We’re on the border — between South Park and North Park. I’m sipping coffee outside Rebecca’s, looking across Juniper Street, fantasizing. What if Juniper were the dividing line between, say, East Berlin and West Berlin? Okay, it’s not, and there’s no ten-foot-high triple-security fence. But Juniper Street is where South Park officially ends and North Park begins, and don’t tell me there hasn’t always been a rivalry between the two communities. For a hundred years, they’ve been developing and decaying and developing again in an undeclared competition for the title of “coolest neighborhood” and the return on investment such a title implies. Back in the day, from sewer lines to trolley lines, each raced to be first. Now, they’re gearing up to seduce a rising tide of refugees from the exurbs: yuppies, empty-nesters, all those who’ve had it up to here with the commuter culture and are searching for the San Diego their grandparents loved.
So who’s winning?
South Park’s weapon of choice is the quarterly Walkabout.
Seduction by Tour
At the corner, outside Grant’s Marketplace, a thin lady hobbles about on stilts, dressed all in white, with a white umbrella and white face. She glows in the night like the smiling ghost of your Great-Aunt Adeline. She’s part of the celebration. Behind her sits an orange Old Town Trolley, its engine idling.
The driver, Tom, is in the spirit. “We’ve got space. Come on board! Let’s see if we can make room for you guys? We’re not supposed to allow standing, so find some knees. That big guy in the back — you can sit on his lap.”
I climb aboard and take a seat in the second row, across from Ann and Joanne.
“We’ve been doing this Walkabout ride for five years,” Ann says. “Five years ago they had a hippie bus. Tie-dyed clothes, curtains, and a hippie driving it. It was fun. But this is the biggest Walkabout we’ve seen.”
What is this anyway? South Park showing itself to the Outside World? Well, yes. One day, every three months, Brigadoon invites us all in. For too long, South Park has been the place you can never find on the Far Side of the Park, the straggle of shops and houses that blur past as the #2 bus wiggles north up 30th, uh Fern, oh, what…? 30th again? to where things are really happening, at 30th and University. North Park.
But a few years ago, as gentrification quickened, people realized that South Park, the quiet one, was also rich in beautifully built, century-old Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival houses, all within minutes of the Bay, Balboa Park, freeways, and downtown; that, like North Park, it was being taken over from a shrinking, elderly population by artists and poets, ordinary Joes, and crackheads. Gradually, the two Parks have acquired an artistic, energetic, original, and culturally rich aura that make you want to abandon the safe haven of your conventional, gated community and live among the young Van Goghs and Shakespeares and Ché Guevaras. Recently, South Park has made it easier for the middle class to make the leap, scoring big with great dog runs and terrific new eateries like Station Burgers and Alchemy. Meanwhile, North Park has opened a restaurant a day, just about, ever since the Birch Theater launched.
So who’s winning this undeclared war for our hearts and minds, between north and south? Could South Park be a worthy challenger to North Park’s arty reputation?
That’s why I’m here tonight. Even though, must say I hadn’t thought much beyond how much free stuff there was going to be on this Spring Walkabout…
Tom inches the bus ’round the corner onto Beech.
“That’s our house!” says a lady named Julie Cobalt, with the name “Sam” tattooed on her right shoulder. She points to a large pile across from Grant’s. “We’ve just bought it. We’re moving in on Wednesday.”
Sam Ho (the Sam of Julie’s tattoo, I guess) sits beside her. Julie says she’s lived in South Park for 15 years. This is the first house she’s owned, though Sam used to own a home in University City. “The house was a five-plex,” she says. “They [the previous owners] totally gutted it and turned it into a single-family residence. Everything is brand new, but it’s nearly 100 years old. It’s about 2600 square feet, four bedrooms, three baths. We paid $850,000. It’s beautiful. All hardwood floors…”
“Now, folks,” says Tom, “we’re coming ’round the corner to Posh Wash. Posh Wash is the only place I know in San Diego where you can watch flat-screen TV on a patio, sipping coffee provided by the management, all while you’re doing your laundry.”
Looks like yuppies 1, hippies 0, so far. We’re driving slowly through the night, like a bunch of kids on a school trip, up Fern. “And now,” says Tom, “the oldest business in South Park — Thomas’s Bike Shop! Since 1937, I believe. Some say since 1903. And now, the Moose Lodge...and the Christ United Presbyterian Church. Very, very historic church, with the second-largest and second-oldest pipe organ in San Diego County.”
He stops the bus outside. “So, here you go, guys, get down at the church for a free hot dog!”
He calls to the milling crowd out there in the dark. “Come on board! Way in the back, there should be a seat. You’ll have to sit on somebody’s lap. Don’t tell anybody.”
That’s the idea of this free Walkabout trolley. You can get on and off all night long, as it circulates through the community.
“Sam and I are originally both from Minnesota,” says Julie, as we take off again. “We met out here. To me, it’s the closest you can come in terms of housing to that Midwest feel, with the hardwood floors. I don’t care if you gave me $100 million, this is where I would live. Here, we can walk everywhere, to the park and to grocery stores and the cafés and the video stores, and that’s a huge thing.”