Bonita lies in the Sweetwater Valley, nestled inside three freeways--I-805 to the west, 54 to the north, and 125 to the east. To the south lies the city of Chula Vista. Small though Bonita may be, it has put itself on the map with several outdoor attractions, including the inaptly named Chula Vista Municipal Golf Course and horse-friendly Sweetwater Regional Park, which extends through Bonita along the Sweetwater River.
Though not nearly as much so as in the past, Bonita is home to horses and horse people, those who ride for fun and sport. Horse-crossing signs pop up on the main roads and the smaller ones, and a campground in the park features corrals and racks for horses alongside camping spots for people. Ranchers and riders wear spurs on the back of their boots into town, even as Bluetooth devices hang from their ears and cell phones poke out of their pockets. Mehl Lawson, a local renowned sculptor who was once in the horse business himself and has been in Bonita for the past 40 years, describes the 15-mile network of trails that runs through the community, both in the parks and through residential areas.
"One of the big builders here in San Diego was into horses," he says. "His kids showed horses and so forth, and he had the foresight to include, in all his developments around here, dedicated riding trails. Some of his tracts had permanent riding arenas, and people who bought homes here had space to build corrals and have horses on their property."
But before the horses--and before a series of disastrous events--Bonita was known for its lemon groves. In 1871, a Chicago music publisher named Hiram M. Higgins settled in Bonita and bought up 76 acres of land, which he named the Bonnie Brae Ranch, famous for the thin-skinned Bonnie Brae lemon. In six years, Higgins planted over 2000 trees on his property.
After the success of his groves, Higgins began to sell lemon trees to other interested growers. One of these was Henry Ernest Cooper, who named his orchards Bonita Ranch after a local pond called Bonita Laguna. The name stuck, and the area remains Bonita to this day.
The lemon industry was in full swing by the time a group of financiers came along and bought out Cooper's groves to form the Sweetwater Fruit Company. The company built the Old Red Barn, a packing shed, from which lemons were shipped by train. The tracks ran down Bonita Road and on to Chula Vista. A landmark until 1959, the Old Red Barn eventually went through several incarnations--as a residence, a blacksmith's shop, and an antique store--before being demolished to make way for a shopping center.
In the early 1900s, the lemon industry came to a bad end. A drought starting around 1912, a freeze in 1913, and a flood in 1916 demolished the industry. The flood is a well-known bit of San Diego history. In late 1915, Charles Hatfield, known as the Rainmaker, sent a letter to San Diego's town council claiming he could end the drought. He named a sum of $10,000 and built a tower at Lake Morena, where he had tanks full of mysterious chemicals. The rain came down two weeks later and seemingly would not stop. The Sweetwater Dam overflowed, and then it failed and all hell broke loose. The water that rushed down the Sweetwater Valley destroyed everything in its path--the lemon groves, the train tracks, the Sweetwater Bridge, and houses. Around the county, similar devastation occurred, and people were killed. The angry town council refused to pay Hatfield, who fled the town. Hatfield was minus ten grand, and Bonita was minus a lemon business.
Some trace remains of the old agricultural town that Bonita once was. The Little Church of the Valley is still standing, though not in its original location. It was built in 1914 by two prominent Bonita families, the Chapmans and the Laubmeyers, and had a Quaker minister as its parish leader. It remained in operation until 1969, when it merged with the Wesleyan Church of the Valley, a bigger congregation that had the funds to purchase a bigger parcel of property. The little church, an important building in Bonita's history and to the community, was moved to join its larger counterpart at 5305 Sweetwater Road.
Older houses in Bonita, spread out across the back roads, have a farmish feel, however slapdash it may be. Closer to Sweetwater, there are one-story wooden boxes with machinery scattered across the ground and clapboard sheds in the driveway, corrals erected wherever there is room. Their slightly better-maintained, modern-style counterparts are built up in the hills, bordered by peeling eucalyptus trees and two-car garages. Decks, often 14 or 15 feet above the slope, jut out from houses, supported by a network of beams. Farther south, the homes widen and change from wood to stucco, the yards from red dust to lawns. It's a real mix; mini-mansions sit across from one-story no-frills boxes, and elaborately landscaped yards border bare or patchy ones.
But closer to Bonita Road, the main artery, new, modern housing developments abound. No longer are there sprawling pieces of land or horse farms; now, there are condominiums and detached one- and two-story homes. Multicolored flags beckon property-seekers to take a look, and signs line the shoulder of the road, advertising houses and condos priced from $400,000 on up. A local realtor has listings that continue into the multimillions for the detached homes, making Bonita, as one local realtor put it, "an affluent community." But Bonita isn't as affluent as it could have been, according to Irene Kim, a former Bonita resident who's spent 18 of her 30 years in the community.
"I just feel like if it were to be more affluent, that, say, Plaza Bonita would have more upscale shops, and it never did," she says. "It was always kind of at the JCPenney level--it wasn't like the Nordstrom level--and I think that maybe oftentimes reflects what constituents are asking for." She pauses. "That's just my own conclusion," she continues. "I feel like there's kind of a disconnect between the houses that are there that are so big and expensive and just what's in the community." She notes, however, that pockets of the area are extremely pricey.
Along with the more expensive development has come the degradation of the community's original buildings. The Old Red Barn is gone, and the old Bonita general store is now an Italian restaurant surrounded by a shopping center; across the street is a Jack in the Box. The change happened slowly, according to 48-year resident Richard Pena, who cannot pinpoint when it started or how long it took before Bonita was built out.
"It was so slow you didn't know it was happening," Pena says. "You'd have a little plot here that would be developed into something, and you wouldn't think much of it, and maybe a year later there'd be another plot that's developed, and so on, that type of thing." A retired Navy officer, Pena moved to Bonita in 1959. The most annoying change he's seen has been the overdevelopment of the area. "They call it progress, of course," he says slyly, recalling a time when "the population of horses was greater than the population of people," a time before the freeways (which he calls "an abomination in an area like this"), and a time before the influx of tract housing that has flooded Bonita and surrounding areas.
"At one time you could drive out here to the Otay Ranch, for example, in the springtime and see nothing but vast acreage of mustard [flowers] all over the hillsides," Pena remembers. "Now all you see are tile roofs, which I suppose you have to have, but I wish they were somewhere else."
Irene Kim recalls a similar scene.
"I remember when I would go down Otay Lakes Road, and there was this green hill," she says, "and it almost looked like The Sound of Music, acres and acres. Now it's just all houses, expensive houses. There's just been so much buildup there."
With the development, she says, came the slow collapse of community feeling.
"The neighborhoods are less neighborhoody," Kim says. "I remember there used to be block parties and Halloween parties and Christmas parties, where everyone's garage doors would be up. My best friend was my next-door neighbor, my babysitter was the older girl across the street, and that really, really fell apart when I went into high school, when people started moving away. I really miss that about Bonita."
The Bonita Museum and Cultural Center, located on Bonita Road in the same complex as the Bonita Library, documents Bonita's history. Started in 1987, the museum houses all kinds of artifacts, from an old cook stove to a butter churn to an ancient Davis sewing machine. An antique desk sits in the far-right-hand corner of the main room, outfitted with a typewriter, a clock, and a radio. Old bottles sit atop a shelving unit; above this is a mail rack complete with old notes and letters in their original envelopes.
Vicky DeLong, the museum's director, is responsible for these displays. "Most of the stuff has been donated from people who live in the area," she says, "or belonged to people who have passed away." A sculptor, DeLong has been with the museum since 1997. She helped oversee the museum's move last year from its spot in the old fire station. Originally, it was part of a shopping center that caught fire in 1992. "The museum only got smoke damage and water damage, thank God," says DeLong, "but the volunteers just came in and took everything. They left the stuff in the trunks of their cars and went to schools with it to continue teaching the history." It was then that the fire district donated the vacant fire station, where the museum remained until 2006. Now, at its present location, it is able to host events and special displays. A recent exhibit on Japanese-American farmers and their internment during World War II included a full-scale re-creation of part of a room at Poston, the camp to which over 2000 Japanese Americans from San Diego County, including about 50 growers from the South Bay, were sent on April 8, 1942. They left from the Santa Fe Depot and were kept at Poston for three and a half years.
Also on display at the museum is Mehl Lawson's sculpture-in-progress, a 14-foot-high cowboy on a horse entitled Watchin'Em Water. A ranch in Wyoming commissioned the sculpture, and Lawson decided to use the museum as his studio, partly because it has the highest ceiling in Bonita and partly to draw people in to see the museum.
In addition to having a cultural center, Bonita hosts cultural events, including Bonitafest, an annual festival of family-oriented activities with a parade and the Orange Cart Derby, a homemade go-cart race for young children and preteens. The fest features community-written plays, referred to as "melodramas," that chronicle Bonita's history. A group of store owners started Bonitafest in 1973 while trying to get local businesses together to form an association. Emily Ritter, the founder of the Bonita Business and Professional Association, tells her story in a little pamphlet entitled The Folksy Beginnings of the Bonita Business and Professional Association and Bonitafest. "Bonitafest was born in Brookside Winery early one morning of August 1973," she writes. "I said, 'We need to do something to get everyone's attention.' Someone in the room said, 'Like what?' I said, 'Let's have an Oktoberfest with a beer garden and dancing in the street!' Adelle Rockwell said, 'Let's call it a Bonitafest!'"
Many of Bonita's considerable teen population attend Bonita Vista High, a school of 2600. The school remains locked down during the day "to keep out undesirables," jokes Michael Simonds, who teaches 10th- and 11th-grade math. The school is made up of identical, boxcar-like buildings organized into blocks. Lockers and hallways are outside, covered by a freestanding roof; from the quad, Mount Miguel and Otay Peak can be seen to the east.
"It's fairly easy to get bored around here," says Shannon, a Bonita Vista High student.
Teens say they spend time at the mall or the movies.
"You can buy one ticket and movie hop," says Kristy, giggling.
"They just take your ticket, and you can go into any movie you want, basically," Shannon adds.
Simonds enjoys teaching the students at Bonita Vista High. "They're fun. They're smart, they're very charming," he says. "They don't mind being smart. The students are motivated to succeed. They see college as a logical extension of what they're doing. They see themselves in the future with the kinds of jobs that would normally require college." He notes that substance abuse seems to be less of a problem at Bonita Vista than in the past.
"We don't have a big drug problem or a big drinking problem," he says. "There's a lot less drug use, at least apparently, than, say, ten years ago."
The students, however, say otherwise. Drugs are a big part of their lives by their own accounts. Helen, a 15-year-old Bonita Vista High student attending Simonds's summer school English class, sets the record straight.
"Pretty much everyone smokes bud at this school," she says laughing.
Her classmate Elsie chimes in.
"The school is known for that."
Jake, another classmate, gives his opinion.
"I think drugs are pretty common here," he says, highlighting marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy as some of the more prevalent substances of choice.
According to the kids, drug use during school also occurs on a regular basis. "They don't even hide it," continues Kristy, who is also in Simonds's class. "You go in the bathroom, and there's, like, five girls in one stall. If you're going to smoke, put one girl in each stall, be a little more discreet. And then you find the apple on the seat; they don't even flush it. And then when they try and sell the drugs to you, they're not even discreet either. They're, like, 'Hey, yeah, you want some? I got some' in the middle of the classroom. They even show the little bag to you so you can see how much they mean."
There are also students who try to act "hard," adopting clothing and speaking styles popular with local gangs. They seem to be, however, all bark and no bite.
"Practically all the, like, little guys that come here are wannabe gangsters," says Kristy, rolling her eyes, "and they dress all cool and they walk all hard, but when it comes down to doing something, they're, like, 'Naw, it's all right. I'm cool.'"
But their showing off can be scary; many of the students say they've seen kids carrying knives on school grounds. Still, the teens seem unfazed, claiming the community--and the school--are safe.
"They say, 'I'm gonna shank you,' and it's, like, 'Whatever, dude,'" says Kristy. "Here, it's a joke!"
The teens concede that Bonita is, after all, a good place to be.
"It's a really nice area," says Luisa, a sophomore. "I've been to the other areas, and Bonita's pretty nice. Nice cars, especially around here, like Otay, all nice cars."
"Mainly it's about going to the beach, having fun with your friends, going over to their house, going in the pool..." says Kristy, trailing off. "It's mainly about that over here."