Along with the more expensive development has come the degradation of the community's original buildings. The Old Red Barn is gone, and the old Bonita general store is now an Italian restaurant surrounded by a shopping center; across the street is a Jack in the Box. The change happened slowly, according to 48-year resident Richard Pena, who cannot pinpoint when it started or how long it took before Bonita was built out.
"It was so slow you didn't know it was happening," Pena says. "You'd have a little plot here that would be developed into something, and you wouldn't think much of it, and maybe a year later there'd be another plot that's developed, and so on, that type of thing." A retired Navy officer, Pena moved to Bonita in 1959. The most annoying change he's seen has been the overdevelopment of the area. "They call it progress, of course," he says slyly, recalling a time when "the population of horses was greater than the population of people," a time before the freeways (which he calls "an abomination in an area like this"), and a time before the influx of tract housing that has flooded Bonita and surrounding areas.
"At one time you could drive out here to the Otay Ranch, for example, in the springtime and see nothing but vast acreage of mustard [flowers] all over the hillsides," Pena remembers. "Now all you see are tile roofs, which I suppose you have to have, but I wish they were somewhere else."
Irene Kim recalls a similar scene.
"I remember when I would go down Otay Lakes Road, and there was this green hill," she says, "and it almost looked like The Sound of Music, acres and acres. Now it's just all houses, expensive houses. There's just been so much buildup there."
With the development, she says, came the slow collapse of community feeling.
"The neighborhoods are less neighborhoody," Kim says. "I remember there used to be block parties and Halloween parties and Christmas parties, where everyone's garage doors would be up. My best friend was my next-door neighbor, my babysitter was the older girl across the street, and that really, really fell apart when I went into high school, when people started moving away. I really miss that about Bonita."
The Bonita Museum and Cultural Center, located on Bonita Road in the same complex as the Bonita Library, documents Bonita's history. Started in 1987, the museum houses all kinds of artifacts, from an old cook stove to a butter churn to an ancient Davis sewing machine. An antique desk sits in the far-right-hand corner of the main room, outfitted with a typewriter, a clock, and a radio. Old bottles sit atop a shelving unit; above this is a mail rack complete with old notes and letters in their original envelopes.
Vicky DeLong, the museum's director, is responsible for these displays. "Most of the stuff has been donated from people who live in the area," she says, "or belonged to people who have passed away." A sculptor, DeLong has been with the museum since 1997. She helped oversee the museum's move last year from its spot in the old fire station. Originally, it was part of a shopping center that caught fire in 1992. "The museum only got smoke damage and water damage, thank God," says DeLong, "but the volunteers just came in and took everything. They left the stuff in the trunks of their cars and went to schools with it to continue teaching the history." It was then that the fire district donated the vacant fire station, where the museum remained until 2006. Now, at its present location, it is able to host events and special displays. A recent exhibit on Japanese-American farmers and their internment during World War II included a full-scale re-creation of part of a room at Poston, the camp to which over 2000 Japanese Americans from San Diego County, including about 50 growers from the South Bay, were sent on April 8, 1942. They left from the Santa Fe Depot and were kept at Poston for three and a half years.
Also on display at the museum is Mehl Lawson's sculpture-in-progress, a 14-foot-high cowboy on a horse entitled Watchin'Em Water. A ranch in Wyoming commissioned the sculpture, and Lawson decided to use the museum as his studio, partly because it has the highest ceiling in Bonita and partly to draw people in to see the museum.
In addition to having a cultural center, Bonita hosts cultural events, including Bonitafest, an annual festival of family-oriented activities with a parade and the Orange Cart Derby, a homemade go-cart race for young children and preteens. The fest features community-written plays, referred to as "melodramas," that chronicle Bonita's history. A group of store owners started Bonitafest in 1973 while trying to get local businesses together to form an association. Emily Ritter, the founder of the Bonita Business and Professional Association, tells her story in a little pamphlet entitled The Folksy Beginnings of the Bonita Business and Professional Association and Bonitafest. "Bonitafest was born in Brookside Winery early one morning of August 1973," she writes. "I said, 'We need to do something to get everyone's attention.' Someone in the room said, 'Like what?' I said, 'Let's have an Oktoberfest with a beer garden and dancing in the street!' Adelle Rockwell said, 'Let's call it a Bonitafest!'"
Many of Bonita's considerable teen population attend Bonita Vista High, a school of 2600. The school remains locked down during the day "to keep out undesirables," jokes Michael Simonds, who teaches 10th- and 11th-grade math. The school is made up of identical, boxcar-like buildings organized into blocks. Lockers and hallways are outside, covered by a freestanding roof; from the quad, Mount Miguel and Otay Peak can be seen to the east.
"It's fairly easy to get bored around here," says Shannon, a Bonita Vista High student.
Teens say they spend time at the mall or the movies.
"You can buy one ticket and movie hop," says Kristy, giggling.