Linda Vista army housing going up in WWII. I thought Roosevelt was another name for God.
Everyone who lived there knew the name meant “pretty view.” Maybe it wasn’t utopia. But it was a planned community for low-income people that, for a considerable period, managed to succeed. I lived there from 1946 until I graduated from high school in 1956. There may have been some kind of social stigma attached to it, but I don’t feel growing up in the project gave me a stunted childhood. Linda Vista, the federal housing project built for defense workers at the beginning of World War II, was kept in place for an additional ten years to ease the continuing housing crunch as veterans returned from the war. Many had been stationed here and fell in love with San Diego. Soon the project was opened up to other families with low incomes.
Author and her brother, late 40s. We rode the number 11 bus up Linda Vista Road.
My first impression of Linda Vista was formed when I was about three or four years old. My father’s brother lived there for a brief period while he worked at Consolidated (later known as Convair) during the war. When we visited his family, I was afraid to play outside. The first time I went outdoors on my own, I had gotten confused by the identical appearance of the units. I walked back into the wrong door in the same building and encountered a group of strangers. I was terrified but was soon restored to my own family. Still, the incident stayed with me. Even after I’d lived there for a while, I was always careful to look at my house number before I went inside, just to make sure.
Ulric Street. Tenants were given the first option to buy the permanent housing
I remember my mother was not happy about moving to Linda Vista. But when we were evicted from our rented house on Third Avenue in Hillcrest, my parents couldn’t find any place else they could afford. The property our house stood on had been sold to a major oil company for a new gas station, and the three houses on the property had to come down. Gas stations were going up all over town because more people were buying cars for everyday transportation.
Fulton and Eastman streets. It's a different community than the one I grew up in.
During the oil crisis in the 70s, the gas station at Third and University was removed. A minimal! now stands on the site of the first house I remember living in. None of the homes I lived in as a young child anywhere in San Diego still exists. It’s as if it were a different town I can never go home to.
The temporary housing we moved into in Linda Vista when I was eight years old had already been in place for its projected lifetime. It was supposed to be dismantled after five years. But it was not until the late ’50s that the houses were finally vacated and carted off, the streets razed and laid out in new patterns with new names and nice tract homes built. When I visit the area now, I can’t find any trace of streets called Palmer Court or Bullock Street, where I skated on the sidewalks, rode my bicycle, and played cowboys and Indians in the adjoining canyons.
When you live in a house to which the siding has been attached with double-headed nails, you don’t get sentimental about “home.” Or do you? Perhaps just the process of growing up in a place lends it a special aura. Even now, when I visit the “permanent” apartment building on Kelly Street, just above Tecolote Canyon, where we moved during my junior year of high school, I get a strange feeling. We didn’t live there long. We moved to a permanent duplex six months later. The solidly built, small stucco duplexes, triplexes, and single homes were already being sold off by lottery, with first choice given to their residents. We rented ours from the new private owner who lived in the other half. He immediately attached a layer of imitation fieldstone siding to prettify the facade. People were already disguising the government-built sameness with individual improvements. It was still Linda Vista, but it was no longer the housing project.
What was Linda Vista, anyway? The name’s origin is unknown. The early Spaniards seem to have referred to the area by that name. By the 1880s a small white settlement was already there. In 1886 Linda Vista was described as “a rather forlorn station on the AT&SF railroad line south of Soledad canyon and about ten miles north of Broadway in the City of San Diego.” When S.J. Goldthwait opened up about 30 of the 82,000 acres for development, he described the area as “the largest single body of urban land in Southern California. It has a general slope toward the west and south of 20 feet to the mile, giving the best possible slope for water distribution. It is cut by just enough narrow canyons to insure perfect drainage. The whole formation is a deposit of the tertiary period and is so rich in iron, potash, and lime that these important elements of fertility will never have to be supplied.”
The ownership of the lands was acquired from three sources: from the U.S. government by homestead and preemption; ex-mission lands formerly belonging to the Roman Catholic Church; and pueblo lands of San Diego Indians.
In 1889, Joseph Jessop, a prosperous jeweler of Liverpool, England, was told by his London physician that he might have six more months to live if he would spend his remaining days in Southern California. So Mr. and Mrs. Jessop and their seven children arrived in San Diego in September of that year and set up housekeeping in a small house in Linda Vista surrounded by eucalyptus trees and farmland. He lived six months, then another six months. After two years, he built his house in the city, sent for his jeweler’s tools, and started fixing watches again.
By the early 1890s, the settlement of Linda Vista had three schools, a community church, and a thriving post office. Most of the mesa residents had been farming their land, but a drought began that drove out most of the settlers. In 1928, W. Cotton, a real estate promoter, bought and subdivided 160 acres of the mesa. He called his subdivision “Chesterton” and sold lots for SI50 to $300. But the Depression put a stop to the development. The money Cotton spent on paved streets, water, and sewers was “down the drain.” When World War II started, the U.S. government condemned the land and bought it.
In just one year at the start of World War II, the population of the City of San Diego jumped nearly 50 percent from 203,341 to over 300,000. It was the first year of the early-’40s defense boom, when Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, with its $2 million-a-week payroll, was attracting aircraft workers and their families from all over the country at a rate of 1500 per week. This created the most acute housing crisis the city has ever known. Families were living in tents in Mission Valley; homeowners were putting up cottages in their back yards. The federal government responded to the crisis by creating a carefully planned, rapidly constructed community on a 4000-acre site known as Linda Vista. Before the original Spanish name was settled on, several names were considered for the housing project: “Mesa Hills,” “Liberty Hills,” “Fireside Heights,” and “Del Delano.”
In 1941 the first 3000 units went up, 10 homes a week. Ground was broken for the first planned shopping center in the country, Linda Vista Plaza Shopping Center, in November 1942. Eleanor Roosevelt turned over the first spadeful of earth for this 12.5-acre prototype of the modem shopping mall. Between 1941 and 1945,2200 more permanent and temporary housing units were constructed. At the peak of the war years, the population of the Linda Vista Federal Housing Project numbered 27,000, with the largest number of children of any comparably sized community in the United States.
One of my earliest memories in Linda Vista is walking with another girl to Kit Carson School in my first month of third grade. My friend was excited about plans her mother had to take her to the “Sinner” after school. It sounded like a wonderful place. I grilled her on the subject, trying to figure out what she meant. It seemed to be a place to shop, not unlike downtown. I soon found out that it was called the “Center” by residents (my friend was from Texas) and sometimes the “Plaza.” But I was still uncertain what it was the center of.
The first time my mother took me and my baby brother to the center, we rode the number 11 bus up Linda Vista Road. We lived on the southwestern fringe of the project, and it seemed a long way — about twice as far as the elementary school, which, for me, was a long walk. When we got off the bus, all we could see was a parking strip along the backs of the buildings. The Linda Vista Theater towered above the other single-story shops, and we entered the center next to the theater. That theater later became the scene of marathon Saturday afternoon cartoon and cowboy-serial sessions for me and my brothers. I sat through many episodes of The Cisco Kid (my favorite) and Bugs Bunny (this was before television).
I can still picture the center it was laid out in a long rectangle around a grassy, tree-planted quad. The stores faced the quad, which was ringed with a broad sidewalk. Behind the stores on all sides, a narrow parking lot served those who could travel by car. At one end was a Thrifty Drug Store, with its typical ’40s-style soda fountain. At the halfway point loomed the Linda Vista Theater. At the south end was the Linda Vista Department Store. There was a barbershop, beauty shop, bike shop, hardware store, stationery store, five-and-dime, dress shop, a men’s store, and a shoe store. Everything the average person needed to buy (except sheet music, records, or books) could be found there. I can’t picture any restaurants; people didn’t eat out much in those days (at least we didn’t). A coffee shop might have stood opposite the theater.
What I didn’t know then was the Linda Vista Shopping Center was the first of its kind. Commercial strips ran along many of the main streets in neighborhoods like North Park, Normal Heights, and Hillcrest. And, of course, there was downtown, where, as soon as I was old enough, I could take the bus and visit the music shops and used bookstores. But the first commercial shopping mall wasn’t built until 1956 in Southfield, Michigan. The Linda Vista Shopping Center was a pleasant place, close enough to Kearny Junior/Senior High School for kids to hang out or pass through on their way home from school. After a while, I took it for granted.
Besides being a residential community laid out with natural open space and individual private yards, Linda Vista had other amenities. Churches were everywhere. Elementary schools and food markets were within walking distance. Grocery stores were small markets called Linda Marts, a franchise operation given numbers instead of names. At a lawn mower “shop,” you could check out a rotary lawn mower and other garden tools (residents were encouraged to take care of their own patches of lawn).
Playgrounds with swings, slides, and teeter-totters were easy to get to (we preferred the natural playgrounds of the canyons, of course). I remember one playground built out on a point of land where I’d take my little brothers when I was babysitting. A good branch public library, which featured summer reading programs for children, was built right across Linda Vista Road from the center. Gas stations sprang up at intervals along Linda Vista Road as more residents bought cars. One gas station, along my route home from Kit Carson School had a candy machine where I used to spend my milk nickel on a Mr. Peanut bar. I recall a recreation center where I watched my father perform with the local theater group in plays by Moliere and Christopher Fry.
At first the project was racially segregated because the government housing authority thought people preferred it that way. But this was California, not the South, and there was pressure to integrate. Soon the policy was changed. My parents were in favor of it, but at first some of our neighbors from Southern states were uncomfortable, both blacks and whites. When we moved from the two-bedroom triplex on Palmer Court to the three-bedroom unit on Bullock Street, some of our neighbors were African-American and Mexican-American. My youngest brother’s best friend was a child of our black neighbor’s. (I saw him in January at my brother’s funeral.) The first time I ever played my cello in public was at the A.M.E. church his family attended in another part of town.
In those days, everybody felt themselves to be upwardly mobile. For most of the residents of Linda Vista, it was an interim place to live until they could raise the money for a down payment on a new house in Clairemont or La Mesa. Except for those in a state of welfare poverty, Linda Vista was a temporary stopping place on the way to middle-class affluence. I lost many friends to upward mobility. For a long time we had no car, so it was hard to keep in touch with kids who were attending school in another part of town, kids whose parents had no wish to be reminded of having lived in Linda Vista. As many as 100,000 San Diegans passed through the project during the 14 years the government ran it Many are still embarrassed to admit it. My family probably lived there longer than most, except for the very poor.
It was not that we were that poor. I think my father actually liked living in Linda Vista. He was not materially ambitious. The job he liked best was working as a gardener for the city parks department. It didn’t pay as well, but he preferred it to Consolidated, where he’d worked during the war. I felt proud when we could go to Presidio Park and find him pruning shrubs or digging a flower bed. My first bicycle was an abandoned, unclaimed English bike (possibly stolen) that be found while working there. (It was too big for me, but I learned to ride it by falling down a lot.) My mother finally persuaded him to go back to Convair because it paid better. She always lamented that he didn’t finish college and become a schoolteacher like her father. My father came from a working-class family.
While studying biology at San Diego State, my father became interested in socialism. During the Depression he associated with a Trotskyist club on campus. They were a serious group of students who got together to discuss idealistic solutions to the social and economic ills of Western Civilization. But he told me he became wary when he and his friends were wined and dined on an expensive yacht by an older man who tried to recruit them into the Communist Party. My father became convinced that the Stalinists were a ruthless, hypocritical bunch. How could they throw money around courting American students while members of the proletariat in Russia were starving?
What did my father’s socialist leanings have to do with living in Linda Vista? It may partially explain why we stayed there so long. I imagine he felt proud to participate in a utopian experiment carried out by the U.S. government. He believed in the class-leveling effect of public housing. When he worked in the aircraft industry, he was also a strong supporter of the Machinists Union and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations, which in 1955 merged with the American Federation of Labor to become the AFL-CIO). When I was growing up, I thought Roosevelt was another name for God. Now that I’ve grown older and more cynical, I can see the housing project was just another method of subsidizing big business (the “defense” industry) by providing cheap housing for workers. But it was a humane effort.
For one thing, it was fair. When the need became apparent, it was opened up to everyone whose low income qualified them, regardless of race, religion, employment, or veteran status. Rent was determined by ability to pay — the formula was based on an average 20 percent of household income. How many people today could spend so small a proportion of their income on housing?
At that time, it was considered a normal ratio. Units were allotted on the basis of family size. When the family grew, you put in an application for a larger unit After my youngest brother was born, we were able to move to a three-bedroom unit in the same school neighborhood. Every effort was made to accommodate people fairly.
Linda Vista was efficiently administered. The buildings were painted on a regular schedule. As the housing aged, repairs were made in a timely manner (unlike today’s low-income communities, where physical neglect leads to shabby, dangerous conditions). This was necessary as Linda Vista’s temporary housing was built below city code and in use long past its projected lifetime. The residential landscaping was uneven, depending on tenants’ cooperation. Some were more inclined to gardening than others. But peer pressure kept most people’s lawns to a minimum standard. Public spaces, like playgrounds, were also well maintained. When a swing broke, someone reported it, and it was replaced. The shopping center, in its parklike setting, was kept in pristine condition until it was sold to a private corporation in the early ’50s.
Housing projects are often thought of as regulated environments with imposed restrictions. But residents of Linda Vista enjoyed a considerable measure of freedom. More leeway was allowed than private landlords permitted in other parts of the city. I don’t believe any restrictions were established for pets. Most people owned dogs and cats, which were allowed to roam at will; our dog was rarely on a leash. No one minded, because enough open space prevented a dog from becoming a nuisance. This freedom may have led to litters of pups of a mixed coyote breed. I remember kids bragging, “Our dog is part coyote.”
Our next-door neighbor on Palmer Court raised chickens in his fenced back yard. As a child, I enjoyed the sounds of the clucking hens, always fretting and complaining, and the rooster’s crowing day and night. I looked on with interest when our neighbor beheaded a young capon for his family’s dinner. Later, when we moved to Bullock Street, my father built a rabbit hutch in the back yard. The furry animals were not intended as pets but to supplement our diet. Many people had vegetable gardens; tomatoes thrived in that climate, especially when the kids were put to work picking off the little green worms.
Children thrived too. How could they not in an environment that combined urban amenities with rural freedom? Was it safe? In ten years I knew of only one child who died, and that was from being hit by a car on Linda Vista Road. It was the main traffic artery through the project, and we were all cautioned to take care when crossing it. The project was laid out so that none of the housing was built on Linda Vista Road; some of the residential streets paralleled it. Where back yards abutted it, high chainlink fences were maintained to prevent access. Only extreme carelessness could result in such an accident. Natural threats, like rattlesnakes, were avoided. But parents feared canyon fires more than anything else. We couldn’t be prevented from playing in the canyons, and unsupervised children can’t resist playing with matches (when they can get their hands on them). So canyon fires occasionally threatened our community.
When a canyon caught fire, the fire department was quick to respond. Linda Vista had its own fire station, and residents were alert for the smell of smoke. There were no fireplaces, and burning rubbish was forbidden because of the hazard. I don’t remember a house ever burning down, although it may have happened in other neighborhoods. When we first moved to Palmer Court, few of the residents had telephones, but on every corner a public telephone booth was maintained for incoming calls. When the phone rang, somebody was always around to answer it and summon a neighbor. Refrigerators were rare at first, too. I remember weekly visits from the ice truck on Palmer Court — kids following it on hot summer days, hoping for slivers of ice to suck on.
As in most middle-class neighborhoods of the period, the custom was for fathers to work and mothers to stay home and take care of the children. The only men who did not work were those with disabilities. Unemployment was not a problem in those postwar years. Even so, Linda Vista had few working mothers or single-parent families, and most of those were mothers receiving welfare or widow’s benefits from husbands lost in the war. My mother did not take a paid job until her boys were in high school and I’d left home.
My mother’s attitude toward living in Linda Vista was different from my father’s. She was not dragged there, but it wasn’t her idea of a proper place to live. She’d grown up in a middle-class home on a canyon rim in University Heights with a father who taught at San Diego High School and a mother who was an artist. Her
grandfather had been a professor at UC Berkeley. Although she may have had middle-class pretensions, I believe my mother’s objections to Linda Vista were aesthetic more than anything else. She had definite ideas about the kind of home she wanted. Her own artist mother had redesigned and remodeled their home and had built three other houses on speculation. The utilitarian, military-style temporary housing we had to live in was not Mother’s idea of “home.”
She also had concerns about the type of people who would be our neighbors. She may have had preconceived notions about the “lower classes,” but these soon dissipated as she became acquainted with the people who lived around us. She was (and still is at 83) a gregarious woman, interested in people and inclined to make friends. She involved herself in neighborhood drama. The richness of our neighborhood was in its variety. People from all parts of the country (and the world) shared our sidewalks — they practically shared our bedrooms! Privacy in those thin-walled, attached units was not easy to achieve. Because of the small dwellings and the benign nature of our climate, much of our living was done outdoors.
Mother may have hated the wretched living space we called home, but she loved the social interaction that went on around us. She joined the PTA and the Methodist Church. She formed friendships that have lasted until this day. She still looks back with nostalgia at that decade of her life and tells stories that rival soap operas about the people she regarded as fascinating and exotic.
“Someday I’m going to write it all up,” she says, and then goes on to tell me about Regina (not her real name), whom I remember for her pungent Italian cooking; the aromas permeated the neighborhood. The first time I ever tasted eggplant was in her kitchen. “Regina was Boston Italian,” says Mother, always emphasizing a person’s ethnic and geographical origins, as if that should tell you everything you need to know. “She was very big, of operatic proportions, and must have been beautiful in her youth. She was married to a short Boston Irishman who was madly in love with her. He adored the mad drama she made of every incident in life. Regina was his queen.
“She had fallen away from the Church because she was ashamed of how large she had become and had nothing nice to wear to Mass. Her husband persuaded her she should go, because it was on her conscience and bothering her very much. He bought her a beautiful new dress, and she looked quite stunning in it.
“It was Saturday afternoon, and Regina had already been to confession. Tomorrow she would take the sacrament for the first time in several years. But who should show up at her door but the dog catcher. It seemed that someone in the neighborhood had put in a complaint about her dog, which was now sprawled out on the kitchen floor, exhausted from whatever mischief he’d been up to. The dog catcher described the animal to her and asked if she knew who it belonged to. Regina, of course, denied all knowledge of the dog.
“As soon as the dog catcher had left, Regina was on my doorstep in tears. ‘Oh, Jane, what am I going to do? I’ve committed a sin. I’ve lied! I can’t go to Mass tomorrow.’ She told me what she’d said to the dog catcher. It had become a tragedy of lamentable proportions. 'Well, I think you did the right thing,’ I said. ‘How would the children feel if their dog was dragged off to the pound?’
“ ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking,’ said Regina, ‘or I never would have lied like that. But it still is a sin, isn’t it?’ ‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It seems like you did the wrong thing for the right reason. Maybe if you go home and pray about it you’ll know what to do.’ So she went back into her house while I kept an eye on the kids. The next morning she was on her way to Mass all decked out in her new outfit.”
The story of Regina goes on in Mother’s version, ending in real tragedy. Regina’s husband had been trained in mortuary science by the Army. He had ambitions to own his own funeral home. One day, the couple took my parents for a drive in their car to another part of the city and proudly showed them the beautiful, colonial-style building they hoped to buy. Sometime after that, Regina’s husband drove his car to the bottom of Tecolote Canyon and put a bullet in his brain. Nobody ever knew why.
It wasn’t until I reached high school that I became unhappy in Linda Vista, and that may have been a function of my adolescence and the pain of growing up. I had seen many friends leave the project with their parents, and I felt trapped by my own parents’ lack of ambition. I felt sure that Kearny, in spite of its brand-new campus, was the worst high school in the city. I didn’t feel part of any of the social groups. There was the Pachuco gang — the guys with slicked-back, ducktail hairstyles, both Mexican-Americans and Anglos, and the “easy” girls wearing an excess of makeup — that group scared me. There were the “Dianas,” a kind of sorority for perfect girls, to which I could never aspire because of my unstylish clothes. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was into playing classical music, writing poetry, and reading Dostoyevsky. I was hopelessly uncool and knew it.
The end of my childhood coincided with the end of the housing project. I had enjoyed a prolonged tomboy stage — playing cowboys and Indians in the canyons with (mostly younger) boys; enjoying a fantasy life of living in the rural West. And discovering, below the sheltering canyon rims, where civilization was hidden from view, a nurturing solitude in which to read and dream.
The beginning of the end was signaled by the decline of Linda Vista Plaza Shopping Center. It was sold by auction to the highest bidder in the early ’50s. The government had done a good job keeping up the appearance of the buildings and maintaining the lawns and plantings, but the new corporate owners initiated a policy of not-so-benign neglect. When I was in high school, the place started to look run down. Rents were increased, and small business owners had a hard time maintaining a profit margin. Stores changed hands. Kids still hung out there, but nobody picked up the trash. It wasn’t such a nice place to shop anymore.
Gradually people were moved out of the temporary housing. For a while it was scarcely inhabited. Then it became a ghost town. Traffic on Lnda Vista Road was disrupted daily by trucks hauling forlorn-looking, crate-like buildings away to sites outside city limits. (I swear I recognized some of them a few years ago driving through the desert.)
Tenants were given the first option to buy the permanent housing, then the remainder were sold by lottery to non-resident landlords. Some of the apartment buildings began to suffer the same neglect as the shopping center. But the neighborhoods, the clusters of individual homes and duplexes, started showing signs of owners’ pride, as residents dignified their homes with personal touches. At the same time, under the guise of “protecting property values,” discrimination became more brutal. After I’d gone away to college, I heard a cross was burned on a black family’s lawn in my parents’ neighborhood.
The view from Linda Vista was changing. It was becoming a different community than the one I grew up in. The Linda Vista Federal Housing Project was gone and with it the naivety of my childhood. But somehow it helped shape my own private dream of utopia, a society where everyone — black or white, rich or poor, working or idle, sane or crazy — has a recognized right to decent housing.