here," said Rose Manestar, 78, who's lived in Seaside for 60 years and is a member of the city's Historical Commission. She said many soldiers came to Seaside to live because "no one minded mixed marriages here."


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For much of its history, Seaside was populated by Army personnel and their families. Originally known as East Monterey in the late 1800s, the city would soon be directly adjacent to Camp Gigling, established in 1917. Seaside was not incorporated until 1954.

The camp became Fort Ord in 1940, with its main purpose to prepare troops for the rigors of World War II. Later, soldiers trained there for wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Closure was recommended as a cost-cutting measure in the early 1990s.

McKibben notes that when the former Camp Gigling became Fort Ord, many African-American soldiers brought their families to Seaside.

"Seaside was truly inclusive when most cities in the country were at war," she says, adding that it did not demonstrate the racial tensions that haunted many parts of the United States during the 1960s and '70s.

Today, Seaside is the most racially diverse city in Monterey County. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, almost half of Seaside's residents are Caucasian, a third are Hispanic, 12 percent African American and 10 percent Asian. About 7 percent consider themselves to be of two or more races.

Since Fort Ord closed, the African-American population has dropped and the Hispanic population has risen, according to census figures.

McKibben says there has been a general gentrification in recent years, with more middle-class families coming to settle there. Although there was a huge drop in population after 1994 - from 38,000 to 30,000 - it is on the rise again, with more than 33,000 residents at present.

And now, Seaside's focus has shifted from being an Army-base town to becoming a center for business and tourism.

Community leaders are working to mold the melting pot into a city that can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

"The vision for Seaside is to create a vibrant place where community can thrive," says Jill Anderson, Seaside's assistant city manager.

As the years have passed, there's also been increasing diversity in the types of industry in Seaside. The largest employer in the city is now California State University at Monterey Bay, which opened in 1995.

The idea to have a state university campus came about after the base closure was announced, when then-Congressman Leon Panetta formed the Community Task Force on Fort Ord. Community leaders began discussing what they'd like to see happen to the 44-square-mile base.

CSUMB, which is on former Fort Ord land, now has more than 4,000 students.

Rubio notes that efforts are increasing to provide places for visitors to enjoy. Seaside's piece of Ord includes two premier golf courses, Bayonet and Black Horse, which were recently renovated. They are a focal point for the city's developing tourism.

A Fairmont Resort Hotel is being planned for a site near the golf courses with completion slated for 2011, and several other motels are now on the drawing board as well, Anderson notes. These will be added to the 15 hotels and motels already within city limits.

Rubio adds that a project called the Main Gate Lifestyle Center is also at the draft EIR stage, which would provide upscale shopping and dining just off Highway 1 at the entrance to the former Fort Ord. Other projects being discussed by city leaders are a soccer complex and an expo center where events and conferences could be held.

Seaside has also continued to develop its reputation as a car sales hub with the Seaside Auto Center, which recently underwent a major renovation.

"Our auto center works and looks better than it ever has before," says Anderson.

Over the next 20 years, the city hopes to continue to develop what it calls its West Broadway Urban Village, the area around the intersection of Fremont and Broadway. Already the site of a brand-new, two-story Starbucks and other new businesses, this area will soon have a Fresh & Easy neighborhood market, for which construction is due to begin this spring.

The city is also looking to make its streets more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, and to continue to enhance the family feeling of the area.

"It's a great mix that celebrates our diversity," says Anderson.

McKibben, who will publish a monograph on Seaside history in 2010, sees the city as a remarkable and unique place, not just in Monterey County, but anywhere.

"It's a city of color that has worked over the years," she says. "It's something to be proud of."


Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.