Has Linda Vista lost its heart? The Yum Yum Donut Shop in the Vien-Dong supermarket center has become the place where old-time Linda Vistans turn up to chew the fat. "This shopping mall that used to be here, our town square, social center, whatever you want to call it, was the heart of Linda Vista," says Ben Estopare, whose Filipino dad settled here in 1960. He was in the Navy. "Eleanor Roosevelt herself turned up to cut the ribbon when it opened. They say it was the first shopping mall in America. Historic! Beautiful. We had a theater, restaurants, and great 80-year-old oak trees in the plaza. This was where everybody gathered. We were proud of it. Kids loved it. RC Cola had a promotion going where if you collected six bottle caps you could get into the movie theater for free."
Then, he says, they bulldozed the shopping center and replaced it with a parking lot and what has become the only supermarket in central Linda Vista, Vien-Dong. "They tore the heart out of the town," he says.
Let's face it, people don't think a lot about Linda Vista. It's one of those mesa communities that seems to be becoming more Asian by the year, judging from the restaurants popping up. Think Linda Vista ("pretty view") and you think vague, aging renta-land, the first mesa town north of Mission Valley. You think Vietnamese restaurants and make-your-own-beer supplies from the Home Brewing Company. You think of Linda Vista as the home of a hundred different peoples. Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Filipino.
But don't let Linda Vista fool you. In the late 1880s the community was built on a plateau to get views of the Pacific, the San Bernardino Mountains, and the San Diego River Valley. Its big explosion happened in 1941, when 3000 homes went up in less than a year to house aircraft workers and their families. Linda Vista was America's largest defense housing project during World War II, and the world's largest low-cost modern housing development, according to the San Diego Historical Society.
Of course, there is Linda Vista and Linda Vista. Southern Linda Vista has new, expensive houses and condos going up. Developments like City Scene. Ethnically white. Northern Linda Vista is the result of that large military housing project. Ethnically mixed, middle class. And the central area is low-income, older, also mostly WWII housing. It is the most ethnically diverse: Asian, African-American, Hispanic.
Yet, whites are still the largest group -- over 40 percent of Linda Vista's 30,000-plus population, with Asians second and Hispanics third -- and house prices are high for all.
Just ask Eleanore Guerrera. We're talking in that other social center, the Linda Vista library. Rob Quigley designed it in 1987, all 10,000 square feet, after the town had made do with a 400-square-foot converted cottage for years, then a 4000-square-foot building. Guerrera is photocopying financial papers. "My parents came from New Mexico," she says. "They got here in the 1940s. They paid $5000 for their house. Today it is worth around $400,000. That's partly because Linda Vista is central to everything. Freeways, downtown, North County. This is the heart of San Diego. People don't move out. I have lived here all my life. My parents settled here. My daughter has too."
And yet something has changed. "We used to walk up to the movie theater and the rec center they had here. Our parents let us kids wander then. It was safe. They didn't have gangs like now."
Beside her at a table is elderly Mr. Chau Van Ngoc. He's 83, deaf, and comes in to read Vietnamese newspapers. "I love Linda Vista," he says, "because it is the same weather as in my town in Vietnam."
Chu Fang is working at the desk. He's Hmong, from the mountains of Laos. "It was difficult, with the language and learning to deal with American culture's aggressive directness," he says. "But we wouldn't go back now. We have opportunities, education. We cannot let our parents down for all they have sacrificed. Linda Vista has been good, because we have enough of us to help each other through."
At Yum Yum, Alejandra hands me the large coffee and two standard donuts, a special $1.79 deal. "Here's the thing," says Ben Estopare. "We are the poor stepchildren of San Diego. They rip down our social center, even though it was historically significant, and they didn't replace it with anything. We're the most culturally diverse, and yet look at our town council. All white Anglo folk. No representation of other ethnicities. With gangs like LV13, Kelly Street Boys, LVCs, Pinkies, we all need ways to get together, for kids to grow up together. Right now you get along only if you mind your own business."
He sighs. "I still like Linda Vista. It is my town. But it's definitely worse than when I was a kid. It's three miles to the nearest American supermarket. When they tore down the mall, they tore the heart out of Linda Vista."
Well, maybe not completely. I take a walk up Ulric Street toward Montgomery Middle School. Sun's setting. The sounds are of kids laughing and shouting and crying. Basketballs bounce as they play in their driveways. Grown-ups aren't inside watching TV. They're washing their Wranglers, chatting over cans of beer concealed in brown paper bags, leaning against cars in yards of dry grass surrounded by chain-link. Sitting on porches. Walking and holding hands. This mixed, maybe mixed-up, underrated community is alive and well-rooted.