While North Park's boundary lines are debated, its hub is the intersection of University Avenue and 30th Street, which is where its story begins. Just northeast of Balboa Park, North Park is an epicenter of coffee shops and storefronts, restaurants and dive bars, thrift stores and couture boutiques--an odd mix, all in all. The University Avenue area in particular is an excellent point with which to chart North Park's recent surge of upgrading amid what is left of its former incarnation as somewhat of a slum. There is an interesting mishmash of polarities on display, from the flocks of homeless who congregate at the bus stops to the well-dressed professionals wandering in and out of Heaven Sent Desserts to the tattoo shop just kitty-corner from the newly renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. Thirtieth Street is a mix of rising condos and dilapidated single-family homes; the newly renovated Dino's is outfitted with white leather couches, while the local mainstay bars boast balding pool tables and PBR tallboys for three bucks a pop.
The surrounding neighborhoods reflect a mirror image of the changing environs. While scrubby, sun-scorched patches still dot the landscape, many homeowners have upped the ante and installed complicated sprinkler systems that catacomb through their gardens. The degree of landscaping, often done in yards no bigger than a postage stamp, is staggering, especially in comparison to the barren, patchy sod of their less-developed neighbors--the polarity at work again. These more modest gardens offer sagging armchairs on sagging porches that overlook dusty patches of grass, trees shading peeling-painted houses from the worst of the sun. Some lawns are all dirt, others all trash, tampons and chip bags scattered among 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and cigarette butts. Skinny cats wander in and out as family dogs trot happily down the sidewalk beside their owners. To be simple, it is what real estate agents deem a "community in transition."
Since its inception, those in North Park have had an eye cast toward development. In 1893, North Park's "first family," the Hartleys, bought up the 40-acre parcel of land where University and 30th now meet. After the Georgia Street Bridge was erected in 1907 and the first trolley lines installed not long thereafter, North Park began to look like viable real estate. A few years later Jack Hartley, along with his brother-in-law, began selling off parcels to eager entrepreneurs after the elder Mr. Hartley's death. These men, and others who owned tracts north of University Avenue, divided up their land into roads, which would later become the residential streets that exist to this day. As the neighborhood took shape, the deal was sealed, and boom, a community was born.
But it didn't last forever. After World War II, the shopping mall was invented, and in 1961, developers plunked the Mission Valley Shopping Center a few miles from North Park. "Mission Valley killed everything," says Roger Newton, over a heaping plate of hocks and lima beans at Rudford's on El Cajon Boulevard. North Park entered what would become a long slump, Newton explains; buildings sat empty, stores boarded up. Newton, a retired electronics engineer, spent his childhood in North Park and has owned a home there for eight years. He's bounced around the San Diego area for most of his life. The convenience of the mall, he explains, slowed the mom-and-pop businesses along University and El Cajon Boulevard to a crawl, eventually leading to their demise. "Once they built Mission Valley, bingo," Newton continues, "nothing but abandoned storefronts. That's where all these thrift stores and stuff..." He trails off, stirring his beans, then starts up again. "If you were in one of these buildings, you were lucky if you could get a massage parlor or a porno bookstore to move in!" he says, laughing. The residences, he also notes, fared poorly as a result. In an apparent profit-maximizing move, older single-family houses were torn down only to be replaced by the "Huffman six-pack," the motel-style stack of dwellings that were popular (and inexpensive) postwar and remain some of the cheapest housing available in San Diego. "By the time we get into the mid-'70s on into the '80s," Newton says, with a chuckle, "if you had one of these apartment buildings down here, your choice was which drug dealer do you rent to, not whether or not you rented to a drug dealer, because they were the only ones that had any money to rent. And these [buildings] would have, like, 50 percent vacancy rates."
And for decades, it remained this way, in a state of mild-to-moderate disrepair. "When I got here, it was nothing," says Les Swazzo, a part-time bartender at Scolari's Office and full-time poli-sci student who has watched North Park grow into its own in the five years he's lived there. "I was out here when I was in the service," he explains, "[and] I fell in love with the place. When I moved, I got lucky. I rented a house for, like, $500. You can't find that now." He recalls the days of vacant buildings and latent businesses, even in his relatively short stint in the community. But history, as Swazzo and the rest of North Park have discovered, repeats itself, and in the last five to ten years, depending on whom you ask, developers have once again flocked to North Park, sensing a lucrative opportunity.
"What we're going through is a rolling thing," explains Newton, who attributes the rise of North Park to a Reaganomic-like mode of out-pricing. He elaborates: "What happened was the dot-commers priced all the people there in Rancho Santa Fe out and moved 'em down to La Jolla. That priced all the people in La Jolla out into Mission Hills, which then bumped those people into Hillcrest, which bumped those people over here into North Park, which bumped those people into City Heights." However apocalyptic that might sound, North Park is seeing its renaissance. New buildings abound on 30th Street, fostered by the city's Redevelopment Agency, all glass windows and pastel stucco postmodern palaces in the middle of wartime storefronts. Little artsy shops display all sorts of wares, while the glittering North Park theater dominates University Avenue with its old-fashioned marquee lights. North Park seems to be employing all the things necessary to become a bustling urb. Phil Erdelsky, a 30-year resident, retired computer programmer, and webmaster of his own site about North Park, says with a smile, "I don't have to move downtown. They're building a downtown around me. Have you noticed?"