Paradise Hills lies in a small corner of southeastern San Diego, butting right up against National City and State Route 54. It's a low-lying neighborhood, despite the dips and bobs of the hills; the sky looms large over the slope-roofed houses atop the crest, while rows of compact, one-story homes line the streets below. Reo Drive, which cuts through the western side of the community, is home to the majority of Paradise Hills' businesses. Save for a minimart, everything is here: the post office, the pizza shop, the Mexican restaurant, the medical clinic, and La Palapa, a grocery store. A few stores sit empty, including a former boutique and a gift shop. All of Reo Drive's businesses are mom-and-pop operations--no Starbucks here--with hand-painted and colorful signs beckoning customers. Many of the storefronts look untouched by modernization; La Palapa is painted a dusty but cheerful pink; the pizza joint offers the bucket-seat benches and stand-up arcade games of an era passed. There's a feeling of comfortable stagnancy about the place, as though not much has changed in the past few decades, giving it a rare air of authenticity.
Paradise Hills feels decidedly '50s, in its layout as well as its architecture. From aerial photographs, the streets seem designed by postwar tract-housing developers; long thoroughfares loop cul-de-sacs, whose maddening no-outlet roads dead-end abruptly, perfect for cookie-cutter suburban dwellings. While the houses have a similar style--ground-hugging, modestly sized, and rectangular--some tracts were built in the '50s, others in the decades that followed. Remodeled and added onto over the years, many houses now have their own design.
At the crest of one hill is a section of Navy housing, Spanish-style duplexes and fourplexes with tiled roofs and bright green lawns, built in the mid-1990s. These places have the benefit of a million-dollar view, one that extends all the way to the Coronado Islands. Down the hill, the story is a little different. There is more evidence of wear and tear, and the views often don't extend past the next-door neighbor. Some houses have new coats of paint, patched roofs, and cheery decorations--a flamingo here, a pinwheel there--and others seem to have resigned themselves to decline. Sagging furniture sits on porches, some straggling out into the packed-dirt front yards. Trees have been hacked into stumps, the bodies of discarded televisions lying beside them. Other yards are crammed with toys--bikes, bright plastic playhouses, sandboxes--and hand-lettered signs advertising day-care centers. Picket or chain-link fences line the properties, dividing the lots into neat little rectangles, giving a polite but firm air of protectiveness. There's a distinctly family feel about the place, though, one of a sturdy community.
This feeling isn't lost on potential homebuyers. "The houses have what realtors like to call--at least they liked to call when I was a young man--good bones," says Guy Preuss. Preuss, who's 65, bought his home in the mid-'70s and has lived in Paradise Hills ever since. He's seen the neighborhood shift from white collar to blue collar, from predominantly white to predominantly minority, and from families whose children are grown to an insurgence of younger families. Now he's seeing a shift from dilapidated to renovated. The houses are a worthy investment, according to Preuss. "If you buy the house as a fixer-upper, it's worth fixing up, because you can fix them up," he says. "So what happens is, these houses are bought by the young couples with two kids and half a dog and a quarter of a cat, and the next thing they do after they buy the house is they buy new shutters and paint and they fix 'em up. So the housing stock is pretty stable." The evidence of this is easy to see: newly planted sod, plywood covering holes in half-finished additions, and "For Sale" signs staked beside gleaming walkways.
No matter how sanitized an area can become, though, danger may remain close at hand, particularly with the younger set. "At first glance it seems really nice and safe and pretty," says Kate, manager of the Charles L. Lewis III Memorial Skate Park, at the foot of Potomac Street, "but from the things I hear from the kids, it's actually kind of a bad neighborhood." Kate, who is in her mid-20s, originally hails from Washington, D.C., but moved to California four years ago. She now resides in Mexico and commutes to Paradise Hills each morning to open up the park.
During the six months Kate's been at her post, quite a lot has gone on around her. "I saw a couple of gang fights," she says. "They were more up towards the recreation center on the top of the hill, and it was a couple of Samoan gangs, and there were, like, 20 or 30 kids on each side." She points to the center, 300 yards to the south and just visible behind a row of trees. "They'll wait outside the recreation center for whichever kid they're waiting to jump, and they beat them up and then take off," she explains.
Another brawl she witnessed took place in the cricket field next to the skatepark. It was between two girls, 11 or 12 years old, from a school on the other side of Paradise Valley Road, and it got very ugly very fast. A couple of teenagers had warned Kate about it, so she had a cop there to meet them, but he wasn't of much use. "All of a sudden, like, 50 kids came running down the hill from the school and met in the field, and they made a big circle around the outside, and the cop was sitting on the side over here just watching the thing, waiting for it to happen," Kate describes. She tried in vain to get him to intervene and finally broke up the fight herself by pretending to be on the phone with the cops, a ruse that caused the kids to scatter, chasing after their prey. "They gave the girl, like, a two-minute head start, and then all 50 kids just started chasing her down Paradise Valley Road," Kate recalls. "Kids were in the middle of the street running down the hill, and traffic was stopped. It was crazy-crazy."