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La Mesa Boulevard began as a wagon trail

Where sweet peace and love abideth

La Mesa Boulevard. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad. - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
La Mesa Boulevard. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad.

During my childhood in the early’50s, Highway 80 cut through the heart of most every town and city along its route. A few years later, the interstates would turn those stretches of highway into business loops. I’m charmed by those business loops that once were highways to someplace. Along them, our towns and cities grew.

La Mesa Drug Co. - in business as long as I remember.

La Mesa Boulevard began as a wagon trail, served as a section of the main highway from San Diego to El Centro, became a stretch of Highway 80, which was the southern route from coast to coast, and at last got bypassed by the interstate.

On the left is Porter Hall, where quilting, Hawaiian dancing, and French classes meet, and the Little League field named after my dad.

In the early stages of urban sprawl, when there’s plenty of land to exploit, all but the most artistic developers avoid hills. While flatlands become grids of streets, with uniform houses on uniform lots, hills defend settlers against the march of uniformity. Six hills border La Mesa Boulevard. Streets go round and round. Houses perch at quirky angles, some on pads, others with their rear ends on granite, their front porches on stilts.

Hopping trains was the least of our crimes along the Boulevard.

The Boulevard traces a ragged semicircle. It commences at El Cajon Boulevard across from the current site of St. Martin’s Catholic church. When my dad was a salesman for Central Meat Company, he became a fan of a St. Martin’s priest. Father Berry. St. Martin’s was on my dad’s route, and he couldn’t make a call without Father Berry pouring them each a tumbler of Scotch. Between sips, they swapped jokes and stories. My dad thought Father Berry should be the next Pope.

Senior Adult Center offers pinochle, ballroom dancing, movies, trips to Temecula vineyards and to Branson, Missouri, for country music.

Across El Cajon Boulevard from St. Martin’s, there’s a taco shop, but I prefer Casa Blanca, a hundred yards east. I ate my first taco there, in 1953. Before, I had shied from Mexican food as if it were pig’s knuckles or cauliflower. This night, my dad challenged, “What are you, a wimp?”

I ate a taco. My life became perfect for a while.

Casa Blanca still has fine tacos and a patio surrounded in bougainvillea. It’s La Mesa’s oldest Mexican restaurant, established during the 1920s by a couple who bought the property when it was a fruit stand along the highway.

Eastward from Casa Blanca, the boulevard cuts between two knolls, then dips and crosses University. The Vons shopping center occupies the land on the corner of University and the Boulevard where the Helix theater used to be. My first recollections of the Helix theater are feelings of terror from a film called House of Wax, in which a mad artist created wax imitations of famous characters by searching out look-alikes and dipping them into molten wax. Saturday afternoons in summers, a quarter would get me into cartoon matinees, 30 straight episodes of Mickey Mouse or Looney Tunes.

The theater was neutral ground between the territories of the Lemon Avenue and Mesa Dale Elementary Schools, between the La Mesa National and American Little Leagues. Naturally, little gangs developed and feuds erupted, usually in the shadows of the parking lot that surrounded the theater. Out back behind the Dumpster, an older guy conked me on the head with a length of pipe because I had flirted with his girlfriend and ignored his little sister.

One Friday night, my friend Steve, while hurrying down University on his way from the Helix theater to his home on Harbinson Avenue, noticed the approach of a dark figure. Steve stealthily picked up a fist -sized stone and strode onward. Not until he and the dark figure were close enough to touch did Steve recognize his brother, sent out by their folks to retrieve him. Both brothers dropped their stones.

The first stoplight east of University is Normal Avenue. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad, who knew all the town’s business people. He came for me, his face bloody purple. He slipped a dollar to the man and led me to the car, where we sat in silence until I broke it with the most shameful lie of my youth. I told him I stole the cigarettes so I could sell them to a guy for a quarter with which I intended to buy Mom a birthday card. He deliberated, then softened and told me he loved me.

A tanning salon now occupies the old 7-Eleven. St. Martin’s Catholic church built its original home here in 1922. The first little house uphill from the tanning salon was the rectory.

Before the 1970s brought redevelopment. Normal used to cross the Boulevard and continue alongside the fenced playground of La Mesa Elementary, where I began school and where my mother had launched her teaching career during the Great Depression. Between the school and the theater ran shady Orange Avenue, down which I used to stroll with an eye on a certain window, because a young woman often appeared in a bra and panties.

I take a scenic route off the Boulevard, south on Normal Avenue up the slope of Mount Nebo atop of which La Mesa’s Easter sunrise services were held from 1914 to 1916, before they were relocated to the higher ground of Mount Helix. The first cross street off Normal is Lemon Avenue, which I follow eastward. Walking past fourplexes built into the hillside in perplexing configurations. I’m reminded of more exotic places like Rome and Malibu. There are paths that lead through tunnels formed by overhanging mulberry and loquat trees to hidden bungalows where Hollywood might set the lair of a murdered starlet in a ’40s detective flick.

Rooftop patios cap three-story houses. From up there, when the fog burns off, there’s a clear view of the Pacific 15 miles west. On either side of a stately cottage-roofed home are flat-topped WWII economy houses. My favorite house on the block is so basic and tattered, it would seem more in character in a dreary border town to where old western gunslingers fled for sanctuary. Any moment, I expect the eyes of a dozen hungry children to peer out.

Along that hillside block of Lemon Avenue I discover peculiar metal sculptures, overgrown rose gardens, a derelict car, all the stuff that distinguishes a town from a suburb. At the end of the block, I sit on a retaining wall, gaze down at the Boulevard, and wonder myself into those days when boxy experiments on skinny wheels rattled and sputtered along the dirt boulevard then called Lookout Avenue toward the sister peaks of Helix and Grossmont.

At the end of the block, Lemon drops steeply off Mt. Nebo to Acacia Avenue. A left on Acacia leads back to the Boulevard. This intersection marks the western end of the stretch the city closes to traffic for the annual Oktoberfest. When my mom was a girl, before the Helix theater, the town’s movie emporium occupied the middle building on the south side of the block between Acacia and Date Avenues. My mom chaperoned her grandfather to matinees. In his 80s, he needed an ear horn, and rather than speaking, he shouted, which traumatized my mom, a shy teenager. Once when she delivered a soda to him, there in the crowded theater on a Saturday afternoon, he bellowed, “Why, Ada, this soda’s warm as piss!”

Across the street, there’s a new mini-mall where I remember a hobby store that supplied me with model airplanes. A couple of doors away was Palermo Pizza, owned during my high school years by a heavy woman, who loved to feed people, and her lean husband, who my friends and I suspected was connected to the mob, on account of the Sons of Italy meetings he held weekly in the back room. To us who watched The Untouchables TV series, they looked like relatives of Al Capone.

One night in Palermo Pizza, my best friend and I were talking philosophy, giving our opinions of Bertrand Russell. A guy I had known for six years exclaimed, “Kuhlken, you’re not so stupid! I thought you were stupid.”

During the 1970s, city big shots hatched a scheme to raise property-tax revenues from the Boulevard by ridding the area of the old, low-rent structures. They would level most of the terrain on the north side from east of Spring Street to University Avenue and offer it to developers. They moved to condemn the old buildings and clear the land. The city council made deals with developers, but at least one major party backed out on account of economic and zoning complications. For a decade, while new plans appeared and failed, the north side of the block between Nebo Drive and Date by barren. Soured because the big shots had bulldozed my old haunts, I wrote a novel in which the hero bombs the half-constructed mall a tycoon is building there.

On the south side, in the two blocks between Acacia and the Spring Street trolley line, there’s a Bible bookstore, Tang Soo Do karate studio, a yoga studio, women’s resale clothing stores, and Barnes Printers, where I earned my first wages.

The two-story building on the southwest comer of Nebo Drive and the Boulevard was originally the La Mesa Lemon Company Store and Post Office during the 1890s. Now there’s a sign shop downstairs and a lawyer and a dance studio upstairs.

Nebo Drive, which parallels the trolley line, is the site of La Mesa’s railroad museum, worth the brief detour. On weekends from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., an old-timer gives tours of the depot and the engine, boxcar, and caboose. The La Mesa Depot is the Boulevard’s oldest structure and the only surviving San Diego and Cuyamaca Railway station. During 1885, the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads extended service to San Diego. The section of the line that crosses the Boulevard was originally planned to join with the Southern Pacific at Needles, but hilly terrain or problems with financing (depending on with whom you talk) stopped it near Lakeside. Though the line carried mostly freight, there was passenger service until 1928. Until construction of Grossmont High in 1922, high school students including my mom commuted on the train to San Diego High, along the same route today’s trolley uses.

Spring Street runs along the east side of the trolley line. The street is named for the springs around which early La Mesa grew. The most generous one was a quarter mile south of the Boulevard. The spring house where villagers pumped their drinking water became a meeting hall after the spring ran dry. I remember Boy Scouts and stamp collectors gathering there. The boarded-up house remains in Collier Park on the south end of Palm Avenue.

The stretch of the Boulevard people call “the Village” runs from Spring Street up past Fourth. The Village is the part of town that escaped redevelopment. It hasn’t changed much since my boyhood, when I could overlook it from my bedroom window in the house up the hill southeast of the intersection of Fourth Street and the Boulevard. We lived there in my grandma’s home from my second year to my ninth. In 1945, when the Army released my dad, he borrowed money and opened a cabinet business. Two years later, the business failed. Since my dad refused to declare bankruptcy, it would take seven years of paying off his debts before we could afford our own home.

From my bedroom or our downstairs picture window, we could gaze at the whole stretch of the Boulevard along which, the week after Thanksgiving, city custodians strung bright lights and starry garlands, as they still do. My dad loved Christmas. Every year, he led my mom, grandma, me, an aunt or uncle, and several cousins tramping down the hill and along the Boulevard to the northwest corner of the Spring Street intersection. Where a trolley ticket machine now sits on a concrete island, we pilgrims would congregate to admire the nativity scene beside the tall pine, and the kids among us would beg Santa to bring treasures on Christmas morning, while both we and the grownups delighted at the choirs and carolers.

Halfway between Spring Street and Palm Avenue on the south side, in a comer of what now is Godfather II Italian restaurant, there was a tiny shop peddling magazines, candy, and tobacco, all of which fascinated me and Carl, my partner in crime.

Carl was wild, even when we first met during fourth grade. His dad manufactured flywheels and clutches for racing cars, and Carl had inherited a passion for speed. As the leader of a gang of boys, the rest of them high school age, he had recently masterminded a car theft and flight east. New Mexico state troopers apprehended and jailed Carl’s gang in Las Cruces. Back home, the school district authorities transferred him from La Mesa Elementary to Lemon Avenue school, where he was supposed to reform in a new environment but instead singled me out as a sidekick since I was big and my tough-guy act was convincing.

We went joyriding in “borrowed” cars. We shoplifted. Carl introduced me to Hava-A-Tampas, mild cigars with plastic tips that prevented the juices from dripping onto our tongues. We bought them from the newsstand between Palm Avenue and Spring Street, where the aged, gnomish proprietor, more dedicated to sales than to guarding the purity of children, also allowed us to gawk at the skin mags.

We rattled up the hillside and past the granite quarry, through a section of Lemon Grove Carl named Little T.J., past machine shops and junkyards. As the big engine slowed to cross Broadway, we dove and rolled down a grassy bank at the corner of Lemon Grove Way and North Avenue.

Hopping trains was the least of our crimes along the Boulevard. At the Palm Avenue intersection, Gus Schuetz, used to sell newspapers. An acute observer might have predicted my future and Gus’s by the way we handled free enterprise. Gus was a legitimate business person. He had gained a franchise and subcontracted to Tommy and Eddie. A supervisor of newsboys would sling a few bundles of Sunday papers onto the sidewalk at the northwest comer of the intersection, in front of Rexall Drugs that occupied the ground floor of the former La Mesa Hotel. Gus, Tommy, and Eddie would fold and hawk their papers at the four-way-stop intersection. Had I been wiser, I might’ve joined Gus’s crew and sold papers on the remaining comer.

But I hung out with Carl, who had big ideas for a low-overhead, quick-return venture. For weeks, every Sunday morning after my route delivering the Independent, a weekly advertising rag, Carl and I lurked in an alley until the newsstand delivery man — a different one from Gus’s supervisor — dropped a bundle of the San Diego Union in front of one of the five-and-dimes. As the delivery truck lugged away down Palm Avenue toward Lemon Grove, we pedaled out of the alley to the Boulevard, loosed the bundle’s straps with the switchblade knives Carl had bought us on a family outing to T. J., filled our bags with copies of the Union, and pedaled hard east, timing the heist so as to begin our descent toward the ball field and rec center before Gus, Tommy, and Eddie arrived.

Our destination was the corner of the Boulevard and Jackson Drive, another four-way-stop where we could stand on corners and sell the papers that would finance a Sunday adventure, a bus trip downtown where we loitered around tattoo parlors and arcades and squandered our loot on peep shows, the ’50s version of porno theaters. We dropped quarters into slide viewers and gawked through the eyepieces. Or we bused to National City for a pair of three-tone shoes made of exotic skins, the kind local pachucos wore.

One Sunday morning, just before dawn, since the delivery man hadn’t shown, rather than give up our adventure, we raided Gus’s papers. We were cramming them into our bags when Gus and his crew came racing out of the pale western sky. Gus was a runt at the time, but Tommy and Eddie were older, tough high school guys. Besides, we stood two against three. They cornered us in the alley. Gus said, “Just give the papers back.” We handed them over.

That week at school, Gus and I made friends. We still are. He’s a surgeon with an estate on Mount Soledad and rental property on Mission Bay. I’m a repentant sinner.

The city center during my childhood was the block between Spring Street and Palm Avenue, named for the palm trees that once grew in its center. My grandma told stories about the years of 1911 and 1912 when the American Film Manufacturing Company led by Allan I Man nearly monopolized that block and produced a hundred films, mostly westerns.

In a second-floor office on the southwest comer of the Palm Avenue intersection, across the Boulevard from the old La Mesa Hotel, above a five-and-dime, San Diego’s classiest mystery writers created detective Max Thursday. In their novels, Thursday outwitted, outmuscled, and outshot San Diego’s underworld. Robert Wade and Bill Miller— alias Wade Miller — wrote spellbinders like Uneasy Street, Calamity Fair, and Shoot to Kill all through the 1950s in their office between a dentist and a realty company.

Across Palm Avenue is La Mesa Drug, in business as long as I remember. Next door to the east there’s a popular children’s bookstore where Alan’s Music used to reside. Probably half the kids who grew up in La Mesa strummed, tooted, or banged on some instrument at Alan’s Music. I took lessons from a guitarist who gathered three of his students into a combo. We learned a short repertoire of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and doo-wop songs. We played at one party before our 16-year-old lead guitar careened his motorcycle off the Spring Street bridge and died.

At the northeast corner, on the site of what was La Mesa’s opera house, Por Favor restaurant has added on a saloon, giving competition to Joe ’N Andy’s and Pete’s Place up the block. From Joe ’N Andy’s, insolent whoops and noise from a too-loud stereo invade the Boulevard. Joe ’N Andy’s is a newcomer compared to Pete’s Place, a few storefronts west. Pete’s has been there as long as my memory, on the north side, halfway between Palm Avenue and Fourth Street. It’s the same gloomy place as always, only the clientele and the music have changed. There used to be an older crowd when Pete Palermo ran the place, and he and his cronies filled the dark with their quips and throaty laughter.

Beside Headhunters there’s a shady passway with benches. A few years back. La Mesa had a cultural arts director, Colleen Finnegan, who helped choose an abstract metal sculpture by Peter Minton for the passway. Colleen describes it as “A contemporary piece that made a web out of light, air, and the crossing of the shadows from the overhead beams and the vertical beams of the sculpture. You could walk right through the middle of it. But the reaction from merchants and the strollers and shoppers was immediate hostility. They didn’t understand it or want to try. They wanted the passway to be a little sylvan glade, nothing more challenging. The chamber of commerce got complaints the city offices got complaints, the merchants passed on complaints.” Meanwhile, the city council warned Colleen that the budget for her position might soon disappear. So she left for another job, and the city proceeded to remove the sculpture. Colleen says, “As far as I know, the sculpture is still leaning up against the wall in the storage shed.”

Through the passway is a municipal parking lot that becomes the Oktoberfest beer garden. Over a weekend, thousands of visitors roam the Boulevard gobbling sausages and Chipwiches. Enough beer to fill an ocean sloshes out of kegs, and beer-inspired people dance to the squawk of accordions.

The Boulevard also hosts a Christmas festival, three Friday nights of street fair and carolers. Thursday evenings between April and October feature a ’50s car show. The promoters reserve a block of parking spaces, and owners of classic vehicles show them off as though it were a set for a remake of Rebel Without a Cause. Friday afternoons year-round there’s the Farmers’ Market in the municipal parking lot.

Between Palm Avenue and Fourth Street, antique, junk, and gift dealers have clustered. There’s an antique radio specialist beside the Christian Science Reading Room where my dad’s mother used to volunteer her services.

Third Street intersects from the south only. A glance that way offers a view of the Congregational church and its chapel built in 1911. Several restaurants have come and gone from the building at the northeast comer of the block. I remember Fords on display where the tables now sit. Elmer Drew opened his Ford showroom there. His business began with a garage in the early 1920s, soon after he and my mom graduated from Grossmont High. By the 1950s there was the showroom on the Boulevard and a body shop out back, on the corner of Allison Avenue and Pine Street. Carl and I discovered a collection of interesting photographs on the body shop’s office wall, and a burly guy with a ruddy face told us that women like the one in the photo who showed off her six breasts in three identical sets weren’t as rare as we might suppose. He claimed he’d known several women like her.

Allison Avenue joins the Boulevard at a 30 degree angle, forming at the junction a triangular lot too narrow for a building. Last year, on Fridays and weekends between April and Christmas, the place was inhabited by jewelers, wood-carvers, dealers in bread, flowers, hot sauce, Mexican pottery, tie-dyed shirts, dolls, wood-carved bears. From the corner, I can look southeast up Boulder Heights, point to the highest tree in view and boast, “My grandma planted that tree there in her yard, where I grew up, in 1922, the same year she wrote the city poem.” If people show interest, I could say, “It’s where the city slogan, ‘Jewel of the Hills,’ came from. It’s written on all the street signs and on police cars.” I might tell them where they could find the poem.

In 1966, my grandma was embalmed at Erickson Anderson Mortuary, at the point where Allison, Cypress, and the Boulevard meet on the crest of the rise before the descent past Mario’s De La Mesa and the Senior Adult Center, where La Mesa’s multitude of older folk congregate. The center offers pinochle, ballroom dancing, movies, trips to Temecula vineyards and to Branson, Missouri, for country music. There’s a clean and spacious rest room. Out the back door used to be a shuffleboard court. Now it’s a parking lot on the comer where University Avenue dead-ends into the Boulevard, the two of them forming a Y.

Across the street, Memorial Drive commences its circle through MacArthur Park. The park’s named after the general. It lies at the base and up the slope of Porter H ill. An extended family of Porters began settling the hill during 1904. Dr. Porter had been a medical missionary to China and was a writer and specialist on world affairs.

There’s a pleasant walk up Memorial Drive. On the left is Porter Hall, where quilting, Hawaiian dancing, and French classes meet, and the Little League field named after my dad, and the sixth green of the golf course my dad built. The recreation center is on the right and up the hill. In its big hall, the recreation department offers gymnastics, aerobics, and line-dancing classes. It’s the place where I first truly appreciated females, while observing such little beau -ties as Nancy, Val, and JoAnne perform the Hully Gully, a popular burlesque-inspired dance in which they managed to whirl their breasts round and round.

Farther uphill, Memorial Drive swings left around the number-eight green, across the road from the meeting hall named after civic leader Nan Gouts. There’s a fenced play ground with swings a slide, and teeter-totters and, beside the parking lot, an alley that offers a way back to the Boulevard down Porter Hill Road.

At the top of the hill, to the left is the clubhouse and municipal pool where, by plunging off the high dive into what looked to me like certain death, I first proved to myself that I wasn’t a miserable coward. To the right, a path leads underneath an old pine and a majestic tree with brilliant orange flowers to the dead end of Porter Hill Terrace, perhaps the city’s safest neighborhood in which to raise kids, since they can walk, skate, or bicycle to the golf course, recreation center, or ball field without crossing a street.

I make a right at Porter Hill Road and cut back toward the Boulevard past one of La Mesa s oldest homes, the old Porter house with its rooftop deck, screened porches, the tallest pines and eucalyptus on the hill, and gardens with dozens of varieties of cacti and succulents. Because the house was rundown and the yard overgrown, we kids presumed a witch lived there, and we passed around stories accordingly.

Porter Hill Road returns me to the Boulevard a few yards from Memorial Drive at the entrance to MacArthur Park. If there’s a ball game on at Kuhlken Field, I might backtrack to watch an inning and reminisce. The ball field was dirt when I first discovered it, during my eighth year. That spring, I spent weeks in a funk because the Little League big shots considered me a month too young to play ball.

The following year, both my dad and I signed up. He became coach, then manager, then player agent, president, district representative, and coordinator of the projects that turned our home field into a grassy, block-walled sanctuary that would be honored as one of California’s finest. A couple of years later, the board of directors named it Kuhlken Field. There’s still a plaque on the field side of the wall beneath the flagpole.

In 1957, my dad sold his share of Central Meat Company and invested the proceeds in Lake Tahoe property. A few years later, a real estate boom would multiply Tahoe land values by ten. Alas, my dad had changed his plans. He and a couple of buddies with whom he swapped lies at a Boulevard cafe had dreamed up a golf course.

Hardly a grand country club, it’s only a small clubhouse beside the municipal pool and a few acres of nine-iron holes, down the length of a draw that ends at the freeway, where there used to be an arroyo the old-timers called Hobo Junction.

The golf course was a haven for neighbors like old Pete Palermo, the saloon keeper. One of Pete’s cronies, Mr. Hines, a 90-year-old who used his three wood as a cane, held the course record — 25 strokes for nine holes. It was a place for kids to learn the game without holding up the competent. My golfing buddy Vic and I would wait until dusk, and as the paying golfers reached the sixth tee, we teed off from beside the clubhouse to number three green, making ourselves a 300-yard hole. Until pitch dark, we pounded balls the length of the valley and back, each way a medium length par four.

Gene, the assistant greens keeper, was laughably strong. One afternoon I watched him turn a sprinkler valve so vehemently, it snapped. A geyser appeared, caught him mid-torso, and tossed him high, where he levitated for seconds before crashing to the ground. Gene and I were collecting golf balls that had overflown the fence into the ball field parking lot when he boasted that with a baseball bat he could sock a golf ball a mile.

“No way,” I said.

Toting a 35-inch, thick-handled Louisville Slugger, he marched to the Boulevard. His stance toward the east, he tossed up a Maxfli, slashed, and connected. The ball flew past the nursery where there are offices and a weed-choked back yard now. La Mesa Nursery was owned by the parents of my friend Ben, a bright, handsome kid whom drugs put down in 1968. On a journey through Mexico, he landed in the Sinaloa State Penitentiary, where the ambience and LSD combined to initiate paranoid schizophrenia, which at last claimed his life. If Ben had survived the ’60s, I imagine there would still be a nursery on the northwest corner of the Boulevard and Porter Hill Road.

The Maxfli zinged past the building into which Alan’s Music would move in a few years, and past Rose Hedge Manor, back then the pride of the Boulevard, an inn with a gracious patio dining room and manicured garden, before it got demolished and replaced by apartments designed in the shoe box fashion of the ’50s. The inn was across the street from Little Flower Haven, a Catholic retirement home with the same Moorish lines as the mortuary. Every morning and afternoon, the music of bells from Little Flower Haven still blesses the neighborhood with hymns and old standards.

At the crest of the slope, our golf ball touched down and bounced tremendously, out of sight. Gene and I hopped into his Pontiac and chased after it. Snickering all the way, we watched for broken windows. Across Jackson Drive we slowed and gazed into the bushes and along the sidewalks past the First Assembly of God church where my friend Henry would one day lure me with the promise of accompanying his beautiful sisters.

An office building and complex of medical suites now stand where the Burger House used to, at the comer of the Boulevard and Dailey Road. The Burger House was a drive-in. Students from Helix and Grossmont High Schools used to loiter and fight in its parking lot. Our golf ball, darkened from skid marks, undented even by Gene’s mighty blow, had come to rest in the gutter that ran alongside the Burger House.

Past Dailey Road, the Boulevard takes its last rise and levels again. The entire square block on the north side has become Drew Ford, Hyundai, Volkswagen, near the base of Grossmont, named for William Gross, an actor and director who partnered with Ed Fletcher to buy the hill, then part of the Villa Caro Ranch.

There’s a bus stop at the corner of Grossmont Boulevard. Weary hikers can bus the return trip. A vigorous walker might continue past Drew Ford and under the I -8 bridge, cut through Grossmont Center, go southwest on Center Drive through the industrial district where Carl’s dad manufactured clutches, and stride up FJ Cajon Boulevard to complete the loop.

However one returns to the Boulevard’s entrance, I suggest celebrating with a meal or drink in the Casa Blanca patio, beneath the bougainvillea. My grandma’s poem is on the menu. I’ll recite a few stanzas.

Lines to La Mesa

  • If you’d find a quiet haven
  • Far from storm and stress of life
  • Where sweet peace and love abideth
  • And no thought of restless strife
  • Seek La Mesa, beauteous suburb,
  • San Diego’s child alone,
  • Nestled in among the foothills.
  • Near the vale of El Cajon.
  • ***
  • There the peak of Grossmont riseth
  • Dark against the azure sky.
  • And the stately head of Helix
  • With old San Miguel close by.
  • Looking westward in the distance,
  • Dimly seen the ocean blue,
  • With the wondrous mother city
  • Lying plainly in the view.
  • ***
  • Where the birds all wish to tarry
  • Far from gale and tempest roar
  • And are evermore returning
  • When their wanderings are o’er,
  • Where the flowers are always blooming
  • ’Neath the California sun,
  • You would love this little city
  • And its people, every one.

My wife says times have changed since Grandma wrote those lines in 1922. She says shopkeepers along the Boulevard are commonly grouchy, sometimes mean.

I say, “If I were one of them, I’d probably be grouchy because Grossmont Center and the lousy Costco swipe the Boulevard’s customers away.”

“Well,” she says, “they’d better start acting nice anyway, or they’ll lose what customers they still have.”

I’d like to buy an old motor home in which to explore the country’s business loops and recover history before it disappears, before malls along the interstates render the loops extinct, so that a walk down one of them will feel like a visit to a ghost town.

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La Mesa Boulevard. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad. - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
La Mesa Boulevard. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad.

During my childhood in the early’50s, Highway 80 cut through the heart of most every town and city along its route. A few years later, the interstates would turn those stretches of highway into business loops. I’m charmed by those business loops that once were highways to someplace. Along them, our towns and cities grew.

La Mesa Drug Co. - in business as long as I remember.

La Mesa Boulevard began as a wagon trail, served as a section of the main highway from San Diego to El Centro, became a stretch of Highway 80, which was the southern route from coast to coast, and at last got bypassed by the interstate.

On the left is Porter Hall, where quilting, Hawaiian dancing, and French classes meet, and the Little League field named after my dad.

In the early stages of urban sprawl, when there’s plenty of land to exploit, all but the most artistic developers avoid hills. While flatlands become grids of streets, with uniform houses on uniform lots, hills defend settlers against the march of uniformity. Six hills border La Mesa Boulevard. Streets go round and round. Houses perch at quirky angles, some on pads, others with their rear ends on granite, their front porches on stilts.

Hopping trains was the least of our crimes along the Boulevard.

The Boulevard traces a ragged semicircle. It commences at El Cajon Boulevard across from the current site of St. Martin’s Catholic church. When my dad was a salesman for Central Meat Company, he became a fan of a St. Martin’s priest. Father Berry. St. Martin’s was on my dad’s route, and he couldn’t make a call without Father Berry pouring them each a tumbler of Scotch. Between sips, they swapped jokes and stories. My dad thought Father Berry should be the next Pope.

Senior Adult Center offers pinochle, ballroom dancing, movies, trips to Temecula vineyards and to Branson, Missouri, for country music.

Across El Cajon Boulevard from St. Martin’s, there’s a taco shop, but I prefer Casa Blanca, a hundred yards east. I ate my first taco there, in 1953. Before, I had shied from Mexican food as if it were pig’s knuckles or cauliflower. This night, my dad challenged, “What are you, a wimp?”

I ate a taco. My life became perfect for a while.

Casa Blanca still has fine tacos and a patio surrounded in bougainvillea. It’s La Mesa’s oldest Mexican restaurant, established during the 1920s by a couple who bought the property when it was a fruit stand along the highway.

Eastward from Casa Blanca, the boulevard cuts between two knolls, then dips and crosses University. The Vons shopping center occupies the land on the corner of University and the Boulevard where the Helix theater used to be. My first recollections of the Helix theater are feelings of terror from a film called House of Wax, in which a mad artist created wax imitations of famous characters by searching out look-alikes and dipping them into molten wax. Saturday afternoons in summers, a quarter would get me into cartoon matinees, 30 straight episodes of Mickey Mouse or Looney Tunes.

The theater was neutral ground between the territories of the Lemon Avenue and Mesa Dale Elementary Schools, between the La Mesa National and American Little Leagues. Naturally, little gangs developed and feuds erupted, usually in the shadows of the parking lot that surrounded the theater. Out back behind the Dumpster, an older guy conked me on the head with a length of pipe because I had flirted with his girlfriend and ignored his little sister.

One Friday night, my friend Steve, while hurrying down University on his way from the Helix theater to his home on Harbinson Avenue, noticed the approach of a dark figure. Steve stealthily picked up a fist -sized stone and strode onward. Not until he and the dark figure were close enough to touch did Steve recognize his brother, sent out by their folks to retrieve him. Both brothers dropped their stones.

The first stoplight east of University is Normal Avenue. On the southwest comer of Normal and the Boulevard, there used to be a 7-Eleven, where at age 12 I got busted shoplifting a pack of Marlboros. The proprietor called my dad, who knew all the town’s business people. He came for me, his face bloody purple. He slipped a dollar to the man and led me to the car, where we sat in silence until I broke it with the most shameful lie of my youth. I told him I stole the cigarettes so I could sell them to a guy for a quarter with which I intended to buy Mom a birthday card. He deliberated, then softened and told me he loved me.

A tanning salon now occupies the old 7-Eleven. St. Martin’s Catholic church built its original home here in 1922. The first little house uphill from the tanning salon was the rectory.

Before the 1970s brought redevelopment. Normal used to cross the Boulevard and continue alongside the fenced playground of La Mesa Elementary, where I began school and where my mother had launched her teaching career during the Great Depression. Between the school and the theater ran shady Orange Avenue, down which I used to stroll with an eye on a certain window, because a young woman often appeared in a bra and panties.

I take a scenic route off the Boulevard, south on Normal Avenue up the slope of Mount Nebo atop of which La Mesa’s Easter sunrise services were held from 1914 to 1916, before they were relocated to the higher ground of Mount Helix. The first cross street off Normal is Lemon Avenue, which I follow eastward. Walking past fourplexes built into the hillside in perplexing configurations. I’m reminded of more exotic places like Rome and Malibu. There are paths that lead through tunnels formed by overhanging mulberry and loquat trees to hidden bungalows where Hollywood might set the lair of a murdered starlet in a ’40s detective flick.

Rooftop patios cap three-story houses. From up there, when the fog burns off, there’s a clear view of the Pacific 15 miles west. On either side of a stately cottage-roofed home are flat-topped WWII economy houses. My favorite house on the block is so basic and tattered, it would seem more in character in a dreary border town to where old western gunslingers fled for sanctuary. Any moment, I expect the eyes of a dozen hungry children to peer out.

Along that hillside block of Lemon Avenue I discover peculiar metal sculptures, overgrown rose gardens, a derelict car, all the stuff that distinguishes a town from a suburb. At the end of the block, I sit on a retaining wall, gaze down at the Boulevard, and wonder myself into those days when boxy experiments on skinny wheels rattled and sputtered along the dirt boulevard then called Lookout Avenue toward the sister peaks of Helix and Grossmont.

At the end of the block, Lemon drops steeply off Mt. Nebo to Acacia Avenue. A left on Acacia leads back to the Boulevard. This intersection marks the western end of the stretch the city closes to traffic for the annual Oktoberfest. When my mom was a girl, before the Helix theater, the town’s movie emporium occupied the middle building on the south side of the block between Acacia and Date Avenues. My mom chaperoned her grandfather to matinees. In his 80s, he needed an ear horn, and rather than speaking, he shouted, which traumatized my mom, a shy teenager. Once when she delivered a soda to him, there in the crowded theater on a Saturday afternoon, he bellowed, “Why, Ada, this soda’s warm as piss!”

Across the street, there’s a new mini-mall where I remember a hobby store that supplied me with model airplanes. A couple of doors away was Palermo Pizza, owned during my high school years by a heavy woman, who loved to feed people, and her lean husband, who my friends and I suspected was connected to the mob, on account of the Sons of Italy meetings he held weekly in the back room. To us who watched The Untouchables TV series, they looked like relatives of Al Capone.

One night in Palermo Pizza, my best friend and I were talking philosophy, giving our opinions of Bertrand Russell. A guy I had known for six years exclaimed, “Kuhlken, you’re not so stupid! I thought you were stupid.”

During the 1970s, city big shots hatched a scheme to raise property-tax revenues from the Boulevard by ridding the area of the old, low-rent structures. They would level most of the terrain on the north side from east of Spring Street to University Avenue and offer it to developers. They moved to condemn the old buildings and clear the land. The city council made deals with developers, but at least one major party backed out on account of economic and zoning complications. For a decade, while new plans appeared and failed, the north side of the block between Nebo Drive and Date by barren. Soured because the big shots had bulldozed my old haunts, I wrote a novel in which the hero bombs the half-constructed mall a tycoon is building there.

On the south side, in the two blocks between Acacia and the Spring Street trolley line, there’s a Bible bookstore, Tang Soo Do karate studio, a yoga studio, women’s resale clothing stores, and Barnes Printers, where I earned my first wages.

The two-story building on the southwest comer of Nebo Drive and the Boulevard was originally the La Mesa Lemon Company Store and Post Office during the 1890s. Now there’s a sign shop downstairs and a lawyer and a dance studio upstairs.

Nebo Drive, which parallels the trolley line, is the site of La Mesa’s railroad museum, worth the brief detour. On weekends from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., an old-timer gives tours of the depot and the engine, boxcar, and caboose. The La Mesa Depot is the Boulevard’s oldest structure and the only surviving San Diego and Cuyamaca Railway station. During 1885, the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads extended service to San Diego. The section of the line that crosses the Boulevard was originally planned to join with the Southern Pacific at Needles, but hilly terrain or problems with financing (depending on with whom you talk) stopped it near Lakeside. Though the line carried mostly freight, there was passenger service until 1928. Until construction of Grossmont High in 1922, high school students including my mom commuted on the train to San Diego High, along the same route today’s trolley uses.

Spring Street runs along the east side of the trolley line. The street is named for the springs around which early La Mesa grew. The most generous one was a quarter mile south of the Boulevard. The spring house where villagers pumped their drinking water became a meeting hall after the spring ran dry. I remember Boy Scouts and stamp collectors gathering there. The boarded-up house remains in Collier Park on the south end of Palm Avenue.

The stretch of the Boulevard people call “the Village” runs from Spring Street up past Fourth. The Village is the part of town that escaped redevelopment. It hasn’t changed much since my boyhood, when I could overlook it from my bedroom window in the house up the hill southeast of the intersection of Fourth Street and the Boulevard. We lived there in my grandma’s home from my second year to my ninth. In 1945, when the Army released my dad, he borrowed money and opened a cabinet business. Two years later, the business failed. Since my dad refused to declare bankruptcy, it would take seven years of paying off his debts before we could afford our own home.

From my bedroom or our downstairs picture window, we could gaze at the whole stretch of the Boulevard along which, the week after Thanksgiving, city custodians strung bright lights and starry garlands, as they still do. My dad loved Christmas. Every year, he led my mom, grandma, me, an aunt or uncle, and several cousins tramping down the hill and along the Boulevard to the northwest corner of the Spring Street intersection. Where a trolley ticket machine now sits on a concrete island, we pilgrims would congregate to admire the nativity scene beside the tall pine, and the kids among us would beg Santa to bring treasures on Christmas morning, while both we and the grownups delighted at the choirs and carolers.

Halfway between Spring Street and Palm Avenue on the south side, in a comer of what now is Godfather II Italian restaurant, there was a tiny shop peddling magazines, candy, and tobacco, all of which fascinated me and Carl, my partner in crime.

Carl was wild, even when we first met during fourth grade. His dad manufactured flywheels and clutches for racing cars, and Carl had inherited a passion for speed. As the leader of a gang of boys, the rest of them high school age, he had recently masterminded a car theft and flight east. New Mexico state troopers apprehended and jailed Carl’s gang in Las Cruces. Back home, the school district authorities transferred him from La Mesa Elementary to Lemon Avenue school, where he was supposed to reform in a new environment but instead singled me out as a sidekick since I was big and my tough-guy act was convincing.

We went joyriding in “borrowed” cars. We shoplifted. Carl introduced me to Hava-A-Tampas, mild cigars with plastic tips that prevented the juices from dripping onto our tongues. We bought them from the newsstand between Palm Avenue and Spring Street, where the aged, gnomish proprietor, more dedicated to sales than to guarding the purity of children, also allowed us to gawk at the skin mags.

We rattled up the hillside and past the granite quarry, through a section of Lemon Grove Carl named Little T.J., past machine shops and junkyards. As the big engine slowed to cross Broadway, we dove and rolled down a grassy bank at the corner of Lemon Grove Way and North Avenue.

Hopping trains was the least of our crimes along the Boulevard. At the Palm Avenue intersection, Gus Schuetz, used to sell newspapers. An acute observer might have predicted my future and Gus’s by the way we handled free enterprise. Gus was a legitimate business person. He had gained a franchise and subcontracted to Tommy and Eddie. A supervisor of newsboys would sling a few bundles of Sunday papers onto the sidewalk at the northwest comer of the intersection, in front of Rexall Drugs that occupied the ground floor of the former La Mesa Hotel. Gus, Tommy, and Eddie would fold and hawk their papers at the four-way-stop intersection. Had I been wiser, I might’ve joined Gus’s crew and sold papers on the remaining comer.

But I hung out with Carl, who had big ideas for a low-overhead, quick-return venture. For weeks, every Sunday morning after my route delivering the Independent, a weekly advertising rag, Carl and I lurked in an alley until the newsstand delivery man — a different one from Gus’s supervisor — dropped a bundle of the San Diego Union in front of one of the five-and-dimes. As the delivery truck lugged away down Palm Avenue toward Lemon Grove, we pedaled out of the alley to the Boulevard, loosed the bundle’s straps with the switchblade knives Carl had bought us on a family outing to T. J., filled our bags with copies of the Union, and pedaled hard east, timing the heist so as to begin our descent toward the ball field and rec center before Gus, Tommy, and Eddie arrived.

Our destination was the corner of the Boulevard and Jackson Drive, another four-way-stop where we could stand on corners and sell the papers that would finance a Sunday adventure, a bus trip downtown where we loitered around tattoo parlors and arcades and squandered our loot on peep shows, the ’50s version of porno theaters. We dropped quarters into slide viewers and gawked through the eyepieces. Or we bused to National City for a pair of three-tone shoes made of exotic skins, the kind local pachucos wore.

One Sunday morning, just before dawn, since the delivery man hadn’t shown, rather than give up our adventure, we raided Gus’s papers. We were cramming them into our bags when Gus and his crew came racing out of the pale western sky. Gus was a runt at the time, but Tommy and Eddie were older, tough high school guys. Besides, we stood two against three. They cornered us in the alley. Gus said, “Just give the papers back.” We handed them over.

That week at school, Gus and I made friends. We still are. He’s a surgeon with an estate on Mount Soledad and rental property on Mission Bay. I’m a repentant sinner.

The city center during my childhood was the block between Spring Street and Palm Avenue, named for the palm trees that once grew in its center. My grandma told stories about the years of 1911 and 1912 when the American Film Manufacturing Company led by Allan I Man nearly monopolized that block and produced a hundred films, mostly westerns.

In a second-floor office on the southwest comer of the Palm Avenue intersection, across the Boulevard from the old La Mesa Hotel, above a five-and-dime, San Diego’s classiest mystery writers created detective Max Thursday. In their novels, Thursday outwitted, outmuscled, and outshot San Diego’s underworld. Robert Wade and Bill Miller— alias Wade Miller — wrote spellbinders like Uneasy Street, Calamity Fair, and Shoot to Kill all through the 1950s in their office between a dentist and a realty company.

Across Palm Avenue is La Mesa Drug, in business as long as I remember. Next door to the east there’s a popular children’s bookstore where Alan’s Music used to reside. Probably half the kids who grew up in La Mesa strummed, tooted, or banged on some instrument at Alan’s Music. I took lessons from a guitarist who gathered three of his students into a combo. We learned a short repertoire of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and doo-wop songs. We played at one party before our 16-year-old lead guitar careened his motorcycle off the Spring Street bridge and died.

At the northeast corner, on the site of what was La Mesa’s opera house, Por Favor restaurant has added on a saloon, giving competition to Joe ’N Andy’s and Pete’s Place up the block. From Joe ’N Andy’s, insolent whoops and noise from a too-loud stereo invade the Boulevard. Joe ’N Andy’s is a newcomer compared to Pete’s Place, a few storefronts west. Pete’s has been there as long as my memory, on the north side, halfway between Palm Avenue and Fourth Street. It’s the same gloomy place as always, only the clientele and the music have changed. There used to be an older crowd when Pete Palermo ran the place, and he and his cronies filled the dark with their quips and throaty laughter.

Beside Headhunters there’s a shady passway with benches. A few years back. La Mesa had a cultural arts director, Colleen Finnegan, who helped choose an abstract metal sculpture by Peter Minton for the passway. Colleen describes it as “A contemporary piece that made a web out of light, air, and the crossing of the shadows from the overhead beams and the vertical beams of the sculpture. You could walk right through the middle of it. But the reaction from merchants and the strollers and shoppers was immediate hostility. They didn’t understand it or want to try. They wanted the passway to be a little sylvan glade, nothing more challenging. The chamber of commerce got complaints the city offices got complaints, the merchants passed on complaints.” Meanwhile, the city council warned Colleen that the budget for her position might soon disappear. So she left for another job, and the city proceeded to remove the sculpture. Colleen says, “As far as I know, the sculpture is still leaning up against the wall in the storage shed.”

Through the passway is a municipal parking lot that becomes the Oktoberfest beer garden. Over a weekend, thousands of visitors roam the Boulevard gobbling sausages and Chipwiches. Enough beer to fill an ocean sloshes out of kegs, and beer-inspired people dance to the squawk of accordions.

The Boulevard also hosts a Christmas festival, three Friday nights of street fair and carolers. Thursday evenings between April and October feature a ’50s car show. The promoters reserve a block of parking spaces, and owners of classic vehicles show them off as though it were a set for a remake of Rebel Without a Cause. Friday afternoons year-round there’s the Farmers’ Market in the municipal parking lot.

Between Palm Avenue and Fourth Street, antique, junk, and gift dealers have clustered. There’s an antique radio specialist beside the Christian Science Reading Room where my dad’s mother used to volunteer her services.

Third Street intersects from the south only. A glance that way offers a view of the Congregational church and its chapel built in 1911. Several restaurants have come and gone from the building at the northeast comer of the block. I remember Fords on display where the tables now sit. Elmer Drew opened his Ford showroom there. His business began with a garage in the early 1920s, soon after he and my mom graduated from Grossmont High. By the 1950s there was the showroom on the Boulevard and a body shop out back, on the corner of Allison Avenue and Pine Street. Carl and I discovered a collection of interesting photographs on the body shop’s office wall, and a burly guy with a ruddy face told us that women like the one in the photo who showed off her six breasts in three identical sets weren’t as rare as we might suppose. He claimed he’d known several women like her.

Allison Avenue joins the Boulevard at a 30 degree angle, forming at the junction a triangular lot too narrow for a building. Last year, on Fridays and weekends between April and Christmas, the place was inhabited by jewelers, wood-carvers, dealers in bread, flowers, hot sauce, Mexican pottery, tie-dyed shirts, dolls, wood-carved bears. From the corner, I can look southeast up Boulder Heights, point to the highest tree in view and boast, “My grandma planted that tree there in her yard, where I grew up, in 1922, the same year she wrote the city poem.” If people show interest, I could say, “It’s where the city slogan, ‘Jewel of the Hills,’ came from. It’s written on all the street signs and on police cars.” I might tell them where they could find the poem.

In 1966, my grandma was embalmed at Erickson Anderson Mortuary, at the point where Allison, Cypress, and the Boulevard meet on the crest of the rise before the descent past Mario’s De La Mesa and the Senior Adult Center, where La Mesa’s multitude of older folk congregate. The center offers pinochle, ballroom dancing, movies, trips to Temecula vineyards and to Branson, Missouri, for country music. There’s a clean and spacious rest room. Out the back door used to be a shuffleboard court. Now it’s a parking lot on the comer where University Avenue dead-ends into the Boulevard, the two of them forming a Y.

Across the street, Memorial Drive commences its circle through MacArthur Park. The park’s named after the general. It lies at the base and up the slope of Porter H ill. An extended family of Porters began settling the hill during 1904. Dr. Porter had been a medical missionary to China and was a writer and specialist on world affairs.

There’s a pleasant walk up Memorial Drive. On the left is Porter Hall, where quilting, Hawaiian dancing, and French classes meet, and the Little League field named after my dad, and the sixth green of the golf course my dad built. The recreation center is on the right and up the hill. In its big hall, the recreation department offers gymnastics, aerobics, and line-dancing classes. It’s the place where I first truly appreciated females, while observing such little beau -ties as Nancy, Val, and JoAnne perform the Hully Gully, a popular burlesque-inspired dance in which they managed to whirl their breasts round and round.

Farther uphill, Memorial Drive swings left around the number-eight green, across the road from the meeting hall named after civic leader Nan Gouts. There’s a fenced play ground with swings a slide, and teeter-totters and, beside the parking lot, an alley that offers a way back to the Boulevard down Porter Hill Road.

At the top of the hill, to the left is the clubhouse and municipal pool where, by plunging off the high dive into what looked to me like certain death, I first proved to myself that I wasn’t a miserable coward. To the right, a path leads underneath an old pine and a majestic tree with brilliant orange flowers to the dead end of Porter Hill Terrace, perhaps the city’s safest neighborhood in which to raise kids, since they can walk, skate, or bicycle to the golf course, recreation center, or ball field without crossing a street.

I make a right at Porter Hill Road and cut back toward the Boulevard past one of La Mesa s oldest homes, the old Porter house with its rooftop deck, screened porches, the tallest pines and eucalyptus on the hill, and gardens with dozens of varieties of cacti and succulents. Because the house was rundown and the yard overgrown, we kids presumed a witch lived there, and we passed around stories accordingly.

Porter Hill Road returns me to the Boulevard a few yards from Memorial Drive at the entrance to MacArthur Park. If there’s a ball game on at Kuhlken Field, I might backtrack to watch an inning and reminisce. The ball field was dirt when I first discovered it, during my eighth year. That spring, I spent weeks in a funk because the Little League big shots considered me a month too young to play ball.

The following year, both my dad and I signed up. He became coach, then manager, then player agent, president, district representative, and coordinator of the projects that turned our home field into a grassy, block-walled sanctuary that would be honored as one of California’s finest. A couple of years later, the board of directors named it Kuhlken Field. There’s still a plaque on the field side of the wall beneath the flagpole.

In 1957, my dad sold his share of Central Meat Company and invested the proceeds in Lake Tahoe property. A few years later, a real estate boom would multiply Tahoe land values by ten. Alas, my dad had changed his plans. He and a couple of buddies with whom he swapped lies at a Boulevard cafe had dreamed up a golf course.

Hardly a grand country club, it’s only a small clubhouse beside the municipal pool and a few acres of nine-iron holes, down the length of a draw that ends at the freeway, where there used to be an arroyo the old-timers called Hobo Junction.

The golf course was a haven for neighbors like old Pete Palermo, the saloon keeper. One of Pete’s cronies, Mr. Hines, a 90-year-old who used his three wood as a cane, held the course record — 25 strokes for nine holes. It was a place for kids to learn the game without holding up the competent. My golfing buddy Vic and I would wait until dusk, and as the paying golfers reached the sixth tee, we teed off from beside the clubhouse to number three green, making ourselves a 300-yard hole. Until pitch dark, we pounded balls the length of the valley and back, each way a medium length par four.

Gene, the assistant greens keeper, was laughably strong. One afternoon I watched him turn a sprinkler valve so vehemently, it snapped. A geyser appeared, caught him mid-torso, and tossed him high, where he levitated for seconds before crashing to the ground. Gene and I were collecting golf balls that had overflown the fence into the ball field parking lot when he boasted that with a baseball bat he could sock a golf ball a mile.

“No way,” I said.

Toting a 35-inch, thick-handled Louisville Slugger, he marched to the Boulevard. His stance toward the east, he tossed up a Maxfli, slashed, and connected. The ball flew past the nursery where there are offices and a weed-choked back yard now. La Mesa Nursery was owned by the parents of my friend Ben, a bright, handsome kid whom drugs put down in 1968. On a journey through Mexico, he landed in the Sinaloa State Penitentiary, where the ambience and LSD combined to initiate paranoid schizophrenia, which at last claimed his life. If Ben had survived the ’60s, I imagine there would still be a nursery on the northwest corner of the Boulevard and Porter Hill Road.

The Maxfli zinged past the building into which Alan’s Music would move in a few years, and past Rose Hedge Manor, back then the pride of the Boulevard, an inn with a gracious patio dining room and manicured garden, before it got demolished and replaced by apartments designed in the shoe box fashion of the ’50s. The inn was across the street from Little Flower Haven, a Catholic retirement home with the same Moorish lines as the mortuary. Every morning and afternoon, the music of bells from Little Flower Haven still blesses the neighborhood with hymns and old standards.

At the crest of the slope, our golf ball touched down and bounced tremendously, out of sight. Gene and I hopped into his Pontiac and chased after it. Snickering all the way, we watched for broken windows. Across Jackson Drive we slowed and gazed into the bushes and along the sidewalks past the First Assembly of God church where my friend Henry would one day lure me with the promise of accompanying his beautiful sisters.

An office building and complex of medical suites now stand where the Burger House used to, at the comer of the Boulevard and Dailey Road. The Burger House was a drive-in. Students from Helix and Grossmont High Schools used to loiter and fight in its parking lot. Our golf ball, darkened from skid marks, undented even by Gene’s mighty blow, had come to rest in the gutter that ran alongside the Burger House.

Past Dailey Road, the Boulevard takes its last rise and levels again. The entire square block on the north side has become Drew Ford, Hyundai, Volkswagen, near the base of Grossmont, named for William Gross, an actor and director who partnered with Ed Fletcher to buy the hill, then part of the Villa Caro Ranch.

There’s a bus stop at the corner of Grossmont Boulevard. Weary hikers can bus the return trip. A vigorous walker might continue past Drew Ford and under the I -8 bridge, cut through Grossmont Center, go southwest on Center Drive through the industrial district where Carl’s dad manufactured clutches, and stride up FJ Cajon Boulevard to complete the loop.

However one returns to the Boulevard’s entrance, I suggest celebrating with a meal or drink in the Casa Blanca patio, beneath the bougainvillea. My grandma’s poem is on the menu. I’ll recite a few stanzas.

Lines to La Mesa

  • If you’d find a quiet haven
  • Far from storm and stress of life
  • Where sweet peace and love abideth
  • And no thought of restless strife
  • Seek La Mesa, beauteous suburb,
  • San Diego’s child alone,
  • Nestled in among the foothills.
  • Near the vale of El Cajon.
  • ***
  • There the peak of Grossmont riseth
  • Dark against the azure sky.
  • And the stately head of Helix
  • With old San Miguel close by.
  • Looking westward in the distance,
  • Dimly seen the ocean blue,
  • With the wondrous mother city
  • Lying plainly in the view.
  • ***
  • Where the birds all wish to tarry
  • Far from gale and tempest roar
  • And are evermore returning
  • When their wanderings are o’er,
  • Where the flowers are always blooming
  • ’Neath the California sun,
  • You would love this little city
  • And its people, every one.

My wife says times have changed since Grandma wrote those lines in 1922. She says shopkeepers along the Boulevard are commonly grouchy, sometimes mean.

I say, “If I were one of them, I’d probably be grouchy because Grossmont Center and the lousy Costco swipe the Boulevard’s customers away.”

“Well,” she says, “they’d better start acting nice anyway, or they’ll lose what customers they still have.”

I’d like to buy an old motor home in which to explore the country’s business loops and recover history before it disappears, before malls along the interstates render the loops extinct, so that a walk down one of them will feel like a visit to a ghost town.

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