Walter Mencken 10 a.m., Oct. 9
- Community Blog
Birdland, San Diego -- what was once old is new again
What a difference a lifetime makes.
I was born and raised in this community; I left it as an idealistic youth and returned to it a middle-aged man. School, then work, took me around the country and now life has brought me back where I began.
The first big change I noticed on my return was that in the interim we had been annexed by Serra Mesa, once a far-off neighborhood built around Ruffin Road and Greyling Street, where we had to go to get to our Post Office. Sometimes we packed a lunch for the trip.
My father once joked that he found this new housing development one day back in 1960 during a particularly heavy fog, and the salesman would not give him a map of the way out until he made a down payment on a home. He’s not far off; you really have to get lost to find your way about this neighborhood. One main artery road off the end of Genesee Avenue past the 163 Freeway services more than a square mile of labyrinthine hill and valley streets.
My house sits, a single level ranch home, an anachronism among contemporary two-story remodels sprung up as though they were pieces on a life-sized Monopoly board. It is a holdout, a throwback to the Sixties where my parents set out write their own chapter in the Great American Saga, raise a family and grow old together. It is now my inheritance.
Many from those days have done so. I look about and reflect on the families I once knew; the fathers and mothers who in my youth were titans now shuffle along concrete walks my playmates and I scarred and rutted with first our riding toys, then our bikes. They are the survivors of stroke and heart disease; instructed by their doctors to keep moving lest they perish, like sharks that stop swimming. Others gossip over coffee and the paper at the 7-11 around the corner from Sharp Hospital. That store was the one-mile mark of our walks and bike rides from home; Sharp hospital made two miles.
Most of my childhood acquaintances are now the stable, middle-class homeowners conveying their broods to school, soccer and dance in minivans and SUVs; nodding acquaintances who share a greeting or a concern over the hedge or fence. Some of those with whom I played as a child now tear about the hills of the neighborhood on Harley Davidsons and behind the wheels of shiny Mustangs; quite a departure from our Big Wheels and Schwinns. On many a warm, open-window summer evening I can trace their bickering and celebrations up and down the street as once I did those of their forbears. They have shrugged on the mantle of responsibility and now coddle a bequest for their posterity, paving the way for the next round of remodeling.
There have been many new faces added over the years, as could only be expected. While these newcomers may own their homes, they still reside in the Hoopers’ old house, or the place the Miller kids nearly burned down with firecrackers that one Fourth of July. The newcomers can own these shells, but they are merely transitory. They write their chapters within the covers of others’ books.
I am taken back in time as I stare out across my backyard, from which my family was once able to look almost into Jack Murphy Stadium, and across the canyon in the other direction where we would watch the fireworks over Sea World. The intervening homes and landscapes have grown to mask both from view; you can now see only the highest pyrotechnics over the Charger games. My dog now patrols well-worn trails where Bowser once kept vigil over a bank of pristine, newly sown iceplant sprigs more than forty years ago. The once mere saplings of my memory shade the behemoth homes of today. The canyons where friends and I rode our bicycles have since been graded, filled in and crowned with single-family homes which sell for twenty-five times what our parents paid for ours when we were young.
Something about this community I always appreciated, even when I was too young to completely understand it, was its cultural diversity. My Mom called our backyard the “Little United Nations” when all of the neighbor kids got together. Much as things have changed in Birdland, this has remained the same. This is a place where one can (almost) leave their doors unlocked; there are no Neighborhood Watch signs up, and none are needed. The neighbors here really do look out for one another. Only the occasional police siren in the night reminds me of the presence of nearby Juvenile Hall, where my mother would threaten to take me immediately if I did not shape up and behave.
Some time after returning to San Diego, I was talking with a work associate about having grown up in this area, and as it turns out he and his family lived in the house next door to me. They were a Navy family and had moved away many years ago when his father was transferred. He had returned to San Diego some years back. Such is the charm of this town for many that we can’t get it out of our blood, and like a salmon swimming against the current we return to our primordial birth stream.
The block on which I grew up always presented the semblance of solace. Here I passed from a child to manhood; here my mother lived before being moved into a nursing home; she will not be among the ceaseless walkers circling the maple-shaded blocks. Once my mother told me our house had been briefly owned by a man who did not move in, but died prior to taking possession of it. I used to wonder if his ghost remained here; yet now I know what it is to live with ghosts. I returned to San Diego several years ago with a wife and plans for a fresh start. She is gone now, and I've had to rethink those plans. I imagine many of these homes have their own stories to tell. There are times the thick, fetid silence of the night is lacerated by a shrill of ambulance sirens, the roar of large diesel-engine fire trucks and the accompanying wails and whimpers of a terrified family somewhere down the street. Heads pop out of doors and around the corners of porches; rumor and supposition spread more rapidly than the Cedars Fire. Forty-five minutes later (it’s always that) the trucks rumble out, this time without the sirens. The shuffling of the walkers next morning is often just a little bit slighter, and hard-jawed survivors carry on over the hedges and fences. The Old Guardians of the block are fading away. The squeals and cheers of children ring out again with the dawn -- it’s as though the anguished sounds of the night were the compost for the unbridled joy of the following day.
The newcomers and the next generation move on.
But that’s what this neighborhood does – it grows, it melds, it evolves, it reinvents itself.
Who knows, perhaps one day I will have this old, single level ranch knocked down and put up one of those two-story Monopoly houses. It will be my own sort of worry stone against the inevitable.