“Developers went into North Park and just leveled many of their beautiful Craftsman houses. They destroyed it. They put up these outrageous rickety-dickety [apartments]."
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.
“Thirty years ago, when I first moved to South Park, you were robbed all the time, there were bars on the windows."
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.”
Sam nods in agreement as we turn onto Juniper.
But why here and not North Park?
“North Park I love,” Julie says, “but it doesn’t feel as intimate. You see Mazara Pizza’s right across the street? They know us, and they let the kids run around, they know our names. It’s…unique.”
“Here we are!” says Tom the driver. He stops the trolley where Juniper meets Fern and Fern turns into 30th, officially the end of South Park and the beginning of North Park, but really the heart of South Park’s commercial life. This is also the beginning and end of his circular route.
“Enjoy your Walkabout!”
Everybody climbs off. We find ourselves on Juniper, across from that haunt of mine, Rebecca’s coffeehouse (home, I swear, to the best scones in the city). A guy’s playing guitar in there, and a crowd mills about outside on the sidewalk. Lots of people jam this side of the road, too, outside the Grove, the bookshop that sells yarns, home furnishings, clothing, art, and holds classes on just about everything. There’s also an excited clump of adults and kids near a brightly lit little shop called Clarity Soaps and Candles.
A lady standing on a box spins a bingo ball cage. “All right. Here we go! O-64!”
“Boo! New numbers!” yells someone in the crowd. People laugh, but the lady, Peggy Orr, the owner of Clarity, ignores him.
“B-14!” she shouts. Then, “Sweet sixteen, I-16!”
This is Bunny Basket Bingo. Prize is an Easter basket.
“G-49!” Ms. Orr shouts. “And here we pause for a commercial…These great ladies beside us, selling T-shirts, are part of the South Park Action Council. Everything that’s done to beautify our neighborhood is done by volunteers, and it’s paid for by what we get from T-shirt sales. Our trash cans, our bike racks, our banners. So keep that in mind. Okay. Two little ducks, quack-quack!...I-22!...N-39!...0-73! Okay. Another commercial break. Thank you all for coming to Clarity. Keep in mind that all of our candles are 50 percent recycled wax. Bring us your used candles and make a difference. I recycle thousands of pounds of wax a year…I-23…0-67.”
“Oh yeah!” someone in the crowd shouts.
The crowd goes crazy with wolf whistles as a 30-something guy shuffles his way up through the group. Peggy hands him an Easter basket loaded with eggs and other things. Guy’s name is Sean Lenahan. “It’s what I’ve always wanted!” he says.
I ask if he’s a South Parkian, but it’s like interviewing Drew Brees at the end of the Super Bowl — Sean’s surrounded by people wanting to see what’s inside his basket. “Well, I’ve lived in South Park for a good three and a half years now,” he says. “I live off of Ivy over here. I love it. I was brought up in Memphis, Tennessee. And, no, this doesn’t remind me of it. This reminds me of the hometown I should have grown up in.”
Sean’s a graphic designer and photojournalist with the Navy. “I’ve lived in the Ivy Manor apartments over there, and I’ve seen [South Park] grow to be a lot bigger and a lot more respected by the San Diego community. I think it shadows Hillcrest and North Park now, especially in the amount of community participation. We know how to party, but we know how to mind our own business and be quiet, too.”
The three ladies selling the T-shirts turn out to be movers and shakers in this community: Nancy Sherman, Samantha Keenan, both realtors, and Laura Stansell, who’s executive director of South Park’s own Fern Street Circus. “Four years ago,” says Laura, “I met Nancy. She walked up and said, ‘I’m planning a community garage sale.’ And that’s when we started talking. She’s been doing those ever since, along with this event.”
“We had to have South Park become a destination stopping area,” Nancy says. “So we started these quarterly Walkabouts [in 2003] to get a draw, for people to actually stop here. It took…years. Years.”
Of the three women, Samantha has lived here the longest. She doesn’t romanticize the years around 1977, when she arrived. “Those were the bad old days,” she says. “Maureen [Ceccarelli, of Studio Maureen gallery] opened her store more than 20 years ago on Beech. She used to work with the door locked. That’s how dangerous it was. Gangs, robberies. Customers would knock and she’d let them in.”
“That’s why we started the South Park Action Council [in 1997],” Laura says. “We decided we had to clean up our neighborhood, so that we could draw businesses here because it was deteriorating so badly.”
“So now the community has become more gentrified,” says Nancy. “And, yes, gentrification potentially could be a problem. I moved here in 1987. This was a community of artists, poets, interesting people. Are prices going sky-high and forcing the artists out? I think we can attempt to stop that. We don’t intend to be boring.”
And they don’t intend to be North Park. “Compared with North Park,” says Samantha, “our business district is so much more intertwined with the residential, where their business [district] is a huge, separate item.”
“Remember,” says Nancy, “[developers] went into North Park and just leveled many of their beautiful Craftsman houses. They destroyed it. They put up these outrageous rickety-dickety [apartments]. They’ve had many challenges that I don’t think we will ever have to handle. Downtown [in North Park] has been very dilapidated. We have not had quite that problem.”
There’s talk about South Park home values. “For our canyon home, in 1998, we paid barely under $300,000,” Laura says. “That was just before the market went crazy. The value today? Six-bedroom house, the whole canyon, 27,000-square-foot lot, and with a huge deck and a hot tub, 1950s house…not a Craftsman, but it’s probably worth about $800,000. Tom Crowley, another realtor in the neighborhood, said I should tear down the house and develop the area into condo-apartments. I said no, we have a beautiful house. Why would I do that? I wouldn’t develop the canyon. I love it as it is. I was sitting in the hot tub one night, and I heard crackling, and a coyote walked by, about 20 feet away. Foxes, eagles, owls, I’ve always felt it’s like living on a farm in the middle of the city in South Park.”
Poor People Pushed Out
“There are no more poor people in my neighborhood,” says Judy Forman. “It pisses me off.”
Judy the Beauty on Duty — as she labels herself — is serious for once.
We’re sitting in the Big Kitchen on Grape Street, her Big Kitchen, where she has held court since 1979 with a cast of social activists like, oh, her onetime dishwasher, Whoopi Goldberg. Together, they made this little café the heart of activist San Diego. I’ve come back here after the Walkabout because people say Judy is the conscience of South Park.
For Judy, 30 years later, it’s “be careful what you wish for” time. She isn’t happy with the way South Park has evolved from the big push she gave it. Or even its name.
“Golden Hill, please,” she says. “South Park is a name Republican real-estate people want. They want to be detached from Golden Hill because Golden Hill has an [image problem].”
She sees the irony of the renaissance she fought so hard for.
“I spent ten years as a social worker in Detroit, Michigan, where I worked with gangs and communities. I arrived in San Diego during the last recession, in 1979. No one would hire me [as a social worker]. So after three months, I volunteered to wash dishes here at the Big Kitchen. Three months after that, [the owner] said I was the worst dishwasher ever, and she asked, had I ever waitressed, and I lied and said yes. Three months later, I bought the place. My father went into business with me. After 30 years, I consider myself the self-appointed mayor of Golden Hill. But now, so many people have left, a lot don’t know me anymore.”
Thirty years ago, she says, South Park/Golden Hill was a totally different environment. “When I first moved here, it was the lowest rent in the city. It was considered a ghetto, it was considered on the edge. Nobody knew which direction it would go in. We had all slumlords in this neighborhood, we had gangs, we had a little bit of everything. And the rents were so low, we had all of the most talented people in the city. The artists, musicians, theater people, all of the people who are so talented but don’t get paid enough for their talent. So we had a lovely community, multiethnic, multi-income strata. It was mostly Latino, black, some Caucasians. San Diego Youth and Community Services was the main social-service community of the ’70s that was working on developing communities. So when I arrived, being an activist, I joined in. Our main goal was to give our community a positive identity. So we had festivals, we emphasized culture, we worked with the gangs. We worked with the schools. We changed the self-identity from negative to positive. It didn’t happen overnight. We also started — right here at the Big Kitchen — the Golden Hill Community Development Corporation. And we were able to get federal and county grants because this was a multiethnic, low-income area. All the improvements we made, that the people here now are benefiting from, are because of poor people living in this neighborhood. And then it gentrified and pushed the poor people out of the neighborhood. And we are no longer eligible for grant money for work in our community because there are no more poor people in my neighborhood. We had been able to get the money to plant the trees, fix the schools, make the parks urban gathering spots….”
Problems started, Judy says, when the Golden Hill Community Development Corporation split on two issues. “This was 20 years ago. There were the people who thought that, in order to improve the community, you had to improve the value of real estate. That was the majority of the people on the board. Then there were about three of us who argued that the way you improve a community is to build community. I wanted to improve the lives of the residents who were already here. My intention was never to move families out of this community. And I need to add here that most of the people who started the Golden Hill CDC have sold their property and moved away. I think there are about 2 of us [from the original 11] left.”
Yes, she says, the Fern Street Circus started around this counter at the Big Kitchen, too. “We put it in the after-school program. And it’s still that. It’s just not as large. It’s more…white. Because the neighborhood isn’t that [diverse] anymore.”
Her favorite accomplishment? (Apart from sending Whoopi Goldberg out of “racist” San Diego to San Francisco to be discovered?) Probably the dog park.
“I knew that in order to build community, there had to be more interaction between residents. So I worked for five years to make the leash-free dog [area in Balboa Park] legalized. That was my other big community builder. What a success! The dogs love it, the people get to know each other. They might not know each other’s names, but they know their dogs’ names. I think it’s one of the most wonderful things that I’ve been involved in. I’m so proud of it.”
Of course, South Park’s bad old days included a double cop murder where the dog area is today. “For a long time,” she says, “people were frightened to go there.”
And the gangs?
“[In the ’90s] I hired 15 gang members. Once a month, I had them all in for dinner, and I had men come in and talk to them, about sex, drugs, violence. So they worked for me here. And they’re all still alive and doing well. I’m so proud of them. They’re positive human beings in the community. And that’s when the graffiti stopped…That’s when people stopped being afraid to come to my community. Which I resent now. I want to go get some spray paint, and I want to go to every garage and start [graffiti] painting again. Check this out: in the beginning of the ’80s, it was 80 percent renters. At the end of the ’90s, it was 80 percent homeowners. Does that tell you something about demographics? And yet now, with the economy, the irony is how many of those new homeowners can’t afford to live in their homes, so they’re renting them out to pay the mortgage.”
But how do you stop the future? Not even King Canute could prevent the tide from coming in.
“[With its 1905–15 housing stock], ours is one of the few housing markets that the economy hasn’t affected,” Judy says. “I hate it that the houses in this community have not lost their value at all. We as a community got together in the early 1980s and downzoned, so that single-family dwellings still exist here. Look at Hillcrest. They took down the single-family houses and built condos. Look at Kensington. They took down single families and built apartments. This is one of the few communities that hasn’t been ripped down and replaced like that.”
Don’t include North Park in that list, says Jack Montgomery. North Park can match South Park house for Craftsman house and is experiencing an unprecedented burst of cultural development, to boot.
I’ve come across the border to see how the other half — North Park — lives. And it looks as if, right now, it lives large.
Montgomery, the artistic director of Lyric Opera San Diego at the recently revived Birch North Park Theatre, says North Park has become the county’s prime quartier, where culture, arts, dining, and historical architecture are not just surviving but popping like nowhere else. Key, says Montgomery, was the creation of the Birch. Thanks to developer Bud Fischer, Montgomery, and to many others, the 1928 North Park Theatre was saved from destruction after being dark for many years. Five years ago, it was transformed from a defunct movie theater into the super-sophisticated home of the San Diego Lyric Opera. The ripple effect has been remarkable. “We know for certain that about $177 million of [North Park] redevelopment is directly linked with the theater’s revival,” says Montgomery. “La Bohème, the Renaissance Project at the corner of El Cajon and 30th, and the eateries that are now becoming Restaurant Row all the way up and down 30th — a great deal of that is directly linked to the theater and its use by Lyric Opera, and to the films [shown here], Jazz in North Park, the La Jolla Music Society Dance Series, concerts, Ray at Night...and the people they attract.”
A lot of North Parkians didn’t believe it would happen, he says, and thought it was crazy to spend all that money. “But now, businesses in the neighborhood [see] that the arts can bring life back to a community. We just went to the mayor’s announcement of the Arts and Culture Commission report for last year. San Diego is the eighth-largest arts community, as far as ticket sales go, in the United States.”
Montgomery says it’s no coincidence that it happened in North Park. The same combination of factors that made it one of San Diego’s early developments a century ago pertain today: It’s close to everything — trolleys a century ago, freeways today — and it has a beautiful park.
“For us,” says Montgomery, “the most interesting thing is that we’re one of the only theaters that’s not on a campus. We’re actually in the neighborhood, and people walk to the theater. And there are many people who will stop me in the lobby and say, ‘We just can’t believe that we are able to walk from our house to an event that’s as world-class as we’ve just experienced.’ And yet, when we said in the community that that’s what we would do, a lot of people didn’t believe it would happen.”
When it showed films, Montgomery says, the North Park Theatre was for many years the “largest-grossing suburban film house in the Fox West Coast chain.” He reckons the reason today’s nearby True North Tavern is always crowded is North Park’s central location. It saves patrons having to go all the way to P.B. for a similar singles-bar live-music atmosphere.
Is it fair to compare tiny South Park to big-time North Park? Standing at 30th and University, you realize what a David and Goliath proposition that is. A rising South Park may be a pebble in North Park’s shoe, but North Park is still the shoe.
Actually, North Park’s main pebble is its own history of deflated expectations. It was supposed to become the site of San Diego’s first big shopping center. Then the city fell in love with Mission Valley and left North Park in the lurch.
George Franck and I walk down University toward 30th, looking at abandoned temples of previous North Park glories. “That used to be the JCPenny department store,” says Franck, a lifetime planner for SANDAG and vice president of the North Park Historical Society. He’s looking across at a large green-and-yellow building. “It’s been empty for about three years now.” He points to a cream-colored building. “That used to be the Woolworth’s.” Then to the Western Dental building. “That was the 1912 Stevens-Hartley office building.” The Hartleys were one of the families who owned the lemon orchards that developed into North Park. “That corner was a pharmacy for at least 40 years. Now it’s going to be a giant Chinese buffet.”
The one shining star here is the glittering theater complex across the road, the North Park Theatre, presenter of gateway entertainments like Gilbert and Sullivan that introduce you to more serious works. For what they’ve achieved, you even forgive them for closing the grand front entrance and forcing customers to sneak in like criminals by a side door. Leasing the lobby to a restaurant and a bar probably makes the difference between solvency and becoming yet another failed arts initiative.
Franck and I call in on Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street at her office near 30th. They have fought many wars together. North Park isn’t home safe yet, Studebaker says. It’s one of the area’s first exurbs — satellite towns for an expanding city — that deflated when the freeways came in and enticed mall developers to gamble on the wide-open spaces of Mission Valley. “North Park was considered in the 1930s and 1940s to be the premier shopping district of San Diego,” Studebaker says. “Then, after the war, people got cars, the freeways were built. JCPenny left us. Wards left us. It became a lot more difficult for the smaller mom-and-pops to survive without those anchors that draw people to shop in their stores.”
Today, without any big anchors, how is everyone surviving? “Our anchor tenants just look different now,” Studebaker says. “They’re not necessarily large in square footage. They are restaurants and boutiques. They’re unique. They’re creative, they favor sourcing their products locally, they inspire loyalty. That makes North Park an interesting experiment.”
“When we started [working to revive] the area in the ’70s,” says Franck, as we hit the sidewalks again, “North Park was a pretty crummy neighborhood. It really was. There were some young families moving in, but…the house that I bought here in 1975 for $80,000 is worth about $600,000 now. It’s a very pleasant house, but it’s not historic.”
And, yes, it’s true, he says, North Park’s easing of zoning restrictions has allowed the destruction of a ton of old houses and in some places created a degraded atmosphere. “Some of the stuff has been truly awful, like the apartment buildings, ‘Huffman six-packs,’ as they call them. There was a period in the ’50s and ’60s where they were putting up these huge six-, eight-plexes on single lots, and they paved the front yards so you could park your cars there.”
On the other hand, he says, there’s a whole lot that hasn’t been bulldozed. Just one block from University Avenue, you’re back in timeless North Park. Craftsman houses not a jot different than they were a century ago. The houses, the quiet streets, with places like Stern’s Gym on Granada mixed in. I have to run up the stairs to see inside Stern’s. It opened in 1946 and is said to be California’s oldest bodybuilding gym, still as Spartan and cheap as when Leo Stern welcomed a bunch of Mr. Universes and Arnold Schwarzenegger in to bodybuild the old-fashioned way. Below Stern’s, there’s the city’s reputedly oldest Chinese laundry, the New Life, where Tom Tran’s employees still wrap laundered sheets in brown paper and tie them up with ribbon.
One of the scrawny kids who walked into Stern’s in 1949 was Fred McLaren, who’s here visiting from Colorado. “I lived with my grandparents on 29th Street,” he says. “They were at 2761, about two blocks from University and one block from the North Park Theatre. Me and my gang used to dare each other to sneak in on roller skates while a movie was showing and skate from one fire door right across the screen, then out the other. We never got caught.”
The house at 2761 29th Street is still there, a Craftsman with the swing chair where young Fred’s grandpa smoked his cigars. The people who own it now bought the house from Fred’s grandparents. That means two owners in a century. How stable can a community be?
Even Claire de Lune, Claire Magner’s pioneering coffee place, which, when it opened in 1997, helped provoke a new generation’s move from the ’burbs back into North Park, sits in a Spanish Revival building at University and Kansas. It was built at about the same time as the North Park Theatre across the road. The high ceilings tell you about the department-store dreams Edward Newman was nurturing when the Crash of ’29 hit.
I drive with George Franck through the yet-to-be-officially-designated Dryden Historic District — a marvelous collection of houses that dates to around 1912, maybe five of them Craftsman houses, others Spanish Colonial Revival, others, California bungalows. They have certainly received plenty of TLC. “In the early period, it was fairly well-to-do people here,” says Franck. “They came up here because people believed in growth and because the trolleys made it easy. Up Park, along University, back down 30th. We should have those trolleys back.”
The climax of the tour is the Masonic Lodge, the Silver Gate. The Quayle Brothers, who designed the North Park Theatre, also designed this 1931 “zigzag”-style Art Deco ice cream cake of a monument that’s still used and looks as fresh as the day it was dedicated in 1932. South Park wasn’t into this scale of building in 1932, or even now.
So, is there really a discernible difference between the vibe of the two Parks, North and South?
I get back on the phone to see what Montgomery thinks. He runs with the Civil War conceit. He sees the differences between the two as being like, say, Chicago versus Charleston: North Park as the big, bawdy, brawny town, full of furious activity and creativity, versus the more gentle and genteel South Park. “Take Burlingame, with its pink sidewalks,” he says. “It’s always positioned itself as a place where doctors and lawyers would choose to live, a counterpoint to Banker’s Hill and Hillcrest and Mission Hills. It was another area close to the golf course. Slightly more settled, slightly superior.” Of course, Burlingame is technically North Park, being north of Juniper. But it is south of the natural frontier, Switzer Canyon. And, says Montgomery, it carries those southern airs well.
Defining the Difference
It’s late at night. At the Vagabond, just north of the North-South demarcation line, Juniper. People are still hanging around after South Park’s Walkabout. It’s been their most successful ever, say locals, in every way, including attendance. A gent in a top hat and French-striped shirt sits talking with friends on Vagabond’s crowded little patio. Derek Little is an artist who specializes in painting women’s bodies so they look as though they’re wearing clothes. Very hot in New York, where he’s from. He had to escape the madness there. Now he lives in North Park, though he seems to prefer South Park on this Walkabout night.
“In New York I don’t remember anything other than gallery walks where the entire community would be out doing something like [this] together. In New York, it’s all about making money. Community walkabout on a Saturday night? It’s unheard of. They can’t shut down their businesses to, like, entertain the neighbors! They have to pay the rent. And [sitting outside like this], it’d be a bombardment of car horns and people yelling at each other, and full of trash, too.”
He says South Park is like the West Village in New York. “More residential. Children are being born, couples are settling down, they own property. The East Village is more like North Park: students, a transient atmosphere, with things that come and go.
“There’s a lot of new energy going into North Park right now. Young people are buying houses, because a lot of homeowners are [getting old]. There’s a lot of change. I live between El Cajon and Adams. The recession really hit Adams, and El Cajon is old-school. But there are a lot of new storefronts right now. Of course, it’s still a lot more laid-back than New York. Too much? Well, I go back and forth about that. I have my days. I was a ‘hurry up’ kinda guy for many years. It tires you out.”
“I was born and raised in North Park,” says Sam Chammas. But he has chosen South Park for two of his businesses, Station Tavern & Burgers and the Whistle Stop Bar. “One thing my mom shared with me was how things have come full circle. In the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, people would come from all over San Diego and go to the different bars and clubs and supper clubs that were in North Park. Bluefoot [Bar and Lounge, 3404 30th] used to be called Club 30, a little jazz-and-supper-club place. And all those venues that are bars now were bars and clubs then. I lived through the 99-cent-store era of North Park, and I’ve lived through the glory years of the North Park Theatre being opened, Palisade Gardens [the condo complex, at Utah and University, converted from apartments]. Now it’s the bar-restaurant era of North Park all over again.”
The difference between North Park and South Park? South Park, says Chammas, is easier, gentler. “Many of its core businesses are fortunate enough to have kind, fair landlords. It shows by the variety of mom-and-pop businesses there. In North Park, because it has always been a dense commercial area, I don’t think a lot of the businesses own the buildings they’re in. They’re always going to be at the mercy of a landlord.”
And, he says, the Brigadoon factor has helped keep South Park away from prying developer eyes. “There’s a purity to South Park. Because of its size and location. It’s not easy to find. It’s in a little nook. It’s not close to a freeway. Where 30th Street comes into South Park, it changes into Fern Street, jumps back, and people get lost. To find it, you’ve got to want to find it. So many people, especially in Whistle Stop and the Station, will tell me, ‘Omygosh! I’ve lived in San Diego all my life! And I never knew this was here.’ The difficult access filters out knuckleheads and people who aren’t appreciative of neighbors. North Park is just more intense. It can attract a greater knucklehead percentage. In South Park, so many business people have been able to buy their building. Myself, at Whistle and the Station, the great girls at the Dogwash — they were fortunate to buy their building. Joe Grant bought his [Grant’s Marketplace corner deli on Beech]. So what that means is you get less change, less turnover. We’re going to be here a while. South Park is smaller and more relaxed and chill.”
Maybe the most chill business of all is the oldest. You can catch Jinna Albright on her front porch, waving at you and saying “Hi!” just because you’re passing by on the road. She owns Thomas Bikes, the business Tom pointed out on the Walkabout trolley tour as the oldest in South Park. Indeed, it has been in operation since 1903 and at this location since 1937.
Jinna hasn’t been here that long, but she says she’s seen it all in South Park.
“Thirty years ago, when I first moved here, you were robbed all the time, there were bars on the windows. When I moved out, I told my husband I never wanted to move back again. But he’s a beat cop and he saw the changes coming and he said, ‘No, this is where we’re going to buy our house. Because this is the neighborhood everyone’s going to want to be in.’ So we bought our house for $155,000. That was in 2001. It was a case of, if you’re willing to buy the ugliest, oldest house in the neighborhood and you have a vision of making it pretty, you can get a house here...We’re definitely not North Park. The atmosphere is different. Like, I live on Fern Street, a busy street where people walk back and forth. So I can say hello from my front porch. It’s more like a little old English village.”
She knows climbing house prices and rents are affecting her world. “Judy [Forman] is right to fear gentrification. We have one guy who’s new in our neighborhood, an attorney. We were voting on new bylaws. And [at a recent meeting] he was raising his hand…he has no problems with cement buildings being put in and old houses being torn down. He raised his hand, and I looked at him, like, ‘Are you retarded, man? Go right back to New York.’ I mean, this is a beautiful neighborhood, and he’s all for five-story buildings moving in. But he was the only one, and we all looked at him, like, ‘Just because you’re an attorney…you need to get out.’ He’s trying to get involved in the community. But, no. Never going to happen. They’re never going to shit in my yard. Because I won’t allow it. This neighborhood is my yard, you know? And there are a lot of us [willing to fight]. Oh, yes. Judy is right on that point. We don’t need this. My mother ran Fern Street Florist for almost 20 years. She still [owns] her house here, but she moved. She thought people were just getting more snooty. She’s also one of those old-school Golden Hill people.
“It’s like me. I’ve been here a long time. And I’ve put a lot of work into this community, and then two bike shops pop up within two months of each other last year. How do you think it made me feel? So there’s that part of me that says, ‘Well, that’s growth,’ and you accept it, and another part of you that says, ‘No! I’ve been here a long time. This is my neighborhood.’ So there’s that push and pull with anything in life. But the big difference between us and North Park is that here you can still sit on your front porch and wave and say hi to people. That’s what I like about South Park. It’s like going down a country road. People feel warm inside. Warm-fuzzy.”