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No more coffee from the 'mayor'

February 09, 2004

Alicia Robinson

When John Hildebrand walks down the street, most people wouldn't

recognize him as representative of the people.

He hasn't run for office, but friends considered him the "mayor of

the Quonset huts" on West 17th Street, where he ran a welding shop

for 24 years. He closed it Jan. 30.

Hildebrand operated a fabrication and repair welding shop, doing

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work for adhesive maker J.D. Lincoln Inc. and community members who

needed things repaired. He closed his shop and retired because of

health concerns.

"It's taken the heart out of this place for awhile," said Nancy

Stern, who runs a nearby art and gift shop. "You're always used to

seeing him over there telling jokes, making up stories."

Stern and other business owners in the Quonset huts, many of whom

are craftspeople or artists, have formed a friendly, eclectic

community, and Hildebrand was a big part of that.

"It's quite a little family around here," Stern said.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Hildebrand came west to attend

college at Cal State Fullerton. He had planned to teach history but

had a change of heart before he entered the job market, he said.

"I had a job offer, and I didn't like the way the [education]

system was going, so I turned around and went back to Orange Coast

College and studied welding," he said.

After getting his start at a welding shop that has since closed

down, Hildebrand opened his own shop at the Quonset huts.

"I never advertised all those years," he said. "It was all word of

mouth."

As he befriended other business owners, Hildebrand's shop became

the social hub at the huts -- perhaps because of the coffee he made.

"I served the best coffee in town," he said.

Elaine Turney, who runs a home furnishings store in the Quonset

huts, said she'd grown used to Hildebrand and other business owners

having their daily coffee and talking.

The diversity and camaraderie of the community there reminded her

of the early days of SoHo in New York, she said.

"He's been a wonderful neighbor," said Doug Stotts, a painter who

works in the hut across from Hildebrand's old shop.

"Everyone keeps saying [it's the] end of an era," Stotts said.

Hildebrand said he won't lose touch with his friends at the

Quonset huts.

"I'll be down there at least once a week," he said. "I know it.

They've been a real good gang, and I'm glad to have had the

experience of knowing them."

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