Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
In the ground, beneath the Kearny Senior High School emblem, is a collection of bricks purchased by alumni and other supporters. “We’ve got some great names here,” Stephen Grooms says, pointing downward.
If Clairemont is San Diego’s first bedroom community, then Kearny Mesa, all 4400 acres of it, could be described as its utility room. Bounded by Interstate 805 to the west, Interstate 15 to the east, State Route 52 to the north and, to the south, by Aero Drive (except for a sliver along Interstate 15 that extends all the way south to Friars Road), Kearny Mesa has never had an overriding, easily identifiable character. Ocean Beach is a funky beach town that still calls to mind the counter-culture of the late 1960s. North Park has become a hipster haven known for its craft cocktails and gastropubs. Hillcrest, La Jolla, Kensington, Point Loma – they are all known for their charm, culture, or scenic beauty. Kearny Mesa, not so much. People come to Kearny Mesa to buy cars, eat Korean barbecue, or work.
“I make traditional, home-style Korean food. I cook in a different way, just like Korean people like it,” says Yong, the owner of Chon Ju Jip.
Photography by Matthew Suárez
The cost of shelter
John Watmore moved to Kearny Mesa in 2003 because he worked nearby at the Auto Trader. He still lives in Stonecrest Village, a master planned tract of six communities east of the 163 that was built between 1997 and 2001. It consists of 600 condos and single-family homes and another 1000 or so apartments. “It’s a great location, close to everything — that was the single biggest draw for me,” says Watmore, now a realtor who focuses exclusively on the Stonecrest community. “And not a whole lot has changed since I moved here.”
Thom Vollenweider moved to Kearny Mesa in 1970, when his parents bought a house on Lochlomond Street, near the intersection of Balboa Avenue and I-805, in the Royal Highlands neighborhood.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Separated from Clairemont since 1972 by Interstate 805, Kearny Mesa — which, as its name implies, is mostly flat — has just four residential tracts, and a total population of less than 30,000, according to the latest census estimates. Two are older, Royal Highlands in the southwest and the Kearny Lodge Mobile Home Park, with 320 sites, in the northwest. Homes in the Royal Highlands originally sold for as little as $13,000; today, Zillow values them in the high $500,000s; one, a 1,436-square-foot home on Kirkcaldy Drive, fetched $590,000 on October 8. Manufactured homes in Kearny Lodge, mostly two-bedroom units, sell for as low as $110,000.
In the newer Spectrum development, single-family homes can sell in the high $900,000s, with condos in the $500,000s.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Stonecrest Village, where John Watmore lives, is located in the southeastern corner of Kearny Mesa, where it morphs into Serra Mesa. Further north, in the east, is a cluster of apartments and condos that are part of the mixed-use Spectrum development. In these newer tracts, the cost of shelter is significantly higher. Single-family homes in Stonecrest can sell in the high $900,000s; condos range in the $500,000s. One-bedroom apartments at the high-end Avion at Spectrum can’t be touched for less than $2,000 monthly rent.
Child of Atlas
Kearny Mesa owes its name to Camp Kearny, a military base that from 1917 to 1946 stood on the land now occupied by the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The base occupied a scrubby mesa that, prior to World War I, had been used mostly for cattle grazing. It was named after Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny, a respected frontier officer with the U.S. Army who distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War and later served as a military governor of California.
Yong came to this country from her native Korea in 1983. She emigrated to San Antonio with her then-husband. After the marriage broke up, Yong moved to San Diego in 2002. “I just look at the map and say, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta go here.’”
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Development of Kearny Mesa began in 1937 with Gibbs Airfield, now Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport. In 1948, the city of San Diego purchased the airfield and 1400 acres of adjoining property with the intention of building a new international airport. When those plans were scrapped due to conflicts with the military air station at Miramar, the airfield became an industrial park and the city began selling off the rest of the land.
General Dynamics moved to Kearny Mesa in 1955 and three years later dedicated a $40 million plant on 232 acres acquired from the city at a bargain price. Nearly 100,000 spectators showed up at what the San Diego Union in a July 13, 1958 article called a giant “surprise” party — the surprise being “an Air Force announcement that Astronautics has been awarded a 315-million-dollar contract for past and present research and development of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile.” Astronautics at about that time became a division of General Dynamics/Convair.
By 1961, General Dynamics had nearly 47,000 employees at several facilities in San Diego, accounting for 15 percent of the county’s non-military work force. Many of them worked at the Kearny Mesa plant, which later built the Tomahawk missiles that pulverized Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.
At Chon Ju Jip, I had planned on ordering the bibimbap, but opted for something more adventurous: the Jeyuk-Deopbap — marinated sliced pork with vegetables, rice and assorted side dishes.
Photography by Matthew Suárez
Thom Vollenweider moved to Kearny Mesa in 1970, when his parents bought a house on Lochlomond Street, near the intersection of Balboa Avenue and I-805, in the Royal Highlands neighborhood. The tract of about 150 homes, built in the 1960s, targeted the influx of General Dynamics missile plant workers. The homes were constructed in classic Southern California ranch style. Most had three bedrooms and two baths and about 1200 to 1400 square feet of total living space, and two-car garages that led into kitchens. The neighborhood was once surrounded by fields, one of which, in the 1970s, became Interstate 805.
Vollenweider’s mother still lives in the house, which is about five down from a 24-Hour Fitness facility, he says. Growing up, he says, the neighborhood was filled with young families like his own, many of whom moved there because they worked at General Dynamics and wanted to live close by. Kids attended Ross Elementary School, Montgomery Junior High School and, ultimately, Kearny High School, from which Vollenweider graduated in 1973. Right across the street from his family home, he recalls, lived Stu Lantz, who played in the NBA for eight years. He was drafted in 1968 by the San Diego Rockets, and since 1987 has been a color commentator for the Los Angeles Lakers. Two doors down from the Vollenweiders was Marty Moates, the first American to win the 500cc United States Grand Prix in Carlsbad, a motorcycle race previously dominated by Europeans. He was also a founder of the No Fear clothing brand. Moates died in 2006 of an apparent suicide.
Vollenweider has no distinct memory of his neighborhood being called Royal Highlands — or even of the area in which he lived going by Kearny Mesa. “To me, it was just mixed in with Serra Mesa and Linda Vista,” he recalls. “Everyone went to school together, and the neighborhood boundaries just blurred.”
Stephen Grooms, Kearny Senior High School, Class of 1975, is true to his school, as the Beach Boys would say. He’s the president of the Kearny Community Foundation, which raises money for school clubs and other non-funded needs.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Kids played in the fields that dotted the area and occasionally ventured south to a fishing hole where the stadium now stands. Later, in high school, the big summer hangout was the Kearny High School gymnasium. “It was open during the summer, six days a week, and that was where we all hung out,” Vollenweider recalls. “We played basketball and worked out. Most of us had grown up together since elementary school, and we were very close.” Occasionally, he says, the teens of Kearny Mesa would hit the beach, driving down to Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, “which was a straight shot, down Balboa, from where we lived.”
The early 1970s saw the construction of Interstate 805 through Kearny Mesa and Clairemont. “That really divided our neighborhood,” he recalls. “They took out a lot of houses near where my parents lived. And after the freeway came, Balboa became real busy because it connected Convoy with the rest of Clairemont.”
Famous Kearny High School alumni include novelist Tess Gerritsen; Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Alan Trammell; Bob Mosley, the singer and bassist for 1960s San Francisco rock band Moby Grape; and Ron Roberts, the former city councilman and county supervisor.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
In the early 1990s, General Dynamics responded to the downturn in defense spending by selling off its rocket business and closing its Kearny Mesa plant. But by then Kearny Mesa commerce had taken a new turn: first, an influx of car dealerships lured by cheap rents and easy freeway access, and then an influx of Asian restaurants, beginning with the arrival of the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Curt Flory, 65, has sold cars on and off at Kearny Mesa dealerships since 1989. “In the car business,” he says with a laugh, “you tend to move around a lot.” His first stop was at Kearny Mesa Toyota on Kearny Mesa Road, just west of State Route 163. “We had a lot of Asians from the Mira Mesa area come down, and we did a lot of business with General Dynamics people. We were right across the freeway, so we could look out and see their buildings.”
Today, a Google search finds about 20 car dealerships within the boundaries of Kearny Mesa. Nearly all of them were built after the early 1970s, when Interstate 805 and then State Route 52 replaced some of the fields that for years had isolated Kearny Mesa.
All of a sudden, Kearny Mesa was connected, and there’s nothing car dealers like better than easy freeway access — unless it’s inexpensive land, which Kearny Mesa also provided.
“Want to hear a funny story?” Flory asks. “I don’t know if this is something you can print, but several of the dealerships got started in a very funny way. Now, you know the city of San Diego owned most of the land in Kearny Mesa at one point, and there was this cement contractor who, when he used to take out existing concrete structures, would dump all this broken-up concrete in the fields of Kearny Mesa. He was supposed to take it to the Miramar landfill, but he didn’t want to pay the fees. So what he would do was go out in Kearny Mesa, find this nice little wash somewhere, and dump all this stuff. It went on for quite a while, but he finally got caught, and the city told him, ‘OK, you have two choices: you can either pay to have this cleaned up or you can buy the property. So he brought the property for $300,000 — and his family are now billionaires. Word is his family is still collecting rent from a number of different dealerships.”
Even though he spent many years working in Kearny Mesa, Flory never lived in the community. He had a home in Clairemont, to the west, and now lives in Tierrasanta, on the other side of Interstate 15.
“It really hasn’t changed all that much,” he says. “The traffic, though, has really gotten horrible on Convoy Street between 3 and 5.”
Restaurant like family
The traffic doesn’t bother Yong, who runs Chon Ju Jip, a traditional Korean diner on Convoy Street south of Balboa that is housed in a weary little strip mall anchored by Convoy Liquor.
Traffic, after all, means people, says Yong, who maintains she has no second name. “Everyone makes money from the same people,” she says. “If you stay by yourself some place, people don’t think about you. But if all these restaurants are together, it brings in more people.”
It wasn’t easy finding a restaurant owner like Yong to talk to. Over two days, I called 17 of the more than 100 Asian restaurants on Convoy Street. I had eaten at most of them, and none of could be considered fancy, high-end, or cutting edge. On 10 phone calls, I was told the owner was not in, and left a message. On six phone calls, I was told the owner doesn’t speak English. Chon Ju Jip was the 17th restaurant I called. Yong was exactly the sort of person I was looking for. I wasn’t aiming to talk to the young hotshot owner of some trendy new bar or café who has already been profiled in the San Diego Union-Tribune or San Diego Magazine. I wanted a simple, salt-of-the-earth restaurant operator who has quietly done business at the same location for years, and hasn’t spoken much to the media, if at all.
After the hostess put Yong on the phone, I identified myself and told her I was writing a story on Kearny Mesa. “What is this for again?” she asked. When I told her a second time, she said, “Oh, OK — you come down tomorrow and talk to me at my restaurant. I’m busy now, and it’s loud. You come tomorrow, at 2.” Then she hung up.
The next day, at 1, I pulled into the oil-stained parking lot of Convoy Center and walked into the little diner — a square little room with the kitchen tucked into one corner. On one wall, a widescreen played Korean TV, which the regulars — packed into two of the six or so red-leather booths — were animatedly watching. I came an hour before our interview because I wanted to sample the wares. Earlier, I had done a little research into the restaurant, which has 240 Google reviews averaging 4.3 out of 5 stars. The latest, two days prior to my visit: “Wow! From the service, to the food, to the atmosphere, this place is the bomb. Authentic Korean. Three hungry men were filled up on two entrees — Octopus and seafood pancakes. What a unique, affordable and delightful experience!”
I had planned on ordering the bibimbap, but opted for something more adventurous: the Jeyuk-Deopbap — marinated sliced pork with vegetables, rice and assorted side dishes, including corn sprouts, fish cakes and kimchi. The server brought me a glass of barley tea, which in traditional Korean homes is often used as an alternative to drinking water. The reviews were right, the food was marvelous.
I looked up and there was Yong, sitting right across from me. We shook hands and began to talk. A Korean immigrant, Yong is 63 years old, has neither children nor a husband, and runs the restaurant with a staff of seven, including a niece who works part-time while attending Grossmont College. Yong is the sole owner and also the lead cook.
“I’m just normal people,” she said.
Yong came to this country from her native Korea in 1983. She emigrated to San Antonio with her then-husband. After the marriage broke up, Yong moved to San Diego in 2002. “I just look at the map and say, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta go here.’” She worked for five years as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant in Mira Mesa before pooling her savings and buying a little diner whose owner was looking to sell. “I just wanted to do something,” she said. Looking around at all the Korean barbecue places, she decided to try something different.
“I make traditional, home-style Korean food. I cook in a different way, just like Korean people like it,” she said. Most of her customers are Korean immigrants, she said, and many of them are regulars who come by at least once a week. “My restaurant is like a family.”
The restaurant is named after Yong’s hometown, Cheongju, the capital of, and largest city in, South Korea’s North Chungcheong province.
Yong lives off Clairemont Drive, a few miles west of Convoy Street, and said she plans to work for about five more years. “Then I retire,” she said.
There are dozens of small, quiet restaurants like Yong’s along Convoy Street, favored by local immigrants from all parts of Asia. They are tucked away in strip malls, and their names don’t even make it onto the towering center signs that face the road. Asked if she has any favorites, Yong shook her head no. “I eat this food so much,” she said. “When I go out, I want pizza or Subway.”
Chili sesame oil
...brought me to know and love Kearny Mesa. I had become addicted to this tantalizing hot and spicy oil in the late 1990s after first sampling it at Brandy Ho’s in San Francisco. I bought some at an Asian market in Chinatown. When I ran out, a friend suggested I try this little Korean grocery store on Convoy Street. I did, and at the same time discovered the wealth of Asian restaurants that had been popping up between the car dealerships, mostly along Convoy Street, one of the area’s primary north-south arterials.
Convoy Street became a regular Sunday evening dinner haunt for my sons and me. We’d eat Vietnamese, Thai, sushi, dim sum or Korean barbecue, and then stop off at one of the many boba shops for dessert.
Prior to my successful quest for chili sesame oil, Kearny Mesa and I had crossed paths only sporadically. In 1979, when I launched a music magazine, Kicks, I worked with the handful of recording studios that had sprung up in the industrial park along Ronson Road. Later, in the early 1980s, I had a girlfriend who lived in Clairemont just east of the 805 freeway that divided the two communities.
“I really never hung out in Kearny Mesa and I didn’t really hang out with anyone who did,” the former girlfriend told me recently via Facebook Messenger. “It was kind of a whole other high school crowd. Kearny High had a lot of blacks and Mexicans and it seemed like a rough crowd from what we would hear and that’s pretty much all I know!”
Kearny High School, arguably the community’s most famous landmark, is actually located about a mile south of the official Aero Drive boundary, in northern Linda Vista. Kearny High opened in its present location in 1954 and is one of the few schools in San Diego that has never been rebuilt or remodeled.
Kearny High’s rough-and-tumble reputation in the 1970s and ‘80s stems from the fact that it has traditionally drawn students not just from Kearny Mesa, but also from the surrounding communities of Serra Mesa and Linda Vista. Of the latter, the San Diego Daily Transcript in December 1998 wrote, “the majority of Linda Vista’s households are very-low- to low-income and juvenile crime is so brazen that the gangs have their own apprentice groups.”
Back when I attended the University of San Diego High School in Linda Vista in the middle 1970s, Kearny High was known for its strength in sports, particularly football. These days, the school is known for academics. In 2004, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kearny High was transformed from a traditional high school into a cluster of four small specialty schools: The School of Science, Connections and Technology; The School of Digital Media Design; The Stanley E. Foster School of Engineering, Innovation and Design; and The School of College Connections. Each school has its own principal, teaching staff, and course requirements.
Stephen Grooms, Kearny Senior High School, class of 1975, is true to his school, as the Beach Boys would say. He’s the president of the Kearny Community Foundation, which raises money for school clubs and other non-funded needs.
We’re standing in front of the flagpole at the school’s entrance at 1954 Comet Way, just south of where Convoy Street becomes Linda Vista Road. In the ground, beneath the school emblem, is a collection of bricks purchased by alumni and other supporters, Grooms among them. “We’ve got some great names here,” Grooms says, pointing downward. “Cleavon Little, from Blazing Saddles. John Baca, who was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was one of those kids who really misbehaved, and yet then he went over to Vietnam and earned the Medal of Honor, throwing his body on top of a grenade, saving all of his friends’ lives…. David Nicholson — his brother and two sisters all went here and his sister’s kids…. He graduated in 1969 and he passed away in 1970 or ’71, over in Vietnam. He was a great guy — he worked over at the Safeway just down the street…. And Birt Slater, Coach Slater – he’s the one who brought in the striped jerseys that the football teams wear.”
I follow Grooms to his car, parked across Komet Way under a solar shade structure, Kearny High’s sole nod to modernity. He opens the door and pulls out an old striped jersey. “These were brought in in 1961 by Coach Slater. Nobody had ‘em at the time, and nobody has ‘em anymore except us. I remember when I went here, people said they looked like the prisoner of war uniforms from Vietnam. A quarterback told me Coach Slater picked these jerseys to unify the community, because we all came from three neighborhoods — Kearny Mesa, Serra Mesa, and Linda Vista — and suddenly now you all have to wear the same thing and it’s not your normal uniform.”
Even back in the 1970s, Grooms maintains, Kearny High didn’t deserve its rough reputation. “We used to have three to five people every year go to the military academies, UCLA, Stanford, and other big-name schools, and we also were one of the only public high schools that had a priest…. It’s just that we were so big, we had around 3600 kids. Now we’ve got about 1400, and that’s because they opened up Serra High, University City High, Mira Mesa High…. A lot of the kids from those neighborhoods were bused in, because this was the only one [high school].”
He rattles off more famous alumni, including novelist Tess Gerritsen; Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Alan Trammell; Bob Mosley, the singer and bassist for 1960s San Francisco rock band Moby Grape; “and, oh yes, Ron Roberts, the former city councilman and county supervisor. I almost forgot him. He didn’t buy a brick.”
The ghost of General Dynamics
For the new face of Kearny Mesa, one need look no further than the ghost of the old. The former General Dynamics missile plant site is now home to Spectrum, which the latest (January 2019) draft Kearny Mesa Community Plan describes as a “mixed-use area developed with new business parks, commercial shopping centers, multi-family residential projects, and parks north of Balboa Avenue under the New Century Center Master Plan.” The New Century Master Plan, approved by the city council in 1997, liberalized zoning to allow the 242-acre site to develop a high-density mixed-use retail, commercial, and industrial center. Jack in the Box has its world headquarters in the Spectrum, and Northrop Grumman maintains a five-building, 234,000-square-foot campus there as well. In line with San Diego’s overall “city of villages” planning philosophy, the Spectrum is a model of what planners hope is in store for the rest of Kearny Mesa.
Development in the Spectrum area is still ongoing. Last April, the San Diego Business Journal reported that Sunroad Enterprises had secured a $145 million loan for construction of its 442-unit Vive Lux apartment building adjacent to its 11-story Centrum office building at 8620 Spectrum Road. The apartment building “is the final piece to the company’s redevelopment of a portion of what had been a massive General Dynamics complex,” according to the Business Journal story. “Sunroad initially planned to build two additional office buildings on the Vive Lux site but switched when demand for apartments outpaced demand for office space.”
From the draft community plan: “A reinvisioned Kearny Mesa will include urban pathways, linear parks, paseos, streetscape elements, and mobility hubs that support the vision for a vibrant employment and residential community.”