Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Not too much has changed about Kensington.”
“The neighborhood schools are not so nice."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
On the sidewalks at 49th Street and Monroe Avenue stand two chalky-blue ornate gates that once marked the southern boundary of the Kensington-Talmadge district. When the gates were erected in 1927 — for a lofty cost of $1100 apiece — they greeted passing Model A’s, DeSotos, and dapper families out for midday strolls. Today, however, flanked by nondescript single-story tract homes, the stylish gates seem out of place. They stand like Pomo sentinels, welcoming passersby to a vanished world.
Neighborhood gates of the 1990s are sleek, not ornate. They span roadways, not sidewalks, and often are flanked by guardhouses. This is because, unlike their 1920s predecessors, they are built to keep people out of neighborhoods, not invite them in. Such security gates — as well as private patrols, video surveillance, burglar alarms, unlisted numbers, and coveted urban anonymity— have become for many “cost of living” fees to live safely at the fin de siècle. The Puritan dream of a utopian “City Upon a Hill” has given way to a simpler middle-class longing for a “City Away from Hell.” Long gone are the days when neighbors chatted over backyard fences. Today, we’re more likely to sue the people next door for easement infringements than converse with them about gardening. Dying, too, is the old-fashioned concept of “community.” Frank Capra celebrated it in It's a Wonderful Life. But more recent films like The Truman Show and Pleasantville contain different messages about places like Bedford Falls: if your neighbors greet you cheerfully and know your name, something is very, very wrong.
Despite the alarming rise of Brave New Neighborhoods, there still exists an old-fashioned Bedford Fallsian community smack in the middle of America’s sixth-largest city. You even can visit it, without constructing an H.G. Wells contraption. Nestled among three canyons, bordered by contemporary “moats” — Interstates 8 and 15 — the inland island of Kensington is, according to its inhabitants, one of San Diego’s best-kept secrets. With only two avenues of ingress — Kensington Drive and Marlborough Avenue — it remains secluded, quiet, and difficult to locate. Which is fine with its inhabitants who joke, “We’ve never left because we can’t find our way out.”
An impressive percentage of its citizens don’t leave the community until death. And even then they remain in spirit, for many have deeded their homes to their children — who, in turn, pass the residences to their own progeny.
Founded in 1910, Kensington stirred boosters enough to rave that its streets were paved with the “best Colton cement” and its lots were “twice, three times and often four times the value” of acreage beyond its gates. Its developer, Canadian G. Aubrey Davidson, christened the development “Kensington” and gave its streets English names because of his love for British appellations. Kensington’s early architects and builders, including renowned designer Richard Requa, erected Spanish-style homes within its borders. A few sturdy Craftsman homes were built as well. Eventually, the neighborhood became the last stop on the Adams Avenue streetcar line.
Contemporary Kensington’s culture remains remarkably retro. On a typical Saturday afternoon, along the neighborhood’s commercial aorta, Adams Avenue, a lazy stillness hangs in the air. Above Adams Avenue hangs a giant sign that says “Kensington” in large, old-style letters. Below it, pedestrians leisurely walk the street, waving hello to friends who pass by in cars. Children squeal on swings and monkey bars in Kensington Park. Yards away, in the tiny Kensington-Talmadge library branch, two librarians chat with patrons. The library, residents proudly inform visitors, boasts a considerable number of $250 lifetime members.
Further down the street, gray-haired retirees gather on barstools at the Kensington Club, which, at night becomes a haunt for local youths. A gaggle of moviegoers stands outside the artsy Ken Theater, awaiting admission, while those who prefer to rent their cinematic features visit Kensington Video, an informal neighborhood gathering place owned by the Hanford family, which has lived and worked in Kensington for 36 years. The shop overflows with 23,000 film titles — mostly classics, foreign films, and children’s features.
Storefronts here are simple and timeless. In fact, if one ignores the sleek passing automobiles and preppie clothing of pedestrians, one can easily believe one has stepped back into the early 1960s, particularly when one visits the Kensington Community Church on Marlborough Avenue, where a bazaar is underway. Gathered in the church’s large hall are septuagenarians, octogenarians, and a few nonagenarians, some of whom have lived in Kensington since the 1920s and have been church members for nearly 60 years. They stand behind folding tables, peddling homemade baked goods, “white elephant” items, and decorations while discussing church events recipes, and, in one conversation that brought giggles, whether a nudist colony existed in Balboa Park during the 1930s.
Hazel Van Harten, who is selling peanut brittle at the bazaar, moved to Kensington in 1928 and has resided for 56 years in a Spanish-style home that was built by her father, Harry Perrigo, and brother, Ray (who’s now 92). She says she was a member of Hoover High School's first graduating class of 1932 and still gets together with a small group of friends who have known each other since their school days. At a catty-corner table is Lola Pearson, who also first visited Kensington in 1928, during a double date. “Not too much has changed about Kensington,” she says. “Except it’s developed more.”
During holidays, Kensingtonians are known to throw elaborate block parties, cordoning off thoroughfares and gathering on front lawns to share food, beverages, and good conversation. Neighbors are particularly proud of their Memorial Day festivities. At 8:30 a.m. on the Big Day, the Kensington Community Church serves breakfasts to as many as 250 people. Then at 10:00 a.m., the Kensington Memorial Day Parade begins at Marlborough Avenue and Palisades Road. As uniformed locals and color guards march down Marlborough Avenue toward Adams Avenue, they pass a reviewing stand in front of the church and are led by a grand marshal (who, last year, was none other than Kensington’s UPS deliveryman).
“We’re like family,” says Kensington Video owner Winnie Hanford, who’s also a member of the Kensington-Talmadge Community Association. “We say hello when we pass on the street, which you don’t find in lots of other places. People feel the warmth. I’ve heard that from so many young couples who’ve moved into the area.”
Other longtime residents call their neighbors “considerate,” “friendly,” “caring” — and back up the adjectives with anecdotes. When Claire Condra Arias (who lives in a Kensington house that’s sheltered five generations of her family) decided to update and publish a beloved Kensington-Talmadge historical work that had been penned by a now-deceased resident, the Kensington-Talmadge Community Association threw a fundraiser that earned Condra Arias $12,000 — enough money to pay for her first print run. The book, Kensington-Talmadge 1910-1997 by Thomas Baumann (Ellipsys International Publications, Inc., 1997), can be found in the bookcases, bedstands, and upon the coffee tables of many proud Kensington residents. Of 1500 books originally printed, only 500 remain unsold. The publication was illustrated by Bob Kemp, a retired graphic designer, who lived in Kensington from 1924 to 1943 and still meets with friends from “The Sapphires,” a local social club formed in the early 1940s. “There are only eight or nine of us left now,” he says. “We’ve been together since kindergarten, and we had a marvelous childhood in Kensington.”
“People here watch out for one another,” says Gladys Kieta, who’s lived in Kensington for 41 years. “We socialize as a community,” adds Shirley Kelly, a Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee member who’s lived in the area for three decades. Kensington has a vigorous Neighborhood Watch organization, and some blocks of neighbors even distribute phone number rosters for all persons who live on their streets.
But the town’s demographics are altering. As older lifelong residents die, houses change hands — sometimes to younger kin through deeding; other times to younger strangers through sales. Kensington homes, which according to a recent Multiple Listing Service ranged in price from $174,900 for a 965-square-foot two-bedroom house to $890,000 for a 4000-square-foot four-bedroom residence, are being occupied by well-heeled young families who oftentimes do not remain in Kensington — not because of wanderlust or dissatisfaction with the neighborhood, but because of Kensington’s public schools.
“The neighborhood schools are not so nice," says Claire Condra Arias, who admits she’s sending her children to a local magnet rather than enroll them in Wilson Middle School or Hoover High School.
“This is one of the sadnesses,” says the Reverend Louis Wargo, pastor of Kensington Community Church. “Parents want good educations for their children and, whether real or perceived, they don’t feel that the junior high and, more particularly, the high school meet their needs. So when their kids reach that age, they either enroll them in private school, send them to another public school, or move. This needs to be addressed, and I’m not sure we’re addressing it.”
Neighbors also continually gripe about Kensington’s “erroneous” crime statistics. According to longtime residents, San Diego police blotter records list El Cajon as Kensington’s southernmost border. Residents, however, argue that the street is actually City Heights’ bailiwick.
“I’m one of those who’s sorely irritated by the police blotters,” says retired naval officer Jim McCain, who’s lived in Kensington for 25 years. “El Cajon isn’t in Kensington-Talmadge. Never was. Kensington ends at Monroe."
Certainly, in recent years, Kensington has taken the rap for a litany of unpleasant criminal events along the disputed thoroughfare: a carjacking, a shooting, a bank robbery, a gang slaying, and the killing of a teenager over a pager.
A very tiny but vocal minority of young people in Kensington express frustration with the community doyens’ seemingly stagnant existence. “Sometimes they get so caught up in their own world that they forget there’s anywhere beyond Kensington,” says “Jake,” a thirtyish artisan who’s lived in Kensington for several years. “It’s like time stopped for them in 1950. They probably don’t know what Bosnia is.”
But Kensington as a community does not ignore the march of time nor barricade itself against the outside world. It has its own website, www.kensington-talmadge.com; a thriving haute cuisine restaurant — the Kensington Grill — which is attracting diners from all over the city; and, says one Kensington Community Church member, a growing gay and lesbian population. “I don’t think most of us have a problem with the same-sex orientation,” “Lyle” says. “The question we ask is, ‘Are you good neighbors?’ Because, really, that’s all we’re after.” Agrees Mike Tristany, a Prudential agent and Kensington resident who, over the past three years, has sold several homes in the area to gay clientele, “It’s the kind of neighborhood gays and lesbians would feel comfortable in because the people are very accepting. And I think there’s a belief that gays take good care of their homes, fix them up, and increase the property values.”
However, on October 27, 1998, a 34-year-old African-American named Christopher Frazer temporarily broke the Capra-esque spell of Kensington. He strode into Peevey Jewelers, a store that has stood on Adams Avenue for 53 years, and threatened its owner, Victor Vallejo, who’s run the store for 19 years, with great bodily harm if he didn’t turn over jewels. But Kensington postman Dennis Dondoleski, who’s worked at his job for 17 and a half years, happened to be passing by the store and noticed something awry. He called 911. When Frazer exited the store and drew a semiautomatic from his waistband, the police were awaiting him. Struck by at least 20 bullets, Frazer slumped beside the Kensington Club, fatally wounded. The jewelry he clutched in his hand pinged and bounced onto the sidewalk. There was blood and bullet casings along Adams Avenue in Kensington.
Although Kensington’s residents recovered quickly from the ugly incident, they are very nervous about an impending development — one that, in a few months, will cause their beloved community to lose its insularity and, possibly, sap some of its rarefied small-town charm. In late 1999, Adams Avenue will sport on- and off-ramps to I-15, which may generate a flood of traffic onto the quiet neighborhood’s streets. Already, the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee is holding lengthy discussions about erecting sound walls, adding traffic signals, and establishing speeding deterrents to prevent Adams Avenue — and the rustic streets it intersects— from becoming clotted, congested, and noisy. “Frankly,” says planning committee president Jonathan Tibbitts, “we are concerned. We don’t know how it’s going to affect our little neighborhood.”
Somehow, however, longtime residents are convinced that they can keep Kensington friendly and quiet. And it’s very possible they’ll succeed. For like the ornate gates at Monroe and 49th Street, Kensingtonians may be a bit old-fashioned, may be a bit anachronistic, but they’re elegant, welcoming, enduring...and strong as steel.