Linda Artiaga was, when we spoke, nonplussed by her title.
“The Queen of Normal Heights? Is that what they say? I mean, it’s nice to be queen of something. I’ve never really thought of myself as a queen. I’m lucky, I guess. How many people ever get to be any kind of queen?
“I’ve been selling homes in Normal Heights for more than 20 years. It’d be difficult to come up with a precise figure of how many I’ve sold. I know that in some cases I’ve sold the same home four or five times. Not that there was anything wrong with the house. San Diego just has a high turnover rate. The figure is something like, the average San Diego family lives in a home for five years. All that considered, I guess it would be safe to say that I’ve probably sold more than 200 homes in Normal Heights.
“I don’t live there. Back in 1980 I bought the last home in Mission Hills that cost less than $100,000. But as I was getting into real estate, I knew I wanted to work with a real neighborhood. A place I could get to know. A place with character. I looked all over San Diego County and finally decided to focus on Normal Heights. Of course, now I sell properties all over the county — everywhere, not just Normal Heights. But back then, what I loved about Normal Heights was its diversity. It still has that diversity. I mean, in terms of social classes and ethnic groups, it has to be the most diverse neighborhood in the city.”
I met Artiaga, a petite, dynamic woman, on a mid-May afternoon. Before becoming a realtor, Artiaga worked as a counselor in the state prison system.
“I was good at it because I was direct and I was honest,” Artiaga said of those years. “I figured I could use those same qualities to my advantage in a career in real estate. And it worked. I’m a good real estate agent because I’m direct and honest.”
To illustrate her directness and honesty about Normal Heights’ diversity, she drove me around the neighborhood. We started a couple of blocks south of Adams. We passed a small, run-down apartment building. Three homeboys wearing red bandannas stood in front. They were smoking thin cigars and listening to gangsta rap that pounded from the speakers of a black late-model Lexus. You could feel the bass in your chest. Artiaga’s windshield thumped with the beat.
“So you have, I guess, what you’d define as the more ‘transitional’ parts of Normal Heights, south of Adams. And just a few minutes away, north of Adams, you’re in a very different setting. That’s the big dividing line in Normal Heights — north of Adams, south of Adams. When you’re north of Adams, you spend, on average, about $50,000 more than you would for a comparable home south of Adams.”
Perhaps two minutes after we drove past the homeboys, Artiaga and I sat in front of a house north of Adams, not far from the Carmelite Monastery on Hawley Boulevard.
“You can’t really see the property from here,” Artiaga said, “but the last time I checked, it was valued at $3.2 million. We’re talking almost two acres of land, sitting on a canyon. The landscaping’s incredible. The homeowner is truly an artist. I mean, the house itself is beautiful, but what’s spectacular is that it looks like it’s sitting in the middle of Balboa Park, or in the middle of Huntington Gardens near Pasadena.”
(When I later contacted the owner of this $3.2 million property, he declined to be interviewed. He was polite. But, no. He really wouldn’t feel comfortable having me over to see his home. He did allow, however, that he’d bought the house because of the size of the lot. “Where else in the city could I have gotten so much land? Not in La Jolla. Not in Point Loma. Not in Mission Hills.” He said he’d grown up in the Midwest and had “always loved gardens, growing things, gardening. I always had a garden when I was a boy.” When I asked what made his Normal Heights garden unique, he said he had a “significant” collection of roses. He said his water bills were high. Several hundred dollars a month. “But that’s the price I pay,” he said, “for trying to grow an English garden in what’s basically a desert.”)
“You have properties like this,” Artiaga continued. “I mean, it’s by no means the only one. There’s a home just around the corner that’s on the market for $995,000. And yet you’re just a couple of minutes away from people who lead very different lives. There’s something like 18 different languages spoken by the kids at Adams Elementary. It’s this mix that makes Normal Heights interesting.
“Most of the people who buy in Normal Heights, either north or south of Adams, buy here because it’s the sort of neighborhood where you can walk to everything. The supermarket. A coffee shop. A restaurant. A bar. The difference that I’m seeing now is that the sort of young couple, gay or straight, who used to be able to buy north of Adams can’t afford to buy there now. They’re looking south of Adams.
“When I started selling here 20 years ago, north of Adams was like what south of Adams is now. People north of Adams were concerned about crime. Public services. People north of Adams started to organize politically. They became very involved. Now you have that same sort of thing happening south of Adams. South of Adams is very quickly going to become like north of Adams. You can already see it happening. South of Adams, the price of homes is skyrocketing. The minute something goes on the market, it’s snapped up. Sellers are getting multiple bids, often for more than the asking price.
“When people are that eager to get into a neighborhood, they’re going to pay attention to what goes on in it. They’re going to get involved. And there are already a lot of people here who are very attached to their neighborhood. There are a lot of people who really love Normal Heights.”