North Park is a lovely little neighborhood, and here at 28th and Upas there isn’t much traffic. To the south and west is Morley Field Sports Complex, a park with playgrounds, archery ranges, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and swimming pools. To the north, some residents tend to gardens in their front yards. This neighborhood is made up mostly of single-family houses with lawns and backyards, and quite a few of the houses display brass plaques with the names of the original owners: these are historical homes. It’s quiet, cozy, maybe even sleepy.
That’s a contrast to the frenetic pace and the high-rises of downtown, but there’s one aspect that makes these two locales similar: this too is the site of a previous residential expansion. Just like the hulking towers downtown, there was a housing boom here, not in the last decade but a hundred years ago. At one point, this was the changing face of San Diego.
In the early 1900s, speculators and developers bought up lots here and subdivided them. By 1910, construction crews began erecting houses, most in the then-contemporary style of the Craftsman bungalow. Previously, San Diego was an outpost town of the Old West, with a mission, a presidio, a lighthouse, and a pier. Houses were mainly adobe ranches, or the Victorian-style homes you still see around Banker’s Hill, Golden Hill, and Old Town. Some San Diego residences were wooden shacks built in the 1800s. The shacks housed the poor, the Victorians sheltered the well-to-do.
The Craftsman bungalow was a new architectural direction. Victorian-style houses were large, usually two stories meant for the wealthy landowners around town. Victorian decoration included a lot of carved wood, stained glass, fancy chimneys, and fish-scaled shingles around the exterior. Craftsman style is very different, the dwellings normally a single story. Pillars at the front of a porch, and exposed rafters and support beams, make for clean lines across the structure’s face. These then-modern houses were a rejection of the fancy embellishments of Victorian homes, and developers who built them marketed them to an expanding middle class.
It was a time of innovation and new technology. The conveyor-powered assembly line gained traction in Chicago slaughterhouses and Detroit car companies. Automobiles were replacing horses and carriages. In 1914, World War I broke out, and this led to marvels such as airplane battles in the skies and mechanized tanks on the ground. Craftsman houses were a reflection of these new times.
You can see parallels with the colossal condominium towers downtown. New technology, economic forces shifting money around, a movement of people into different areas, advancing modern architectural techniques and philosophies — they had back then what we have now: the changing face of San Diego.
But that might be where the comparison ends. The 1930s saw the popularization of the phrase “the American Dream.” The ethos encompassed working for a better life, enjoying more recreation, and this often meant home ownership. Those little houses on flat lots with lawns were the embodiment of that yearning. When working-class people dreamed of homeownership, it was for one of these bungalows.
I walk west to Pershing Avenue then north for one block, until I’m standing in front of number 3612. It’s a beautiful little green California bungalow. Dangly branches from two thin willow trees shade its front. The yard is elevated from the sidewalk and held in by a short wall. Concrete steps invite you up to the porch, which is supported by two squat and sturdy Craftsman-style pillars; the shortened ends of the half-hip roof set it apart from the other houses on this street and give it a bit of quirk. Public record printouts tell me that this house has three bedrooms and two baths, so it’s big enough for a small family to live in. It’s near nice schools and on a bright street.
I’ve picked this particular house because it’s well recorded in North Park history: 3612 Pershing was built in 1923 and sold for $2000. In today’s money, adjusting for inflation, that’s just under $25,000. Any family could afford that.
That’s quite different from today’s condo market. The cheapest condo I found in San Diego was listed for $75,000. It’s a studio in a graffitied and litter-strewn converted apartment building on a rundown street in City Heights. It’d be cramped for a single person. A family of four could squeeze in only if they didn’t mind bunk beds, stepping on each others’ heads, and an unswerving bathroom schedule.
A relatively comfortable three-bedroom condo (comparable to 3612 Pershing) in a new-construction tower is almost impossible to find; most condominiums in these luxury high-rises range from studios to two bedrooms. I did find one, a three-bedroom condo in a newly created skyscraper listed at $720,000. Only an elite few could manage it.
That’s the difference between San Diego’s expansion of 100 years ago, the one that brought us the Craftsman bungalow, and the condo launch of the last decade: affordability for the average worker.
The Housing Crisis Before the Housing Crisis
So how did this expensive explosion happen? (Let me warn you. This part of the article might get a bit…dry. It’s mostly facts and figures from the painfully boring San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG. I’ll try to keep it light, but if you want to skip the gristle and get to the meat then skim ahead to the section titled “The Upshot.” If, however, you have a penchant for numbers and percentages and rezoning facts, read on, friend!)
In 2004, the San Diego Association of Governments released a redundantly titled text called “SANDAG Regional Comprehensive Plan for the San Diego Region.” In it are nebulous plans to confront several aspects of urban living that make for an unpleasant city, including air quality, water quality, public transportation, and most importantly for our purposes here: housing. In the housing section it states:
“Unfortunately, the San Diego region is in the midst of a housing crisis. The costs of renting or owning a home have risen dramatically during the past ten years. In fact, our region is regularly ranked as one of the top ten areas with the highest priced and least affordable housing in the nation.”