It’s a holdover habit from a small-town childhood spent dreaming of big cities. When I was a kid living in Boise, Idaho, city planners completed Interstate 184 (known as “the connector”), a 3.6-mile stretch of freeway leading from the Interstate 84 to downtown. By that point, I had traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, and the connector symbolized Boise’s coming up in the world. It seemed the first step in my hometown’s becoming a bustling metropolis. On the connector, I’d squint my eyes to blur the buildings around me and make them look larger, more multitudinous and imposing. In those moments, I fancied myself a city girl. Years later, when commuting daily from Brooklyn to the Bronx, I fought my way up the FDR in an 18-year-old Toyota Tercel hatchback with a sense of having arrived at my real self.
Now I’m back to pretending.
Which, in Eastlake, isn’t all that easy to do.
For one, no amount of squinting could turn a ten-mile loop of Edward Scissorhands-in-terra-cotta-stucco developments into an urban anything. There is only so much yellowish-beige and Spanish-roof-tile-color one will find in a big city environment.
For two, strip-mall living isn’t urban no matter how you look at it.
For the first eight months we lived in Eastlake, I kept my daughter in her school in Kearny Mesa and drove the 25 miles twice daily, spending my days and my money in North Park and Normal Heights coffee shops, where I’d work until it was time to pick her up and make the trek home, which, on the southbound 805, could take as long as an hour. My husband considered this a waste of time and money, but it was important for me to stay connected to San Diego’s urban core, and maybe more importantly, to my city self.
When I gave up the drive, put my daughter in a close-to-home school, and sold my soul for the convenience of an easy commute, I completed the descent into suburban life.
At the same time, I celebrated our easy access to all things suburban: Home Depot, Panera Bread, Banana Republic, Target (oh, my God, Target!), Pier One, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Sprouts, Best Buy, Macy’s, Vons, Albertsons, Aveda, Macaroni Grill, Walgreens, Payless Shoes, Office Depot, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Rite Aid, Lowe’s, an AMC theater, Barnes & Noble, Cheesecake Factory, Subway, California Pizza Kitchen, TJ Maxx, Jamba Juice, SuperCuts, Quiznos, Bank of America, Sprint, T-Mobile, Wendy’s, Union Bank, Wells Fargo, Navy Federal, Chase, Sleep Train, Panda Express, Rubio’s, Walmart, In-N-Out, and PF Chang’s. In short, everything that Mission Valley has but without the crowds and the traffic. I would not miss fighting my way past buses on the corner of University and Fairmount to get to the 15 or driving all the way to Hillcrest for takeout sushi.
Although I do have some business and socializing that takes me “to the city” regularly, I have to admit that I opt out of opportunities and events on a regular basis because of the often-tremendous effort it takes to leave Eastlake. I’m telling you, it’s a trap, and we’re all doomed.
“Eastlake is an island,” my new friend Jill tells me one afternoon while we stand chatting in her yard.
Jill lives a mile or two from me at the northwestern edge of Eastlake, in a 2800-square-foot house with a 10,693-square-foot lot. I met her while searching for a community garden in the area. There is no community garden in the area yet (though Debra Vaca, the manager of our HOA, says she’s looking for a location), but there is a gardening meetup group, the Eastlake Organic Gardening Collective, which Jill started in April 2012.
Jill’s nearly quarter-acre corner lot is a veritable jungle of an ecosystem in the middle of a neighborhood where all the other houses are fronted with plain-green-patch yards. She had to petition the homeowners’ association to remove the patch of grass in front of her house and replace it with lavender, fennel, orange poppies, and African basil.
“You can’t have a yard of rocks,” she says, explaining the HOA rules, “or half a Buick.”
Most of Jill’s yard is hidden by a stucco wall topped with an iron fence and overhung with white roses. Beyond the wall, in an area that includes a fountain, two seating areas, a fire pit, and enough rose-colored poured concrete for spinning donuts on a Big Wheel, Jill grows a Japanese mulberry tree, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, corn, tomatoes, olives, melons, peaches, peppers, cucumbers, zucchinis, apples, and peanuts, as well as flowers and herbs.
“The minute I moved here in the summer of 2009, I started shoving things into the ground,” she says.
When Jill and her family moved to Eastlake, they’d been looking in Poway because they wanted to be in that school district. But when they discovered that many of the schools in Eastlake carry the same ratings of 8 and 9 on GreatSchools.org as do the Poway schools, they extended their search to Eastlake.
“I couldn’t find enough house for me [in Poway],” she says. “I didn’t want something that looked like it was from the 1970s. Everything up there was so dark. Everything here is so light.”
And then there’s the “everything” that Eastlake has. “We have three major grocery stores, and even my doctor is in Eastlake,” she says. “There’s no shortage of parks. I love Eastlake. The only thing I would say negatively is that people need to spend a week in the South, and learn how to make eye contact and say hello. Nobody spends time in their yards.”
As an internet sales rep for furniture vendors, Jill works from home and so doesn’t have to commute for her job. She does get most of her gardening supplies and “starts” (one step beyond seedlings) from City Farmers in City Heights and the Mission Hills Nursery, but she only makes that trek once or twice per growing season. Otherwise, she sticks to the neighborhood as much as possible.