The large picture windows at Lotus Garden Seafood and Noodles restaurant in City Heights overlook the corner of Euclid and University. Over a heaping plate of chicken chow fun, one can observe the comings and goings of Hispanic, East African, Asian, African-American, and Caucasian pedestrians, as well as teenagers of indeterminate race risking their lives crossing the street against the light on skateboards.
Cars, buses, and fire trucks fly past the tower that gives a name to the Tower Bar across the street. The whole atmosphere is urban, eclectic, and alive in a way unlike any other neighborhood in San Diego.
City Heights has a population density of 17,900 people per square mile, says citydata.com; 40.7 percent are foreign-born residents and 18.8 percent of City Heights residents speak English not well or not at all.
For perspective, greater San Diego has a population density of 4301 people per square mile, 26.8 percent foreign-born residents, and 8.1 percent of residents who speak English not well or not at all.
Eric Hoeun, a 20-year-old waiter at Lotus Garden, has lived in the neighborhood all his life and says the diversity is the best thing about City Heights. “There are so many ethnicities around here, and just seeing everybody live their life here, to me, is a beautiful sight,” he says.
This seems to be a popular opinion in the neighborhood, but so far the number of languages spoken and the variety of food available hasn’t been enough of a draw to make City Heights the North Park–like destination for which some homeowners have been hoping. To get an idea of why that might be, I spend a coolish Friday afternoon in early November wandering up and down University and El Cajon asking residents and visitors what they love about City Heights, what they’d like to improve, and what they think might be different in ten years.
Elidia (no last name provided) is one of the first people I meet. I catch her waiting for the number 10 bus at a stop on the south side of University, across the street and a few steps west of Lotus Garden. The 33-year-old security guard has lived in City Heights for 20 years and is on her way to work at the SDSU basketball game against San Diego Christian College.
Elidia wears a red shirt and smells of fresh hair pomade. The first thing she says when I ask what she likes about her neighborhood is, “The variety of cultures around here.” And then she adds, “And basically the food.” She gestures across to a squat building housing a row of storefronts including Chinatown Plaza Chinese fast food, 5 Star Pizza, and 777 Noodle House.
As for what she would like to see improve in City Heights, Elidia says, “The violence. The shooting that happens between two and three in the morning.” She acknowledges that things have changed in the past decade or so, saying, “There’s more patrolling of officers, and gangs have minimized a lot.” But it’s not quite enough, as far as she’s concerned.
“A week ago, there was a shooting, and there were more officers outside because of that,” she says. “But they should always be outside, no matter what.”
Elidia’s bus arrives and brings our conversation to an end, but later, a quick internet search for “shooting City Heights San Diego” yields news stories from shootings on October 5, November 8, November 26, and April 3, all on the first page.
A San Diego Association of Governments crime report for January 2017 through September 2017, on the other hand, shows both Teralta/City Heights East and Teralta/City Heights West as significantly lower in both violent crime and property crime than Pacific Beach, North Park, Hillcrest, Gaslamp, and East Village.
The postal worker
After Elidia’s bus leaves, I make my way west on University past Pronto Laundry (whose signage promises, “Cooler inside! New AC),” past Cricket wireless, Uni Tire, and University Smog. Just as I’m approaching the door to the Windmill Thrift Store, a postal worker steps out. Her name is Cathy Nelson. She’s 31 and happy to chat. Nelson’s bright smile won’t waver for the full ten minutes that we stand talking in front of the thrift store.
“I like it. Minus how dirty it is,” she says of City Heights. “It’s always an upbeat neighborhood. You do see a lot of mental health here, though. Like, a lot of homeless people. People who aren’t…all there.”
Nelson moved to San Diego from Arizona eight years ago and since then has worked routes in Normal Heights, La Mesa, and National City. Currently, she’s a resident of North Park and has been delivering mail to this part of City Heights since January 2017.
“You just meet so many different kinds of people. Everybody is from different cultures,” she says. “I love all the small businesses, too.”
As far as food goes, Nelson is partial to the tacos at Mucha Fruta, a few blocks east on University, in a building shared by Tu Thanh, a Vietnamese restaurant. Otherwise, she can’t recommend much in the neighborhood as far as what to do or see because she doesn’t spend time here outside of work. When I ask what she would like to see here, or what might draw her to spend some of her time off in City Heights, she pauses for a moment, laughs to herself, and then says, “A brewery. I’m just waiting for the gentrification,” she says. “You can see it coming from North Park. You see how much some of the houses sell for, and how much they’re investing.”
Nelson hopes the neighborhood doesn’t change too much and lose its flavor, though. She fears that could happen if rents go up too much and drive out the diverse community that resides here now. “There’s a lot of owners who live in these apartments and are, like, ‘We’ve owned this building for 50 years,’ so hopefully they’ll stay strong.”