Laura Dvorak 5:47 p.m., Dec. 6
This neighborhood of mine was laid out in the late 1920s to provide a complementary community for the new San Diego State College campus. It gets its name from its rolling hills and winding streets. There’s a La Mesa and an East San Diego component to the area and a zig-zaggy border between them that lands neighborhood kids living on the same street in completely different school districts, to their early mystification. Rolando Little League's Gamby Field is, technically speaking, in La Mesa, but the San Diego kids all play there.
Where I live now along University Avenue is in San Diego, while the hillside above it is La Mesa. This results in periodic headaches over who is responsible for what when something goes wrong infrastructure-wise.
Thus did my childhood mystification give way to acute awareness of the ongoing inability of adults to handle straightforward matters in a commonsense way. Let me say here for the record that my section of University Avenue needs concrete curb gutters rather than tiresome squabbles at regular intervals over where the water is coming from that washes the asphalt out.
Now I’m old; I’m 54. I went away for a long time and came back. There was military service, then study abroad, then teaching abroad, with just enough time spent here to keep up acquaintances while the people who stayed behind drifted slowly apart. Maybe that was why my coming to town was always such a big deal; it was an excuse for everyone else to get together for a reunion.
For years, the Rolando Community Council was headed by a lady who was a lunch hour monitor when I was a kid at Henry Clay Elementary, from the election of JFK to the dawning of the Summer of Love. She passed away unexpectedly in September, and her memorial service at the Kroc Center on University was attended by both the mayor and former mayor of San Diego. I had no desire to meet either of them, but felt kind of sorry for the former mayor. Nobody seemed to want to have anything to do with him, and my buddies and I subtly turned our backs when he looked our way for someone to talk to. We concentrated our attention on a photo in the display area, taken in the fall of 1966 during a joint Cub Scout & Girl Scout tour of the Naval Training Center. We're all barely five feet tall but standing quite proudly in our scout uniforms, and our parents were way younger then than we are now...
I’m sitting on the grass at Clay Park, remembering how it used to be a dirt field enclosed by a tall chain-link fence. Henry Clay Elementary was where I learned reading and the basic geography of the world. Looking east, I see in my mind’s eye the whole country stretching out ahead over Mount Helix, visible in the distance. Or I can follow the West Coast of the Americas as it meanders south and east on the other side of Mount Miguel until it gets to the south end of Peru, which is as far as I’ve been in that particular direction.
As a kid the beach seemed just as distant, a place seldom seen between summers. From Rolando, we’d drop into Mission Valley past the SDSU campus, then access La Jolla Shores via Murphy Canyon and Miramar Roads, counting the water tanks along the way and checking out the landmarks like the radar dome that looked like a big golf ball. We’d watch the jets land and the Navy families barbecue outside their Quonset huts on the base. Nowadays, I’ll sit on the seawall at Shores, and with that mind’s eye peer all the way to the coast of Japan and up the Yodo River to Osaka, another place where I spent time but never felt at home.
It’s a kick to know I’ve been to so many of those places they used to tell us about in Rooms 2 and 4 and 7 at Henry Clay, while the teachers pointed their rubber-tipped wooden sticks at roll-down maps of the world.
Rolando is a conservative neighborhood as my folks were fond of saying, but it’s a free country just the same. With its canyons and parks and catwalks, the area is full of homeless people… some of whom I grew up with and have known all my life. I wish they were doing better, but can’t forget that we share common roots. They co-exist with young families whose kids are now students at Clay, utterly unaware that the school is over fifty years old and would have hundreds of thousands of stories to tell if its walls were able to speak.
The neighborhood looks superficially the same as it did in the ‘60s and before, which is one of the things I love about it. There are fancy street lamps, winding roads, secretive pedestrian walkways cutting along hillsides, and houses built to last. They appear the remainders of a bygone era, when pride in a job well done wasn’t a hopelessly naïve concept and day-by-day in every way things seemed to be getting better and better. JFK gave way to LBJ during elementary school, and the Nixon Administration played out in an almost perfectly congruent timeline with my teenage years, yet I could always walk over to Clay Park and see a familiar place. Now Henry Clay’s got a shade canopy over the lunch arbor; everybody frets about skin cancer but the environment’s just fine. Not many kids ride bikes or even walk to school like they did when I was a kid there. You just see a long line of SUVs driven by worried parents who like to pretend they’re cool and with-it; they make our parents in the picture at the Kroc Center look cool and with-it...
Then there’s SDSU, the source of much of what’s both inspiring and annoying about the SDSU area. Generations of college students have partied and reveled in early adulthood independence in the apartments and rentals around Rolando, their ways tolerated but never much celebrated by locals. Strange to think how I used to look up to those kids and want to be like them. Beatniks, hipsters, hippies, Generation X’ers, and hip-hoppers have come and gone, not nearly as unique and different from one another as they might fancy themselves.
Until recently I hadn’t a clue that the forlorn little shopping center at the foot of Rolando Boulevard on University Avenue was the original proposed site for today’s SDSU; hence the street’s name. Now the shopping center at 63rd and El Cajon Boulevard, where the early ‘70s Crawford High crowd would jam Straw Hat Pizza after losing the latest football game, has been demolished to build apartments to accommodate ever-growing legions of students. Or so they say; nobody really seems to know what is going to be done with the now rubble-strewn vacant lot. I remember getting into a rock fight there one day after school, back when it was a vacant lot before the now-demolished buildings went up. You know you’re getting old when they tear down something that wasn’t there yet when you were a kid!
The newer shopping center a few blocks west, on the site of the old Campus Drive-in, had long supplanted it and I guess that’s why it died such a slow, agonizing economic death. The neon sign from the drive-in was stored for years at College Grove, then mounted and re-christened in early 2000 in a place of honor between Mervyn’s and WalMart. Most people who shop at the Von’s or frequent the Starbucks at the old site of the Campus Drive-in nowadays don’t even know what the baton-twirling cheerleader logo on the shopping center’s marquee is all about. I do, and I treasure the knowledge of that and so much more.