If you drive south on Highway 5 and take the Pershing Drive off-ramp down to 26th Street, you will wind up on a narrow road through green hills and cool groves of trees, past a park where you will see children of different races playing together. Beyond this park is a business district inscribed with Spanish graffiti and mixed with gingerbread mansions and little California houses from the early part of the century. It is as if someone threw Mission Hills and Logan Heights into a bag and shook it.
Right next to the Jaroco corner market on 25th Street, a neon an stucco flashback to the Forties (on which there is a large sign that announces, WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS TOMATOES), is the Golden Hills Turf Supper Club.
Entering the Turf Club is like opening up one of those watercolor sets in grade school; every primary color is there, and the possibilities are just beginning. At the bar and around the piano are adults of most races and ages. If you ask them what they think of Golden Hills, the most integrated area of San Diego, you may be inspired and frightened at the same time.
Writer Jane Stein will tell you that Golden Hills is the first place where she has ever wanted to live permanently. "I grew up in housing developments and shopping centers. This is the first time since I was a child that I have a sense of community. This is the first time I can go to the grocery and someone knows who I am. They don't know my name yet, but they know the name of the person behind me. Probably someday they'll know my name. I even have a butcher, which I never had before. He knows me and talks to me, which is much better than going into Safeway and pulling out a prepackaged pot roast."
There is no supermarket in Golden Hills, just corner markets. There used to be a Safeway, but a few years ago two black men held it up and shot the assistant manager. Now the Safeway building is welfare office.
"People greet each other on the street," Stein says. "It's almost European. When I'm walking up the wide, quiet streets I look in the windows of the old homes and see the people living there and wonder who came before them. I walk along the sidewalk and see the names of the contractors. The date says 1908, and I realize that the sidewalk isn't going to go anywhere."
Freda, the barmaid, who is much older than Jane Stein, takes a cab every night four and a half blocks to her apartment because she is scared of the young blacks who yell, "Look at the white bitch in the short skirt."
Jane Stein is thinking about buying a house in Golden Hills. Freda is thinking about buying a gun.
A white-haired Mexican at the end of the bar, who was beaten and robbed one night outside the Turf Club, now carries a golf club with him whenever he walks in Golden Hills.
If you ask the right people in Golden Hills, the new, young, liberal residents, like Jane Stein, they will tell you with warmth about the racial and economic mix, and how they came to Golden Hills because of it.
If you ask the short, tough bartender at the Turf Club, he will lean over two inches from your eyes and tell you, "Golden Hills has been going downhill for the 20 years I've worked here. To me, Chicano is a nasty word. Nobody calls me that. They think it is a badge of valor. It's a slap in the face. These people like a slap in the face. Oh, we treat 'em all the same, though. We ignore 'em. These whites who are moving in now love the niggers; they've been rejected by their own race, so they come here to be accepted. Me, I'm a money lovin' Jew. Because I want to be a Jew. I'm not no goddamn lazy Mexican. I know them for what they are. My mother was one. I'm one. But I want to work, so the hell with 'em."
It used to be just one hill, Golden Hill, a small area consisting of 25 lots, bounded by 24the Street on the east and the alley between B and C Streets on the north. Now it is known as Golden Hills. The City of San Diego Planning Department and the Registrar of Voters declared that Golden Hills is the area between Interstate 5 on the west, Commercial Street on the south, 28th Street on the east, and Russ Boulevard on the north.
In the late 1800s, the mansions of Golden Hills were set in the middle of large lots to take advantage of the long view of the city, harbor, and ocean. Jeanette Brannon in the San Diego Union writes, "The affluent, newly arrived from the East, copied the turreted and towered mansions of the Eastern seaboard, often topped with a "widow's walk." Some from the South built homes of baronial proportion with columned verandas and doorways. Others from the Midwest favored solid, no-nonsense construction of brick, complete with basements and attics."
The original promoters had several novel restrictions for the subdivision. All houses were on large lots and were built 40 feet from the street so that the view remained unobstructed. The sale of intoxicating liquors was prohibited, and no barns were allowed. To compensate for this latter restriction, the promoters promised to build at a convenient distance, "a two-story, fireproof barn, large enough for the accommodation of all. This building will be constructed with due regard to ventilation and all other means necessary to make it a veritable Horse Palace."
Some time around 1915 and the arrival of the automobile, Golden Hills started to deteriorate. There were newer, fancier communities, soon to be called suburbs, spreading like ice plant along the coast. But for a quarter of a century, Golden Hills had been the most aristocratic and highly improved area of San Diego.
The current revival has little to do with aristocracy and much to do with racial and economic integration. Golden Hills has a population which is roughly 48 percent White, 20 percent Black, and 27 percent Spanish.
Long before the freeway became the racial dividing line, Market Street separated Blacks and Whites. Today, southeast San Diego, west of Wabash to Crosby, is a silent ghetto with only an 11 percent white population. And to many of the Chicano and black families on that side of the freeway, Golden Hills is still viewed as at least slightly aristocratic, the next step to Hillcrest or some other middle-class neighborhood.
Bill Robinson, Community Relations Officer for the San Diego Police Department, lived in Golden Hills for six years. He chose to live there, like many other recent residents, because of the racial mix.
"A lot of young people moved to Golden Hills from Santee or some the other white suburban areas," he says, "and have escaped their own kind of ghetto. While I was working in the Model Cities program I met people from Point Loma and La Jolla who had lived in San Diego 16 years and had never met a Black or a Chicano."
Unemployment in Golden Hills is as high a 15 percent, compared with the general city rate of 11.5 percent and a staggering 35 percent in southeast San Diego. Nearly a third of all the families in Golden Hills earned less than $3,000 in 1974. And while property value and rent are rising, population is falling. The present population of 10,000 is below the 1960 level.
Nevertheless, the new residents find that there is a vital mystique to living in a neighborhood with all ages, races, and incomes. The proponents of this kind of life could represent a passing phase of radical chic or they could be onto something important.
Ellen Lucero is known in the neighborhood as a Mexican-American artist. She is a Slovak. "People think I'm Mexican here and are prejudiced against me," she sighs. I'm a hybrid, actually, with an ethnic look. I lived in Watts for a while and they thought I was Greek. Then I lived in Tijuana for two years. I look Mexican and have a Mexican name, but the Mexicans didn't like me, because — they have a word for it — they thought I was trying to pass as a Mexican."
Until recently, Ellen Lucero even felt alienated in Golden Hills. "But something must be changing," she says. "The guy across the street hadn't said a word to me since I moved in in 1969. Then one day he talked to me. He asked me if I was an Indian."
At that time she was considering moving again, but in the last year she noticed a real improvement. People talk in spurts. Maybe it has to do with the moon or humidity, or maybe it has to do with the Food Co-op and the Planning Association, but people are talking. I didn't even known my neighborhood was called Golden Hills until somebody started putting out a newsletter."
Suddenly her neighborhood has the right balance of friendliness. "I don't like the slums where people stand on the corner yelling and dogs are running back and forth. But I don't like Hillcrest where no one is even out — just the glaring sunlight. Here, everyone treats everyone the way they are. When the proper old lady from Canada comes out, you talk very proper so as not to offend her, but you talk different to the girl across the street from Venezuela who smokes dope. There's a guy across the street; name is Jim. We call him the 'Herald.' He gets out there every Saturday morning, washing his car, and he yells the news up and down the street. He's the typical tax-paying citizen, but all he talks to us about is, â€˜Have you got a job? How's your sister's pancreas? Are you gettin' by?" it's almost like Little Italy in New York. No, it's more like Little Italy in the movies. The 'Herald' is kind. He cares."
When Ellen Lucero describes her growing feeling for Golden Hills, she begins to glow and her fingers fly around her head. "You can go down to the park," she says, "and feed your senses. You can get lost in these canyons. Me and my son Ramie go down for walks in the canyons and we feel like we're lost in the mountains. We make birdcalls and pick berries. Like in the zoo, we feel lost and far away.
"I lived in Imperial Beach before I came here. To me, it meant hard substances, flat, dirt, people who drink beer and tell dirty jokes about their husbands and wives. Here, I think of green stuff, roses, birds. There is an owl who lives in the Eucalyptus tree. When I was in Imperial Beach I used to haul my kids to the zoo every weekend. I don't have to do that here. In Imperial Beach, I felt my shoes were always dirty. In Golden Hills I feel barefoot in the park. When I go to Ocean Beach I feel like I'm going to get hepatitis."
Ellen Lucero's sudden feeling that she actually belongs somewhere reflects a growing senses of community. But a few years ago a San Diego State study registered Golden Hills as one of the most disintegrated areas in San Diego, with no sense of community.
Don Gullens, a former Methodist minister who runs a home-based clipping service in Golden Hills, says that the food co-op (which had just been established at the time of the study), was the first impetus to community. "The counterculture agencies stimulated something that was lying dormant here," he says. "The Bridge, San Diego's first runaway house, started a gang program in the area, now called the Neighborhood Outreach Program. More than any other group, they've been the link between people."
Agencies like the Neighborhood Outreach Program, the Pro-Veterans Center, the Way-Back Center for alcoholics, and the Gay Center are viewed by many residents of Golden Hills as attributes to the community. The agencies are encouraged, not just tolerated.
Evelyn Martini, a senior citizen who spends most mornings in the Golden Hills park, is impressed with the agencies. She feels no reservations about living near the Gay Center. "Oh my goodness, no, why should I care? As long as they don't tear down the old homes, I don't care who does what."
In Golden Hills, the protectors of the status quo are the blacks, the Chicanos, the gays, the counterculture, the senior citizens, the leftist lawyers, the esoteric architects, the low-incomed and the high-mortgaged. To them, what has been called urban decay is the fermenting of something personal and warm. In this situation the real radicals may well be the land developers, whose tendency is to tear everything down and start all over again.
Gary Rees, a new homeowner in Golden Hills, works as a paramedic at the Beach Area Community Clinic. Before that, he was director of the San Diego Gay Center in Golden Hills, and before that he was an officer in the Navy.
Rees, whose grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio, was fairly desperate to find a place where people would let him be. "I was worried about moving here. When I moved here, there were alternative agencies in the neighborhood, but none of them were directed toward gays. When we started the Gay Center we decided to be completely open about what it was, and the neighbors liked us. Ultimately, though, they like us because we cleaned up the yard."
Rees believes that the sudden desire for stability among his counterculture friends is deep-rooted. "Most of the people I know have been in a situation where they've seen their neighbors killed outright," he explains. "When I was small my family had a 16 acre farm in Ohio, which my father and mother bought the night they were married. In the valley there was nothing except farms and fields. People used to come to take calendar photos of the valley. The man who owned the farm next door sold it to an auto wrecking firm. Though we had owned the property for 15 years, and my father's family had lived in that area for five generations, we sold it after they started hauling cars in. The people who bought it from us sold it to a strip mining firm. It's probably not recognizable now. The hills have been move.
"I get blown away almost weekly by the conservation domiciles of my counterculture friends here. You don't see Che Guevara posters; you see nice furniture. It's a schizophrenic trend.
"We're not interested in changing Golden Hills. We want to keep it as much like it is as long as we can."
With the assistance of then-Supervisor Jim Bates, the Greater Golden Hills Community Planning Association was formed two years ago. Most participants want to discourage the massive leveling of the community and the breaking up of cultural ties.
The effort is not without opposition. A small developer, John Barron, believes, "A few architects and lawyers who already have their $60,000 homes are getting together to deny me the right to make a profit. And they're keeping the poor people from selling their houses for a reasonable profit. Look, the low income Blacks and Mexicans — all those people — they're going to leave anyway. Property taxes alone are going to force them out. So what's all this hand-wringing about losing them? The only thing that's going to be lost through rezoning is their ability to sell their houses for a decent profit before they move out."
But according to Jim Fisk, the Principal City Planner for Golden Hills, the area is 69% renter occupied, with a much higher rate of absentee landlords than the city average. Few of the homes are owned by low-income people.
Criminal lawyer Larry Brainard, a member of the Board of Directors of the Community Planning Association, insists that keeping the economic and racial mix intact is, well, almost as important as preserving the old homes and the residential nature of the area. The Planning Association is working now to attract Block Grants to rehabilitate low-income housing. Some development of low-income housing should be an important part of their activities. And growth, he says, will be allowed but will be restricted to certain parts of Golden Hills.
"Some of the developers feel we're being conspiratorial," Brainard said. "But every board meeting is open. We've tried everything from handbills to posters to attract people. We've made a point to attract people who don't share our general viewpoint. If someone out there doesn't agree with the way things are going. I hope he gets his ass to the meetings."
Brainard believes a common ground will be reached. "We don't have to fight about everything. The property owners can still make money and we can still have quality of life."