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Development more rapacious in San Diego's South Bay

Where the wild things were

Dead Man's Rock, El Cajon - Image by Robert Burroughs
Dead Man's Rock, El Cajon

When you went out the front door of our home at the corner of Broadway and Anza in El Cajon, you found yourself in a yard shaded by a blue-green canopy formed by the joining branches and leaves of six olive trees whose gnarled trunks rose from the tattered lawn. The bitter olives and sliver-shaped leaves that littered the yard were kept from turning into a compost by my sister and me, who were paid a penny a minute by my father to rake the lawn periodically, with a yearly assist from a family of itinerant gypsies who would come and lay a tarp on the ground, shake all the olives down from the trees, and truck them off to an olive-oil plant somewhere.

Gary Hicks, Florida Canyon. Gary had two bases of operation in the North Park area — the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather, on Alabama Street near Florida Canyon, and the house where his father lived with Gary’s grandparents, near the intersection of Richmond and Pennsylvania.

A fence of peeling, crisscrossed white laths separated our yard and Broadway, whose two shaded lanes ran an immeasurable distance east and west and were lined throughout by palms and pepper trees. About a block and a half to the west, 100 feet or so north of Broadway, there was a huge grove of eucalyptus where the kids of our neighborhood sometimes sneaked off and where we liked to construct crazy fortresses out of the windfall wreckage of bark and branches. Directly across Broadway from our house, wild grassy fields — broken up only by an occasional pocket of old houses and by hidden streamlets that chuckled along beneath the tangled, bending stalks — spread clear to Main Street, about two miles away.

Jim Kilijanski, Bonita. “One of the most remarkable things I remember seeing in Rice Canyon were these huge flocks of quail."

After about 1955, all this began to disappear. First the eucalyptus grove was ploughed under to make room for a housing development with the name Valley Village. The fields between Broadway and Main went down before an onslaught of rambling stucco school facilities, apartment buildings, tracts, and finally (around 1960) a modern freeway. Then, in the mid-Sixties, our family and the rest of the neighborhood watched helplessly as the individuals who owned large parcels of land along Broadway succeeded in having the Rock, El Cajon street widened — a necessary move if those acres were ever to have any significant commercial value. The City of El Cajon bought from us (at an enforced discount) about two-thirds of our front yard and sent in heavy machinery to chop down the olive trees and grade away the lawn and the fence. The other yards along Broadway, as well as the peppers and palms that actually lined the street, got the same treatment.

Christine Garland, Sunnyside. “Corky's [McMillin] father owned a lot of land in the Chula Vista area, and when he died Corky inherited it all. Pretty soon he started building it up. and money started coming in. and the family changed. The kids got a little snottier. But that was typical of Bonita."

In the course of a few short years, the semi-bucolic paradise that my sister and I and our friends had known all our lives was irretrievably lost. Broadway's four-lane length — unshaded, lined by asphalt parking lots and gimcrack shopping strips — became the lurid headstone for our vanished childhood.

The older I’ve gotten and the more people I've talked to about days gone by. the clearer my understanding has become that my own story of paradise lost is no isolated case but part of an ongoing and nearly universal pageant of extirpation and wrenching change. When I first became rational enough to understand the hardships and dangers of World War II (which ended a few years before I was born), it struck me as unimaginable good fortune that the American homeland had never been directly threatened by bombers and tanks and goose-stepping legions, that El Cajon and 10,000 communities like it had never been shelled, gassed, or shock-trooped into a mangled condition. Later, I realized that the American land war didn’t even begin until after the treaties had been signed at Potsdam and that it was a war waged against us not by the Axis powers but by returning U.S. troops (that is, our fathers — my own was a surveyor) looking for work and Lebensraum, and especially by the burgeoning industries and corporations that had fattened on the business of war and afterward could see no reason for palliating their imperial ambitions. Deploy the bulldozers...

Sue Hicks, who grew up in Golden Hill: “We used to spend hours down in the canyon playing and building forts. There were these terraces, kind of like shelves, dug into the sides of the canyon."

The San Diego area provides a classic example of what can happen when growth is allowed to run un-checked across the land, tearing down, building up, altering beyond recognition. In some ways, the “typical” San Diegan is someone who arrived in the area seeking sun, sand, and ephemeral career opportunities five or ten years ago and whose sense of local history extends back no further than that. But there are people who have a lifelong personal investment in the place and who — provided only that they are asked — have many memories (highly subjective, as you will see) to share concerning county neighborhoods they knew and loved that have vanished, leaving only their names behind.

Jim Kilijanski’s father was stationed in San Diego, in the navy, during World War II, and afterward got married and settled in Chula Vista. Today, Jim himself is 35 years old and lives with his wife in a tidy little house just down the street from the house where he grew up. He works as an airline mechanic, and the day I spoke with him he was due to go in soon for his regular two-to-ten-p.m. shift.

“When I was a kid, my friends and I played down in Rice Canyon,” he told me. “At least, that was our main place. We’d walk through Hilltop High School down into the canyon, and later we rode our bikes down there, and still later our dirt bikes. Since the canyon was so close to the coastline, there was a lot of rainfall, and if you dug two or three feet down, the soil was black. The rain made the canyon rich in animal life and plant life. Of course, it was all pretty dry during the summer, but during the winter it came alive with green grass, wildflowers, succulents. There were foxes and skunks and a lot of the other animals you’ll see in bottomland. Some people think there isn’t much wildlife in such places, but they just haven’t looked for it, and they don’t realize that during the daylight hours a lot of these species don’t like to show themselves. But if you spend enough time in bottomland, you'll see there’s just an incredible variety of wildlife, an entire food pyramid.

“One of the most remarkable things I remember seeing in Rice Canyon were these huge flocks of quail. I guess I was in about the third grade, and 1 had no idea what they were — just all these birds, maybe three or four hundred of them, covering an entire hillside. And at one end of the canyon there was a flower farm, where someone cultivated flowers for sale. Thousands of flowers; it was just beautiful.

“There were a lot of little finger canyons leading into the main canyon whose sides were so steep you couldn't climb them,” he went on. “One of them we called Fossil Canyon; it was a real deep crevasse where you’d find clam fossils and all kinds of ocean fossils. I guess it was under water a few million years ago. There were these huge bones that people said were whale bones, and years later, when they were grading down there, some guy found a dinosaur egg. Up towards the end of Fossil Canyon, there were these strange trees whose name I never knew — like sagebrush, only they were trees. Sage trees.

“Down at the end of J Street, there were the ruins of some old Mexican house, adobe ruins. I don't know when it was built, but it must have been before the turn of the century because it was really decayed. We thought it was haunted, and we used to love to go sneaking around in there. There were all kinds of artifacts just lying around on the ground that got picked up by people over the years. There were old ironwork grills on the windows, and I remember seeing some guy pulling the grills down, scavenging them. Then the whole thing got tom down so they could build houses.

“There really wasn’t any fishing in Rice Canyon, though, so if we wanted to go fishing we went over to Bonita Valley. There used to be some pretty big ponds there — like the one we called Miller’s Pond, which must have been a good eight or ten acres. Once a friend of mine who lived across the street from us brought a bunch of live crappie fish back from Otay Lake, and I took some of them and put them in our bathtub. For some reason my parents weren’t too happy about that, so I took them down and planted them in Miller’s Pond. As time went on, those crappie got bigger and multiplied till it got to where people were taking their poles down there to catch ’em. You’d have to know where the pond was in order to find it, because it was surrounded by trees and dense vegetation. Big ponds all in through there. There were crawdads and bass and catfish and the crappies I planted. Bluegill. We’d all go down there just about every day after school. It’s really sad that none of it’s there anymore. There was also a golf course at one end of Bonita Valley, but they took it and moved it to the other end.”

They moved the golf course?

“Well, they didn’t really move it,” he admitted. “They just got rid of the golf course at the western end and then built another one at the eastern end.”

Since there was still some time left before he had to report for work, Jim and I took a drive through Chula Vista and Bonita. As we tooled along, he pointed out the “native desert” that still remains: long swaths of brush and grass that run like Mohawk haircuts over the Chula Vista hills, above or adjacent to housing tracts and office parks and places where heavy machinery is even now making further inroads into the landscape. Soon we were driving through Rice Canyon, where a large shopping complex called Terra Nova Plaza — faux adobe with red Spanish tiles on the roofs — now sits.

“We’d ride our bikes along the floor of the canyon here, and during the winter it was so cold your hands would get red,” Jim recalled. “Then when you pulled up out of the canyon, it would suddenly seem about ten degrees warmer. And I’d go biking around down there with my dog — sometimes we’d hike all the way to where Southwestern College is now. These days there’s no place for kids to go but this shopping center, and it's nothing but trouble. I mean, the shopping center's a part of life too, but there has to be a balance. Sometimes at night I go walking through Chula Vista and I see these kids making a phone call at the pay phone. Now, I know where these people are coming from, and I have respect for them, but I know what they’re into — a gang, they call it. That’s fine with me. But I just can't help thinking how different it could be if they had some open space to go to after school. You know, like ‘Let’s go throw a line in the water and see if the fish are biting.’ Work out some of their frustrations that way.

“It was a terrible, terrible thing when they built this shopping center,” he said, tapping on the window. “That was about 1978, and I was working up in Alaska at the time. I got a phone call from a friend of mine down here, and I said, ‘What about the canyon?’ ‘It's gone, Jim. It’s gone.’ ‘Oh, no. The canyon's gone?’ It was very depressing, because this was a dear place to me, it was part of my life. I really hated to see it go. I had nightmares about it. Once I dreamed I was down in the canyon and it was all fenced in; there were bulldozers everywhere, and people were running around yelling at me to get out. Everywhere I turned the land had been graded level. Then I woke up and realized it wasn’t a nightmare, it was reality.”

As we drove toward Bonita Valley, Jim pointed out a water tower on a hilltop and said that this was where he and his high school friends used to go to build big bonfires and have parties. “And do you see way over there?” he said. “See that other water tower surrounded by trees on that other hill? Everyone used to call it Breezy Hill because of the prevailing winds. It was where you’d go on your first date. Kids used to talk about how their parents met ‘up at Breezy.’ That’s how they referred to it ”

Down in Bonita Valley, it was good to see that the bottomland Jim remembered had not been entirely razed: a belt of grasses and trees still stretched along, for some distance, under the rubric “Sweetwater Regional Park Open Space Preserve.” “The thing is,” he explained, “since this is Bonita, no one’s ever been able to come in and just tear things out any way they want to. After all, it’s rich people who live in Bonita, and rich people get to have a say about what happens in their neighborhood. They get to say, ‘Hey, not in my back yard; you take it someplace else.’ ”

But when we reached the spot where Miller’s Pond was — or used to be — we were in for a depressing sight. There, some governmental agency had installed a huge “environmental flood-control channel” — an unsightly mass of cement slabs bristling with rebar and out jutting steel beams, all resting in the mud like a foundered garbage scow. For a moment we stared at this juggernaut the way the Parisians must have stared at the panzer divisions grinding down the Champs Elysdes. “This is what our children are going to inherit,” Jim said at length. “They talk about the greenhouse effect — this is another worldwide phenomenon."

As is generally true in other kinds of war, when the troops and artillery of development come along and start implementing a scorched-earth policy in your neighborhood, you hardly ever see the generals. You see the foot soldiers (construction workers, carpenters) and the first lieutenants (supervisors, foremen), but whoever is masterminding and directing the operation is almost always out of reach in some office building somewhere, maybe even in another state — or, these days, in another country. To this extent, Christine Garland is fortunate: the man responsible for pushing the buttons that blasted her childhood to smithereens actually lived in her neighborhood. Unlike most of us, she's seen the enemy face to face.

Christine's parents (her father was retired navy) bought a house in Sunnyside, which is part of Bonita, in 1959, and she was born a year later. The house, which was built during the 1920s and still exists, has hardwood floors and originally sat on its own acre of hilltop land. Christine's father died in an auto accident in 1975, and in ‘77 the family (she has two older brothers and an older sister) moved to Chula Vista. Today. Christine is 28 years old and works as a computer operator for the county. She is single and lives in Chula Vista. I met her at a downtown Chula Vista watering hole called Jimmy's — one of those combination coffee shop/steak house/lounge bars that are always filled with a lot of noise and where you always sec tired insurance salesmen and their spouses lingering over a stale bite to eat.

“Sunnyside was a minuscule town in those days, with no more than 15 houses or so,” she recalled. “The people who lived there were good people. Everyone knew each other; it was a very neighborly kind of thing. The postman always brought us candy. All around the area there were cow pastures and hills with flowers growing on them. I used to pick sweetpeas to take home as a present for my mom. I remember one day Arnold Palmer, the famous golfer, came out of his house and yelled at us for picking sweetpeas on his land. There were brooks and bridges, too, where you could catch frogs and polliwogs. Once a couple of the older kids picked me up and threatened to throw me off one of those bridges, and my brothers used to catch garter snakes and scare me with them. I guess since I was the baby of the family they liked to pick on me. There was a pond off Bonita Road where we built a treehouse, and we dragged a bunch of boards and an old couch into the bushes there and built a little fort. That's all part of Bonita Golf Course now.

“Our old house had a barn out in back when we first moved in, and it was so decayed and so termited we finally had to burn it down. So my father got a keg and invited all his friends over, and they set the bam on fire and everyone had a good time. We roasted marshmallows over the flames. I really loved living in that house. We had chickens and rabbits and a goat, and there were wolves and foxes running wild. We used to go out looking for them.

“One day the bus driver was driving us to school along a road that ran through these pastures,” she went on, “and he turned off the road and said, I think this is something every kid ought to see.’ And he showed us this cow giving birth to a calf. He waited till it was all done and the calf had stood up, and then he said, ‘Okay, I'd better get you to school.' We were late. That’s a beautiful memory.”

As it happened, Corky McMillin — a man who would become famous all over the San Diego area for building and selling thousands of new housing units — lived in the neighborhood. Christine, as they say, remembers his family when.

“I grew up with Corky's family” she recalled. “His son was my first love back in grade school. This was before Corky made it big. Then in 1968 or so Corky's father died, and things changed. I guess Corky's father owned a lot of land in the Chula Vista area, and when he died Corky inherited it all. Pretty soon he started building it up. and money started coming in. and the family changed. The kids got a little snottier. But that was typical of Bonita. We weren’t one of the rich families there; we were fairly poor. True, we had an acre of land, but we didn't have much money. And Corky's family got to where they had a lot of money. I don't want to knock anybody, but it was like they became too good to talk to ordinary people. When my father died in a car crash in 1975. Corky's family was real nice to us. They sent us clothes and stuff like that. But they had moved into a nice little mansion in Bonita, way off the street, and gotten into a very reclusive kind of thing.

“When Corky first started building, I didn’t realize what was going on. Bonita Glen was his first project, and I didn't think much about it one way or another. After all, there were still plenty of places to play, and the construction site itself was just another playground — even though the workers were always yelling at us to stay out of there. Later he started on Bonita Highlands, then Bonita Woods, just developing every bit of available space, and after maybe eight years it finally started to dawn on me what was going on. Most of the land was gone before I realized what he was doing.

“Not long before my father died. Corky showed up at our house to talk to my mother about some plans he had for the land adjacent to ours. He wanted to grade down the hill next to the hill our house was on, put new houses in there, and improve the streets so that sewer lines could go in and so forth. Since my mother was basically simple country folk, all she asked was that he put in some ivy and a fence as ground cover so that our land wouldn’t get eroded as a result of the grading. He said okay. She didn’t ask him to put it in writing or anything. Before too long the bulldozers came in and cut down the hill next to ours so it was level with Central. Every weekend I was wakened by the sound of bulldozers. But he never did put in the ground cover, and he never built the fence like he promised. Then my father died, and my mom didn’t feel like she could fight it. By that time, if we wanted to stay on in the house we’d have to get on the sewer line and meet all these other requirements, and we just didn’t have the money. So we sold the place and moved to Chula Vista. As the years went by, Chula Vista filled up with condos and tracts as well.”

She paused and sipped her drink while I signaled an oblivious waitress for more coffee.

“It was a very traumatic thing to go through,’’ Christine said finally. “I can still remember looking out from our hill and seeing all these bulldozers everywhere, coming right up to our back yard. It was scary. It was terrible being a little kid and seeing these big noisy things tearing down the places I used to play in. For a while, I had dreams about being run over by bulldozers that had come to get us and get our house.”

Even though Christine now lives and works only 10 or 15 minutes from Sunnyside, she almost never goes back to visit. “It’s too depressing,” she told me. “I did drive out there with a friend of mine about five years ago. Our house is still there, but now there’s another house on the same acre. We stopped, and I asked the lady who was living in our old place if we could come in and look around. She said it was a haunted house and asked me if I could remember anything strange ever happening there. I did remember when I was a little kid that I'd hear these odd sounds at night sometimes.

“Then, about two years ago. I was out in Bonita at a party, and afterward I went driving by the old place and heard loud music. So just on a whim I stopped and knocked at the door. Now there were these young guys living there; they’d converted our old fake fireplace into a real fireplace, and they had a fire going. They were nice, but I could see that the neighborhood just wasn’t the same. There was nothing but houses everywhere, and the neighborly thing was gone.

“I don't think I could ever live out there again. I’m still a country person at heart, and I'd really love to be in a country environment again. I’d love to have a garden and some animals. But I don't think I could ever move back to Bonita — it’ll have to be to Ramona or Jamul or someplace like that. You know that Bonita means ‘beautiful'? The thing is, Bonita isn't bonita anymore. The pasture where I saw the calf being born — there’s nothing but condos now.

“To tell you the truth. I’m mentally shaken to this day by what happened to our neighborhood. And I hate to say it, but I do have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to Corky McMillin. I think he screwed us. But then, that's what happens: the rich take advantage of the poor.”

If you visit the organ pavilion in Balboa Park and look off to your left, you'll sec a big canyon that separates the pavilion from the picnic area called Pepper Grove. The canyon’s terrain and vegetation might best be described as unimproved parkland. Wild grass carpets it, old overgrown paths run along its floor, pepper and palm trees hang tilted along the upper and lower slopes. All of Balboa Park seems to be riddled with little untended inlets and gouges that break up the carefully landscaped level of the park itself. And the North Park area, northeast of Balboa, might best be described as a residential plateau shot through by canyon archipelagoes.

People who live in North Park and are no longer children themselves probably go for months at a time without even taking in the existence of the larger and smaller island canyons that loom beyond the back boundaries of certain yards along certain streets, but if you look at the area with fresh eyes, you may be tempted to compare it with the town where Snuffy Smith and his wife have been eking out their slovenly comie-strip lives in the Sunday comics for several decades now. The poetic appeal of Snuffy’s world is that its few ramshackle houses and barns and churches seem to be situated on rare tufts of level earth, which are separated from each other by abysses and sudden drops and crags and crevasses that must be navigated by walking on rickety old foot bridges and rotting logs. North Park's advantage (if you want to call it that) over Snuffy’s domain is that it is under the control of a powerful American city that has had the foresight to lay out the area's streets and avenues in such a way that the canyons, in the normal course of daily adult life, need never be taken into account — they have been city-planned into inconsequence, like planets that have blundered into a cosmic singularity and fallen out of space, out of time, out of mind.

But the canyons of North Park haven’t fallen out of mind for Sue and Gary Hicks, a couple in their late forties who now live in El Cajon but grew up — unbeknownst to each other — in not-quite-adjacent North Park neighborhoods. (They met and got married after graduating from high school.) Gary owns and operates a small landscape-maintenance business, and Sue — whose avocation is researching genealogies and family histories — helps him out. Their two daughters arc grown.

Sue grew up in the Golden Hill section of North Park, on the edge of a canyon that could be entered via an alleyway near the intersection of 30th and B streets. Her mother, who was born in 1917, had lived in the neighborhood all her life. Many of Sue's cousins lived in the vicinity, as did the cousins of many of her neighborhood friends, and so her childhood coterie was, she says, a very tightly knit, interrelated group.

“We used to spend hours down in the canyon playing and building forts," she recalled. "There were these terraces, kind of like shelves, dug into the sides of the canyon, and we never knew why they were there — probably never thought about it much. It wasn’t until years later that my mother told me it was because back in around 1915 they used the canyon as a place to build dirigibles. Instead of constructing a big factory with scaffolding and everything, they dug these terraces into the sides of the canyon and built the dirigibles down there. By the time my mother was born, dirigibles were already going out of style; so they just abandoned the canyon, but the shelves were still there when I was growing up. We used to tie a rope to one of the eucalyptus trees and swing way down into the canyon, and you'd always see this beautiful bed of morning glories on the floor below. My mother also told me once that ferns used to grow in the canyon, but by the time I came along they were all gone. She said it was because the climate here wasn't as tropical as it used to be. When my mother was a girl, her own mother always told her never to go in the canyon, but of course, she did anyway. Once she was climbing around and broke her arm, and when my grandmother found out about it, she was furious."

Gary had not one but two bases of operation in the North Park area — the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather, on Alabama Street near Florida Canyon, and the house where his father lived with Gary’s grandparents, near the intersection of Richmond and Pennsylvania — and he was fortunate in having a wild canyon close to each house where he could play and get into mischief. Get into mischief he did.

“The canyon behind my grandmother's house was always overgrown — this was before fire-prevention measures had become such a big thing,” he explained. “And my grandfather was always saying that Indians lived down there. He'd say. ‘Go down there and play, but watch out for the Indians.' I guess it was his way of making us think it was a spooky place and that going into the canyon was a big challenge. So off we'd go, taking our knives and axes and enough food to last us three days.

“That canyon was only about two or three miles from downtown San Diego as the crow flies, so, in effect, we were almost right in the inner city, but it seemed like total wilderness. Once my brother Roger, who died some years ago, and I built a huge model airplane that had a wingspan of maybe six feet. It was powered by about 400 rubber bands, and we spent something like three hours just winding it up. It was supposed to fly. It flew once and fell down into the canyon, and we climbed down and got it. Now, my brother was a destructive soul, and so he took that airplane and wound it up about a thousand times, poured lighter fluid on it, set a match to it — it was made of balsa wood — and threw it up into the air. It went flying past these big eucalyptus trees and right through our canyon and then banked up, and by that time there was nothing to hold it in the air because so much of it had burned away, and it went around a corner and into the adjoining canyon and came down and set the whole place on fire. It was just horrendous, because the grass was tall and dry and there were lots of bushes. We ran like hell. No one ever accused us of doing it, thank goodness.

“The other canyon we played in, the one near my mother’s house — Florida Canyon — was just like home,” he recalled. "We built a treehouse in one of the old pepper trees. Once a cat had a litter of kittens in the treehouse, and a tomcat came in one night and killed all of them. I never really wanted to kill anything in my life, but I went after that cat with a pipe, and I know I would have killed it if I’d caught it. All my buddies were egging me on. of course. ‘Kill the cat, kill the cat!’ ”

“That’s awful,” Sue remarked.

“Of course it was awful," Gary said, “but it was part of the canyon life. And we used to go swimming down there. When it rained, the water came down into the Florida Street canyon from all over North Park, actually Filling the canyon up to where there was a swimming hole about six feet deep. I suppose our parents would have had a fit if they'd known we were swimming down there, even though I’m sure the water was cleaner than what we’re drinking out of the faucet today.

“There were some houses near the canyon in my day," he continued, “where a fellow had put beehives up on the roofs, and we used to go down and throw rocks at the hives to get those bees going. The fellow would have a Fit. And we had rock Fights among ourselves. That was one of the fascinating things about the canyon: there was every imaginable kind of rock, and they were all round. I guess they'd tumbled for years to get there. And there were morning glories everywhere, which was just great because when you were coming home you could pick some as a gift for your mom. I don't see morning glories in the canyon anymore. Today it's pickle-weed — iceplant.

“There was some iceplant back then, of course. I remember we’d pull branches down from the palm trees that grew in the canyon, and the branches had this big wide spot right at the place where they grew out of the trunk, and we'd sit on them and slide down the hills. Once we slid down this man’s iceplant while he was on vacation and pretty much ruined it. When he got home and saw what we had done, there was hell to pay. There were four of us kids, and it cost something like $125 — together with our labor — to replant it. That was a lot of money back then.

“Another thing that was popular in our neighborhood was going down in the storm drains. People called them sewers, but they weren't sewers; they were the storm drain system, and you could get into it and crawl all over North Park without ever going above ground. Every once in a while you’d climb up and push open a manhole — it’d take two kids to do it — just to see where you were, get your bearings. That was another pastime that was part of the canyon life.”

In contrast to Jim Kilijanski and Christine Garland, the Hickses have few tales of extirpation to tell when looking back on their childhood. The fact is. North Park and its canyons and neighborhoods are not much different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. And since Gary (who today owns both his mother’s and his grandparents* former North Park homes) is a frequent visitor to the old neighborhoods, he can offer hopeful testimony to the fact that the land war on our yesterdays is not over and has so far not been entirely successful.

“When I stop and think about it, I realize that things haven't changed that much,’’ he said. “The old North Park Theater is still there, even though it's now some kind of Christian church, and the Pioneer Pharmacy is still there as well. Our treehouse is still there, and the stick ladder leading up the trunk is still mostly there. Of course, there have been a few changes, but it's all pretty much as it was. No one has come through and just whisked everything away. They haven’t widened the streets or put in high-rises. I suppose if you were to drive through North Park after being away for 20 or 30 years, you'd have to say, ‘Boy, what a lot of changes!’ But you wouldn’t say, ‘I don't think I’ve never been here before.'

“I was over at my mom’s old place the other day doing some weeding” he continued, “and I noticed that the houses that were built during the Forties are still standing — in amongst the townhouses and the condos and the remodels. The old feeling is still there. The new stuff makes the canyon seem more compressed, but I guess everything always looks bigger when you’re a kid. But one other thing I noticed was that all the kids in the neighborhood were playing in their yards. They weren't in the canyon; the canyon didn't seem to be a draw for them. Maybe it’s because their parents don’t want them down there; maybe their parents want to be able to look out the kitchen window and see them playing in their own fenced-in yard, where it’s safe. And maybe it’s also because more street people and transients are living down in those canyons now that they've been kicked out of downtown. But the problem with the transients has only been for the last few years, and I’ve been noticing this for some time. I don’t understand it. Kids used to want to go down in that canyon, they didn't want their parents to see what they were doing. They wanted to be down there exploring and throwing rocks.”

This is indeed a grim observation. If we as a national race are getting to the point where our children are good, well-behaved, sensible little stay-at-homes who have no use for the wild and woolly places that have managed to hang on between the tracts, then we all might as well hand our memories over to the Corky McMillins of the world right now and be done with it. But although Gary’s honesty and candor — as witnessed by his reminiscences — can hardly be questioned, in this case we can probably have our doubts. There has most likely never been a generation to come of age that hasn’t looked with alarm at its successors’ apparent deadness above the neck, lack of imagination, and repudiation of the fine old ways of life; and Gary's perception of the childhood culture that now holds sway on the rims of his canyons is most likely attributable to this effect. Gary is, after all, a grownup (and a home owner as well); and if, as he says, kids don't like grownups to see w hat they're doing, the kids he's talking about may not care to let him know w hat sort of mischief they're getting up to.

When you went out the back door of our home at Anza and Broadway, the first thing you saw was a hill covered with granite, brush, and trees rising above the level of the surrounding yards, about a block away. It was a sight guaranteed to stir the wanderlust of any kid, and so almost every day my sister and I went ranging up the dirt stretch of Anza, past its lower-middle-class houses and yards, and by the time we got to the hill's lower slopes we would have been joined by an entire gang of our friends. We loped up the pathways and granite ridges, which we'd been climbing for as long as we could remember, till we got to Dead Man’s Rock at the summit. This prominent boulder had gotten its name from a story that older kids passed down to younger kids, to the effect that some grownup in the long-ago was once taking a stroll on the hill when a landslide happened along and killed him. No one, as tar as I can remember, ever questioned how a landslide could deposit a boulder on a man who was walking on top of a hill. But, in any event, the point of the story was well taken: woe to the adult who trespassed on this kingdom of children.

Talking with Gary and Sue made me realize that I have much to be thankful for. Because if the domain that spread itself out before the front door of our house like a magic realm perished at the heavy hand of developers and their machines, the Anza neighborhood and its legend-strewn mountain behind our house have been left pretty much as they were. There are more homes at the north end of Anza, creeping right up to the base of the hill, but at least they aren't tract homes; and the city has put in a major drainage channel that pretty much bifurcates the neighborhood, but each half is as close to intact as could reasonably be hoped. I don’t know if the developers are simply napping, or if they haven’t gotten around to installing the apartment buildings that seem elsewhere to constitute El Cajon’s manifest destiny, or if there is some blessed cost-efficiency factor at work that preserves, by default, at least this much of my childhood world. All I do know for sure is that, once or twice, while driving slowly through the neighborhood. I've seen kids scaling the fabled hulk of Dead Man’s Rock.

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Dead Man's Rock, El Cajon - Image by Robert Burroughs
Dead Man's Rock, El Cajon

When you went out the front door of our home at the corner of Broadway and Anza in El Cajon, you found yourself in a yard shaded by a blue-green canopy formed by the joining branches and leaves of six olive trees whose gnarled trunks rose from the tattered lawn. The bitter olives and sliver-shaped leaves that littered the yard were kept from turning into a compost by my sister and me, who were paid a penny a minute by my father to rake the lawn periodically, with a yearly assist from a family of itinerant gypsies who would come and lay a tarp on the ground, shake all the olives down from the trees, and truck them off to an olive-oil plant somewhere.

Gary Hicks, Florida Canyon. Gary had two bases of operation in the North Park area — the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather, on Alabama Street near Florida Canyon, and the house where his father lived with Gary’s grandparents, near the intersection of Richmond and Pennsylvania.

A fence of peeling, crisscrossed white laths separated our yard and Broadway, whose two shaded lanes ran an immeasurable distance east and west and were lined throughout by palms and pepper trees. About a block and a half to the west, 100 feet or so north of Broadway, there was a huge grove of eucalyptus where the kids of our neighborhood sometimes sneaked off and where we liked to construct crazy fortresses out of the windfall wreckage of bark and branches. Directly across Broadway from our house, wild grassy fields — broken up only by an occasional pocket of old houses and by hidden streamlets that chuckled along beneath the tangled, bending stalks — spread clear to Main Street, about two miles away.

Jim Kilijanski, Bonita. “One of the most remarkable things I remember seeing in Rice Canyon were these huge flocks of quail."

After about 1955, all this began to disappear. First the eucalyptus grove was ploughed under to make room for a housing development with the name Valley Village. The fields between Broadway and Main went down before an onslaught of rambling stucco school facilities, apartment buildings, tracts, and finally (around 1960) a modern freeway. Then, in the mid-Sixties, our family and the rest of the neighborhood watched helplessly as the individuals who owned large parcels of land along Broadway succeeded in having the Rock, El Cajon street widened — a necessary move if those acres were ever to have any significant commercial value. The City of El Cajon bought from us (at an enforced discount) about two-thirds of our front yard and sent in heavy machinery to chop down the olive trees and grade away the lawn and the fence. The other yards along Broadway, as well as the peppers and palms that actually lined the street, got the same treatment.

Christine Garland, Sunnyside. “Corky's [McMillin] father owned a lot of land in the Chula Vista area, and when he died Corky inherited it all. Pretty soon he started building it up. and money started coming in. and the family changed. The kids got a little snottier. But that was typical of Bonita."

In the course of a few short years, the semi-bucolic paradise that my sister and I and our friends had known all our lives was irretrievably lost. Broadway's four-lane length — unshaded, lined by asphalt parking lots and gimcrack shopping strips — became the lurid headstone for our vanished childhood.

The older I’ve gotten and the more people I've talked to about days gone by. the clearer my understanding has become that my own story of paradise lost is no isolated case but part of an ongoing and nearly universal pageant of extirpation and wrenching change. When I first became rational enough to understand the hardships and dangers of World War II (which ended a few years before I was born), it struck me as unimaginable good fortune that the American homeland had never been directly threatened by bombers and tanks and goose-stepping legions, that El Cajon and 10,000 communities like it had never been shelled, gassed, or shock-trooped into a mangled condition. Later, I realized that the American land war didn’t even begin until after the treaties had been signed at Potsdam and that it was a war waged against us not by the Axis powers but by returning U.S. troops (that is, our fathers — my own was a surveyor) looking for work and Lebensraum, and especially by the burgeoning industries and corporations that had fattened on the business of war and afterward could see no reason for palliating their imperial ambitions. Deploy the bulldozers...

Sue Hicks, who grew up in Golden Hill: “We used to spend hours down in the canyon playing and building forts. There were these terraces, kind of like shelves, dug into the sides of the canyon."

The San Diego area provides a classic example of what can happen when growth is allowed to run un-checked across the land, tearing down, building up, altering beyond recognition. In some ways, the “typical” San Diegan is someone who arrived in the area seeking sun, sand, and ephemeral career opportunities five or ten years ago and whose sense of local history extends back no further than that. But there are people who have a lifelong personal investment in the place and who — provided only that they are asked — have many memories (highly subjective, as you will see) to share concerning county neighborhoods they knew and loved that have vanished, leaving only their names behind.

Jim Kilijanski’s father was stationed in San Diego, in the navy, during World War II, and afterward got married and settled in Chula Vista. Today, Jim himself is 35 years old and lives with his wife in a tidy little house just down the street from the house where he grew up. He works as an airline mechanic, and the day I spoke with him he was due to go in soon for his regular two-to-ten-p.m. shift.

“When I was a kid, my friends and I played down in Rice Canyon,” he told me. “At least, that was our main place. We’d walk through Hilltop High School down into the canyon, and later we rode our bikes down there, and still later our dirt bikes. Since the canyon was so close to the coastline, there was a lot of rainfall, and if you dug two or three feet down, the soil was black. The rain made the canyon rich in animal life and plant life. Of course, it was all pretty dry during the summer, but during the winter it came alive with green grass, wildflowers, succulents. There were foxes and skunks and a lot of the other animals you’ll see in bottomland. Some people think there isn’t much wildlife in such places, but they just haven’t looked for it, and they don’t realize that during the daylight hours a lot of these species don’t like to show themselves. But if you spend enough time in bottomland, you'll see there’s just an incredible variety of wildlife, an entire food pyramid.

“One of the most remarkable things I remember seeing in Rice Canyon were these huge flocks of quail. I guess I was in about the third grade, and 1 had no idea what they were — just all these birds, maybe three or four hundred of them, covering an entire hillside. And at one end of the canyon there was a flower farm, where someone cultivated flowers for sale. Thousands of flowers; it was just beautiful.

“There were a lot of little finger canyons leading into the main canyon whose sides were so steep you couldn't climb them,” he went on. “One of them we called Fossil Canyon; it was a real deep crevasse where you’d find clam fossils and all kinds of ocean fossils. I guess it was under water a few million years ago. There were these huge bones that people said were whale bones, and years later, when they were grading down there, some guy found a dinosaur egg. Up towards the end of Fossil Canyon, there were these strange trees whose name I never knew — like sagebrush, only they were trees. Sage trees.

“Down at the end of J Street, there were the ruins of some old Mexican house, adobe ruins. I don't know when it was built, but it must have been before the turn of the century because it was really decayed. We thought it was haunted, and we used to love to go sneaking around in there. There were all kinds of artifacts just lying around on the ground that got picked up by people over the years. There were old ironwork grills on the windows, and I remember seeing some guy pulling the grills down, scavenging them. Then the whole thing got tom down so they could build houses.

“There really wasn’t any fishing in Rice Canyon, though, so if we wanted to go fishing we went over to Bonita Valley. There used to be some pretty big ponds there — like the one we called Miller’s Pond, which must have been a good eight or ten acres. Once a friend of mine who lived across the street from us brought a bunch of live crappie fish back from Otay Lake, and I took some of them and put them in our bathtub. For some reason my parents weren’t too happy about that, so I took them down and planted them in Miller’s Pond. As time went on, those crappie got bigger and multiplied till it got to where people were taking their poles down there to catch ’em. You’d have to know where the pond was in order to find it, because it was surrounded by trees and dense vegetation. Big ponds all in through there. There were crawdads and bass and catfish and the crappies I planted. Bluegill. We’d all go down there just about every day after school. It’s really sad that none of it’s there anymore. There was also a golf course at one end of Bonita Valley, but they took it and moved it to the other end.”

They moved the golf course?

“Well, they didn’t really move it,” he admitted. “They just got rid of the golf course at the western end and then built another one at the eastern end.”

Since there was still some time left before he had to report for work, Jim and I took a drive through Chula Vista and Bonita. As we tooled along, he pointed out the “native desert” that still remains: long swaths of brush and grass that run like Mohawk haircuts over the Chula Vista hills, above or adjacent to housing tracts and office parks and places where heavy machinery is even now making further inroads into the landscape. Soon we were driving through Rice Canyon, where a large shopping complex called Terra Nova Plaza — faux adobe with red Spanish tiles on the roofs — now sits.

“We’d ride our bikes along the floor of the canyon here, and during the winter it was so cold your hands would get red,” Jim recalled. “Then when you pulled up out of the canyon, it would suddenly seem about ten degrees warmer. And I’d go biking around down there with my dog — sometimes we’d hike all the way to where Southwestern College is now. These days there’s no place for kids to go but this shopping center, and it's nothing but trouble. I mean, the shopping center's a part of life too, but there has to be a balance. Sometimes at night I go walking through Chula Vista and I see these kids making a phone call at the pay phone. Now, I know where these people are coming from, and I have respect for them, but I know what they’re into — a gang, they call it. That’s fine with me. But I just can't help thinking how different it could be if they had some open space to go to after school. You know, like ‘Let’s go throw a line in the water and see if the fish are biting.’ Work out some of their frustrations that way.

“It was a terrible, terrible thing when they built this shopping center,” he said, tapping on the window. “That was about 1978, and I was working up in Alaska at the time. I got a phone call from a friend of mine down here, and I said, ‘What about the canyon?’ ‘It's gone, Jim. It’s gone.’ ‘Oh, no. The canyon's gone?’ It was very depressing, because this was a dear place to me, it was part of my life. I really hated to see it go. I had nightmares about it. Once I dreamed I was down in the canyon and it was all fenced in; there were bulldozers everywhere, and people were running around yelling at me to get out. Everywhere I turned the land had been graded level. Then I woke up and realized it wasn’t a nightmare, it was reality.”

As we drove toward Bonita Valley, Jim pointed out a water tower on a hilltop and said that this was where he and his high school friends used to go to build big bonfires and have parties. “And do you see way over there?” he said. “See that other water tower surrounded by trees on that other hill? Everyone used to call it Breezy Hill because of the prevailing winds. It was where you’d go on your first date. Kids used to talk about how their parents met ‘up at Breezy.’ That’s how they referred to it ”

Down in Bonita Valley, it was good to see that the bottomland Jim remembered had not been entirely razed: a belt of grasses and trees still stretched along, for some distance, under the rubric “Sweetwater Regional Park Open Space Preserve.” “The thing is,” he explained, “since this is Bonita, no one’s ever been able to come in and just tear things out any way they want to. After all, it’s rich people who live in Bonita, and rich people get to have a say about what happens in their neighborhood. They get to say, ‘Hey, not in my back yard; you take it someplace else.’ ”

But when we reached the spot where Miller’s Pond was — or used to be — we were in for a depressing sight. There, some governmental agency had installed a huge “environmental flood-control channel” — an unsightly mass of cement slabs bristling with rebar and out jutting steel beams, all resting in the mud like a foundered garbage scow. For a moment we stared at this juggernaut the way the Parisians must have stared at the panzer divisions grinding down the Champs Elysdes. “This is what our children are going to inherit,” Jim said at length. “They talk about the greenhouse effect — this is another worldwide phenomenon."

As is generally true in other kinds of war, when the troops and artillery of development come along and start implementing a scorched-earth policy in your neighborhood, you hardly ever see the generals. You see the foot soldiers (construction workers, carpenters) and the first lieutenants (supervisors, foremen), but whoever is masterminding and directing the operation is almost always out of reach in some office building somewhere, maybe even in another state — or, these days, in another country. To this extent, Christine Garland is fortunate: the man responsible for pushing the buttons that blasted her childhood to smithereens actually lived in her neighborhood. Unlike most of us, she's seen the enemy face to face.

Christine's parents (her father was retired navy) bought a house in Sunnyside, which is part of Bonita, in 1959, and she was born a year later. The house, which was built during the 1920s and still exists, has hardwood floors and originally sat on its own acre of hilltop land. Christine's father died in an auto accident in 1975, and in ‘77 the family (she has two older brothers and an older sister) moved to Chula Vista. Today. Christine is 28 years old and works as a computer operator for the county. She is single and lives in Chula Vista. I met her at a downtown Chula Vista watering hole called Jimmy's — one of those combination coffee shop/steak house/lounge bars that are always filled with a lot of noise and where you always sec tired insurance salesmen and their spouses lingering over a stale bite to eat.

“Sunnyside was a minuscule town in those days, with no more than 15 houses or so,” she recalled. “The people who lived there were good people. Everyone knew each other; it was a very neighborly kind of thing. The postman always brought us candy. All around the area there were cow pastures and hills with flowers growing on them. I used to pick sweetpeas to take home as a present for my mom. I remember one day Arnold Palmer, the famous golfer, came out of his house and yelled at us for picking sweetpeas on his land. There were brooks and bridges, too, where you could catch frogs and polliwogs. Once a couple of the older kids picked me up and threatened to throw me off one of those bridges, and my brothers used to catch garter snakes and scare me with them. I guess since I was the baby of the family they liked to pick on me. There was a pond off Bonita Road where we built a treehouse, and we dragged a bunch of boards and an old couch into the bushes there and built a little fort. That's all part of Bonita Golf Course now.

“Our old house had a barn out in back when we first moved in, and it was so decayed and so termited we finally had to burn it down. So my father got a keg and invited all his friends over, and they set the bam on fire and everyone had a good time. We roasted marshmallows over the flames. I really loved living in that house. We had chickens and rabbits and a goat, and there were wolves and foxes running wild. We used to go out looking for them.

“One day the bus driver was driving us to school along a road that ran through these pastures,” she went on, “and he turned off the road and said, I think this is something every kid ought to see.’ And he showed us this cow giving birth to a calf. He waited till it was all done and the calf had stood up, and then he said, ‘Okay, I'd better get you to school.' We were late. That’s a beautiful memory.”

As it happened, Corky McMillin — a man who would become famous all over the San Diego area for building and selling thousands of new housing units — lived in the neighborhood. Christine, as they say, remembers his family when.

“I grew up with Corky's family” she recalled. “His son was my first love back in grade school. This was before Corky made it big. Then in 1968 or so Corky's father died, and things changed. I guess Corky's father owned a lot of land in the Chula Vista area, and when he died Corky inherited it all. Pretty soon he started building it up. and money started coming in. and the family changed. The kids got a little snottier. But that was typical of Bonita. We weren’t one of the rich families there; we were fairly poor. True, we had an acre of land, but we didn't have much money. And Corky's family got to where they had a lot of money. I don't want to knock anybody, but it was like they became too good to talk to ordinary people. When my father died in a car crash in 1975. Corky's family was real nice to us. They sent us clothes and stuff like that. But they had moved into a nice little mansion in Bonita, way off the street, and gotten into a very reclusive kind of thing.

“When Corky first started building, I didn’t realize what was going on. Bonita Glen was his first project, and I didn't think much about it one way or another. After all, there were still plenty of places to play, and the construction site itself was just another playground — even though the workers were always yelling at us to stay out of there. Later he started on Bonita Highlands, then Bonita Woods, just developing every bit of available space, and after maybe eight years it finally started to dawn on me what was going on. Most of the land was gone before I realized what he was doing.

“Not long before my father died. Corky showed up at our house to talk to my mother about some plans he had for the land adjacent to ours. He wanted to grade down the hill next to the hill our house was on, put new houses in there, and improve the streets so that sewer lines could go in and so forth. Since my mother was basically simple country folk, all she asked was that he put in some ivy and a fence as ground cover so that our land wouldn’t get eroded as a result of the grading. He said okay. She didn’t ask him to put it in writing or anything. Before too long the bulldozers came in and cut down the hill next to ours so it was level with Central. Every weekend I was wakened by the sound of bulldozers. But he never did put in the ground cover, and he never built the fence like he promised. Then my father died, and my mom didn’t feel like she could fight it. By that time, if we wanted to stay on in the house we’d have to get on the sewer line and meet all these other requirements, and we just didn’t have the money. So we sold the place and moved to Chula Vista. As the years went by, Chula Vista filled up with condos and tracts as well.”

She paused and sipped her drink while I signaled an oblivious waitress for more coffee.

“It was a very traumatic thing to go through,’’ Christine said finally. “I can still remember looking out from our hill and seeing all these bulldozers everywhere, coming right up to our back yard. It was scary. It was terrible being a little kid and seeing these big noisy things tearing down the places I used to play in. For a while, I had dreams about being run over by bulldozers that had come to get us and get our house.”

Even though Christine now lives and works only 10 or 15 minutes from Sunnyside, she almost never goes back to visit. “It’s too depressing,” she told me. “I did drive out there with a friend of mine about five years ago. Our house is still there, but now there’s another house on the same acre. We stopped, and I asked the lady who was living in our old place if we could come in and look around. She said it was a haunted house and asked me if I could remember anything strange ever happening there. I did remember when I was a little kid that I'd hear these odd sounds at night sometimes.

“Then, about two years ago. I was out in Bonita at a party, and afterward I went driving by the old place and heard loud music. So just on a whim I stopped and knocked at the door. Now there were these young guys living there; they’d converted our old fake fireplace into a real fireplace, and they had a fire going. They were nice, but I could see that the neighborhood just wasn’t the same. There was nothing but houses everywhere, and the neighborly thing was gone.

“I don't think I could ever live out there again. I’m still a country person at heart, and I'd really love to be in a country environment again. I’d love to have a garden and some animals. But I don't think I could ever move back to Bonita — it’ll have to be to Ramona or Jamul or someplace like that. You know that Bonita means ‘beautiful'? The thing is, Bonita isn't bonita anymore. The pasture where I saw the calf being born — there’s nothing but condos now.

“To tell you the truth. I’m mentally shaken to this day by what happened to our neighborhood. And I hate to say it, but I do have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to Corky McMillin. I think he screwed us. But then, that's what happens: the rich take advantage of the poor.”

If you visit the organ pavilion in Balboa Park and look off to your left, you'll sec a big canyon that separates the pavilion from the picnic area called Pepper Grove. The canyon’s terrain and vegetation might best be described as unimproved parkland. Wild grass carpets it, old overgrown paths run along its floor, pepper and palm trees hang tilted along the upper and lower slopes. All of Balboa Park seems to be riddled with little untended inlets and gouges that break up the carefully landscaped level of the park itself. And the North Park area, northeast of Balboa, might best be described as a residential plateau shot through by canyon archipelagoes.

People who live in North Park and are no longer children themselves probably go for months at a time without even taking in the existence of the larger and smaller island canyons that loom beyond the back boundaries of certain yards along certain streets, but if you look at the area with fresh eyes, you may be tempted to compare it with the town where Snuffy Smith and his wife have been eking out their slovenly comie-strip lives in the Sunday comics for several decades now. The poetic appeal of Snuffy’s world is that its few ramshackle houses and barns and churches seem to be situated on rare tufts of level earth, which are separated from each other by abysses and sudden drops and crags and crevasses that must be navigated by walking on rickety old foot bridges and rotting logs. North Park's advantage (if you want to call it that) over Snuffy’s domain is that it is under the control of a powerful American city that has had the foresight to lay out the area's streets and avenues in such a way that the canyons, in the normal course of daily adult life, need never be taken into account — they have been city-planned into inconsequence, like planets that have blundered into a cosmic singularity and fallen out of space, out of time, out of mind.

But the canyons of North Park haven’t fallen out of mind for Sue and Gary Hicks, a couple in their late forties who now live in El Cajon but grew up — unbeknownst to each other — in not-quite-adjacent North Park neighborhoods. (They met and got married after graduating from high school.) Gary owns and operates a small landscape-maintenance business, and Sue — whose avocation is researching genealogies and family histories — helps him out. Their two daughters arc grown.

Sue grew up in the Golden Hill section of North Park, on the edge of a canyon that could be entered via an alleyway near the intersection of 30th and B streets. Her mother, who was born in 1917, had lived in the neighborhood all her life. Many of Sue's cousins lived in the vicinity, as did the cousins of many of her neighborhood friends, and so her childhood coterie was, she says, a very tightly knit, interrelated group.

“We used to spend hours down in the canyon playing and building forts," she recalled. "There were these terraces, kind of like shelves, dug into the sides of the canyon, and we never knew why they were there — probably never thought about it much. It wasn’t until years later that my mother told me it was because back in around 1915 they used the canyon as a place to build dirigibles. Instead of constructing a big factory with scaffolding and everything, they dug these terraces into the sides of the canyon and built the dirigibles down there. By the time my mother was born, dirigibles were already going out of style; so they just abandoned the canyon, but the shelves were still there when I was growing up. We used to tie a rope to one of the eucalyptus trees and swing way down into the canyon, and you'd always see this beautiful bed of morning glories on the floor below. My mother also told me once that ferns used to grow in the canyon, but by the time I came along they were all gone. She said it was because the climate here wasn't as tropical as it used to be. When my mother was a girl, her own mother always told her never to go in the canyon, but of course, she did anyway. Once she was climbing around and broke her arm, and when my grandmother found out about it, she was furious."

Gary had not one but two bases of operation in the North Park area — the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather, on Alabama Street near Florida Canyon, and the house where his father lived with Gary’s grandparents, near the intersection of Richmond and Pennsylvania — and he was fortunate in having a wild canyon close to each house where he could play and get into mischief. Get into mischief he did.

“The canyon behind my grandmother's house was always overgrown — this was before fire-prevention measures had become such a big thing,” he explained. “And my grandfather was always saying that Indians lived down there. He'd say. ‘Go down there and play, but watch out for the Indians.' I guess it was his way of making us think it was a spooky place and that going into the canyon was a big challenge. So off we'd go, taking our knives and axes and enough food to last us three days.

“That canyon was only about two or three miles from downtown San Diego as the crow flies, so, in effect, we were almost right in the inner city, but it seemed like total wilderness. Once my brother Roger, who died some years ago, and I built a huge model airplane that had a wingspan of maybe six feet. It was powered by about 400 rubber bands, and we spent something like three hours just winding it up. It was supposed to fly. It flew once and fell down into the canyon, and we climbed down and got it. Now, my brother was a destructive soul, and so he took that airplane and wound it up about a thousand times, poured lighter fluid on it, set a match to it — it was made of balsa wood — and threw it up into the air. It went flying past these big eucalyptus trees and right through our canyon and then banked up, and by that time there was nothing to hold it in the air because so much of it had burned away, and it went around a corner and into the adjoining canyon and came down and set the whole place on fire. It was just horrendous, because the grass was tall and dry and there were lots of bushes. We ran like hell. No one ever accused us of doing it, thank goodness.

“The other canyon we played in, the one near my mother’s house — Florida Canyon — was just like home,” he recalled. "We built a treehouse in one of the old pepper trees. Once a cat had a litter of kittens in the treehouse, and a tomcat came in one night and killed all of them. I never really wanted to kill anything in my life, but I went after that cat with a pipe, and I know I would have killed it if I’d caught it. All my buddies were egging me on. of course. ‘Kill the cat, kill the cat!’ ”

“That’s awful,” Sue remarked.

“Of course it was awful," Gary said, “but it was part of the canyon life. And we used to go swimming down there. When it rained, the water came down into the Florida Street canyon from all over North Park, actually Filling the canyon up to where there was a swimming hole about six feet deep. I suppose our parents would have had a fit if they'd known we were swimming down there, even though I’m sure the water was cleaner than what we’re drinking out of the faucet today.

“There were some houses near the canyon in my day," he continued, “where a fellow had put beehives up on the roofs, and we used to go down and throw rocks at the hives to get those bees going. The fellow would have a Fit. And we had rock Fights among ourselves. That was one of the fascinating things about the canyon: there was every imaginable kind of rock, and they were all round. I guess they'd tumbled for years to get there. And there were morning glories everywhere, which was just great because when you were coming home you could pick some as a gift for your mom. I don't see morning glories in the canyon anymore. Today it's pickle-weed — iceplant.

“There was some iceplant back then, of course. I remember we’d pull branches down from the palm trees that grew in the canyon, and the branches had this big wide spot right at the place where they grew out of the trunk, and we'd sit on them and slide down the hills. Once we slid down this man’s iceplant while he was on vacation and pretty much ruined it. When he got home and saw what we had done, there was hell to pay. There were four of us kids, and it cost something like $125 — together with our labor — to replant it. That was a lot of money back then.

“Another thing that was popular in our neighborhood was going down in the storm drains. People called them sewers, but they weren't sewers; they were the storm drain system, and you could get into it and crawl all over North Park without ever going above ground. Every once in a while you’d climb up and push open a manhole — it’d take two kids to do it — just to see where you were, get your bearings. That was another pastime that was part of the canyon life.”

In contrast to Jim Kilijanski and Christine Garland, the Hickses have few tales of extirpation to tell when looking back on their childhood. The fact is. North Park and its canyons and neighborhoods are not much different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. And since Gary (who today owns both his mother’s and his grandparents* former North Park homes) is a frequent visitor to the old neighborhoods, he can offer hopeful testimony to the fact that the land war on our yesterdays is not over and has so far not been entirely successful.

“When I stop and think about it, I realize that things haven't changed that much,’’ he said. “The old North Park Theater is still there, even though it's now some kind of Christian church, and the Pioneer Pharmacy is still there as well. Our treehouse is still there, and the stick ladder leading up the trunk is still mostly there. Of course, there have been a few changes, but it's all pretty much as it was. No one has come through and just whisked everything away. They haven’t widened the streets or put in high-rises. I suppose if you were to drive through North Park after being away for 20 or 30 years, you'd have to say, ‘Boy, what a lot of changes!’ But you wouldn’t say, ‘I don't think I’ve never been here before.'

“I was over at my mom’s old place the other day doing some weeding” he continued, “and I noticed that the houses that were built during the Forties are still standing — in amongst the townhouses and the condos and the remodels. The old feeling is still there. The new stuff makes the canyon seem more compressed, but I guess everything always looks bigger when you’re a kid. But one other thing I noticed was that all the kids in the neighborhood were playing in their yards. They weren't in the canyon; the canyon didn't seem to be a draw for them. Maybe it’s because their parents don’t want them down there; maybe their parents want to be able to look out the kitchen window and see them playing in their own fenced-in yard, where it’s safe. And maybe it’s also because more street people and transients are living down in those canyons now that they've been kicked out of downtown. But the problem with the transients has only been for the last few years, and I’ve been noticing this for some time. I don’t understand it. Kids used to want to go down in that canyon, they didn't want their parents to see what they were doing. They wanted to be down there exploring and throwing rocks.”

This is indeed a grim observation. If we as a national race are getting to the point where our children are good, well-behaved, sensible little stay-at-homes who have no use for the wild and woolly places that have managed to hang on between the tracts, then we all might as well hand our memories over to the Corky McMillins of the world right now and be done with it. But although Gary’s honesty and candor — as witnessed by his reminiscences — can hardly be questioned, in this case we can probably have our doubts. There has most likely never been a generation to come of age that hasn’t looked with alarm at its successors’ apparent deadness above the neck, lack of imagination, and repudiation of the fine old ways of life; and Gary's perception of the childhood culture that now holds sway on the rims of his canyons is most likely attributable to this effect. Gary is, after all, a grownup (and a home owner as well); and if, as he says, kids don't like grownups to see w hat they're doing, the kids he's talking about may not care to let him know w hat sort of mischief they're getting up to.

When you went out the back door of our home at Anza and Broadway, the first thing you saw was a hill covered with granite, brush, and trees rising above the level of the surrounding yards, about a block away. It was a sight guaranteed to stir the wanderlust of any kid, and so almost every day my sister and I went ranging up the dirt stretch of Anza, past its lower-middle-class houses and yards, and by the time we got to the hill's lower slopes we would have been joined by an entire gang of our friends. We loped up the pathways and granite ridges, which we'd been climbing for as long as we could remember, till we got to Dead Man’s Rock at the summit. This prominent boulder had gotten its name from a story that older kids passed down to younger kids, to the effect that some grownup in the long-ago was once taking a stroll on the hill when a landslide happened along and killed him. No one, as tar as I can remember, ever questioned how a landslide could deposit a boulder on a man who was walking on top of a hill. But, in any event, the point of the story was well taken: woe to the adult who trespassed on this kingdom of children.

Talking with Gary and Sue made me realize that I have much to be thankful for. Because if the domain that spread itself out before the front door of our house like a magic realm perished at the heavy hand of developers and their machines, the Anza neighborhood and its legend-strewn mountain behind our house have been left pretty much as they were. There are more homes at the north end of Anza, creeping right up to the base of the hill, but at least they aren't tract homes; and the city has put in a major drainage channel that pretty much bifurcates the neighborhood, but each half is as close to intact as could reasonably be hoped. I don’t know if the developers are simply napping, or if they haven’t gotten around to installing the apartment buildings that seem elsewhere to constitute El Cajon’s manifest destiny, or if there is some blessed cost-efficiency factor at work that preserves, by default, at least this much of my childhood world. All I do know for sure is that, once or twice, while driving slowly through the neighborhood. I've seen kids scaling the fabled hulk of Dead Man’s Rock.

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