Natives of El Cajon tell me downtown Main Street was entirely “trashy” before Chaldeans and other immigrants started opening up businesses.
  • Natives of El Cajon tell me downtown Main Street was entirely “trashy” before Chaldeans and other immigrants started opening up businesses.
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Black and white at The Grand

Three large black men sat squished together in the back seat of my rental car as we headed east on I-8. The ping of my Uber app brought us together that Friday night. I was on the clock. They were dressed to kill, with scopes set on The Grand, a bar in El Cajon.

Mountains and foothills in every direction

During the ride, the man in the middle started a conversation about different races understanding each other (I’m white). He urged me to watch the movie Imitation of Life. (Two years later, it’s next in line in my Netflix queue.)

As we neared the end of the ride, he spoke about The Grand as if it was something special in El Cajon — even something mysterious.

Chaldean men at backgammon game outside the courthouse off Main Street

I dropped them off by the green “Grand” sign on West Main Street, a half block west of Sunshine. “El Cajon’s oldest known bar,” the sign touted. The two silent men opened their doors and stepped out. Before the third got out, he said to me, with serious intent, “El Cajon is my city.”

Charlie Lizarraga works on a logo for the German-American Club's Oktoberfest.

When I drive through downtown El Cajon and pass by The Grand, I think of my Uber customer and the things he said to me. I start asking questions. Some say The Grand is notorious. For what? Nobody will tell me.

Debbie: "At night you have to put anything valuable in your sleeping bag or sleep on top of it.”

So I pay a visit. The green “Grand” sign is no longer there. The first time I saw it I was reminded of the mysterious glow of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, the one Jay Gatsby would peer at from his mansion across the bay.

Champion NASCAR driver and El Cajon native Jimmy Johnson is honored by a sign on Second Street.

The green glow on Main Street has been replaced by a large solid black circle with “The Grand” set against it in small white letters. When I look at it I think of black holes and other celestial mysteries. After dark, white light illuminates the sign from behind the black circle, giving it an eclipse-like appearance.

Knox House Museum. Amaziah Lord Knox founded the city of El Cajon.

It’s Sunday evening. There’s nobody manning the door. I step inside to the sound of a beat that is steady but not too loud. The atmosphere feels relaxed, the bar set straight ahead along the wall to the left. Aside from one person looking at me with a stone-cold look on his face, most people carry on their drinking and talking, indifferent to my presence.

Olivia Gross weaves at Sophie's Art Gallery.

I brush against the curtain of a photo booth on my right. The sound of pool balls clacking echoes from around the corner to my left. A chalkboard on the wall further in to the right reads, “Karaoke Tuesday and Thursday” and “Friday night steak dinner.” Pretty straightforward.

Shadow Mountain church art expo

I sit at the bar, hoping the bartender has a free minute to talk. A blonde-haired woman sitting two stools down looks at me and says, “You don’t drink, do you?” It sounds more like a comment than a question. Her expression lightens when I tell her why I’m there.

“What is unique about this bar?” I ask. A couple different bar patrons respond.

Iraqi refugees work to beautify Wells Park.

“It gets really dark here Friday and Saturday nights,” answers one.

“They turn down the lights?”

“No, it’s all black.”

“You mean black people?”

She nods.

Another tells me about the motorcycle clubs that frequent there. “This is one of the bars in El Cajon that allows cuts” — biker vests. “The Boozefighters, Ugly MFs, and Sexy Bs all come here. We see Ironworkers too.” The Ironworkers sound most intimidating.

In walks Jeff DiLallo. He bought The Grand a couple years ago. He says he changed the name of the bar from “The El Cajon Grand” to “The Grand.” Last year he put the new logo on the sign out front.

Our conversation is quickly interrupted by two women who walk in and give him a hug. “Hey, it’s double trouble,” he says. “The kind of trouble we love,” one of the women responds.

He turns back to me. “We had a rough first year after taking over.” DiLallo says he wants the bar to be a diverse place that is safe and enjoyable.

“The N word and the F word are not allowed here.” He's referring to the six-letter F word. “At first we experienced a cultural pushback from El Cajon, but now we are succeeding remarkably. Our profits are 400 percent what the previous owners’ were.”

I ask him why people say the bar is notorious. His body language suggests my question hit a nerve. “The only trouble we ever have is with bikers,” he says.

When I walk out The Grand seems a little less mysterious than when I walked in.

I stop by the following Friday. I see black and white people. The only discomfiting thing I see is the street people standing around the Jack in the Box drive-thru next door. When I leave The Grand a crazy-looking lady from Jack in the Box stalks me to my car. I lock the doors when I get in so she can’t try to jump in.

The Big Box

The city of El Cajon came to life in the middle of a valley that rests in the shadow of mountains and foothills in every direction. One can stand at the center of downtown at Main Street and Magnolia Avenue, look at the horizon in all four directions, and see rising land.

Fletcher Hills to the west. To the south Mount Helix and its elongated eastern slope. Granite Hills to the east. The foothills of Bostonia form part of the northern wall. The El Cajon valley curves around the west side of Bostonia and continues further north through El Cajon’s airport, Gillespie Field. It shoots further north through Santee, where it is walled in to the north by Eucalyptus Hills and to the west by the mountains of Mission Trails.

Boxed in by natural walls in all four directions, the valley was named “the big box,” or el cajon in Spanish by Spaniards exploring the area. That’s how Knox House Museum curator Eldonna Lay explains it.

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Comments

ebartl June 14, 2018 @ 2:38 p.m.

I found a certain poetic essence to the city of El Cajon I didn't expect to find and before I did this story never realized how much art there is here. Colors seemed to be a part of many of the short stores I found, whether it be the cultural/racial diversity, the geography, the art galleries, or the numerous characters I encountered that happened to have favorite colors and sport them proudly. El Cajon is a place of many colors. One interesting bit of history I learned about the city is that is has been a hub for migration before the waves of Middle Eastern immigration started. The town historian told me when California first started offering relatively more welfare than other states, waves of poor southerners began migrating to southern California. The first major bus stop was in El Cajon, where many of them got off and made this town their home. Ironically, that bus stop was where Ali Baba restaurant now stands.

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JimmyJ321 June 14, 2018 @ 11:33 p.m.

Nelson's version of an El Cajon story sounds boring compared to Eric's. And Nelson sounds like he has an axe to grind. Did Eric write something critical of you and you're trying to give payback? You give a pretty twisted view of what is actually in this story.

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Ncortes12 June 21, 2018 @ 10:14 p.m.

I’ve never met or know Eric and after seeing his other stories and retreading this article perhaps I was a bit harsh and I apologize for attacking his writing. Clearly he did put work and takes his craft seriously. Like I mentioned though, been hearing these stories all my life (except the rather “new” influx of the Chaldean population which have made El Cajon uniquely diverse) and frustrated and hoped to hear something new about the town many of us call home. Perhaps it’s boring but for the record I’ve never seen anyone shoot up, heard racist comments, or been to The Grand. But to be fair I don’t get out much these days. I have tasted some of the best Mexican food out here though, great middle eastern cuisine, relieved Big Lebowski moments at a great bowling alley, strolled around some great trails and parks and more or less live 30 minutes from any beach, mountain, restaurant and have met some of the most down to earth hard working (boring to some I guess) people out here in El Cajon. I will admit one thing though- July and August are scorching hot months and it can be brutal- oh but there’s Parkway Plaza air conditioning for that..

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holysolar June 27, 2018 @ 5:37 p.m.

I grew-up in El Cajon, I would walk to Lexington Elementary school, and Holy Trinity Church. In 1968 we moved from a 2 bedroom apartment located on Concord street to a three bedroom house on Denise Lane. I was in walking distance and would walk to Cajon Valley Junior High where I attended 7th and 8th grades. I remember the first Black student that attended our Junior High, I believe his name was LeRoy McGee, he was a fine athlete. After I bought my first real bike, my yellow Schwinn, "I'm Evil Knievel, I started bike motocross" bicycle, I delivered newspapers for the Daily Californian.

While attending El Cajon Valley High School I worked as a part-time dish washer and was promoted to cook at The Top Sirloin Restaurant, now called Ali Ba Ba. At the time the restaurant was owned by a tall white haired, serious yet happy, kind and fair gentleman named Waldo Cleaver. Waldo had to be in his 70's and I remember when he met his new bride, he was as giddy as a teenager. He married that nice lady and give me a bit of advice and words to live by, he said "Don't ever think that you won't find someone, because I never thought that I would fall in love again and here I am getting married". I graduated from El Cajon Valley High School in 1975.

I cruised 2nd street and hung out at Parkway Plaza when it was first built. As a pre-teen and a teenager I went to movies every Sunday afternoon at the El Cajon Theater and when it changed hands and became the Pussycat Theater, well I would attend a showing once and a while, tradition, you understand.

I met my first love while cruising 2nd street and my 2nd love at Win Cody bar (now torn down). I still drive through El Cajon a couple of times a week. My memories are overwhelming as I see the streets that I use to walk and ride my bike through and the buildings and houses that I use to deliver newspapers to. Mike's Model Shop on Main street, I remember the old house converted into a neighborhood store called "Salazar's Market" on Claydell st.

You can't go back but some memories are priceless.

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