Former La Mesa mayor Paul Fordham:“Substandard? I don’t think they were substandard. They were well built. Out of necessity, they were built quickly.
Did you ask us where to get reefers and wenches in San Diego? Why, in the Frontier Housing, a government project for Mexicans and Negroes.
Go no further.
— “San Diego — Springboard to Mexico,” in USA Confidential, by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer (1952)
Barnett Avenue, 1918, a dusty, dry river bottom with little vegetation.
San Diego Historical Society
The Frontier Homes Housing Project — 3500 “temporary” dwellings constructed in the first nine months of 1944. One of the largest developments of its kind ever built in the USA — Designed to last for two years and enduring (parts of it, at least) for 20. Was there ever such a project, so grand, so ghastly, and so successfully erased from civic memory?
Map, 1923. During the land boom of the mid-’20s, some speculators renamed the golf course the Bayside Country Club and proposed to build a surrounding development of posh homes.
Don’t look for Frontier in the Journal of San Diego History or in any of those big picture books that Neil Morgan used to crank out. The only people who really remember the project are the people who lived there. Old timers who didn’t live there, even folks who drove past Frontier every day, will give you all kinds of cockeyed answers when you ask about it. “Oh, yeah, you mean those military barracks.” “Frontier? That was Navy housing.” Someone might even offer that 1950s misconception that Lait and Mortimer provide in USA Confidential: “a low-income housing project for Mexicans and Negroes.”
Housing under construction by R.E. Hazard & Sons, 1941
San Diego Historical Society
No. Frontier was a war-workers’ project, built mainly to house Convair employees and their families. And while this may be the first time you’ve ever heard of the project, you probably know the site fairly well. It’s that strip mall hell and industrial shantytown intersected by Midway and Rosecrans and Sports Arena Boulevard. Land of nudie shows and junk-food shops. A region so bleak and sprawling that it invites motorists to wonder, as they whiz past on I-5 or 8, “Is this place just naturally ugly, or did someone plan it this way?”
Aerial shot of Frontier housing, 1944
San Diego Historical Society
Yes. The area started out as an unattractive locale, and development made it even uglier. At one time, say, 100 years ago, it was a dusty, dry river bottom with little vegetation and a high water table of seawater. Its most prominent feature was a long levee that the government had built to tame the springtime flooding of the meandering San Diego River. Sometimes the dike held, sometimes it didn’t.
“The houses were perfectly adequate as shelters but built only to last a few years."
Few people wanted to live in this treeless flood basin, so it became a natural dumping ground for all sorts of public works and industrial eyesores. The most extensive of these is the subject of our story.
Frontier scrapbook. From left: 1955 newspaper photo of partially dismantled 2-story building on Midway Drive (looking west), 1955 ad for surplus government housing. The city council and city attorney made sure that none of these wartime “temporaries” were set down permanently within the city limits. Mobilhome, Corp. ad, 1955. The Mobilhome assembly line was on Frontier St., but its product met the city housing code – unlike the Frontier Homes Housing Project. Newspaper clippings from the Daily Journal and the Union, 1949 and 1962, describing plans for a world’s fair in the Frontier district. Daily Aztec article, January, 1960. Instead of hiking rent on the city-owned Aztec houses, the city decided to shut them all down.
Next year, 1993, makes it 50 years since the Federal Public Housing Administration first proposed the massive development. At the time, the city wasn’t too happy about the idea but grudgingly gave in. After all, the land was mostly vacant, and it was near the defense plants. Besides, the Frontier buildings were going to be semi-prefabricated temporaries, easy to put up, easy to knock down; they wouldn’t be cracker-box permanents like the ones just built in Linda Vista. The FPHA promised the city it would raze the houses and cart away the debris as soon as war production tapered off and the workers went home.
But after the war, housing shortages and political pressures kept the Frontier structures in place while the city council and the planning office denounced the project as a disgrace. As the years slipped by, the region acquired a reputation as a dangerous slum inhabited by transients too shiftless to live in respectable neighborhoods. This was probably an unfair judgment; the Frontier/Midway district was no more crime ridden then than now. But the characterization was believed by many San Diegans and encouraged by local officials and land developers who viewed Frontier as an aesthetic and economic drag on the city.
Frontier scrapbook. From left: 1926 drawing of the Bayside Country Club, which was never built. 1941 newspaper advertisement for a Loma Portal housing development built on the same site as the proposed club. (The house pictured is the same one that John and Rosemary McInnins bought a few years later – see story.) 1940s newspaper ads for the Causeway Drive-In (since 1947 Causway Cleaners), China Land restaurant (closed in 1992), Nip & Tuck (closed mid-40s). Matchbook, c 1950, from Topsy’s and Zanzibar. 1949 front-page stories about crimes in the Frontier district. 1959 baseball card for Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, who grew up in the Frontier project during the 40s and went to Point Loma High School.
In 1954 and ’55, the Federal government relinquished control of the Frontier buildings. Immediately the city set about tearing them down. But by then many of the units were housing Navy families and student veterans enrolled at San Diego State College. Faced with opposition from these two key San Diego institutions, the city agreed to keep half the Frontier buildings up a few years more.
In the 1960s, city officials finally closed down the last of the houses and started wiping away all the bad memory of Frontier. The city’s public housing department (no relation to today’s housing commission) was terminated, since it no longer had public housing to administer. Its records passed to the city property department, which, as far as anyone can tell, eventually destroyed them as outdated files.
And then the street names changed. The little cross-streets of the Frontier district, named for colleges and war planes and defense contractors (Holyoke Street, Liberator Street, Fleet Street) were either renamed or bulldozed into parking lots and freeways. Even Frontier Street, which gave its name to the project, was rechristened. It now goes by the lumbering moniker of Sports Arena Boulevard.
Menefee-Larson Construction Co., typical of utilitarian wartime housing, though it was never used as housing.
And what was it like to live in Frontier? It depends on what era you mean. People who lived in Frontier during the war describe it as a tidy utopia where the project administrators gave you free paint and grass seed and where there was a terrific sense of camaraderie among the renters. To later residents it was no more than a low-income housing project where one lived if one couldn’t manage to live anywhere else. By the late ’40s, outsiders regarded the area with dread. When “Midway Area” or “Frontier Project” appeared in a headline, the story was usually about a gunpoint robbery or an abused child. The area’s commercial strips — Midway, Rosecrans, Frontier — added to the low-rent tone, part honky-tonk and part gasoline alley.
Photographs of the time show the golf course to have been a dusty place with little grass.
Most of the 1940s and ’50s roadside businesses are gone now. But you don’t have to look too hard to see that the slum is still with us. Plant what you may there — shopping centers, a mental health clinic, girlie shows, a sports arena — the old Frontier tracts will never be a garden. Maybe it has something to do with their proximity to the military bases; maybe it’s the flatness of the terrain that makes it a natural, low-cost home for strip malls and storage warehouses. Or, given the rapid turnover in businesses that has characterized the area for the last 30 years, maybe the whole place is just cursed.
For some reason the diner’s owner left the E out of the CAUSWAY sign.
The Bayside Country Club Estates is strategically situated not alone with regard to the underlying principle of scenic location as the basis for residential land values...but offers delightful proximity to the Country Club — its gardens, bridle paths, polo field and social environment; lending immeasurable satisfaction to an ownership of assured environment.
—1926 promotional brochure
Local folk wisdom aside, Midway Drive has nothing to do with the Battle of Midway. The name dates from the 1920s, when the road was being built as a connector between the beach areas and the streets that lead downtown. It was midway between Mission Bay and the harbor, and it ran through the middle of Dutch Flats, where Claude Ryan started the city’s first commercial airport in 1925 and built the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
Midway Continuing Education Center
Dutch Flats was an old river bottom that the fickle San Diego River had used from time to time. The last time was in the 1850s, when flooding from a storm shifted the mouth of the river from False (Mission) Bay to the location, approximately, of Lindbergh Field. Old maps seem to indicate that the river was emptying out in the vicinity of the marshlands that now sit at the border of the Naval Training Center lands and the airport.
In 1853 an Army engineer and his crew of Indians managed to dike the stream back to Mission Bay. The dike soon broke, and for the next hundred years the U.S. and local governments were frequently repairing the levee to keep the San Diego River from silting up the harbor. When the Mission Bay Park project began in the late 1940s, the first item on the agenda was completing a new riverbed, the San Diego Floodway.
The flats remained nearly uninhabited long after the surrounding areas of San Diego — Ocean Beach, Loma Portal, Mission Hills, Middletown — filled in. Some Loma Portalites maintained a dusty golf course near Rosecrans and Lytton, but it didn’t last long, perhaps 15 years (circa 1912-1927). During the land boom of the mid-’20s, some speculators renamed the golf course the Bayside Country Club and proposed to build a surrounding development of posh homes. (“Country club” developments were very “in” during the ’20s.) These promoters issued a lovely prospectus for the development, complete with misty aquatints of the new clubhouse and bridle paths, but they never managed to raise enough capital for the groundbreaking.
The elegant brochure still makes good reading:
Surrounding the Bayside Country Club...and occupying a location of distinction upon the highlands overlooking the Naval Training Station and the Bay...a restricted residential community to be known as The Bayside Country Club Estates will be available.
The Bayside Country Club Estate has been carefully conceived and patterned in accordance with the belief that there is existent within San Diego a very definite desire for those finer elements of living which attach to the accepted social standards...and that because of its unsurpassed natural resources, San Diego is already challenging the interest of many with like taste and attainment in other communities.
While the speculators dreamt of their posh community, Claude Ryan leased a piece of land near the southeast comer of the golf course and built his airstrip. He didn’t have to worry much about bumping into trees or buildings. There weren’t any to speak of. A few chicken farmers kept their coops up past Rosecrans, and here and there you might find a few homesteaders’ lots with wooden shacks and made-from-a-kit bungalows. (Some of these strange little houses still sur-vive, inhabited, in and around the 3400 block of Midway.)
Generally speaking, though, Dutch Flats was not a congenial place for home-owners or much of anything else. The sandy earth that the river and tides had deposited there turned dry and rock-hard for much of the year and, in any case, was too salty for agriculture or landscaping. If you wanted to grow grass and trees there, you had to import topsoil, as modem shopping mall developers have done.
You could build a house there, propped up over a wood crawlspace or cin-derblock piers, but thanks to the high saltwater table that lay just beneath the sandy crust of soil, basements were out of the question. For the same reason, concrete streets laid down in the area tended to rapture after a few years. To this day, owners of automotive shops along Midway Drive have a problem with the mushy substratum of the flats; it keeps fracturing their cement floors.
Fifteen years after the country club fiasco, Dutch Flats was still dead to the world. The city directory for 1941 lists one house and one business (the Colonial Drive-In restaurant) on Midway south of Rosecrans. The few other businesses in the area were mostly gas stations and snackeries like Topsy’s restaurant, just north of Rosecrans, and the Bali Drive-In, at the corner of West Point Loma Boulevard.
As for the road now known as Sports Arena Boulevard, if scarcely existed. It was a short, empty street, a trolley right-of-way, really, that branched off Pacific Highway and ended abruptly at Rosecrans. They called it Frontier, and God knows it was.
Bids Wanted: Until November 30,3 pm, bids will be taken by the Federal Public Housing Agency...for the construction of 1600 temporary housing units south of the intersection of West Point Loma Boulevard and Midway Drive. Plans and specifications may be obtained by qualified contractors November 18 from Architects Bodmer, Wurdemer & Becket (Hollywood and San Diego)....
— San Diego Daily Transcript, November 9, 1943
The Frontier Homes were a startling new arrival on the local war-housing scene. The project dwarfed all others, save one. Linda Vista was larger in terms of units (4845 as opposed to the 3500 in Frontier), but the Linda Vista houses had mostly been built as “permanents” that could be sold to private owners after the war. From the start, Frontier was never intended to be anything more than flimsy, short-term housing.
Another departure from earlier war housing projects was Frontier’s use of outside designers and contractors. The early developments were largely the product of local talent. (Some of them — Los Altos and Bayview Terrace in Pacific Beach, for example — were designed by Frank Hope, city planning board member and doyen of San Diego architects.) The designers and contracting crews for Frontier mostly came down from Los Angeles and lived in trailers till the job was done. The biggest contracts went to the Gorelnick Co. of Los Angeles. For a 600-unit segment near Midway and West Point Loma, Gorelnick bid and got $1,283,534.
Federal housing officials first announced the Frontier project in October 1943 and predicted that the first stage of the venture would be ready for occupancy within 90 days. It took a little longer, as things turned out; the Federal Public Housing Agency was still lining up contractors at the end of December. After that, things proceeded on schedule. By May of ’44, 1100 units were occupied. By the start of October, the project was completed, save for minor landscaping and paving.
The buildings came in two models, the eight-unit and the four. The eights were two-story frame structures, about 150 feet long by 30 feet wide, often arranged in horseshoe fashion with a community lawn and parking lot in the center. Four-unit houses were identical, except they had one story and no community lawn. They were perpendicular to the street, like sideways dominoes. Generally speaking, Frontier Homes to the north of Midway were one story and those to the south were two story.
The low-bidding L.A. builders knew how to cut corners. Even by Midway-Frontier standards, the foundations of the Frontier Homes were absolutely minimal: thin concrete slabs into which the main uprights of the houses were anchored before the cement set. While one concrete slab hardened, the contractors would pour another and then another. Between January and September 1944, the builders averaged about 25 complete structures per week.
Walls were partially assembled on the ground, then raised and nailed in place. They were made of two- by three-inch studs (a detail that the city would cite years later when rating the houses as substandard) and were sheathed, inside and out, with gypsum board. Now usually called Sheetrock or drywall, gypsum board was still a new and wondrous material in the 1940s. Incredibly, it was often used on building exteriors, especially if the buildings were meant to last only a couple of years. Gypsum board, of course, is nothing more than two sheets of cardboard glued around a core of compressed plaster dust.
Its advantages were that it was not a wartime strategic material like many woods and metals, and it was cheap. According to architectural trade journals of the time, a half ton of it was going for $50, which was half the price of low-grade plywood. The disadvantage of the board was that when it was used on the outside of a building, it eventually crumbled. (During the 1950s the city would partially rehab some of the exteriors with a spray-coat of stucco.)
“You could make a hole in it without too much effort,” said former La Mesa mayor Paul Fordham of the drywall exteriors. Fordham’s family moved into a Frontier unit as soon as it opened in 1944.
“This was at 3714 Earlham Street, in a two-story building, upstairs,” Fordham recalled. “We lived there from ’44 to ’50. Earlham Street disappeared a long time ago. They tore our building down in 1955 and put in a drive-in movie theater. Our old apartment was right where the projection booth for the Frontier Drive-In later was. The units came with three bedrooms, one bath, and an icebox. A real icebox. But we were wealthy; we had a refrigerator. We used the icebox to store other things. All the units came equipped with an oak icebox. They all came with oak floors, oak furniture, and oak beds. I remember the rent, including utilities, came to $37.50 a month.”
Like many other old Frontier residents, Fordham lost interest in the area after his family moved out. He was aware that the houses were tom down in the ’50s and ’60s. But he never heard that the city had closed them down because the city council thought they were a slum — substandard.
“Substandard? I don’t think they were substandard. They were well built. Out of necessity, they were built quickly. Later on the buildings may have deteriorated somewhat. Originally you had to have a government-type job or be military to qualify for Frontier housing. Later on there was a real cross-section, some hoodlums. You’d occasionally see some kind of graffiti. People moved in with a minimum pride of ownership.
“During the early years, though, people were very proud of their homes and kept them very smart. We had a nice, well-trimmed lawn, a community lawn, but still neat and well trimmed. And [the housing authority] supplied you with paint and grass seed. You had to go down to the office to get them, but it was free. The paint, I remember it was Kern-Tone. The exteriors were all a combination of pastel green and pastel beige.”
Fordham’s dad had moved the family to San Diego because of his war work. He instructed Army Air Corps cadets at the Ryan School of Aeronautics. (By the early 1940s, Claude Ryan’s main product was a small training monoplane used by the Army.)
“[San Diego] was the primary training base for Army Air Corps cadets,” Fordham continued. “Ryan also had one in Hemet. They were trying to teach the new recruits how to fly an airplane.
“I went to Dana Junior High and then to Point Loma, where I graduated in 1948.1 remember one of my first two or three days at Dana. A girl asked me if I lived in the naval housing. I said no, I lived in Frontier. She screwed up her nose. A lot of people looked down their noses at you when you said you lived in Frontier, but I am proud to say I lived there. Mostly, though, I hung out with friends who lived in Point Loma and Ocean Beach.
“Don Larsen — the ball player who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees? — lived in the Frontier houses and graduated from Point Loma in 1947. Basically, most of the people in Frontier were honest, hardworking Americans, and I wish we could bring some of that back.”
Bill Fontana and his family lived at 3030 Kenyon Street, a short walk from the Fordham place. “Where Doctors Hospital is now,” Fontana explained, meaning the institute now labeled Sharp Cabrillo Hospital. His family moved into Frontier in 1945 and moved out in 1950, when Bill was nine or ten. During the war. Bill’s dad worked at the shipyards, manufacturing concrete boats.
“The houses were perfectly adequate as shelters but built only to last a few years. I don’t know why they kept the Frontier houses up as long as they did. Most places in the country, they took ’em down right after the war. Of course, there was a terrible housing shortage in San Diego in those days.
“I have nothing but fond memories of the Frontier houses. They had mixed races there — blacks, maybe 10 or 15 percent, a few Hispanics — but there was no racial problem at all. I had friends of all different races and backgrounds, and we’d sleep over at each other’s house. I think having experienced the Frontier housing made me a better person. I learned to live in a close relationship with multiraces, make good good good friends, and spend the night with them. What I remember best is that initially I spent all my time at the recreation center across from the Midway Elementary School. The center was really a wonderful thing. It gave all the kids a chance to meet each other and learn to get along. I don’t think kids have that experience much nowadays.”
One more personal recollection of Frontier in. the ’40s is from Bob McEvilly. “We lived in a two-story building, with Mexicans up above. From the fall of ’42 my father worked for Consolidated Vultee. We lived on Grinnell, off Midway, somewhere between Kemper and Duke. There was a school across Grinnell. Where we lived it was three buildings around a courtyard.
“I went to Dana Junior High only about a month. My father sent me to St. Didacus. I had to take a streetcar to Adams Avenue.
“I was in the seventh grade when we moved there over the Christmas holidays. There was a drive-in restaurant, Nip & Tuck, at Midway and Rosecrans. At the south comer there was a shelter for a bus stop. I used to sell the Daily Journal. I picked up my papers from a distributor named Roxy. I would meet him along the north side of Midway, at the fruit market. I remember the headlines when the Yanks raised the flag on Mt.Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
“Before Frontier we lived in Linda Vista. It was a dump. My cousin came to visit and he laughed. ‘You’re living in a cracker box!’ But they were better than Frontier.
“I used to go fishing up in the Famosa Slough. My brother and I would catch mussels.”
Vigorous protest against location of a $7,500,000 federal housing unit adjoining Plumosa Park was developing yesterday.
Letter-writers contended that Plumosa Park had been zoned for high-class residences and that its future would be jeopardized by the federal program....
— San Diego Union, October 26,1943
In the 1930s, Sidney Howard wrote a play called Dead End, based on a curious social development in New York. An expensive high-rise had recently been built in Manhattan’s East 50s, among the riverfront abattoirs and tenements that had long characterized the area. Now slum kids and socialites suddenly found themselves living cheek-by-jowl. The suspicion and hostility on both sides was intense (at least according to Sidney Howard). The poor kids felt that their neighborhood was being stolen from them, and the rich kids resented having to share the sidewalk with tenement dwellers.
When the Frontier project arrived on the north end of Point Loma, residents might have felt they were going through a sort of Dead End in reverse. At the very doorstep of Loma Portal, one of the finest and most exclusive neighborhoods in the city, the Federal Public Housing Agency was slapping together a 3500-unit project to house transient war workers. Before Frontier, most of the local housing projects had been on the fringes of town.
Like most of the better neighborhoods of the era, in 1944 Loma Portal was “restricted.” Originally, in realtor’s parlance, “restricted” meant that neighborhood residents had entered into a covenant not to build add-ons, block views, maintain chicken coops, or otherwise deface the neighborhood. But the word had another meaning in the hotel and resort trades — the establishment wouldn’t accept certain categories and ethnicities of people, usually Jews. Inevitably this second meaning spilled over into the realty business.
In 1940s newspaper advertisements, “restricted” was the seller’s proudest boast, a guarantee that the neighbors weren’t about to sell their houses to Mexicans and Okies. From the two largest real estate ads in the San Diego Daily Journal, October 6, 1944:
SEE THIS BEAUTIFUL
Two Story English Residence
Restricted Talmadge No. 3.
Panoramic View of Bay And City
SEE THIS BEAUTIFUL 2 STORY
STUCCO RESIDENCE IN
RESTRICTED LOMA PORTAL
Originally, the name Loma Portal described the few blocks just south of Lytton Street and north of Rosecrans. A few grand mansions had been built there early in the century, but it wasn’t till the early ’20s that the area began to fill up, much in the manner of Mission Hills, with a mixture of Spanish stucco, American traditional, and Tudoresque “period” houses.
The next boom came around 1941, when a builder put up the Montemar Ridge development, just east of Lytton Street, on the site of the abortive Bayside Country Club. These were elegant little clapboard houses that sold for about $6000. Two years later, in the midst of the wartime housing crush, lucky pre-war buyers could resell their Montemar houses for twice what they paid. The homes were basically just new, high-class tract homes near Midway and Rosecrans, but to realtors they were part of “beautiful, restricted Loma Portal.”
One couple that bought into this Portal addition were Rosemary and John Mclnnis, he a young attorney, she an up-and-coming society leader who would chair several charity balls. “We bought it from a doctor, but the house had been built just a year or two before,” Rosemary Mclnnis Mills recalled recently at her home in La Jolla. “It was a beautiful little area. You could see all of the city, including downtown, from our house. And on the other side you could see Mission Beach. I haven’t driven through there [Loma Portal] in 20 years. I have no idea what it looks like now. Last time I was there it was looking pretty crumpled.”
The Mclnnis home, 3114 Evergreen Street, was an income-producing property. According to building permit notices in the Daily Transcript, the previous owner, Dr. Robert McCrackin, had added two bedrooms to the back of the house. Without prompting, Mrs. Mills had a word or two to say about these.
“The only thing I didn’t like was that there were these two rooms in the back that we had to rent out to people. I think it had something to do with the war and the housing shortage. As soon as I could after the war, I stopped renting them out and made those rooms part of the house.”
When the plans for the proposed Frontier project came before the city in 1943, residents of the greater Loma Portal area were up in arms. Although most of the project was to be down in the mud flats, separated from Loma Portal by the steep cliffs that run south of Midway Drive, one long wing of the project stretched up Leland Street into the undeveloped highlands by Plumosa Park. City planning director Glenn Rick balked at the proposal. So did other city officials and local homeowners.
At first the FPHA seemed to relent and tentatively agreed to keep the projects out of the highlands. But when the Frontier project was completed a year later, it was 40 percent larger than originally proposed, and the long and winding Leland Street extension was intact. Not surprisingly, the houses near Plumosa Park would be the first to be torn down in the ’50s.
Adults in the Loma Portal neighborhood didn’t often come into contact with Frontier residents. (“Oh, I never knew any of them,” a Loma Portal socialite of the ’40s and ’50s recalled. “Wait, I did know one. My maid lived down there. She was black. No, I take that back, I don’t know what she was.”) Most of the head-on social collisions came among schoolchildren and occasionally teachers.
Right after the war, ex-WAC Anna Hilss went to work as a phys ed and modern dance teacher at Point Loma High School. She did not enjoy her first year. “Well, the first year the students were pretty rotten. Loma Portal is — well, they have a great opinion of themselves. They think they’re pretty high, socially. They were really snobs. For one thing, the children of the Navy were living in Frontier housing. And they treated those people like dirt. You know how kids can be. And so, with me, since I had just gotten out of the service, they put me in the same category.
“Most [old timers] in San Diego resented having so many people here in the city. Before, it was a little sleepy town, and they disliked the Navy and they were not nice to Navy people, even during and just after the war. I remember one time there was this man, and he griped about all these people coming in. He used to know everybody and now he didn’t know everybody. And I said, ‘But I’m one of these people that came in.’ He said, ‘Oh, but you’re different.’ I said, ‘I’m no different than anybody else coming in.’
“And Loma Portal thought that they were too good for anybody. There were some that were different. But I’d say that Loma Portal was snottier.”
After a year of trying to keep her contemptuous charges in line, Anna found this note on her job evaluation: She must learn to get along with the affluent.
For that first year in San Diego, Anna found an $80-per-month back room in the house at 3114 Evergreen Street in Loma Portal. “It wasn’t even livable, a tiny room for $80 in those days. And the lady who owned the house, a big socialite in the area, once head of the charity ball, she was a bitch. She had two tiny rooms at the back of her house, and I think she was renting them out illegally, to me and to another girl who lived there. She wouldn’t let us cook, she wouldn’t let us have a phone. It was awful.
“I couldn’t make enough to eat and pay rent. So I got myself another job, down at the Y. During that first year I was teaching, they gave us this thing to fill out about our health, and I came to this question. Do you get headaches? And I said yes, so they said, Well, what have you done to alleviate this problem? I said, I got a second job now, and I’m eating!”
Kimball Moore, who was San Diego’s city manager during the 1970s, came to city government after serving a number of years with a federal agency. From 1947 to 1955, he was one of several district managers for the Public Housing Agency, successor to the wartime FPHA. Moore’s district was Frontier. One of his major concerns when he took control was managing the racial problem that wartime had brought to San Diego.
In 1941 there had been only about 1000 blacks in the entire county. After the war, there were 10,000 — a tiny percentage of the population as a whole, but a potentially troublesome factor in a city where nonwhites were excluded from most neighborhoods. As one might expect, a disproportionate number of blacks had to find accommodations in the federal projects.
When asked what sort of a neighborhood Frontier was, Moore replies, “Well, it was nicely integrated, and when it came under my jurisdiction it was very segregated racially.”
Q. You mean certain buildings would have blacks, and others, whites?
A. Yes. I remedied that in a pretty short time by establishing the practice of any unit that was vacated by a black and filling it with a white and any unit vacated by white families going to a black family. So within a period of six months or so, since there was a very high turnover rate, why, the entire Frontier project area was — salt and pepper!
There were a number of public housing projects scattered throughout the city, and they reached a level of integration that has never been reached. There was Los Altos on Foothill Boulevard in Pacific Beach, and one in Sunset Cliffs, and all of these were racially integrated, and I think it’s interesting to know that the city really backslid tremendously in terms of housing integration after the demise of public housing in these temporary projects.
Q. Were you under any instructions from above to integrate the housing, or did you do it on your own?
A. It was pretty much my own idea.
Q. Why did you do it?
A. Because it was the right thing to do.
Q. A few years later Mayor Dail, I think it was, referred to the remaining Frontier houses as the only slum in that section of San Diego.
A. Well, it was certainly low-income people in temporary housing. At minimal rents. But I wouldn’t characterize it as being a bad area. There was no high crime level. There were a number of church organizations in the area. There was a very effective tenant association during the time I was associated with it, which provided a lot of community support and involvement. So although it was low income and racially integrated, it never seemed a bad area.
Robert Matthews recalls that “up through the early 60s, when they closed the houses down, the area was increasingly black.” Matthews is now president of the Community College Continuing Education Centers of San Diego. He himself is African-American, and he arrived in San Diego in 1955. He had a fresh master’s degree from Columbia University and new job teaching at a place called Frontier Elementary School.
Matthews continues, “When I moved here in 1955, San Diego was very segregated. As segregated as any city in the deep South. I was assigned to the Frontier School, and they hadn’t ever had any non-Anglo-Saxon teachers. This was even though there were children of African-American background in all the public housing and naval housing.
“And none of the private renters would rent to nonwhites, I found. So I went to Frank Tait [director of personnel for the school system], who had hired me in January 1955 at Columbia University. He had said, ‘No problem getting a house in San Diego.’ He believed this. ‘If you have any problem,’ he said, ‘I will get you a place.’ After going everywhere for three weeks — all over Loma Portal and the Ocean Beach area — I still hadn’t found a place I could rent. I had to have a place I could walk to. I didn’t have a car. So I informed Frank Tait that I hadn’t located a place. In the meantime I lived at the Maryland Hotel on E Street. It became too expensive to stay there, so I found a room off Imperial Avenue in Southeast San Diego. It took me two to three hours a day just riding the bus.
“Tait was enraged. He tried to find me a place. He was not successful. He went to Ray Steel, director of the San Diego Urban League. Together, Tait and Steel went to the city officials and let them know the problem. The city officials said that although it was against policy, they would allow me to live in the Frontier housing for one year for $135 a month. At the end of the year I found a place in Southeast San Diego. But by then I had a car.” Robert Matthews taught at the Frontier Elementary School until the school closed. “We knew [it was going to close] a year before they started demolishing it. The Navy stopped assigning anyone to the housing units. Class size and overall enrollment began to decrease. We knew early in ’61 that we’d be phased out. We were told the school would close in June 1962. Students in the area then went either to Midway or Barnard.”
Asked to characterize Frontier in its final years, Matthews said, “It was an oasis of enlightenment in a sea of racial intolerance. We knew we were looked down upon by other people in the city. To say you came from Frontier was thought to be the most shameful thing there was. We were close-knit, but all kinds of people lived there. Some working in defense, or naval personnel. Others were individual laborers. Some semiskilled people, some with college. The houses were like row houses — very, very, very flimsy. They had two bedrooms. Living there was like being in a housing project. But the walls were thin. You could hear everything that went on in the next apartment.
“I worked [moonlighted] as a custodian at Sears Roebuck. A man I knew there, Mr. Blake, had a vacant lot in 3037 K Street in Southeast San Diego. He said, ’I have a vacant lot, and someday I am going to build an apartment.’ ’Better build it now,’ I said, while I was still living in Frontier. I said, ’If you build me an apartment, I’ll rent it.’ A few weeks later he was asking what kind of tile I wanted in the kitchen. My wife helped design the apartment. When I left 3037 K Street, I bought a house.”
The City’s 3000 temporary housing units can go begging as far as mayors of County cities are concerned.
The other day at a special meeting at Civic Center of County mayors, they agreed with City Manager Campbell the units don’t belong in the San Diego area.
Council has already asked that the 3000 be moved to Imperial County or Mexico, provided officials there want the dwellings.
Councilmen feel they might be used for migrant farm workers in Imperial Valley and low-income families in Mexico.
— San Diego Daily Transcript, January 16, 1954
By the end of 1946, many of the migrant war workers had gone home. The Frontier houses ought to have been mostly vacant, but because of the city’s housing crisis, the Frontier units were filled with servicemen and their families. The FPHA agreed to let veterans at San Diego State College rent the units at below-market cost — about $20 to $30 per month. These Aztec houses continued to expand even while large sections of the original Frontier were being tom down. When the city finally took possession of the Frontier houses in 1954 and proceeded to sell off and raze all the two-story buildings, some surplus military housing was trucked in and added to the college housing.
By the mid-’50s, the Aztec houses were a motley assortment of buildings. This is the recollection of Willard Trask, who was Housing Manager for San Diego State College.
“There were two main sections of Aztec houses. One of them is now part of the freeway system, routes 5 and 8, that interchange over there. That section was called Aztec Terrace. The other was bounded on the north by Kemper, where there’s a fire station today. Its southern boundary was where there’s a shopping center with Target now [on Sports Arena Boulevard].
“There were three types of housing. First, the permanent, one-bedroom ones — real nice — in Aztec Terrace. These had been remodeled from war workers’ dormitories for Convair workers. They were frame stucco buildings with oak floors.
“The second type were temporary. These were brought up from the naval station on South Bay. Two bedrooms. They put these on foundations where the old Frontier two-story houses used to be. They had plywood walls covered with wallpaper.
“Then there were what we called ‘demountable’ housing, housing that could be lifted off its foundation and moved around.”
To understand the city council’s eagerness to get rid of Frontier during the 1950s, it helps to understand the extent to which the city’s economy had become dependent upon housing construction.
Despite the wartime population upheavals, the size and shape of the city changed very little between the 1920s and the early ’50s. The vast majority of the population still resided in what we now call the city core or in the nearby beach areas. Mission Valley, the inland reaches of Pacific Beach and La Jolla, and the mesas and gorges north of Route 80 (Camino del Rio), all were still undeveloped, except for military installations and a few wartime housing projects. Balboa Avenue stretched for one mile, from Grand and Lamont in Pacific Beach to the edge of a hilly brown outback that had just been dubbed Clairemont. A map of the city limits looked like a jagged right triangle, with La Jolla at the northern point.
The north city land boom that began in the 1950s had a few things in common with the one that happened in the mid-1920s. In the ’50s, lots were often subdivided and planned years before any houses or utilities arrived. Newspaper ads promised prospective buyers the ultimate in modernity and gracious living. Fortunes were made on paper and then lost overnight.
The ’50s building craze was also bigger than any before. The 1920s speculation had been primarily a local phenomenon, funded by San Diego banks and investors and pushed by San Diego sharpies. In the ’50s, developers swarmed in from all over to invest in this new thing called Clairemont. Del Webb, Clint Murchison, Bill Zeckendorf, and other nationally known names staked out their plots side by side with San Diego’s own Louis Burgener and Carlos Tavares.
Unlike the housing developments planned in the 1920s, however, most of the ’50s tracts were laid out for people of moderate income, primarily young couples and families of aircraft workers. And in one other important aspect the ’50s bubble was radically unlike any San Diego land boom that had gone before. This time, housing speculators had a reliable, deep-pockets partner to help them with their building costs — the U.S. government. Thanks to the Federal Housing Administration, Uncle Sam would guarantee a portion of the developers’ building loans. All the developer needed to do was claim that this private housing was being put up for defense workers.
In 1951 the FHA assigned an allotment of 9000 defense workers’ homes to builders in the San Diego area. And the race to build began. Burgener and Tavares received an allotment to build 533 houses and 530 apartments in Clairemont, where they’d already privately financed a new neighborhood of 400 ranch-style bungalows. Divorce lawyer Irwin Kahn entered the fray with guarantees for 312 rental units on West Point Loma Boulevard. But these were just an initial trickle. By the start of 1954, Del Webb and partners were investing $35 million to build a Clairemont development of 2500 single-family houses.
Despite the Federal loans, or perhaps because of them, many builders got into trouble. They overbuilt. They went bankrupt. By 1954 even Burgener & Tavares’s Clairemont development was overextended and facing reorganization.
In size, the San Diego housing industry was now a close second to defense and aerospace. By
overanticipating demand, builders had gotten themselves into a deep mess. And the hordes of veterans and defense workers still living in wartime temporaries were not helping matters at all. In 1954 the Frontier project housed 20,000 people, all of whom paid a pittance in rent. If these folks could be persuaded to take up lodgings elsewhere (say, in Clairemont or Allied Gardens or the new subdivisions in Chula Vista), developers would be back in the black.
Or so went the reasoning of some city leaders that year, as the Public Housing Administration prepared to dispose of the Frontier houses. City and county governments, as well as the business community, made it clear that they wanted no part of the ramshackle temporaries. For a month or two in early ’54, the government of Baja California seemed to offer a solution. Baja proposed to buy all 3500 of the Frontier units and ship them south to house their own poor. But the Mexicans took their time about making a firm commitment. After a few months of waiting, the PHA and the city turned to private buyers at home.
The most promising offer for the houses came from Charles W. Carlstrom, a now-forgotten
developer who made a fortune after the Second World War by buying and disposing of surplus wartime property. (His biggest coup, buying Plant 2 from Convair and then selling it to the Defense Department, netted him $1 million during the 1950s.) Carlstrom had also picked up a little change here and there by developing neighborhoods and strip malls in Bay Park and Linda Vista and reselling demountable housing. When the PHA put a good chunk of the Frontier units on the block, Carlstrom was ready. He offered $51,000 for 441 two-story, eight-unit buildings, about $15 per unit. The PHA agreed, and a contract was signed.
It would have been a sweet deal for Mr. Carlstrom, except that he had no place to put the houses permanently. He had expected to plant them on undeveloped land in the Linda Vista area, but soon after Carlstrom sighed the contract, the San Diego city attorney, Jean DuPaul, handed him a bombshell. DuPaul claimed the Frontier houses did not meet the city’s building codes. If Carlstrom wanted to relocate the houses within the city limits, he’d have to replace all the substandard two-by-three studs with two-by-fours. Carlstrom estimated that this would cost him about $500 per building. Not a good deal at all.
Carlstrom had already partially dismantled several dozen Frontier buildings and moved them to a storage ,area he had leased in El Cajon. He challenged DuPaul in court, but the judge ruled against him. In the end, Carlstrom and the PHA agreed to vacate the remainder of the contract.
Out by Gillespie Field, in two lots on Magnolia Avenue, Carlstrom’s buildings sat for the next seven years. His storage permit expired after two years, and the county wouldn’t renew it. Carlstrom either couldn’t or wouldn’t move the buildings, and the county sued.
For several years, the case of County of San Diego vs. C.W. Carlstrom dragged its way through the courts. Finally in January 1962, with his last appeal struck down and facing imprisonment on contempt charges, Carlstrom began to move the buildings to Tijuana.
During those seven years when he kept the old housing stored by Gillespie Field, Carlstrom was evidently expecting that he’d eventually turn a profit on them. During the mid-’50s, smaller operators had done a thriving trade selling surplus housing around the county. Sooner or later, Carlstrom must have figured, the housing glut would end, and he would clean up on his orphan war housing.
He was a patient man, used to drawn-out litigation, and one of the names one encounters most frequently in the civil court files from the 1950s and ’60s. He owned many small parcels of land in the area between Frontier Street and Morena Boulevard. When the state attempted to take over these parcels for freeway construction, Carlstrom would delay the eminent domain proceedings for years, until he got what he felt the property was worth.
But curiously, C.W. Carlstrom died bankrupt in 1976. The probate court spent years sorting out the seven-figure debts he left behind.
Of the two-story Frontier houses that didn’t go to Gillespie Field, many were junked by the PHA and the city, sent to landfills, or sold for scrap lumber. Others were razed by contractors erecting new apartments, shopping malls, or the Frontier Drive-In Theater. But not all.
Former PHA district housing manager Kimball Moore recently described the salvaging of a few of these houses. “The upper stories of about 20 or so buildings were taken off and moved by truck down to Tijuana, to a settlement house-type operation called Project Amigos. The full name in Spanish was Central Social Juarez y Lincoln, and I was associated with that organization for a number of years.
“Last time I saw the old houses was when the Mexican members of the board down there took the place over for a—well, they kind of kicked out the major things that were going on down there, like primary schools, outpatient clinics, and vocational training, and set up some kind of light industry. Our group which had been operating the place, we’d always intended the Mexicans to take it over, but not quite in that fashion. Last time I saw the place was probably 15 years ago. It was off of First Avenue. West. They did tremendous things there. Like providing free birth-control materials.”
A well-planned carefully executed attack on the spreading blight and decay, which has infested so many of our urban areas, means not only a better community and a better city for those who live there, but a better more prosperous America for all of us.
— T.V. Houser, Chairman of the Board, Sears Roebuck & Co. (quoted on cover of San Diego urban renewal report, “This Is Your City,” 1960)
Throughout the ’50s the city issued a series of urban-renewal studies, all with the same message: Frontier has got to go. The first of these came in ’52, when the Chamber of Commerce asked retired Rear Admiral Ray Tarbuck to report on the state of Frontier and the other 8000 or so temporary units still scattered throughout the San Diego area. The Tarbuck study was a long, horrified sneer. To the admiral, Frontier and the other smaller, temporary projects were characterized by “poor management, non-cooperative tenants, gutters littered with trash and garbage, jerry-built fences. They add to the slums rather than to slum clearance.”
In 1959, City Councilman Charles Schneiderman prepared a public report on substandard and decrepit housing, entitled “This Is Your City.” A map in the report shows a blacked-out no-man’s land of urban blight that stretches from the flood-control channel in the northwest to downtown and South Bay. Under the heading “Areas of highest incidence of deterioration,” the report read:
The area of greatest deterioration extends from Midway-Frontier and Morena to the southeast boundary of San Diego, roughly parallel to and adjoining U.S. Highway 101. A principal cause of deterioration in this area is the mixture of commercial industrial and residential land use. Around the time the report was released in 1960, Mayor Dail finally saw his chance. The Navy had announced that its housing shortage was easing and that it would not need to house personnel in the Frontier buildings much longer. Meanwhile, San Diego State students were mounting a protest over a proposed hike in rents for their units. Dail suddenly announced that the college housing should be vacated and razed “as quickly as possible.” The rest of the city council agreed. “They’re not fit for human habitation,” said Councilman Schneiderman. “If there’s any slum area in town, that’s it.”
Eight miles from campus, the San Diego State houses bore the cheerful designations of Aztec Villa and Aztec Terrace. Rents averaged about $30 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Aztec residents picketed the Civic Center for a week, but it was no use. At the end of the 1960 spring term, the Aztec houses shut for good.
Two years later, a handful of low-income families still lived in the few remaining Frontier buildings. The city housing department ordered them out and sold their four-unit buildings, at $20 apiece, to anyone willing to cart them away.
First the houses went, then the streets. Five major highways intersected near the east end of Frontier Street: Route 101, Route 80 (Camino del Rio), Route 209 (Rosecrans); and later. Interstate 5 and Route 109 (Ocean Beach Freeway). What began as a simple gateway between Point Loma and Mission Valley had become, by 1970, the biggest web of cloverleafs in the city. The only way to add more highways and on-ramps was to raze whole blocks. About 100 acres vanished this way, including some of the oldest streets in the city: Calhoun and Congress (stumps of these still run through Old Town) and large portions of Jefferson, Moore, Hancock, and Gaines.
Today while driving to and from Ocean Beach, motorists can look south and see what’s left in this warren of amputated streets: dank, cracked-pavement blocks of storage warehouses, scrap-metal dealers, and ads for the swap meet — San Diego’s finest post-industrial slum.
You could create other types of tourist attractions to complement San Diego’s water-oriented attractions. In this regard, we thought of permanent attractions similar to Disneyland.
— William Stegeman, San Diego urban-renewal commissioner, on rebuilding the Frontier district. (1962)
Through the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, the city government thought it could clean up Frontier in one swoop. The council and the planning board had lots of whizbang ideas for this. A recurring favorite was building a world’s fair. Just before the Second World War, New York’s Robert Moses had cleaned up two square miles of swamps and railroad ashes by building the spectacular 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Economically this expo was a flop, but it left two happy legacies that would influence city planners and expo promoters for decades. The first was the fair site itself, which began as the Corona Dumps and ended up, post-fair, as one of the largest public parks in New York. The urban-renewal lesson was clean If you have a foul expanse, replace it with a high-toned expo or mall or theme park.
The fair’s other legacy was Fritz Schumacher, a young man from San Diego who designed and managed the most popular exhibit at the fair and went on to become the leading authority on theme parks and expositions. Walt Disney would hire him in March of 1954 to plan and run a new theme park in Anaheim.
What Moses, Schumacher, et al, had done for the Corona Dumps, San Diego city councilmen proposed to do with the Frontier region. If the idea sounds silly today, it’s only because we forget how much of the local topography is essentially a theme park. Forty years ago there was no Harbor Island or Sea World or Mission Bay Park, but all these grand schemes were in the talking and planning stages.
So a huge exposition in the Midway district was very much in keeping with the other civic improvements then on the drawing boards. Drain the swamps; dredge the bay; raze the low-income housing. Besides, the city had had two modestly successful expositions in Balboa Park in 1915 and 1935 and was coming due for a third. In 1949 the city council floated a proposal for the biggest expo yet — the 1953 San Diego World’s Fair.
The idea never got beyond the discussion stage, partly because the city couldn’t agree on who should design and manage the fair. Some councilmen and business leaders wanted to call in Schumacher and other expo experts; planning director Glenn Rick wanted to run the whole show from his office.
A more pressing problem was the local housing and hotel room shortage. San Diego hadn’t built a major hotel since putting up the El Cortez in the 1920s and was notorious among travelers for the poor quality of its lodgings. (“Is this the best hotel in San Diego?” Dwight D. Eisenhower is supposed to have sniffed while stopping at the El Cortez during the ’50s.) Some fair proponents offered a curious solution. Why not remodel some of the Frontier buildings into visitors’ hostels? This idea, like the whole notion of a 1953 fair, died in camera.
A few years later, Glenn Rick retired from the planning board. One of his first jobs as a private consultant was to come up with a new land-use proposal for the decaying Frontier area. On paper, he transformed the region into a huge shopping mall-cum-office park, similar to the complexes that later went up in Mission Valley. Most of the then-existing roadside businesses would be tom down and replaced by sleek, flat-topped shops and office buildings. Traffic into the area would be eased by building a new elevated road a block west of Rosecrans Street; this would connect the new Midway commercial development to routes 80 and 101.
Rick’s client, the Midway Chamber of Commerce, endorsed the plan, as did the San Diego city council. All the proposal needed now was an interested developer and prospective tenants. None came. When a big new San Diego shopping center finally went up in 1960, it was the May Company’s Mission Valley Center, not Rick’s complex in the blighted Frontier region.
In 1962, city manager Tom Fletcher proposed a 1969 bicentennial exposition that would refashion the Midway region into an industrial and commercial park with shopping areas and amusements. Alas, General Dynamics had just entered its worst downturn and was laying off most of its aircraft employees. In an overbuilt San Diego that was tumbling headlong into depression, no one seemed much in the mood for the pricey civic aggrandizements.
But a little rump of Fletcher’s proposal remained in the expo-like structure that went up on Frontier Street in 1966. This was sports promoter Robert Breitbard’s International Arena, a.k.a. International Sports Arena, a.k.a. Sports Arena. Originally Breitbard had wanted to build an arena on Kearny Mesa, but the city persuaded him to take a low-cost, 50-year lease on close-in city land. The price was right ($1 a year), and the land was essentially vacant. The only large structure on the site was the old Frontier Elementary School, built in 1944 and closed down in 1962.
By the time of groundbreaking in 1965, Breitbard’s plan for an indoor stadium had evolved into that of a high-toned civic showplace. The arena wasn’t going to be just a place to have ice hockey and basketball games; it was to be a mixed-use forum, a permanent exposition space where one could hold concerts or conventions.
In granting its sweetheart lease to Breitbard, the city was thinking less of civic pride than of revenue. San Diego was and is the largest landowner in the region, collecting rents from shopping centers and apartment complexes to the east and west of the Sports Arena.
The arena was supposed to give the whole region a new identity, and in 1968 the city council voted to make the change official. For years, developers and planners had talked about renaming Midway Drive and Frontier Street; now they would be joined as one and henceforth called Sports Arena Boulevard. Only the strip of Midway south of West Point Loma Boulevard retained its old name.
Soon afterward, Breitbard found himself a half million dollars in arrears on mortgage and bond interest payments. The Frontier curse had struck. He lost his Sports Arena.
Twenty-odd years later, the arena is the city’s biggest white elephant, a concrete-and-asphalt monstrosity that takes up leasable city land and contributes nothing to tax revenue. San Diego developer Ron Hahn wants to scrap the old arena and replace it with a new one just east of downtown.
The logic behind Hahn's proposed arena seems to be the same used for Breitbard’s in the 1960s: build a state-of-the-art sports complex in a depressed area of town, and the crowds will come and local investment will soar. Breitbard’s dream provides an ominous lesson. The biggest crowds that turn out at the Sports Arena these days are not for sporting events or concerts, but for a low-rent flea market that goes by the name of Kobey’s Swap Meet.
Loma Palisades...a modem Garden City dedicated to carefree tranquil living amidst a setting of tropical landscaping, shimmering pools and the most advanced ideas in architectural design, presents to San Diego an entirely new concept of “individualized” apartment living.
Located on a perfectly situated 58-acre site just off the intersection of West Point Loma Boulevard and Midway Drive, Loma Palisades faces a panoramic Mission Bay marine view and is nestled against a backdrop of protective cliffs.
Loma Palisades is just minutes from downtown San Diego, to industry, to fun...and in the individuality of overall design it provides a most unusual combination of resort-like, carefree apartment living.
— Promotional brochure, 1959
The war housing of 50 years ago left us many legacies. In the decades after the war, Ray Huffman and other builders ripped out large stretches of early-20th-century frame housing in the core regions of the city and replaced them with boxy, unadorned multi-unit apartment houses, scarcely distinguishable from the utilitarian temporaries of Frontier. Before the Second World War, such Stalinist units would have been popularly regarded as unrentable eyesores. Now we’re used to them and take for granted that a new Southern California apartment building won’t look much different from a 1960s TraveLodge.
Building materials that a half-century ago were used almost exclusively on quick-built temporaries are now standard, even for pricey homes. Cabinets and drawers made of particle board and synthetic veneer. Hollow-core doors that a child can kick his foot through. Spray-on concrete stucco — a clever and useful 1950s technique of preserving temporary shelters whose exterior walls were Sheetrock or plywood, but completely inappropriate for $250,000 houses. Plastic toilet seats. And of course, gypsum board.
During the 1950s, upstanding contractors’ and plasterers’ unions fought a fierce rear-guard battle against the inevitable triumph of cardboard-and-plaster-dust walls. “Insist on genuine lath-and-plaster walls!” ran the 1950s ads in newspapers’ home sections. To little avail. If your house was built after 1960, you’re probably hanging things on your walls with toggle bolts. But thanks to those plasterers’ unions, you can trust that at least the older of the local postwar developments — Allied Gardens, parts of Clairemont — have solid, noise-muffling bulkheads.
Some of the more egregious lapses foisted on us by modern builders were still undreamt of in Frontier times. The Frontier houses (some of them, anyway) had hardwood floors and double-hung wooden-sash windows. Not concrete slab floors coated with acrylic carpeting, as though your living room were a remodeled garage. Not sideways-sliding aluminum window sashes that dent and fall out of their tracks and cannot be painted to match the rest of your trim.
It used to be fashionable to mock the tract dwellings of the 1950s, but now that period looks to be a golden age of mass-produced housing. It was a time when the horrors of wartime temporaries still were fresh, and residential builders still clung to the ideas that housing, however modest, could be both tasteful and sturdy. Which brings us to the largest of all the private developments to replace Frontier—the ambitious and ill-fated Loma Palisades.
Loma Palisades started as the $13 million dream of Sam Berger, a Los Angeles builder who had moved to San Diego to get in on the building boom. Thanks to a 1957 FHA rule revision, Berger was able to get sufficient money up front from the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) to purchase 58 acres of Frontier land and build the first few hundred apartments of a 1061-unit complex. After several years of losses, Berger unloaded Loma Palisades on other investors. By the time the FHA foreclosed on the complex in June 1966, it was $6 million in default to Fannie Mae. The major stockholders included Carlos Tavares and C.W. Carlstrom. Only 548 of the projected 1061 units had been built.
With its ’50s shoebox design (Palmer and Krisel, Los Angeles), the development is an unimpressive sight today. But consider some of the amenities that the promotional brochure promised when the project opened in 1959: natural mahogany kitchen cabinets, giant wardrobe closets with storage area, giant guest closet, hardwood steps leading to private bedroom area, hardwood flooring, open-beam redwood planked roof, and “genuine lath and plaster construction.” Frontier curse aside, it’s no wonder this project went belly-up.
By the late 1960s, the only Frontier structures that still remained were two war-era public schools, Barnard Elementary and the Midway Continuation High School (until 1954 the Midway Elementary School, and now the Midway Adult Continuing Education Center). The city council had finally managed to wipe out the wartime housing units, but it hadn’t done it with a grand commercial park or exposition. It did it through piecemeal development—a strip-mall here, a Sports Arena there — and by waging political struggles that went on for 20 years.
When the Federal government abandoned the houses in 1955, the city and the Public Housing Administration (which had inherited Frontier from the FPHA) immediately sold the largest and most unattractive of them and took legal measures to ensure that the houses would not be relocated anywhere within the city limits. (A few went to outlying county areas, others to Baja.) The city then sold off much of its land in the area to encourage development of private dwellings and shopping centers. This had the effect of isolating the remaining houses in a fairly compact area (roughly, north of Midway, west of Rosecrans) where they wouldn’t be seen by motorists traveling to Point Loma.
These last houses, perhaps 1500 units in all, were the hardest to get rid of. The tenants were mostly Navy personnel and San Diego State College students. Every time the city council announced its intention to close the dwellings, the naval and college housing administrators would plead with the mayor to keep the houses up for another year or two.
As for the war-era streets that had been laid down specifically for the Frontier project. Fleet Street, Convair Street, Vultee and Reliant streets — most of these were wiped off the map.
Some of the old Frontier streets (Earlham, Valiant, Liberator, Reliant) are now driveways and parking spaces at shopping malls and the Sports Arena. Others (Moffett, Fleet, Congress) are buried beneath the dirt embankments of freeways. While driving to and from Ocean Beach, motorists can look south and see what’s left in this warren of amputated streets: dank, cracked-pavement blocks of storage warehouses, scrap-metal dealers and ads for the swap meet...San Diego’s finest post-industrial slum.
A WALKING TOUR OF THE OLD FRONTIER
(Reading time: 20 minutes. Walking time: 120 minutes.)
Drive to Hancock and Gaines streets, just north of Rosecrans. Park your car nearby and take a look at the fine old beige-colored building at 3040 Hancock. Currently the headquarters of the Menefee-Larson Construction Co., this structure is typical of utilitarian wartime housing, though it was never used as housing. Its first occupant in 1943 was L.C. Anderson, a building contractor who ran unsuccessfully for the San Diego City Council during the 1930s. Many of the war-era schools and Navy buildings around San Diego were built by Mr. Anderson; the Pacific Beach recreation center is one of the largest still standing. L.C.’s most noteworthy accomplishment was the Sears Roebuck store in Hillcrest, once the largest retail structure in San Diego. It was demolished a couple of years ago to make way for the Uptown Center.
After the war, the Hancock Street building passed to architect Frank Hope, Jr. In the 1950s, Hope gave the building to contractor C.A. Larsen in exchange for some land on Kearny Mesa (this information was provided by Mr. Larsen’s son-in-law and successor, former Associated General Contractors president Floyd Finnerty). In the 1970s, Norm Menefee took over the Larsen company and building. Now, Mr. Menefee says, he’s thinking of finding a new headquarters for the firm.
If you walk two blocks to the north, you’ll come to Jefferson Street, a short, little-used road that runs parallel to the I-5 freeway. Jefferson ends abruptly at Rosecrans, disappears for a few blocks, then reappears in Old Town. Decades ago it was a continuous street. In fact, these blocks near Jefferson and Gaines used to be considered part of Old Town. What we call Old Town today is really just the central nub of the old street plan.
Notice the concrete-slab paving in the roads. Until after the war, most San Diego streets were concrete. It was cheaper than asphalt and didn’t gum up on hot summer days.
Just north and west of here used to stand Aztec Terrace, a section of the Frontier housing that the San Diego State Foundation administered from 1947 to 1960.
Walk two blocks east to Rosecrans and four blocks south to Midway. En route you’ll pass the confusing six-way intersection at Rosecrans and Sports Arena Boulevard. From the 1940s to the early ’70s this intersection was a notorious, ill-marked traffic circle where cars backed up twice a day. During the 1940s, newsboys hawked the Tribune-Sun and the Daily Journal to motorists stopped in traffic. Around election day in ’48 and ’50, Congressman Clinton McKinnon staked out the circle and handed out political literature to passing drivers.
At Midway and Rosecrans, face east, looking toward the city’s main post office down at the end of Midway Drive. The post office site is where Claude Ryan built his hangar and terminal when he opened San Diego’s first commercial airstrip in 1925. By 1930 he had a flight school and an-aeronautical plant near Lindbergh Field (where JimsAir is today). Ryan sold his old buildings to a fellow named Arnett Speer, who also acquired much of the surrounding property. From 1944 to 1955, about 60 eight-unit Frontier apartment buildings were crowded onto a parcel of land near the southeast corner of Midway and Rosecrans. When the Federal government finally got around to selling off this housing, Mr. Speer attempted to buy the two-story buildings himself. He hoped to leave them on site, refurbish them, and rent them out. City officials wouldn’t let him; they said the Frontier units were substandard.
Across from the-post office is the site of the old Cotton Patch restaurant, popular hangout for newspapermen and other layabouts in the ’50s and ’60s. Old timers say the Cotton Patch was a really fine place. They tore it down recently to make room for a nudie show called Deja Vu.
On the north side of Midway you’ll see the Frontier Lanes, a bowling alley. It opened around 1962. Before that the building was a shopping complex called the Farmer’s Market, which included a grocery store, a game arcade, dry cleaner, barber shop, beauty parlor, delicatessen, gift shop, restaurant, pet shop, fish market, butcher, cobbler, and a shoe store, just up the street from the Frontier Lanes, next to an Aaron Bros, art supply store, is a bricked-up supermarket. That supermarket, a Safeway that opened in the late 1950s, was once considered an architectural gem.
Behind the site of the Farmer’s Market and Safeway, from 1949 to 1957, was a house factory called the Mobilhome Corporation. They would build you a whole house while you watched. Actually it took several days, but in their newspaper ads they made it look like while-u-wait service. These manufactured houses were very popular among people who lived in the Frontier buildings and wanted to get a real house.
Between the old Safeway and the corner of Rosecrans used to stand an Oscar’s drive-in restaurant (2966 Midway), part of the fast-food chain founded by the Peterson family. During the 1960s, it was transformed into the more up-to-date Jack In The Box.
Now turn around and look to the south and southeast. Seventy years ago, there was a golf course here, the Point Loma Golf Club.
Photographs of the time show it to have been a dusty place with little grass. In 1925 someone had the wild idea of turning the golf links into a first-rate country club and developing the surrounding region into an exclusive subdivision. When land boom of the mid-'20s went bust, even the golf course closed down.
Now walk west on Midway, toward Mission Bay. A few steps west of Rosecrans (at 3005 Midway) you’ll find the site of the old Topsy’s Drive-In restaurant, a popular little dive that shared a building with the Zanzibar cocktail lounge during the 1940s and ’50s. Eventually the area got too run-down for Topsy’s, and the diner moved to Washington Street in Hillcrest. Zanzibar hung on till the ’60s.
A little farther on (3135 Midway) you come to China Land, a restaurant that opened around 1947 and just recently went out of business. During the 1950s there was a miniature golf course next door to the restaurant.
Up the street a little, on the north side, you’ll see what appears to be a 1940s futuristic drive-in restaurant. Actually, it’s the Causway Cleaners, a dry-cleaning establishment that’s been there since 1947. Before the cleaners took over, it was a restaurant, the Causeway Drive-In. For some reason the diner’s owner left the E out of the CAUSWAY sign. “No one knows why,” says Vivian Dorland, who now runs the drycleaning shop.
During the 1950s, the land near Causway Cleaners held Aztec Villa, a housing project for married veterans studying at San Diego State. Like Aztec
Terrace to the east, these houses were owned by the city and administered by the San Diego State Foundation.
At Fordham Street, turn left and walk to the Midway Adult Center. This is one of the last wartime relics in the area. Originally it was an elementary school, part of the Frontier development. Later on it was a “continuation high school” where the school district sent students who were troublesome or needed remedial help. Soon the school will be demolished. Sharp Hospital has made an agreement with the city to take over the Midway Adult School grounds and build new clinics there. In return, Sharp will include classrooms as part of the complex.
On the west side of Fordham Street, across from the elementary school, stood the Midway Recreation Center. It looked very much like the school.
You are now in the heart of the old Frontier. Forty years ago most of the surrounding blocks were filled with flimsy eight-unit buildings. These two-story numbers were tom down or carted off in 1955. The area just north of the Midway School became the Frontier Drive-In movie theater. Now it’s a shopping center that calls itself Point Loma Plaza.
Walk back to Midway and Fordham and head west again. Just to your left used to stand the headquarters of the Frontier Homes Housing Project. Like the recreation center and the elementary school, this was in operation from 1944 till 1954. When federal administration of the Frontier houses ceased in 1954, many of the dwellings were torn down, and the population of the Mid-Way Frontier area dropped by about 10,000 people. Many local merchants went out of business or moved elsewhere.
Walk all the way up to the comer of Midway and West Point Loma Boulevard. During the 1920s a trolley line ran down West Point Loma Boulevard (the wooden trestles still stand by the Famosa Slough). By the 1940s this trolley line had been replaced by buses.
On the southwest comer of Midway and West Point Loma, there’s a retail plaza today. From the late ’40s through the ’60s this was the site of the Midway Drive-In Theater. The land parcel at the southeast comer of Midway and West Point Loma now holds a private apartment complex, but the underlying land belongs to the city. During the 1950s, when the city was selling off much of its land to private developers, Mayor Charles Dail insisted on holding on to this piece because the city anticipated a freeway interchange being built on this spot. The proposed ramps wound up a quarter-mile to the west, where the Ocean Beach Freeway passes over Sports Arena Boulevard.
Across Midway, on the V-shaped parcel where Midway and Sports Arena Boulevard come together, stood the Bali Drive-In during the ’40s and ’50s. The motif was that of a rotund Balinese temple, with a cone-shaped “headdress” that could be seen for blocks around. The old “Derby Dike,” the government levee that stood from the 1850s till the 1960s, began nearby, on the other side of Sports Arena Boulevard. By the early 20th Century, it ran all the way from here to Taylor and Morena in Old Town. When the Frontier project went up in 1944, the levee provided a natural boundary on the north.
Today the levee has been bulldozed to oblivion, but much of the Ocean Beach Freeway follows the embankment of the old dike.
Now let’s turn down West Point Loma Boulevard. A couple of blocks down the boulevard, on the left, are two sets of buildings that should catch your eye. (They’re behind all the gas stations and convenience stores.) One is the wartime-era Barnard Elementary School, and the other is the beige-and-green apartment complex known as Loma Palisades. Loma Palisades was planned in the late 1950s as a moderate-income private housing project of 58 acres and 1061 units, a sort of upgraded version of the Frontier houses it replaced. Using federal loan guarantees, the developers built too fast, too soon, and went bankrupt in the mid-’60s. Only half the project had been completed.
You’ll notice that Adrian Street has a median divider. This is the remnant of the elegant, landscaped entry drive to Loma Palisades. When the project opened in 1959, a double-arched portal stood over this entrance.
In the middle of the project, just next to the Barnard School, you’ll see a weedy vacant lot. This plot belongs to the San Diego Unified School district. In Frontier days, it held 17 two-story apartment buildings. They were closed in 1955 but not completely dismantled until 1957.
From West Point Loma Boulevard you can catch a bus that will take you down Midway. Or if you’re in the mood, you can walk back to Midway, cross the street, and hike back to your car via Sports Arena Boulevard (formerly Frontier Street). Frontier buildings in this area were smaller than those along Midway (four-unit rather than eight), and they were among the last to come down. As you pass the Sports Arena, you may wish to pause and imagine how the Frontier area looked in its desolate last days in the 1960s: a shuttered, deserted elementary school on the current site of the Arena, and half-dismantled wartime houses up and down Frontier Street.