Bonita lies in the Sweetwater Valley, nestled inside three freeways--I-805 to the west, 54 to the north, and 125 to the east. To the south lies the city of Chula Vista. Small though Bonita may be, it has put itself on the map with several outdoor attractions, including the inaptly named Chula Vista Municipal Golf Course and horse-friendly Sweetwater Regional Park, which extends through Bonita along the Sweetwater River.
Though not nearly as much so as in the past, Bonita is home to horses and horse people, those who ride for fun and sport. Horse-crossing signs pop up on the main roads and the smaller ones, and a campground in the park features corrals and racks for horses alongside camping spots for people. Ranchers and riders wear spurs on the back of their boots into town, even as Bluetooth devices hang from their ears and cell phones poke out of their pockets. Mehl Lawson, a local renowned sculptor who was once in the horse business himself and has been in Bonita for the past 40 years, describes the 15-mile network of trails that runs through the community, both in the parks and through residential areas.
"One of the big builders here in San Diego was into horses," he says. "His kids showed horses and so forth, and he had the foresight to include, in all his developments around here, dedicated riding trails. Some of his tracts had permanent riding arenas, and people who bought homes here had space to build corrals and have horses on their property."
But before the horses--and before a series of disastrous events--Bonita was known for its lemon groves. In 1871, a Chicago music publisher named Hiram M. Higgins settled in Bonita and bought up 76 acres of land, which he named the Bonnie Brae Ranch, famous for the thin-skinned Bonnie Brae lemon. In six years, Higgins planted over 2000 trees on his property.
After the success of his groves, Higgins began to sell lemon trees to other interested growers. One of these was Henry Ernest Cooper, who named his orchards Bonita Ranch after a local pond called Bonita Laguna. The name stuck, and the area remains Bonita to this day.
The lemon industry was in full swing by the time a group of financiers came along and bought out Cooper's groves to form the Sweetwater Fruit Company. The company built the Old Red Barn, a packing shed, from which lemons were shipped by train. The tracks ran down Bonita Road and on to Chula Vista. A landmark until 1959, the Old Red Barn eventually went through several incarnations--as a residence, a blacksmith's shop, and an antique store--before being demolished to make way for a shopping center.
In the early 1900s, the lemon industry came to a bad end. A drought starting around 1912, a freeze in 1913, and a flood in 1916 demolished the industry. The flood is a well-known bit of San Diego history. In late 1915, Charles Hatfield, known as the Rainmaker, sent a letter to San Diego's town council claiming he could end the drought. He named a sum of $10,000 and built a tower at Lake Morena, where he had tanks full of mysterious chemicals. The rain came down two weeks later and seemingly would not stop. The Sweetwater Dam overflowed, and then it failed and all hell broke loose. The water that rushed down the Sweetwater Valley destroyed everything in its path--the lemon groves, the train tracks, the Sweetwater Bridge, and houses. Around the county, similar devastation occurred, and people were killed. The angry town council refused to pay Hatfield, who fled the town. Hatfield was minus ten grand, and Bonita was minus a lemon business.
Some trace remains of the old agricultural town that Bonita once was. The Little Church of the Valley is still standing, though not in its original location. It was built in 1914 by two prominent Bonita families, the Chapmans and the Laubmeyers, and had a Quaker minister as its parish leader. It remained in operation until 1969, when it merged with the Wesleyan Church of the Valley, a bigger congregation that had the funds to purchase a bigger parcel of property. The little church, an important building in Bonita's history and to the community, was moved to join its larger counterpart at 5305 Sweetwater Road.
Older houses in Bonita, spread out across the back roads, have a farmish feel, however slapdash it may be. Closer to Sweetwater, there are one-story wooden boxes with machinery scattered across the ground and clapboard sheds in the driveway, corrals erected wherever there is room. Their slightly better-maintained, modern-style counterparts are built up in the hills, bordered by peeling eucalyptus trees and two-car garages. Decks, often 14 or 15 feet above the slope, jut out from houses, supported by a network of beams. Farther south, the homes widen and change from wood to stucco, the yards from red dust to lawns. It's a real mix; mini-mansions sit across from one-story no-frills boxes, and elaborately landscaped yards border bare or patchy ones.
But closer to Bonita Road, the main artery, new, modern housing developments abound. No longer are there sprawling pieces of land or horse farms; now, there are condominiums and detached one- and two-story homes. Multicolored flags beckon property-seekers to take a look, and signs line the shoulder of the road, advertising houses and condos priced from $400,000 on up. A local realtor has listings that continue into the multimillions for the detached homes, making Bonita, as one local realtor put it, "an affluent community." But Bonita isn't as affluent as it could have been, according to Irene Kim, a former Bonita resident who's spent 18 of her 30 years in the community.
"I just feel like if it were to be more affluent, that, say, Plaza Bonita would have more upscale shops, and it never did," she says. "It was always kind of at the JCPenney level--it wasn't like the Nordstrom level--and I think that maybe oftentimes reflects what constituents are asking for." She pauses. "That's just my own conclusion," she continues. "I feel like there's kind of a disconnect between the houses that are there that are so big and expensive and just what's in the community." She notes, however, that pockets of the area are extremely pricey.