Adam Deutsch and his wife Claire moved to Normal Heights in 2014. Shortly after their move, the couple went to a meeting of the Normal Heights Community Planning Group to see what was going on in the neighborhood. That night they were two of four people in the audience listening to the group’s boardmembers holding forth on stage. One of the attendees, “blew up at a particular issue,” says Deutsch, who is 37, “and I enjoyed that intensity. So I started showing up regularly and, after a while, told the leaders that I would like to be on their board. It turned out they were trying to rotate the secretary position because nobody wanted to write up the minutes anymore. Since I had told them already that I teach English, they said I needed to be secretary.”
Despite initial hesitation, Deutsch — a poet, community-college teacher, and publisher of Cooper Dillon Books poetry press — began thinking that doing the meeting minutes of a neighborhood planning group might be rewarding. “I also write lots of poems, of course, and occasionally some scholarship in my academic field,” he tells me over coffee, “but this would be writing that becomes part of a public record. I think it’s important to make the minutes readable, and to be readable, they should be human.”
Here was Deutsch’s take on a family squabble over whether a new auto-repair shop should be allowed “off-alley” behind Smitty’s Service at the corner of Adams Avenue and Hawley Boulevard. In the November 7, 2017, planners meeting, a gentleman representing the potentially new garage owner launched into her family history. The speech, wrote Deutsch later in the minutes, was the “stuff of daytime melodrama, including characterization of a multitude of heroes, villains, deathbed signatures, mentions of a variety of unprovided paperwork, and one particular moment involving the brandishing of a pistol.”
The lightheartedness of the description should not be taken as a lack of seriousness. Despite his short time in Normal Heights, Deutsch throws himself into the planning work. He engages the normal issues of mid-city planning, more park space, cracks in streets and sidewalks, the spread of homelessness, and a need for housing on El Cajon Boulevard. Additionally, prior to the debate over another auto shop behind Smitty’s, he spent four hours researching the Mid-Cities Community Plan and the City of San Diego Municipal Code. His “deep dives” into the relevant minutiae of legalities and guidelines helped his colleagues make an informed recommendation to vote against the garage. “I love doing the research,” he tells me with a wink.
Veteran community planner Gary Weber tells me, “I encourage as much as I can any newcomer to the board who is as committed as Adam. I’m getting too old to do much anymore.” But Weber still serves yet another term on the Normal Heights Community Planning Group. He founded it in 1991.
Of the neighborhoods that the San Diego Planning Department recognizes, Normal Heights is one of the smallest, contributing to its being highly walkable. Even a south/north hike from El Cajon Boulevard, the neighborhood’s southern boundary, to the rim of Mission Valley, its boundary on the north, is manageable at 30 to 45 minutes for most walkers. The community’s width, fixed by two freeways, I-15 on the east and I-805 on the west, is narrower. “On Adams Avenue, I can now walk easily from one edge of Normal Heights to the other,” says Joe Perry, who recently recovered from a workplace back injury. “And I always meet three or four friends along the way.”
For a different west/east route, the serpentine Mountain View Drive through the neighborhood north of Adams is preferable to some promenaders for its jacaranda, magnolia, Brazilian pepper, and many other trees through a neighborhood rich in architectural styles. Homes from pre–World War II intersperse with the most contemporary. Many participants in the yearly Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon say Mountain View Drive is the most pleasant segment of the run.
People-watching helps this actress
When Sylvia Thompson does her walking in Normal Heights, “There is always somebody to watch,” she says, “and that’s good for thinking about a character.” Thompson has worked in San Diego as a professional actor for 30 years. She moved to Normal Heights ten years ago.
After an Old Globe Theatre performance, the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle named Thompson its 2015 actor of the year. Thompson emails me that, on her 11th birthday, she was bitten by the theater bug when her mother took her to see The King and I.
Later, Thompson speaks with me in the Normal Heights Starbucks. She got her first local role at a dinner club in Spring Valley, where she performed in Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. “Then I moved downtown to the Old Globe and the San Diego Repertory Theatre. There’s not one professional theater in San Diego I haven’t worked at. Theater’s been good to me here. No theater is making it on audiences, that’s for sure. But I’m a union actor receiving union wages.... But during the day I also teach kids in Coronado and National City.”
Stage fright is “one of the things I help them get rid of. I’ve never had that problem, not a single time. Not that I don’t get nervous when performing. But I love performing for live audiences and getting their feedback. It’s electric.”
From Russia to Adams
Two Russian-American young women who tend bar at Triple Crown Pub, a sports bar on Adams Avenue, also like walking the avenue. They sometimes each take a turn pushing a stroller and showing off a new baby girl. The child belongs to Ksusha Morgan, née Filipishina. To help me pronounce her first name, she tells me, “All letters are sounded in Russian.”
“Normal Heights feels like a very nonjudgmental place in many ways,” says Ksusha. “For example, in this neighborhood you can wear anything you like and people won’t care.”
It may sound trivial, but much of her sentiment derives from a comparison to the way it was in Russia, the country of her birth, in the late 1990s. Suddenly, as a nascent capitalist economy was taking hold, consumer goods were proliferating and a one-upmanship set into people’s habits of buying clothes, a reaction against attitudes in the former Soviet Union when everyone was expected to wear the same things. Ksusha knows about those “bad old days” largely through hearsay. She is 27 years old.