Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"It was like gang central. The police helicopter was over our street almost every night."
“I’d lie awake at night and think, ‘I am in hell.’ I’d get up in the morning and think, ‘I am in hell.’ At one point we had heavy trucks making 200 to 300 trips down our street. “The entire house shook. My teeth rattled. The vibration was damaging the foundations of our homes. Dust was everywhere. You couldn’t open your windows. Very quickly I felt a kind of panic. Terror. I’d sunk my life savings into buying this tiny house. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God! What have I gotten myself into?’ Then, as if heavy trucks weren’t enough trouble, there was the prostitution problem.”
Attorneys at the big-deal law firms around town will tell you that Steve Temko is “the Bulldog.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Many long, thin braids cascade from Savanna Forbes’s head. They quiver when she remembers her move to Normal Heights in April 2000.
"Whenever the Mexican family has a birthday party, they bring me ice cream and cake. We’ve been neighbors for almost ten years. Now they’re having to move because the landlord raised their rent."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“I’d been renting an apartment over on Georgia Street, the sort of border area between North Park and Hillcrest. From one month to the next, they raised my rent by $200. I realized there wasn’t going to be an end to the increases. I had to buy a house. I’m a teacher at City College. I teach business information technology. I could qualify for only a $145,000 loan. What could I buy for $145,000? Nothing in North Park. Nothing in Hillcrest. So I looked around. Drove around Normal Heights. I didn’t even look north of Adams. I knew I could never afford anything there. I looked around south of Adams Avenue. My dad’s a contractor so I knew to look for certain things. It seemed that three out of every five homes south of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights were in the process of being remodeled or had already been remodeled. I thought, ‘This neighborhood’s on its way up.’
Weber has a reputation for grumbling at planning committee meetings, for having a low tolerance for “bullshit,” and for getting things done.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“So I bought my 650-square-foot house — a dollhouse, really — for $137,500. It was smaller than the apartment I’d been renting. Every square inch of my tiny home had to be redone. Everything. From top to bottom. It had the original roof. The house was built in 1924. Over the years the previous owners had covered the roof with three layers of shingles, the last two of which were illegal.
John Hussler: "I walked in the front door, and a woman kicked a chair in front of me. Just to let me know, I guess, that men were basically not welcome."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“I remember one afternoon I was standing in front of my house, overwhelmed by all the work that needed to be done. I must have looked so forlorn, so desperate, so depressed, that Patrick, my wonderful neighbor across the street, could tell what sort of state I was in. He came running across the street with a huge vodka and tonic. He handed it to me. He gave me a big hug. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve all been through this. You’re frightened. We all were.’
Lestat's Coffee House on Adams Avenue. "Paradigm’s owner wanted $30,000 for the business. My friend Dan, who owns Twiggs café up on Park Boulevard, thought $30,000 was a rip-off."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“I ended up spending $20,000 to fix up my 650-square-foot home.
“And then there were the trucks. All the work being done on that last part of I-15. Just one block away. You have to understand, before I moved to Normal Heights, I didn’t even know who my city council person was. I paid no attention to local politics. I had no idea how city government worked. But the summer of 2000, with all the trucks, all the noise, all the dirt, changed me. That summer, I thought I was in hell.
“I was born and raised in Detroit. They say a person from Detroit can start a fight all alone in a room by him- or herself. I got angry. I decided to educate myself. I decided to organize my neighbors.
Erlene Thom: “South of Adams, the neighborhood really started to change in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they started tearing down the single-family homes and putting up apartments."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Christine Kehoe, the council person at that time for District 3, wasn’t very responsive to us. You have to understand that right near our street, Monroe Avenue, there was a four-block area in City Heights that had the highest concentration of vice crime in the entire city. We were finding used condoms and hypodermic needles on the sidewalks in front of our homes. Prostitutes working along El Cajon Boulevard were bringing their clients onto our street. The johns would park their cars in front of our homes and do their business. And of course, during the day, we had all the trucks.
Adams Avenue, from inside Lestat's. "It seemed that three out of every five homes south of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights were in the process of being remodeled or had already been remodeled."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“It finally got so bad at night that one of my neighbors started patrolling the street, shining a powerful flashlight into the johns’ cars. Bill Taitano, the community relations officer over at the police substation on Adams, heard what my neighbor was doing. Taitano went nuts. ‘Don’t do that!’ he said. ‘Don’t go running up and down your street shining a flashlight into johns’ cars! You could get hurt!’
“But we were desperate. We’d call Kehoe’s office and complain about the problems, but no one in Kehoe’s office seemed very interested. They’d ignore us. Finally I decided, ‘Let’s have a Call Christine Day!’ My neighbors and I printed up flyers and went door to door, from 40th Street to Cherokee Avenue, from Adams Avenue to Meade. The flyers outlined some of the problems in the neighborhood and said that if these things bothered you, you should call Kehoe’s office on a specific date. When Call Christine Day rolled around, I guess her office got blasted from morning till night. From what I understand, Christine’s reaction was, ‘My God!’ Nothing like that had ever happened to her before.
“So by organizing, by doing something as simple as encouraging our neighbors to make a phone call, we started to get things done. We got results. We got the trucks rerouted. We got more police patrols. Gradually, the prostitutes and their johns disappeared. For me, it was amazing to learn I could influence city government, have an impact on my neighborhood’s problems. Just me. A voter. A homeowner in a not very wealthy part of the city. I’m still amazed that the cliché is true. Just one person can make a difference.
“That sort of realization makes you want to get more involved. Now I’m on the board of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee. Not only am I the first black person to sit on the board, I’m also one of few people from south of Adams to sit on the board. The Normal Heights Community Planning Committee meeting is next week. You should come. And you should also talk to my realtor, Linda Artiaga. She’s been selling homes in Normal Heights for years. She’s the Queen of Normal Heights.”
Linda Artiaga was, when we spoke, nonplussed by her title.
“The Queen of Normal Heights? Is that what they say? I mean, it’s nice to be queen of something. I’ve never really thought of myself as a queen. I’m lucky, I guess. How many people ever get to be any kind of queen?
“I’ve been selling homes in Normal Heights for more than 20 years. It’d be difficult to come up with a precise figure of how many I’ve sold. I know that in some cases I’ve sold the same home four or five times. Not that there was anything wrong with the house. San Diego just has a high turnover rate. The figure is something like, the average San Diego family lives in a home for five years. All that considered, I guess it would be safe to say that I’ve probably sold more than 200 homes in Normal Heights.
“I don’t live there. Back in 1980 I bought the last home in Mission Hills that cost less than $100,000. But as I was getting into real estate, I knew I wanted to work with a real neighborhood. A place I could get to know. A place with character. I looked all over San Diego County and finally decided to focus on Normal Heights. Of course, now I sell properties all over the county — everywhere, not just Normal Heights. But back then, what I loved about Normal Heights was its diversity. It still has that diversity. I mean, in terms of social classes and ethnic groups, it has to be the most diverse neighborhood in the city.”
I met Artiaga, a petite, dynamic woman, on a mid-May afternoon. Before becoming a realtor, Artiaga worked as a counselor in the state prison system.
“I was good at it because I was direct and I was honest,” Artiaga said of those years. “I figured I could use those same qualities to my advantage in a career in real estate. And it worked. I’m a good real estate agent because I’m direct and honest.”
To illustrate her directness and honesty about Normal Heights’ diversity, she drove me around the neighborhood. We started a couple of blocks south of Adams. We passed a small, run-down apartment building. Three homeboys wearing red bandannas stood in front. They were smoking thin cigars and listening to gangsta rap that pounded from the speakers of a black late-model Lexus. You could feel the bass in your chest. Artiaga’s windshield thumped with the beat.
“So you have, I guess, what you’d define as the more ‘transitional’ parts of Normal Heights, south of Adams. And just a few minutes away, north of Adams, you’re in a very different setting. That’s the big dividing line in Normal Heights — north of Adams, south of Adams. When you’re north of Adams, you spend, on average, about $50,000 more than you would for a comparable home south of Adams.”
Perhaps two minutes after we drove past the homeboys, Artiaga and I sat in front of a house north of Adams, not far from the Carmelite Monastery on Hawley Boulevard.
“You can’t really see the property from here,” Artiaga said, “but the last time I checked, it was valued at $3.2 million. We’re talking almost two acres of land, sitting on a canyon. The landscaping’s incredible. The homeowner is truly an artist. I mean, the house itself is beautiful, but what’s spectacular is that it looks like it’s sitting in the middle of Balboa Park, or in the middle of Huntington Gardens near Pasadena.”
(When I later contacted the owner of this $3.2 million property, he declined to be interviewed. He was polite. But, no. He really wouldn’t feel comfortable having me over to see his home. He did allow, however, that he’d bought the house because of the size of the lot. “Where else in the city could I have gotten so much land? Not in La Jolla. Not in Point Loma. Not in Mission Hills.” He said he’d grown up in the Midwest and had “always loved gardens, growing things, gardening. I always had a garden when I was a boy.” When I asked what made his Normal Heights garden unique, he said he had a “significant” collection of roses. He said his water bills were high. Several hundred dollars a month. “But that’s the price I pay,” he said, “for trying to grow an English garden in what’s basically a desert.”)
“You have properties like this,” Artiaga continued. “I mean, it’s by no means the only one. There’s a home just around the corner that’s on the market for $995,000. And yet you’re just a couple of minutes away from people who lead very different lives. There’s something like 18 different languages spoken by the kids at Adams Elementary. It’s this mix that makes Normal Heights interesting.
“Most of the people who buy in Normal Heights, either north or south of Adams, buy here because it’s the sort of neighborhood where you can walk to everything. The supermarket. A coffee shop. A restaurant. A bar. The difference that I’m seeing now is that the sort of young couple, gay or straight, who used to be able to buy north of Adams can’t afford to buy there now. They’re looking south of Adams.
“When I started selling here 20 years ago, north of Adams was like what south of Adams is now. People north of Adams were concerned about crime. Public services. People north of Adams started to organize politically. They became very involved. Now you have that same sort of thing happening south of Adams. South of Adams is very quickly going to become like north of Adams. You can already see it happening. South of Adams, the price of homes is skyrocketing. The minute something goes on the market, it’s snapped up. Sellers are getting multiple bids, often for more than the asking price.
“When people are that eager to get into a neighborhood, they’re going to pay attention to what goes on in it. They’re going to get involved. And there are already a lot of people here who are very attached to their neighborhood. There are a lot of people who really love Normal Heights.”
A group of people who really love Normal Heights showed up on May 9, 2002, at the annex of Adams Elementary School for the monthly meeting of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee. Although the committee’s role is purely advisory, developers, bureaucrats, and neighborhood residents take its decisions to heart.
The room where the committee met was stuffy. Overhead fans stirred humid air. People wiped sweat from their foreheads. They shifted uneasily in their plastic child-size chairs. The first item up for discussion was the condo-conversion of an eight-unit apartment building on Hawley Boulevard south of Adams. On hand was the developer, Jeff Maisel, a muscular 33-year-old mortgage broker, and four tenants from the eight-unit building Maisel had just bought. Two of the tenants were a middle-aged black couple who’d lived in the building for nine years.
The husband stood and said to the committee meeting, “Mr. Maisel is going to throw us out.”
“After nine years,” the wife continued. “And we’ve been involved in this community. We’re good citizens. We participate in the Neighborhood Watch Program. We pick up litter. We keep an eye on things. And our daughter goes to school here.”
Hunkered over a child-size table, Maisel stared at the backs of his hands. During the next 20 minutes of participatory democracy, Maisel’s tenants and several members of the planning committee condemned him as “predatory,” as “greedy,” as an “outsider,” as an “example of what’s going wrong in this city.”
Maisel sat motionless until committee president Risa Baron asked him to speak.
Maisel looked around the room, cleared his throat, and said, “I’m the future. Like it or not.”
Maisel explained that the high cost of construction, the high cost of land, and the high cost of building permits had caused small-time developers like himself to turn more and more to condo-conversions.
“You know, it’s actually good for the neighborhood. You know there’s a shortage of affordable housing in the city. You say you want affordable housing for first-time homeowners. That’s what I’m providing. Homeownership is good for neighborhoods. Ask the mayor of El Cajon. He loves it when I do condo-conversions out there.
“Here in Normal Heights, someone was going to buy the building on Hawley Boulevard. The buyer would have only two choices: jack up the rents to the market rate or convert the apartments into condos. That’s the simple economics of the situation. A buyer has to be able to make his mortgage on the property or make a profit on its sale. If I jacked up the current rents to what they should be, no one now in the building could afford to live there. As it stands, if the city allows me to go through with the conversion, I’m going to give the tenants $400 to help defray their moving costs. I’m also going to give them the opportunity to buy the condos before I put them on the market.”
“How much are you going to be asking for those condos?” Savanna Forbes asked.
“Two hundred thirty thousand dollars.”
“Hey,” Maisel said, “I don’t know how many of you have looked at any real estate ads lately, but that’s the going rate in this area for a two-bedroom, two-bath condo. And I’m offering to let the tenants buy before I put the condos on the market. After the condos go on the market, they could very well go for considerably more than $230,000. I’m offering a good deal.”
Sitting not far from Maisel, planning committee board member Gary Weber grumbled that Maisel was “taking advantage of people.”
“I, too, am a landlord,” said Weber. “And I don’t take advantage of people.”
The board of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee decided it would recommend that the city deny Maisel permission to go ahead with his condo-conversion. Maisel sighed.
Gary Weber grumbled throughout the meeting. His bushy gray mustache wriggled when something annoyed him. Weber’s mustache-wriggling intensified when an innocent-faced representative from the city planning office announced that the city planning office had failed to file a grant application.
“What?” cried Weber, wide-eyed. “What? We needed that grant to buy land for a park! We need more parks! We need more open space!”
The young fellow from the city planning office looked stricken. He was just the messenger, he explained. He was very sorry. He was extremely sorry. He was sure there must have been some honest mistake.
“Bullshit,” Weber said.
To emphasize his disgust, Weber rapped his fingers on the tabletop.
“I could have written that grant myself. What you’re saying is bullshit.”
Around Normal Heights, Weber has a reputation for grumbling at planning committee meetings, for having a low tolerance for “bullshit,” and for getting things done.
When I later asked a planning committee member if it was wise to try to speak with Weber, he said, “That beautiful annex to Adams Elementary that we all were sitting in? Well, Gary got that built. There’s a very long and complicated story about how he got it built, how he negotiated with the Methodist church for the land. He’s capable of following through on very complex matters.
“He can be intimidating, but that’s purely a front. He’s really a softy. A very sweet guy. But he’s extremely intelligent and he has no tolerance for city government incompetence. He can’t stomach their excuses. And he’s like that because he knows how city government works. He worked for the city. He can’t be fooled. He knows all their tricks. He knows where all the bodies are buried. He’s been around forever. He’s the whole reason there was ever a Normal Heights planning committee in the first place.”
Weber lives north of Adams, not far from the $3.2 million home that Linda Artiaga showed me. Weber’s much smaller Spanish-style house overlooks Mission Valley. On the afternoon I met with him, the roar from I-8 washed up from the valley, sounding like the sea.
“You remember that TV show called Dragnet?” Weber asked after seating me at his dining room table. “I always watched that show and imagined what it might be like to live in California. There was also a bit of that Horace Greeley thing: ‘Go west, young man, go west.’ I was from Cincinnati. I had a job as an urban planner in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1968 I read that the City of San Diego was hiring urban planners. I saw that and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going!’
“My wife and I did some research. We got a city map of San Diego. We saw this big park, Balboa Park, and we thought we might want to live near it. So we drew a big circle around Balboa Park and downtown. We decided to look for a home in all the neighborhoods inside the circle.
“When we first got here we rented a little place in University City. Not long after that we found a home in Normal Heights. A little bungalow typical of the area. Eight hundred square feet. Two bedrooms. Three thousand-square-foot lot. We bought it for $15,500. To give you an idea of what the economy was like back then, we’d been paying $169 in rent. Our mortgage was $147.
“I spent the first ten years living in Normal Heights doing nothing for Normal Heights. I worked in the city’s planning department, working on community planning. I was assigned to work on the Ocean Beach community plan, which was fine by me. I wanted to work with the city’s older neighborhoods.
“The idea of community plans was something that really evolved in the postwar era. It was a fairly progressive idea, this notion that a city ought to take the long view of how its various neighborhoods should develop, that a community’s residents should have a say in how their community evolved. My work in Ocean Beach turned out to be a great education.
“When I started working there in the early 1970s, Ocean Beach was a hotbed of real leftist radical activity. The community planning committee, made up of four leftists, four merchants, four realtors, and four members of the Ocean Beach Town Council, had basically taken the city’s community plan for Ocean Beach and thrown it back in the city’s face. And the community activists in Ocean Beach had all these tactics they’d developed during the protest movement in the 1960s. But they were willing to work with me. I was this technocrat who knew how things worked in city government. They knew how to stir things up. I admired them. At the same time I had to ask myself, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing that where I live? Why isn’t anyone stirring things up in Normal Heights?’ Everyplace in the city except Mid-City had a community planning committee.
“In 1979 the city decided to update its plan for Mid-City, which included Normal Heights. Back then, in the late 1970s, the Pete Wilson era, Wilson’s attitude was ‘Pile ’em high and pile ’em deep in the older neighborhoods!’ His idea of ‘smart growth’ was to pack the inner city. At the same time, we were experiencing all this immigration from Southeast Asia and Latin America. In Normal Heights, since the 1960s, developers had been tearing down single-family homes and putting up apartments. In the late 1970s, immigrants were crowding into these apartments. You had huge extended families shoehorned into these small apartments. Our density was growing, but we didn’t have any infrastructure. Since I worked for the city planning department, I knew that as early as 1965 the city was well aware that there weren’t enough parks or schools in the area.
“So in 1979, the city decided to update its Mid-City plan. I attended a public meeting about the plan update, and it was there that I realized that every place else in the city but Normal Heights had a community planning committee. I stood up at the meeting and said, ‘We’ve got to get organized. We’ve got to have some say in how the city updates the Mid-City plan. Who wants to start a planning committee?’ About 10 to 15 people raised their hands. That was, I guess, what you’d call the start of Normal Heights’ middle-class radicalism.
“Pete Wilson’s city council, of course, didn’t want to recognize any sort of planning committee from Normal Heights. And we certainly weren’t going to get any help from Kensington, although it’s part of Mid-City. In Kensington, they didn’t have to organize. They didn’t see any need for it. You have a lot of wealthy, well-connected people there who, if they want to get something done in city government, simply pick up the phone and call downtown.
“We couldn’t simply pick up the phone if we wanted something done. We printed up 1000 flyers announcing a meeting. We went door to door. We posted them on light poles. The flyer had a little pen-and-ink drawing of the Normal Heights sign that was done by Matt Potter, the same guy who now does all the great investigative stuff at the Reader. Potter’s actually quite a fine pen-and-ink artist. The flyer said that the city was gonna update the community plan, that the community had to organize to have a say-so in what happened. About 35 people showed up at that meeting. It was a Saturday in June. We met at the Methodist church over there near the elementary school. This fast-talking guy stands up and starts asking all these questions. He wanted to know everything. He seemed very interested. Very concerned.
“His name was Steve Temko. He was a young attorney who lived in Normal Heights, had a home north of Adams. I realized that this Temko guy was a tremendous asset. At the meeting we decided to set up the Normal Heights Community Association. I said to Temko, ‘Why don’t you be the chairman?’
“That’s how things got started.”
Weber and Temko say that “many people” were involved in politically organizing Normal Heights. Both men are careful not to overstate their respective roles in what happened. But when you look through issues of the Union or the Tribune from the early 1980s, both Weber and Temko are names that crop up often in articles about Normal Heights. (A neighborhood that the Union and Tribune at the time characterized as a “place of crime and troubled teens.” In 1981, the Reader described Normal Heights as a “fading middle-class neighborhood.”) From these stories you get a sense that Weber was in fact the brains behind the promotion of Normal Heights’ community issues and Temko was in fact the legal and political dynamo that pushed those issues forward.
Attorneys at the big-deal law firms around town will tell you that they admire Steve Temko. They’ll tell you he’s known as “the Bulldog.”
“In my line of work, appellate work, I guess you have to be tenacious. You’ve got to grab ahold of something and concentrate, really think it through. Appellate work is very technical, very detailed. In that way it’s like community activism. You’ve gotta pay attention to detail. You’ve gotta be persistent. You can’t be distracted. So. ‘The Bulldog.’ Maybe. Fact is, once you get ahold of something, you don’t let go.”
The big firms hire Temko to consult on “mega divorces,” dissolutions of the superrich involving tens of millions of dollars in spousal support and community property.
“I’m called in to consult. I walk into the first meeting and I make it clear from the get-go that I’m a team player. I make it clear to the client that I’m not the boss. I’m there to consult. I’m not running the show. I guess you could say that was also something I learned from community activism. Teamwork. No egos. Concentrating on the task at hand. Being happy to work behind the scenes. Helping pull everyone together to get the job done.
“When I first moved to Normal Heights in 1978, no one — literally no one — was doing any activism for Normal Heights. Even places like Tierrasanta had the Rotary, Kiwanis, organizations to build community involvement. Normal Heights had nothing. Normal Heights was a nowhere zone.
“I saw a lot of potential. I saw a place that had a real ‘neighborhood feel.’ It just needed community involvement. I remember that the first big issue that really caught my attention was the overcrowding, the density. Adams Elementary School was packed. Developers wanted to tear down more single-family homes to build more apartment buildings. Okay, fine. So the city needed affordable housing. But we weren’t getting any additional infrastructure to compensate for the density. Something had to be done about it. And it was through that issue that a lot of people started coming together. Organizing. It was quite impressive.”
Temko has filled an enormous blue three-ring binder with news clips from his years as a Normal Heights community activist. Pull the faded newsprint and Xeroxes from their plastic pockets, organize them chronologically, and you get an idea of what Temko, Weber, and other neighborhood residents accomplished.
A 1981 clip from a small community newspaper, the Mid-City Edge, says that the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee needs citizens to get involved, to help wrestle with the city over its revision of the Mid-City plan.
An article from the May 7, 1981, edition of the Reader tells how Temko and other “community activists” had revitalized the moribund Adams Avenue Business Association. Temko was planning to raise money to repaint and relight the neon Normal Heights sign over Adams Avenue.
Another Reader article, dated January 27, 1983, describes something called the Normal Heights Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization Temko and his cohorts created in order to receive “federal revenue sharing monies” administered by the county. The article tells how $6000 of federal money helped establish the Adams Avenue Post, a community paper Temko hoped would help Normal Heights residents learn what was happening in their neighborhood and “get to the community resources that we do have.”
The fifth edition of the Adams Avenue Post, published in July 1983, announces a street fair celebrating the relighting of the Normal Heights sign. (“We had Susan Golding, who had been our council person, come to the ceremony to light the sign,” Temko later told me. “And when she lit the sign, she said we were celebrating the first annual Adams Avenue Street Fair. I must have looked surprised. She said, ‘You guys have done a great job. Keep it up. I want you to do this every year.’ That was how the Adams Avenue Street Fair was born.”) The paper also boasts a quarter-page ad from Coldwell Banker, promoting Linda Artiaga as “our Area Specialist for Normal Heights.”
An editorial from the Thursday, February 16, 1984, edition of the Tribune grouses that “homeowners in the central city want apartments, condominiums, and other dense development to go up in someone else’s neighborhood, never theirs.” While allowing that Mid-City homeowners did have a “legitimate gripe” about overcrowded schools, too few parks and parking spaces, the editorial also states that “block after block of aging bungalows on large lots, a common sight in parts of Mid-City, is not exactly an efficient use of precious central-city land.”
A front-page article from the April 11, 1984, edition of the San Diego Daily Transcript says, “Mayor Roger Hedgecock and Councilwoman Gloria McColl told some 300 mid-city residents they would support a moratorium on multi-family housing construction in their area until a general community plan is in place.” The same article quotes Steve Temko as saying, “If you have growth without services, you have a slum.”
The Wednesday, April 17, 1985, edition of the Tribune devoted two full pages to an article about Normal Heights entitled “Neighborhood Forges Change: Cozy Shops Amid the Bungalows.” The article states that “like a few other inner-city neighborhoods across the nation, Normal Heights is changing for the better.… Less than two dozen activists have, under the general direction of Gary Weber, formed five community organizations.… They have put enough pressure on [city] planners to rein in the proliferation of new apartment buildings.… They dealt with their overcrowded elementary school.… They have won the city’s promise to build two new mini-parks and a center for senior citizens.…”
Finally, a clip from the April 18, 1986, edition of the Union states, “Normal Heights Wins National Honor.” Describing Normal Heights as a neighborhood “known locally for its feisty leaders and political persistence,” staff writer Lorie Hearn explains how Normal Heights beat 72 competitors, including San Diego, for an “All-American City Award” in a contest sponsored by USA Today. “Normal Heights residents were praised for persuading elected officials to preserve single-family living by cutting back on condominium and apartment development, for creating an effective community association, and for publishing their own monthly newspaper.…”
On the afternoon Temko invited me to his law office to peruse the three-ring binder, he thumbed through it for a few minutes before handing it to me. He grew quiet. Finally he said, “You know, the funny thing is that a couple of years ago there was a young woman working in this office. A receptionist. Somehow she heard about my community activist days in Normal Heights. In 1985, we’d created this community garden over there on 40th Street, right near Interstate 15. A big community garden. And this young woman who was working here said, ‘Wow. I worked in that garden when I was a little girl. I learned how to grow things in that garden. It was great.’ ”
Temko considered the binder.
“It’s kind of odd. When you’re in the middle of doing all that community activism, and you’re fighting all these battles, and you’re so focused on all that needs to be done, you don’t really expect that 10, 15 years down the road, someone’s gonna come up to you and say, ‘Hey, what you did had an impact on my life.’ ”
A few weeks later, Temko invited me to lunch at DiMille’s restaurant on Adams Avenue. When I arrived, Temko was staring across the street at the Adams Recreation Center.
“We got that done, you know. We got that recreation center built. And see all these trees up and down Adams Avenue? We did that too. We got the first city landscaping ever in all of the Mid-City area. We got trees. We got the Normal Heights sign restored. We got the telephone and electrical wires put underground. We wanted this street to look nice. We did a lot.
“The thing is, I wonder how many people ever look around and ask themselves, ‘How did that recreation center get here? How did those trees get here? Why does this neighborhood look like it does?’ I’m not saying that folks are necessarily ungrateful. I’m talking more about young people. The whole idea of getting involved in your community. Being curious about how city government works. Do young people even know what community involvement means?”
While Temko picked at his lunch, he talked about growing up in suburban New Jersey, about going to law school in Denver, about coming to San Diego in 1978 and buying his first home, a three-bedroom, two-bath place north of Adams Avenue.
“And once you buy a home, you start paying attention to what’s going on around you. Here, you know, back then, you only had to look around to see that a lot of single-family homes were being destroyed. You only had to look around to realize there were some problems.
“The way you go about fixing those sorts of problems, the real key to success, is not to make it political. You must have no political agenda. Your only agenda has to be the neighborhood. Usually, people who go downtown to deal with the council, to deal with the city, they go with a political agenda. You can’t do that. The minute you start taking sides, the minute you start making it partisan, you lose. You’re dead.
“Gary Weber and I and others in Normal Heights worked with a lot of politicians, a lot of very conservative Republican politicians. The deal is that, although we maybe didn’t agree on political issues, we had this respect for each other. Susan Golding, a conservative Republican, really respected the fact that we were trying to do something for our neighborhood. Roger Hedgecock, another conservative Republican, also had a lot of respect for what we were trying to do. Same for Gloria McColl.
“Of all the things we did for Normal Heights, I think the most important was the down-zoning. When the community plan was finalized in 1985, we made sure that no one could build any more of those big ugly apartment buildings. Before, you could put eight units on one of those small Normal Heights lots. We got it down to three or four. We added tougher regulations for off-street parking. It was a long battle, but we managed to maintain the single-family character of the neighborhood.
“My familiarity with what happened in Normal Heights sort of fades out around 1990, 1991. I left the neighborhood in 1992. The same year that the Adams Avenue Post got evicted from its offices. From what I understand, certain activists in the community started taking sides politically. Councilman Bill Lowery didn’t like that. I guess it was a mess. I don’t know. Like I said, I left in 1992. From what I understand, a lot of the community activism went into kind of a lull. People were tired. They’d been through a lot. But I really don’t know what happened in the neighborhood after I left.”
Nick Hintza knows what happened. A native of Asmara, Eritrea, Hintza immigrated to the States in 1979.
“I’m the third oldest of nine children. I was born two years after Ethiopia occupied Eritrea. My dad was a policeman. Asmara, when I last saw it, was a lovely city. They say it’s the cleanest city in all of Africa. It’s up very high, on a plateau. The Italians designed many of the city’s buildings and its streets. The climate’s very mild. It was lovely. It was lovely, but there was no future for me there. Especially not under the Ethiopian occupation.
“I knew I had to get to America. I knew there was opportunity here. First I went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there I tried to go to Greece. I thought in Greece I might get work on an Israeli or American ship heading to the U.S. But I couldn’t get a visa to Greece. I got one for Italy. I thought, ‘Fine. Italy’s closer to America than Ethiopia is.’ I ended up spending four and a half years in Milan. I got a job fixing gas meters. What other kind of job could I get? I had no papers. No documents.
“A school in Milan gave me a $500 scholarship. And a professor at the school encouraged me to go to America. He said, ‘There’s really no future for you, an African guy, here in Italy.’ An accounting school in Boston accepted my application and gave me a student visa. The professor in Milan was very kind to me and gave me $200. That was all the money I had in the world.
“I arrived in the United States like all the immigrant stories. I came with almost nothing. I had $200 in my pocket. I started out as a busboy, working very hard. Saving my money. I studied electronics for two years at the University of Massachusetts. It was in Boston that I bought my first piece of property, a three-unit building in what was basically a slum part of town. I lived in one of the units. Later, I moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job with a Greek guy, a developer, who’d buy property and put a Burger King on it. I learned a lot about real estate from him.
“In 1988 I moved to San Diego. I knew an Eritrean family out here. They told me it was a nice town. So I moved out here. To get to know the city very well, I took a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door. In about three months, I knew every part of the city. I also got a job selling Daihatsus on the National City Mile of Cars. I bought a small gift shop in what used to be the TraveLodge on Harbor Island.
“While I was selling Kirbys, I heard that a small store in Normal Heights, PJ’s Market on the corner of Cherokee and Madison Avenues, was for sale for $250,000. I knew the neighborhood. I felt it had potential. In 1989 I got a small business loan and bought the store. I put $50,000 down. The store had a little apartment upstairs. I moved in. In 1993, I got married. We had a couple of kids. By that time, I’d brought my father over from Asmara and he was working with me at the store.
“When I first bought the store, the neighborhood was about 50 percent white, the rest was black and Latino. But over the next few years, the economy got very bad. You know, we had that very bad recession. We lost so many jobs. People left San Diego. The middle-class white people and middle-class ethnic people started moving out of Normal Heights. More poor ethnic people and poor whites started moving in. By 1995, the neighborhood was 60 percent poor minorities. This was the peak time for crime. It was common for kids to run into my store, grab a 12-pack of beer, and run out. There was nothing I could do. Across the street, there was this very nice Greek restaurant called Georgia’s. People used to come all the way from North County because they had Greek dancing there on Saturday nights. But there were gang members in the neighborhood. The customers started complaining of being hassled on their way to and from their cars. Finally, in 1995, Georgia’s closed.
“At that time I was enrolled at Grossmont College, taking classes in chemistry and biology. My big dream has always been to study microbiology at UC Davis. So I would sit in the store and study. My dad was in the store too. In early October 1995, at around 6:00 p.m., I was sitting by the cash register, studying a chemistry book, when I looked up and saw this young black kid walk in the store. He was wearing a ski cap and he had a black bandanna covering his face. He walked past my father, who was sitting by the door. He approached me. He had a gun in his hand. He pointed it at me. I gestured to the cash register. I said, ‘Take whatever you want. Take it all.’
“As he moved to the cash register, the bandanna fell from his face. I saw his face. This kid who couldn’t have been more than 16 immediately decided he had to kill me. Because I’d seen his face. Because I could identify him. He pointed the gun at me again. I grabbed his hand. We started to fight. He was really desperate to shoot me. The gun went off. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and hit my father, who was sitting by the door. My father didn’t know he was hit. He got up and staggered outside to get help. He was halfway across the street when he fell down, unconscious. He was bleeding heavily.
“The kid and I were still fighting. It was only for a minute or two, but it seemed like forever. He really wanted to shoot me. I had his hand that held the gun, but he bent his wrist in such a way that he could aim the gun at me. He shot me. He shot me; then he ran out the door. I remembered that I had seen him before. The previous Saturday. He’d come in with a guy who lived in the neighborhood.
“The bullet that hit my father went up through his leg and through his large intestine. He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I was very lucky. The bullet that hit me went through my chest, just missing my heart by a few centimeters. I was in the hospital for only a week. The police never found the kid who shot me and my father.
“For a while, the neighborhood didn’t change. Gradually, very gradually, people started moving in and fixing up the houses. There started to be more homeowners and fewer renters. About two years ago, things started changing very quickly. Rents started to go up. People started buying more and more houses. More white people started moving back in. More middle-class minority people started moving back in. People in the neighborhood have a little more money to spend. I can tell. This year sales have increased by about 40 percent compared to what they were two years ago.
“I’m feeling so confident about Normal Heights that I’m looking around here to buy some rental property. An eight-unit building. I’d like to rent to Section 8 people. Not only are they the sort of people who shop at little corner stores like mine, they make a good balance in the neighborhood. It’s good to have a mix of people. It makes the neighborhood interesting.”
While Hintza spoke, a lithe black woman entered the store to buy a Coke and a pack of gum.
“How’s business going, Sheila?” Hintza asked her.
“Good. Real good,” she said. “I just got an order from some women up at Mercy Hospital for five big afghans. I’m gonna be busy.”
“Good for you,” Hintza said.
“That’s how it goes. Little by little,” the woman said and glided out the door.
Hintza watched her go. “Sheila’s the sort of person I’d like to see stay in the neighborhood.”
Sheila grew up, she later told me, in a 1000-unit housing project in south Philadelphia.
“We were eight kids in my family. We lived in Tasker Homes. That’s what the project was called. Tasker Homes. It was rough. But in a way, it prepared me for life. Anything, I mean anything, is easier than south Philadelphia.”
Sheila’s a private person, a single mother of three, who values a quiet life. She asked that I not use her last name. She lives in an airy $750-per-month two-bedroom, one-bath townhouse tucked behind a single-family home near 39th Street. Sheila has filled her home with African art, African statues, posters of Africa. She has high cheekbones and an aquiline nose and looks very much like the Somalia-born model Iman (if you’re old enough to remember what Iman looked like). Sheila could also pass for a woman in her early 30s. But Sheila is 48 years old and three years ago had a heart attack.
“I have to be careful with my health. I’ve gotta take good care of myself,” she told me the morning I visited her. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she sorted through the skeins of yarn she uses to crochet afghans, baby booties, “Anything at all, really. I can make anything. I’ve been crocheting since I was 12.
“Right now I make mostly afghans, though. I get orders through the women at my church. I get orders from hospitals, from church groups that visit hospitals. Word of mouth. A small afghan runs about $50, and the price can go from there up to $550 for a very large one. I sometimes make as many as two smaller ones a week. For the larger projects, I maybe do two a month. It keeps me busy. Gives me a little cash, which always helps.”
I asked Sheila how she came to Normal Heights.
“I arrived in San Diego at 8:00 a.m. on January 15, 1988. I packed my babies onto a bus in Philly and came out here to make a new life for us. I had two sisters living out here. I needed a change.
“I lived in two different places before I ended up at this place in 1992. I first rented an apartment near 30th Street and Meade Avenue. I paid $300 a month for that place. I eventually moved to a bigger apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment over near 44th Street and University Avenue. But things started getting crazy. Gang problems. Crime. Someone climbed through my neighbor’s bedroom window and robbed him. I knew I had to move out of that area.
“I looked around and found this place. Now, coming from south Philadelphia, from Tasker Homes, it was a big deal for me to move into an area that was mostly, if not all, white. It wasn’t something I did casually. But I had to think of my kids. I looked around over here, and I found this place. This place was quiet. The neighbors were wonderful. The rent back then was $650 a month. I’m on Section 8. The price was right. I saw that I could walk my kids to the Kensington Library and to the little playground there. I thought this place was just great. I told myself, ‘I’m staying right here.’
“When I first moved in here, I was just about the only black person in this part of the neighborhood. I’d walk around and hardly ever see another black person. Then I watched the neighborhood start to change. It went from being mostly white to mostly Hispanic. Then some of my own people started to move in.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind my own kind. You can see by the way I’ve decorated my home that I’m proud of my heritage. But I draw the line when it comes to those folks living the ‘ghetto fabulous’ lifestyle. It’s not for me, and I certainly don’t want that around my kids. It’s hard enough raising children without that sort of stuff going on across the street. I’ve done a good job as a mom. It’s been hard. I saw them through Benjamin Franklin Elementary, Wilson Junior High, Hoover High. My youngest is a senior at Hoover. I’m almost done being a mom.
“So for a while, we had some of that ‘ghetto fabulous’ element moving in. And I’ll never forget when Nick and his dad were shot. I was heartsick over that. It was horrible. That’s when things were at their worst in this neighborhood. But now that bad element’s mostly gone. Things have gotten a lot quieter. Landlords are raising rents up and down this street. Even some of my best neighbors are moving out. The Mexican family that lives next door has been wonderful. We always make food and share it with each other. Whenever they have a birthday party, they bring me ice cream and cake. We’ve been neighbors for almost ten years. Now they’re having to move because the landlord raised their rent.
“I love Normal Heights. I’m going to stay as long as I can. You see all that work they’re doing over near 15. That big park they’re putting in. All the work they’re doing on El Cajon Boulevard. When it’s all fixed up, this place is going to be just beautiful. The only problem is that it’s getting too expensive for a lot of folks. I hope I’ll be able to stay.”
Steve Sullenger, a self-described “typical white low-level computer guy,” lives a few blocks away from Sheila on Meade Avenue.
“Since I started living south of Adams, I went through a couple different phases of racism,” he told me one late spring afternoon while he watered his lawn.
“I’m 37 years old and grew up near Pasadena. I went to public schools that were mostly white. But I came from a liberal family. I learned at home and at school and at church that racism and stereotyping were bad. These ideas were reinforced when I went to college.
“When I moved to Normal Heights three years ago, I had typical liberal ideas about racism. I had never wanted to own a home, but I was forced into it. I had an apartment in University Heights, and from one lease to the next, my rent almost doubled. From $740 to $1250. It was clear that I had to buy a home. I had a little savings. I looked around. South of Adams was the only place I could afford to buy. I bought an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home for $163,000. Even back then, before the real estate market started to get really crazy, there weren’t many homes for sale here.
“Like a lot of homeowners south of Adams, I’m surrounded by apartments. On either side of me, and in back of me, across the alley. The street is very mixed. Asians, Mexicans, blacks, whites, Africans. So I moved into my house with all these liberal ideas of how nice it was to live in a racially integrated neighborhood. Of course, I’d never lived in a racially integrated neighborhood before. My ideas of racial harmony were abstract.
“You could say that this abstract liberal attitude was my first phase of racism. I didn’t have bad stereotypes. I had good stereotypes. But they were stereotypes. All blacks were outgoing, friendly, and passionate. All Hispanics were family-oriented hard workers. All Asians were respectful and quiet and hardworking.
“The first incident happened the day I was moving into my house. It was a Sunday. I was exhausted. I went out back to the alley to put something in my garbage can. When I opened the lid, I saw it was filled to the brim with dirty diapers and rotten food. Not in garbage bags. Just all dumped in. It smelled horrible. So I went and got some big trash bags and started cleaning it out. I was sweating and angry. In the middle of all the dirty diapers and rotten food, I kept finding pieces of mail addressed to an apartment in the building across the alley. I figured out that those people, whoever they were, had been dumping their trash in my garbage can. By the time I finished cleaning up everything, I was furious. I was so tired I was shaking. I thought, ‘I’ve got to confront these people about what they’ve done.’
“I walked around the block to the apartment and I knocked on the door. This huge homeboy answered. He must have been, like, 6 foot 2, 280 pounds. All muscle. Tattoos on his neck. He was dressed completely in blue. He opened the screen door and said, ‘Yeah? What do you want?’ in an unfriendly way. He scowled at me.
“Normally I don’t think very fast. I take a long time to make decisions. But what I realized was that I had bought this house and I had these neighbors who were dumping their trash into my trash can and that cleaning it up was horrible. I realized I had to make 100 percent certain this would never happen again. But with this guy, I had to persuade him in a way that wouldn’t cause hostility. I had to live with him across the alley. I couldn’t live in constant fear.
“I don’t even know where the idea came from. I guess I figured that this guy was probably used to dealing with racist, confrontational white people. So I was already shaking with fatigue. I was sweating and covered in filth. I smelled bad. I hadn’t shaved that day. I must have looked kind of crazy.
“All of a sudden I just blurted out, ‘I found your mail inside my trash can. I guess you’ve been putting your trash in my trash can. Filling up my trash can.’ My voice was quivering from nervousness, but it sounded like I was about to start crying. I started making up this big lie. I lied to the huge homeboy. I said, ‘I just can’t take it. My mother’s dying of cancer. My mother’s dying of cancer, and I just moved into that house across the alley. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’
“Then I did something really freaky. I reached out and touched the homeboy’s shoulder. I said, ‘Please, please. My mother’s dying of cancer. I don’t have much energy anymore. Please don’t put your trash in my trash can!’
“And when I touched him, this big strong homeboy looked terrified. I mean, this was a completely weird experience for him. I was this strange white guy standing at his front door, whimpering about how my mother was dying of cancer. I sounded very needy. And I touched him, which totally freaked him out. I could tell nothing like this had ever happened to him before. I could tell he was thinking that he had to do something fast, otherwise I could show up at his place when he had his homeboys over. I might just suddenly show up crying and whining about my dying mother. I could potentially be this huge embarrassment.
“I had made myself into this big complicated problem for this guy. I wasn’t being hostile. I wasn’t being confrontational. I’m sure he thought he couldn’t be mean to me or swear at me and tell me to go away, because I might start sobbing, which would be just too weird. So he pats me on the shoulder and says, ‘That’s all right, bro. That’s all right. We were just usin’ your trash can because our Dumpster was full. Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’ And he closed the door really fast and walked away. He never used my trash can again.
“That incident was the start of my second phase of racism. I went from being this liberal guy to being kind of a racist. It seemed like all the noisy people in the neighborhood, all the people who threw trash on the ground, were either black or Mexican. In the apartment building next to me there was this Mexican woman who was always having parties. She’d have guys over, and they’d party until two or three in the morning. They’d play very loud Mexican music and sing along. It was a nightmare. I ended up calling the landlord, and the landlord told me that the Mexican woman was Section 8, that her rent was government subsidized, and that it was very difficult to evict Section 8 tenants.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is like being black in South Africa when there was apartheid. The government is taxing me, taking my money, and using my money to oppress me. The government is using my tax dollars to finance my oppression!’
“I started to have very different ideas about welfare and government-subsidy programs. I really started hating the woman next door. One morning, I met her on the sidewalk, and I just exploded. I started screaming at her like a madman. ‘You’re too fuckin’ noisy! You’re too fuckin’ noisy!’ I felt hopeless. I’d bought this house. I couldn’t just pack up and move like a renter. Moreover, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. So I exploded. And the woman starts crying and saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We were just having a birthday party for my daughter!’ And I shout, ‘How many fucking birthdays does your daughter have? You’ve had three parties a week for the past four months!’ It was a horrible scene, but the woman quieted down after that. She stopped having loud parties.
“I went through what was basically a very racist period. I thought blacks and Mexicans were my enemies. They threw trash on my lawn. They played loud music. They sold drugs. They had loud fights. They made my life miserable. And this was all true. There were blacks and Mexicans doing those things. But it wasn’t all of them.
“What happened is that I slowly started to notice that what I thought of as a racial problem was really an issue of economics. I started to notice that the Mexican homeowners on my street yelled at kids for throwing trash on their lawns. Middle-class black women started moving into the apartment buildings, and they would scream at the homeboys for playing their music too loud. These middle-class black women were fearless. They’d march up to the homeboys and yell, ‘Will you please turn that goddamn stereo down!’ And the homeboys would immediately back down and obey. These black women would yell things like, ‘I don’t want no ghetto trash around my kids!’ It was amazing.
“What’s happening now is that more and more middle-class people — white, black, Mexican — have started moving into places south of Adams. They’re living right next door to poor whites, blacks, and Mexicans who have all the problems that poor people have. Just last month, a house one block north of Meade Avenue sold for $300,000. It’s a nice little two-bedroom house with a fireplace, but it seems insane to pay $300,000 to live in this neighborhood. What’s even more crazy is that this $300,000 house is right next door to this little house where two or three cholos live. They sell drugs. When the people who bought the $300,000 house realize what’s going on next door to them, they’re going to go ballistic. You don’t pay $300,000 for a house and expect to live next door to drug dealers.
“There’s going to be more and more pressure on the police, on the city government, to clean up this area south of Adams, to get rid of the drug dealers, the gang bangers, the mischief makers. A lot of this pressure is going to come from homeowners, and a lot is going to come from the neighborhood’s small-business owners. I’m starting to see people investing a little more money along Adams. At the corner of East Mountain View Drive and Adams there’s this very nice, very fancy African art gift shop, and next door to it is a very pretty plant shop. Up near the Normal Heights sign, there’s that café called Lestat’s. I’ve noticed that the owner has leased the space next door to the café. These businesspeople must believe that things are looking up.”
Thirty-nine-year-old John Hussler owns Lestat’s.
“This place used to be called Paradigm,” he told me one morning while I eyed the café’s neo-Gothic decor. “It was basically a lesbian coffeehouse, a very politically oriented lesbian coffeehouse. I remember the afternoon I walked in to check out the place. This was back in 1996. I walked in the front door, and a woman kicked a chair in front of me. Just to let me know, I guess, that men were basically not welcome. That’s what it was like in the afternoons and evenings. In the morning, it served a completely different crowd. People from the neighborhood, on their way to work, who wanted a good cup of coffee. The morning regulars were tremendously loyal. Those people made me think the place could be a real success.
“I’d been working for Nordstrom, managing their espresso bars. The experience gave me some expertise in the business. I knew I wanted to have a café of my own, so I started visiting cafés around town. I saw an ad in the paper announcing that Paradigm was for sale. I looked around Normal Heights and liked what I saw. It reminded me of the small-neighborhood feel you get in Chicago, where I grew up. Paradigm’s owner wanted $30,000 for the business. My friend Dan, who owns Twiggs café up on Park Boulevard, thought $30,000 was a rip-off. I didn’t agree. I thought it was a little high, but with some effort the place would turn a nice profit.
“I spent about $20,000 fixing it up, painting it, decorating. We opened for business on the first week of May 1997. We had just one employee, me. I ended up working 18-hour days, which was a real challenge. There was also a considerable crime problem. The house behind the café was basically a crack house. Gang members would come and sit on our front patio. I’d go out and tell them to leave, and they’d just laugh and say they were going to kill me. I’d say, ‘Go ahead and laugh. I’ve already called the police.’
“I don’t consider myself the kind of guy who gets into fistfights, but I had to get physical on a couple of occasions. Drunks, you know, would wander in and start causing trouble. They’d refuse to leave. They’d fight. I had to learn to fight back. I didn’t count on having to fight when I started thinking that I wanted to own a business.
“But the hard work did pay off. We pulled a profit during the first two years. Within two years of starting, we were making $400 per day. And our profits have continued to increase nicely, by about 30 percent. On a good weekend, we serve around 600 customers, which isn’t as great as a café like the Living Room in Hillcrest. They probably serve around 900 on a good weekend. Still, we’re doing well, and I think we’re going to do even better.
“What I’ve noticed is that over the past two years the neighborhood’s dynamics have changed. The gang graffiti has mostly disappeared. Just a few weeks ago, this kid was spraying graffiti on the side of a store across the street. Neighbors saw him and started chasing him down the street. The neighborhood’s starting to have real backbone.
“So in January 2002, we leased the 1600-square-foot space next door. We painted it. Put in tables, a lighting system, a good sound system. The performance space will basically draw business to the café. We’ll have waiters and waitresses going back and forth. Of course, it’s a gamble, but owning a business is like gambling. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that things were looking up in Normal Heights.”
On a mid-July morning I met with Erlene Thom, who’s lived in Normal Heights all her life.
“Well, I guess things are looking up,” she told me. “You get to be my age and you get kind of skeptical. Things start looking up, then things get worse. Then they get better again. Then they get worse. Nothing lasts forever. There are no guarantees.”
A direct and stalwart woman in her 50s, Thom lives on Cherokee Avenue in her late grandmother’s house.
“I grew up in the house next door. I rent it out. To give you an idea of how things get better and worse, in 1975, the house I’m living in now was valued at $75,000. In 1989, at the very top of the market, it was valued at $170,000. In 1992, it was worth $130,000.”
Thom says she lost “more money than I’d ever care to remember” in the early-1990s real estate collapse. “I invested in an apartment building in Golden Hill. If I’d just held on to it for a little while longer, I wouldn’t be living in Normal Heights today. Heck, 20 years ago if you’d told me I’d still be living in Normal Heights, I’d have told you that you were crazy.”
Thom told me that her maternal grandparents came to San Diego in 1900.
“They farmed 40 acres in San Marcos. In 1918, my grandfather died. I guess my grandmother tried to keep things going as best she could. In 1935 she decided that she didn’t want to live on the farm anymore, so she moved here to Normal Heights. In 1937, my parents built the house next door.
“When I was growing up, Normal Heights was a little more middle-class than it is now. The consul of Ecuador lived here for a while. There were always a few minorities, especially here, south of Adams. And there was always this sense, even when I was a child, that north of Adams was better, richer. Fifty, 60 years ago, we were aware of that distinction. The kids who were the leaders at school were from north of Adams or from Kensington. The Normal Heights kids from south of Adams weren’t as involved in school activities. They were less academically inclined. I imagine it’s still that way today. Although, I don’t know how many families from north of Adams or Kensington actually send their kids to the neighborhood schools.
“South of Adams, the neighborhood really started to change in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they started tearing down the single-family homes and putting up apartments. There was less stability. People always moving in and moving out. The first violence I ever saw in the neighborhood happened in the summer of 1963. I saw it from where I’m standing right now. A Hispanic guy was walking down the street, and a car pulled up beside him. Some guys jumped out and they started beating him with chains. They beat him to a bloody pulp. I later realized that what I saw was gang activity.
“The atmosphere changed again in 1990. That’s when my house was broken into for the first time. They broke in again in 1995. It was also in 1995 that an old woman was run over at the corner of Adams Avenue and East Mountain View Drive. The police were never able to determine whether it was a homicide or not. It was terrifying. And, of course, I remember when Nick Hintza was shot. That was truly awful.
“Only a few years ago, middle-class white people started moving back south of Adams. Young couples. Buying and fixing up homes. They move in and have these big plans for gardening, and they discover what I’ve had to contend with all these years. It’s what geological engineers in this town call ‘Normal Heights mudstone.’ It’s exactly what it sounds like. Mud that’s as hard as stone. I don’t know if they have Normal Heights mudstone in Kensington, but here, at least south of Adams, all our homes are built on it. And if you want to make anything grow in it, you’ve got to work hard.
“My neighbors tell me, ‘Erlene, get out of here. You’ve got two homes. Sell ’em. Take the money and run!’ I know the market’s high right now. But where would I go? Little homes here south of Adams are outrageously expensive. I can’t believe what folks are paying for them. I can’t imagine what homes are going for in the city’s better neighborhoods.
“But the notion of leaving is tempting. Some days I dream of moving to La Mesa.”
Thom’s neighbors, Liza and Gabe Dansky, gave in to the temptation.
“I can date it precisely for you. The day it all changed. The day I decided that we had to get out. It was December 22, 2001. I was at the Vons on Adams. The store was packed. I watched people fight each other to buy hams.”
Liza’s a pretty, thin, muscular woman, an athlete, who waves her hands in the air when she talks.
“I was standing there watching these people fight over hams. And these weren’t special hams or exceptionally good hams. These were plain old hams. And people were bickering over them. I’d been on the freeway a lot that day. On I-15. The traffic was horrible. Then the store was crowded. People fighting over hams. And I decided, ‘That’s it! I’m over! I’m through! I’m not going to stand anymore in a store and watch people fight over hams! We’re getting out of here!’ I went home and told my husband Gabe that we had to leave San Diego. He agreed that the city had changed, and not for the better. It’s too busy now. Too crowded. It’s become a big city.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot. It’s gotten better. But it’s been a long, hard battle all the way. When we moved here in 2000, it was bad. Gang fights in front of our house. People screaming. It was like gang central. The police helicopter was over our street almost every night. And there were the constant fights with our neighbors. With the Hispanic church across the street. The constant noise. The litter. On Sunday mornings people leaving the church would throw their babies’ dirty diapers right on the sidewalk in front of our house. We had to go into arbitration with the church to get them to quiet down, to pick up their trash. Arbitration worked. But it was exhausting.
“And so my thinking was, ‘Why wait for the neighborhood to get any better? Why spend so much energy fighting to make it better? Why not have a better quality of life right now?’ Gabe and I drove up to Oregon and looked around. We liked Bend. We bought four acres for $85,000. The land’s filled with trees. We’re going to build our own home on it, just the way we want. It’s quiet there. No screaming. No gang fights. No dirty diapers on the sidewalks. There’s no traffic. Nobody fighting over hams. The air is clean. There’s peace.”
In late April 2002, Liza and Gabe Dansky put their 650-square-foot home up for sale. Two years earlier, they’d purchased it for $133,000. On the Sunday morning they held open house, they were asking $257,000. In ten hours they received ten bids. The following day they accepted an offer for $260,000.
Around noon on July 7, 2002, the sky was low and gray. A cool breeze was blowing from the southeast. Liza and Gabe had been up since 4:30 a.m. loading a van, truck, and trailer with furniture, surfboards, appliances, and clothes. Charlie, the peculiar spiderlike mutt they’d rescued from the pound, worried Liza’s heels. Gabe stared at the sky and wondered aloud if it might rain.
Liza made a last-minute sweep through the sweet peas she’d planted the previous fall. She plucked together a bouquet to sit beside her in the truck.
“My little house, my little house,” she muttered as she picked sweet peas. “I worked so goddamn hard on my little house.”
Gabe hitched the trailer to the van. Liza took one last long look at the house, the roses, the strawberries, the window boxes she’d painted blue and filled with blue lobelia. Gabe honked the horn in the van. Liza disappeared through the front yard’s big gray gate.
Inside the house, Jolene and Garth, the home’s new owners, were already hard at work. They trotted out the front door to wave good-bye to Liza and Gabe. But Jolene and Garth didn’t have time to dawdle. The young couple was already busy painting the bedrooms, hanging curtains, lining the kitchen cabinets with shelf paper, and installing a $1400 state-of-the-art security system.