Q: What's the difference between Normal Heights and East San Diego? Or Normal Heights and University Heights? Or Normal Heights and a dozen other fading, middle-class San Diego neighborhoods?
A: The Normal Heights sign.
You know it, the ponderous red and white presence strung up over Adams Avenue between what's now the Taoist Sanctuary and the liquor store just west of Felton Street. Its electricity was disconnected years ago and the smaller painted letters, which proclaim "Adams Avenue Business District" have faded so badly that they're scarcely legible. Still, the sign is Normal Heights' most significant landmark. Taking heed of them, the neighborhood's one-year-old community group had determined to restore the neon beacon to the days of its former glory.
A few members of the community still remember those days, like Fred Schoebinger, who managed the Piggly-Wiggly on Adams Avenue for 21 years. He says authoritatively that it was in 1951 when the Adams Avenue Business Association held monthly bingo parties to raise the $2300 to buy the sign. Signmaker Leroy Martin, who had his shop on Felton, built it, and the association closed down Adams and partied to celebrate the first lighting of it. "It was blue at night, and it was very beautiful," Schoebinger remembers.
But over the years the business association's membership waned, and the sign eventually languished. When the traffic signal was installed at Felton, the sign's electrical wires were in the way, so the power to the sign was disconnected. Another signmaker named Joe Jackson bought Martin's sign shop, and about seven years ago Jackson arose early one Sunday morning, closed off half the lanes on Adams, and completely repainted the sign (he hoped to collect money from the merchants to to pay for the job, but ended up shouldering the costs himself). Now the new community group is planning a fundraising drive to pay for repainting the sign again, as well as restoring the neon lighting. Community association president Steve Temko says, "We're thinking of having a raffle and letting the winner turn on the lights. Or we may try to get the oldest person in Normal Heights to turn on the sign."
The community association is looking to Jackson to handle the restoration task, particularly since Jackson currently maintains the similar sign in Kensington. Jackson says its neon is less elaborate than that on the one is Normal Heights, but the Kensington sign does light. The Kensington Talmadge Community Association spends about 14 dollars a month to have it glow from dusk to about 11:30 each night. If the Normal Heights relighting succeeds, then those two will be the only such signs which still work in the city. (The HIllcrest sign has been dark for years, and similar signs which once proudly marked the neighborhoods of North Park and East San Diego have since been altogether removed.)
Though certainly the showiest, those overhanging street signs aren't San Diego's only neighborhood markers. The city's traffic engineer, Don Robbins, says at least 15 years ago the city began manufacturing small blue signs to be posted at the borders of different neighborhoods. They announce, "Entering [the particular neighborhood name], A Community of San Diego."
Robbins says to obtain such signs a neighborhood must secure the consent of the surrounding communities (to forestall any boundary disputes). Then the city will manufacture and install them (free of charge) on the major arteries leading into that neighborhood. Although Robbins says the city has never kept track of which communities have such signs, he says he thinks they're installed at least in Mira Mesa, Otay Mesa, Pacific Beach, Clairemont, North Park, Mission Hills, San Carlos, Del Cerro, Mission Beach, and Point Loma. At least three neighborhoods are currently seeking to install the blue community signposts, including City Heights, San Ysidro — and Normal Heights, which wants them erected on Adams Avenue (both at I-805 and at 40th Street), on El Cajon Boulevard (both 34th and 35th), and on Meade Street (again both at I-805 and 40th).