As State Street crosses Laurel heading north, its name changes suddenly to Reynard, and a little blue street sign welcomes you to Mission Hills. Don’t be fooled. This is Baja Mission Hills, like Kensington too far south of Adams. Reynard winds its way along a canyon floor, carrying you past close-set single-story homes that share space with small businesses and big apartment buildings, and there is the tendency to look up, to gaze upon the funksome, enviable cliffside houses above, often with decks jutting improbably into space.
This is where I lived for a little over a year, in a fabulous two-bedroom Spanish guest house just down the corrugated, bare cliff from the house proper. (Every newlywed couple should have such a love nest: oodles of style, worn around the edges, reasonable rent.) There have been improvements of late — vinyl windows and remodels in the apartments, the arrival of the Frame Maker shop (featuring the frames of Jerry Solomon) across from the 7-Eleven — but Reynard still has the slightly worn, oddly developed look I (fondly) remember.
A little beyond where I lived, the street climbs out of the canyon, levels off at a respectable elevation, and changes its name again (this time to Goldfinch), as if it needed a new identity at this altitude. Bigger lots, newer paint jobs, better-tended gardens. A few blocks more, and you pass the Mission Hills Shopping Center (now home to a real estate office, a salon, a café, and an astonishing antiques shop) and the tastefully small business district before turning left on Fort Stockton and plunging into the moneyed heart of the neighborhood.
If La Jolla is our Beverly Hills, where ever-grander dreams inspire ever-glassier homes (“I need more view! Dammit, Scotty, you’ve got to give me more view!”), then Mission Hills is our Pasadena. Peter Mayle, in his book French Lessons, writes that France owes its “army of outstanding chefs” to the Revolution. When members of the aristocracy were beheaded, they lost interest in food, and their private chefs were forced to open restaurants for the masses. This may explain why there are relatively few restaurants in Mission Hills compared to, say, Hillcrest, just down Washington. Driving along Fort Stockton, gazing at majestic manse after majestic manse, it’s easy to believe that here, the aristocracy never fell. (I used to imagine dinner table conversations before the airport went in: “Oh, Walter, it will be such an eyesore. And so noisy. Can’t you put a call through to somebody and get something done about that?”) And even if it’s not true, even if the only real difference between the rich and us is money, it is easy to see that Mission Hills is our best neighborhood for housepeeking. That is, looking at houses simply for the pleasure of looking at houses.
Here, the $1 million-plus ($2 million, $3 million…) homes are not hidden along hillsides or behind gates or hedges. Here, they stand forth proudly in resplendent, ungaudy grandeur, many two or more stories, one after the other, a model community for the age of the renovated home and the personal castle. Which is not to accuse the neighborhood of homogeneity; the streets offer a fine mix of Craftsmen, American stucco giants, midcentury designer ranches, and outright Moderns. To see what I mean, drive to the corner of Sunset and Couts, site of the Italianate mansion that gets my vote for the finest home in America’s finest city, and check out the surrounding built environment.
— Matthew Lickona
The wheels of my red, slightly rusted Radio Flyer wagon rattled as they fought the pebbles for a place on the pathway. I sighed, exhaling anxiety with every bump, the bumps blending into a low hum that would grow deeper as I loaded my wagon with basil, thyme, sage, succulents, lion’s tail, and whatever else caught my eye and captured my attention.
Anytime I’m near Mission Hills, instinct and habit combine to steer me toward the Mission Hills Nursery — San Diego’s oldest, says the sign; established in 1910. When I shop there, I feel more as if I’m out for a stroll; I never feel the tug of commerce, just the pull of overflowing beauty. The nursery is a little like a favorite and worthwhile book, offering the pleasure of the familiar and the delight of discovering something new every time. It is my garden away from my garden, with the added bonus that I may pick the flowers and then plant them at home.
During my time living in Mission Hills (and beyond) I began to think of the surrounding neighborhood sort of like a garden, or an exceptionally well-decorated yard. For a front lawn, the pretty space that makes a good first impression as you come up from Mission Valley, there was Presidio Park and the brick-fashioned Serra Cross. For the back lawn, where kids can run and play, I used Mission Hills Park, with its noble stands of eucalyptus and its curious row of gravestones in the back corner. Houses were my judiciously mixed flower beds. Craftsman homes were my African daisies, all grand and brilliant and up-front about it but also full of quiet details: purple veins in an orange petal on a daisy, a clever alcove or overhang on a house. Little Spanish gems lounged in more rounded, starker state, like succulents or cacti. And the modern homes were my exotics — fancy neutral grasses and outrageous blooms echoed by bleached woods and angular glass fronts.
Certain businesses became my useful garden — lively vegetables and herbs to make life more delicious. Maison en Provence remains my favorite home store, bold Provençal colors jumping from the linens and heady aromas wafting from the soaps — orange, lavender, sage, rosemary. Cut flowers I bought across the street at Monet’s Garden (since departed); next door, I munched croissants and strawberry crepes at A La Française. I left the neighborhood before Phil’s Barbecue arrived, but now that it’s there, my husband brings me back on gustatory pilgrimages.
Every garden has its weeds — a few overgrown ’70s-awful apartment boxes, one or two prickly office complexes, a curiously unglorious church. But such errant growths are easy to overlook, especially as the houses sprout new coats of paint in ever more alluring combinations: gold-green with rust trim — amazing, it works. Another discovery, another delight, and perhaps another item I’ll take home with me.