There’s a funny thing about the San Diego anti-nudity law that’s in the news this week: It used to actually allow people to be naked in public. But only at Black’s Beach, the country’s only city-sanctioned nude beach and only for a while.

Then city voters had their say in 1977 and told folks to cover up already, thank you very much. But 33 years later, beachgoers still flaunt the law and rarely get in trouble for it.

It’s not clear when people began skinny dipping (and skinny sunbathing) at Black’s Beach, a tiny and isolated strip of sand below the cliffs of northern La Jolla. By the 1960s, however, the beach definitely had a reputation for nudism.

In 1974, the City Council looked upon the sunbathers sympathetically (but perhaps with eyes averted) and voted to allow nudity on the city-owned part of the beach. Famous signs went up that proclaimed “Swimsuits Optional Beyond This Point. San Diego Muni. Code 56.53.” (The San Diego City Store sold copies of the signs until it shut down in 2008.)

But the city-sanctioned body exposure didn’t last for long. Three years later, anti-nudists declared they’d had enough. They thus launched the biggest flap over nakedness that San Diego had seen since a supposed nudist colony appeared in Balboa Park during a 1935 exposition. (The nudists apparently weren’t actually naked, but that’s another story).

The nudity naysayers claimed that crime and lewd behavior had increased at the beach; nudism advocates denied it. The dispute landed on the city ballot in 1977 when Proposition D asked voters if they wanted to revoke the 1974 exception to the nudity law.

The anti-nude contingent bought billboard, radio and newspaper ads alleging that the beach had become a “a disgraceful carnival.” It had also, according to The New York Times, become the city’s top tourist attraction, outdrawing even the zoo.

By a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, voters rejected nudity and changed the municipal code.

But enforcing the law didn’t seem to be anyone’s priority, then or now. Black’s Beach is remote — it’s mainly accessible by steep footpaths or steep paved road — and cops rarely visited it, said retired lifeguard B. Chris Brewster.

As for lifeguards, he said, ticketing people “would have been a tremendous distraction from the primary job of making sure nobody drowns.”

Still, lifeguards did face distractions on the job at Black’s Beach, said Brewster, who began working there in 1981. While there were rarely any problems among beachgoers, some did occasionally get angry when other men photographed their girlfriends or wives in the buff.

“We checked with the city attorney and found that if you’re in public, people have a right to take a picture of you as long as it’s not for commercial gain,” Brewster said. “It didn’t make the boyfriends or husbands very happy, or the women for that matter.”

The natural beauty at Black’s — and we’re not talking about the cliffs — was another distraction for lifeguards. “For the first week or couple weeks, it’s sort of like your head is on a swivel,” Brewster acknowledged.

But eventually the job became routine, he said. “If you work around nudists, nudity itself becomes uninspiring.”

These days, nudity remains common on both the city-owned section of Black’s Beach and the state-owned section, officially known as Torrey Pines State Beach.

During the summer, hundreds of people visit Black’s Beach each day. Some surf, some play volleyball, and many seek an elusive tan-line-free tan without worrying about getting a citation.

Why do they do it? A New York Times reporter wondered that same question back in 1999 and headed down to the beach with pad and pen (and presumably a swimsuit) to find out.

“No doubt about it, it’s a wonderful place,” an unnamed beachgoer told the Times. “A person who can’t get naked and get in touch with nature can’t get in touch with himself.”

— RANDY DOTINGA

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