San Diego On a recent Saturday afternoon, Phil Chart and his girlfriend Janice Morten went out to -- what else? -- sketch an old house.
"What I like about San Diego is the variety of its neighborhoods," says Chart. "And they make for great dates. You go out with a girl and pick any one of these neighborhoods, and you go to its 'downtown.' You go to downtown South Park, say, get a cup of coffee, and then walk around a neighborhood that's unlike every other neighborhood in town."
Chart, 30, says he's an architecture "enthusiast," not a professional. "I came from Mission Viejo, which is the opposite of this; it's all cookie-cutter. I landed in Hillcrest and University Heights and Normal Heights and Kensington and Mission Hills, and walking around these neighborhoods is a delight because they're homogenous in style but diverse in detail. They're lovely."
In 2000 Chart graduated from SDSU with a bachelor's degree in sociology. "I wish I'd studied when I was there," he tells me. He has lived in five different places since coming to San Diego, including a garage in Talmadge during his student days. Currently he lives near Old Trolley Barn Park in University Heights and works downtown as a concierge in a high-rise condominium complex.
Chart's passion for architecture has been informed by Morten's training. She is a student at downtown San Diego's NewSchool of Architecture and Design. But already by 1998, when Chart left Orange County, he had read James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. A seminal contribution to the "new urbanism" movement, the book lambastes the way automobile culture assaults neighborhoods' capacity to provide, within walking distance, everything their residents need. One hears Kunstler's echo in Chart's description of Mission Viejo as "designed for the automobile. People don't even notice the architecture in neighborhoods like that," he says, "because they're driving through at 50 miles an hour. And modern zoning likes to keep things separate so that you have to drive to churches and schools and shopping centers. I much prefer mixed-use neighborhoods, like Normal Heights and North Park."
Where can you best capture, I ask, the feel of the old San Diego neighborhoods? In their bars, perhaps? "I'm a café person, and the cafés are a much more recent phenomenon," says Chart. "But yes, bars like the Red Fox Room on El Cajon Boulevard, Nunu's in Hillcrest, the Alibi in Uptown, and the Whistle Stop in South Park are great. They take you back sometimes to pre-World War II days when neighborhoods allowed more interaction, like the porches on the old Craftsman homes. But I like the cafés because they don't discriminate. Kids can go in there. If you want to get the feel of a neighborhood now, go into its café. A lot of socializing takes place in cafés. It does in bars too. But after a few drinks the discussions can break down. On the other hand, you go into some cafés and there's little talking because everybody stares into a laptop. It's a strange sort of social interaction."
I went with Chart several weeks ago to some of his favorite neighborhood spots. In Golden Hill we look at an old Victorian home. It has stone walls and, on one side, a three-storey turret with a pointed top. A porch on the opposite side gives the building an asymmetry that Chart likes for its "oddity."
We come to another. "This is the one I sketched," he says, pointing to a house near 24th and E Streets in Golden Hill. "At first glance you might think it's a Victorian, but look at those arches over the front door and the windows. Those are more Craftsman style. What you have here, to my untrained eye, is a hybrid; it looks like a bridge between Victorian America and Craftsman America. The architect wants to build a Victorian, but his clients -- maybe the young yuppies of the early 1900s -- are saying, 'Hey, there's this new Craftsman thing we're really hip about.' So they got a blend of the styles. And I tell you, drawing that was holy hell. Look at those details, that wonderful yellow wood ornamentation on the pillars. No one would do that nowadays. Those windows front and center, there are 6 of them, and above them are 12 smaller ones with great little details. It's fantastic. It took me more than half an hour to sketch this because the detail is so intense, whereas the modern stucco you could draw in five minutes. It's just a bunch of lines."
Next door is a house of who knows what style. "That's worthy of a picture, it's so ugly," says Chart, pulling out his digital camera. "And it's right beside this beautiful home. It looks like a portable classroom. Why? Cheap, I guess."
For sheer ugliness it's hard to beat "dingbats." The term has emerged in architectural circles in recent years as a label for inexpensive apartment complexes shaped like big square boxes. Many of them were built in San Diego during the 1970s, when "no one in city government was at the wheel," according to Chart. We find a dingbat at 24th and C. "This is a hideous square. Probably some old Victorians were here, a little decrepit, so they took them down. You'd think the Politburo designed these places. But some architect just wanted to pack in more people to maximize profits and didn't care about the neighborhood. Usually there is a small amount of ridiculous ornamentation on these things, stuff you'd see in bowling alleys. They'll put a metal elongated star on the side, and that'll be all on a giant square like this. It's hilarious. There are so many better ways to fit a lot of people in a neighborhood. Divide a big Victorian into four apartments, for instance."