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Before City Heights

What got lost in East San Diego

Not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University.
Not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University.

Barely two minutes after we leave the airport and pick up our rental car, a minivan with Ohio plates cuts us off and my husband curses at the driver. “Stay in your own #$%^@&* lane, jackass!” he yells from behind the safety of our tinted windows. He shakes his head and turns toward me. “Tourists,” he says. 

His pithy putdown lacks self-awareness. We’ve just arrived from Dallas-Fort Worth, and both of our driver’s licenses indicate that we are residents of Arkansas. In the eyes of every suntanned local, we, too, are interlopers. 

As we navigate away from Lindbergh Field, the crowds of rentals and taxis and Ubers begin to thin out. We are soon sharing the road with everyday Californians, motoring east along Kumeyaay Highway, a name nobody uses. Just before the old stadium site, we slip off at Exit 8 and soon cross the intersection of Fairmount and El Cajon, where Pearson Ford no longer stands, alone or otherwise. (The sign of a good jingle: you still remember it even when the place has been gone for over a decade.)

We have entered City Heights. I have never been to City Heights. Still, much of it feels familiar. The street names: Orange, Van Dyke, all the 40s, and, of course, the major arteries, University and El Cajon. A few of the businesses stir feelings of recognition, a 7-11 here, a liquor store there. At length, we finally locate my family’s old house on Winona Avenue. 

But as I said, I have never been to City Heights. I grew up in East San Diego. 

Apparently, the name City Heights has been around since the 1980s, though I didn’t learn of it until just around the turn of the century. I didn’t care for it. City Heights sounded like the sort of label that gets slapped on a decaying neighborhood when the realtors decide that it’s ripe for gentrification.  I thought, Aspiring yuppies live in neighborhoods named City Heights.

But no yuppie ever set foot in East San Diego. East San Diego in the 1970s housed the working class, back when that was a descriptor rather than a political punchline. East San Diegans labored on aircraft assembly lines and street repair crews and behind secretarial desks. Diversity was a fact of life, and children of all races found friends, teammates, and bullies on their amusingly bipartisan journey from (Woodrow) Wilson Junior High to Herbert Hoover High School. 

Sponsored
Sponsored

Children don’t interrogate their environment. They simply take it all in and accept it as normal. For me, normal was roller skating across busy urban thoroughfares and past a movie theater that showed X-rated fare. Normal was also sitting in a smoky barroom knocking back Shirley Temples while memorizing the songs on the jukebox. (Does anyone remember the words to “Summer, the First Time” by Bobby Goldsboro? Sadly, I do.) Normal was a father who routinely bathed his demons in vodka, surrounded by friends whose names he only occasionally remembered. None of it bothered me; fish don’t complain about being wet. 

I lost my mother in East San Diego. For most kids, mortality is a concept that slowly seeps in. Others are not so fortunate. I had no idea whether or not my mother was sickly. She smoked obsessively, but that was not uncommon in those days. She was simply always there until one day in 1972 when she wasn’t. She left one morning for Balboa Hospital — nobody acted like it was an emergency — and she never came home. I was 10 and she was 46. We weren’t an emotive family, so everyone internalized their grief and moved on. I didn’t even learn how she died until years later, when I finally thought to order the death certificate.

My brothers were older and mostly on their own. My father was left with a daughter he barely knew and had no idea how to raise. His first instinct was to run. One day, he borrowed a girlfriend’s car and, after several hours on the highway, dropped me off in a rural town near Sacramento at the home of an uncle, an aunt, and a passel of cousins. I adapted quickly to this very different life, with its rules and chores, its lakes and horses. I assumed this was where I would stay, a pre-teen city girl fated to endure adolescence in rural America.

I lost all of my possessions in East San Diego. I didn’t know that yet, of course. I assumed my stuff was still in the house on Winona Avenue and that it would eventually rejoin me. But a couple of months later, my father called and instructed me to catch a flight back to San Diego.  He had a new girlfriend, and he assumed that she could relieve him of the burden of looking after an undisciplined pre-adolescent kid. Only upon my arrival did I learn that my father had moved and prepared for doing so by downsizing. That meant taking every artifact of my childhood and delivering it to Goodwill. The sense of loss and betrayal was overwhelming. But he never apologized. He was likely still grieving too, but doing so in his characteristically oblivious way.

Time heals, if not completely, and soon I settled back into my East San Diego life. But just as my own life had changed, the neighborhood was changing, too.  There was a flicker of danger that I had never noticed before. Was the area devolving, or was I simply growing old enough to recognize that the adult movie theater and the liquor stores had unsavory clients who walked the same sidewalks where I dodged pedestrians and bus stops? Regardless, the streets seemed meaner, and that meanness had spilled over into the school originally named after a president who failed, in his own time, to bring peace to the world. Wilson Junior High mirrored the hardening of East San Diego itself, and the rules of schoolyard engagement had become merciless during my time away. Children whose families were imploding in a mélange of drugs, unemployment, and crime visited their as-yet unchanneled rage on the kids they figured would not fight back. I was one of those kids. On a good day, my tormentors called me names and pushed me between desks; on a bad day, they punched and kicked me as I attempted to walk home.

To be sure, not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University. My father brought me along on raucous bus rides from various east side bars to Chargers football games. I was the only minor on a bus full of happy drunks, broken men who nevertheless looked out for me and treated me with the kindness many could no longer offer to their own estranged children. I never cared about the Chargers, who lost most of the games I attended, but I did like the crowds, the noise, and the concession stands. And I was never sorry to return to my side of the city. Even as the neighborhood deteriorated around me, East San Diego gave me a sense of place, and I prided myself in my knowledge of its streets and alley ways. It was home.

I lost my family in East San Diego. Just before my 13th birthday, I contracted the flu. My father was in Mexico, for reasons that probably involved bawdy Tijuana nightlife. His girlfriend long gone, he had left me alone in our one-bedroom shack on 43rd Street. There was no way to reach him, even as my fever grew. I slept for hours, waiting for him to stumble his way back across the border so he could take me to the medical center where my mother had died.

At some point, my sleep was interrupted by a loud knock on our flimsy front door. A man was outside demanding to come in. He wouldn’t tell me his name. I told him to leave, but his knocking became more insistent. I tried to keep calm and asked God to please make him stop. At that point, however, he began jiggling the door handle, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until he pushed his way inside. I screamed that I was going to call the police and finally did. The knocking stopped and, soon afterward, a pair of SDPD officers arrived. I was sick and scared and embarrassed. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone, but it was too late for that.

With the bad guy missing, there wasn’t much for the cops to do. My father was unreachable. So they told me I could remain in the house and hope that my tormentor was truly gone, or I could let them take me to Hillcrest Children’s Receiving Home. I selected the latter option. I assumed I would be back on 43rd Street within a couple of days.

Instead, I spent several weeks at Hillcrest, watching as a parade of other kids checked in and out, either heading home or entering the foster care system. I lived in the moment, as kids do, and never entertained the thought that, at some point, I might be one of those children exiting into a new life. I still believed I was going home. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, my dad was busy signing me away. Some social workers spoke briefly with me, explaining something about custodial rights and signed waivers and new homes. It took a while before the full force of realization hit me: I was now a ward of the County of San Diego. 

The current struggles of the foster care system in Southern California are nothing new. I should have been an easy kid to place: a non-traumatized, good-natured pre-teen, benign and eager to please. Nevertheless, I bounced from house to house, mostly in East County, experiencing the full range of SoCal lifestyles. One family took me to a Billy Graham crusade at the stadium; another invited me to their daughter’s unofficial lesbian wedding. In the end, each of these families had one thing in common: they did not want to keep me.

In an act of desperation, the County sent me far from home to a town 45 minutes away from East San Diego, a place that had previously existed only on the evening weather reports: Carlsbad. Once there, I was a fish out of water in a village by the sea, an inner-city foster child more accustomed to gritty urban streets than manicured front lawns. There was, however, nothing gritty about Carlsbad. Grittiness would never have been tolerated by the doctors and lawyers who lived in the hills above town. Schoolyard behavior at Carlsbad High School was regulated through cliques and gossip, which might have upset me more had I not just moved from a place where the enforcement was more direct and physical. Carlsbad was what Main Street, Disneyland, would have looked like had Walt Disney been born in California in 1960. This time, my foster family chose to keep me — my foster mother, a psychologist, recognized that I badly needed a stable home — and I spent the next several years walking anonymously among the children of privilege.

One afternoon in 1978, my boyfriend (who would eventually become my husband) drove me back to East San Diego to visit one of my brothers. It was the first time I got to see my old neighborhood through the eyes — his eyes — of someone unfamiliar with the territory. The result was not flattering. At every stoplight, he surveyed the landscape for predators, as though we were the doomed gazelles on some cable nature show. He told me that when his family used to eat at Nicolosi’s, the venerable Italian bistro at 40th and El Cajon, they would always park under a streetlight. I was shocked. Did I grow up in the slums? I began to feel uneasy, wanting to come to the defense of my home turf, but also afraid that he would associate me with the people staggering out of the liquor stores. By the time we hit Fairmount on our way back to the freeway, even I felt a sense of relief, which troubled me even more.

Within a couple of years, I had moved with my husband to New York, beginning a journey that would take us through seven states and across five time zones.  When we returned to San Diego, we generally stayed downtown or with family in North County or El Cajon. We did make it to East San Diego on occasion, but usually only briefly, to pick someone up or drop someone off. Eventually, everyone we knew had moved out. My father, who ultimately sobered up, passed away in North Dakota, of all places. Meanwhile, the hollowing out of my East San Diego continued.  Pearson Ford decamped to Kearny Mesa. Nicolosi’s, driven from El Cajon Boulevard by an expansion of the 15 freeway, relocated multiple times before finally settling in the tonier environs of San Carlos. One of the local theaters became a church.

And now it’s 2019, at the very end of the Before Times, and we have arrived in this neighborhood in which I have never lived called City Heights to reconnect with a past with which I have still not fully reconciled. The sense of danger is gone, not so much because of the presence of yuppies — we still don’t see too many of those — but because our travels have taken us, without incident, through neighborhoods that many would describe as far sketchier. By contrast, if you find trouble in City Heights, it’s probably because you’re looking for it.

But there’s something more than that. The area has always been diverse, but now it pulsates with the energy of recent arrivals scrambling to stake a claim to success in their new country. Immigration has brought the streets of my childhood alive with a dazzling combination of vibrant cultures, thriving entrepreneurship, and excitement for the future. Pho cafes rub shoulders with taquerias and pizza parlors. Mom and pop grocery stores offer Asian and Latin American delicacies to customers eager for a taste of home. The battered American Dream somehow flourishes, out of sight of the cynics. Maybe it always has.

Even my own memories include a measure of sweet along with the bitter. The same house where I learned that my mother had died echoes with the sound of lively board games and singalongs and family dinners. The junior high school where I was tormented by girls twice my size is also the place where I met two lifelong friends. The streets with the winos were my streets, and I patrolled them with a sense of purpose. Bad things happen to every kid, and mine happened here, but so did almost everything fun and pleasant. My days were no worse, for the most part, than those of the kids in Carlsbad.

But they were different, different in ways that will never make sense to most of you. After departing Winona Avenue, I find myself drawn to one of the area’s more storied watering holes. It is a dive; it is meant to be a dive. And a little after 4:00 on this weekday afternoon, it serves two or three shadowy day-drinkers. It is dark and eerily quiet, and no Baptist has ever created a better advertisement for never touching an alcoholic beverage.

As odd as it may seem, some of my happiest moments as a child were spent in this dump. I have no clue what my father might have been trying to escape as we joined the early evening crowd all those years ago. But put a couple of drinks in him, and he transformed into Super Dad, ordering me sugary concoctions from the bar, handing me quarter after quarter to feed to the record machine, and sharing funny stories and corny jokes.  Quality time is where you find it, I guess. Alcoholism is never fun except when it is, and I savored those moments as other kids cherished their family camping trips.

Back into the sunlight. My husband and I spend a little more time driving down the boulevards, small roads, and back alleys. There isn’t much more to see, so I concentrate on the people. They aren’t the same people I grew up with, of course, but they are still familiar. People who work with their hands, often outside. But the sense of familiarity simultaneously highlights all of the differences, the things I cannot know or even understand about their lives and aspirations. This is their neighborhood now, and I am simply another out-of-state tourist with memories that mean nothing to them.

There was a time when I allowed myself to think of the people in this neighborhood as losers. How much ambition would it really take, I used to wonder, to just climb out, to move north or west, where the action was, where the money was? And the bars. I began to see each one as a destination for quitters, people who took a few to the jaw and then didn’t have the will to fight back. They opted instead to die a slow death, glass after glass, suicide disguised as recreation.

But now I realize how wrong I was.  And how my attitude was a betrayal, not only of East San Diego, but of myself. I am​ one of those people, even if I caught a few breaks along the way, — thanks, oddly enough, to the county foster care system. If they were losers, then so am I. Those people toughened me and reminded me that the good life is earned every day. They taught me that fate catches up with everyone and that you get through life the best way you can.

I lost my fear of the world in East San Diego.

I owe a lot to this neighborhood and its people. When I endured the county foster system, being ping-ponged from one family to the next, I drew on the lessons of my old neighborhood for sustenance. If I survived the tough girls at Wilson, I could surely handle the sting of rejection. When I finally earned my college degree at 26, it was because I learned to persevere in East San Diego. These streets instilled pride in me and yet reminded me not to spend too much time admiring myself in the mirror. My neighborhood knew me when I was just a drunkard’s daughter skating aimlessly through childhood.

We’re back on Interstate 8 now (Kumeyaay Highway, if you prefer), and it occurs to me that I may never again return to this place. Nor will I ever truly leave. But there really is no reason to come back to City Heights.

Because I never lived in City Heights. I grew up in East San Diego.

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Follows Encinitas, Chula Vista, Carlsbad, Coronado
Not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University.
Not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University.

Barely two minutes after we leave the airport and pick up our rental car, a minivan with Ohio plates cuts us off and my husband curses at the driver. “Stay in your own #$%^@&* lane, jackass!” he yells from behind the safety of our tinted windows. He shakes his head and turns toward me. “Tourists,” he says. 

His pithy putdown lacks self-awareness. We’ve just arrived from Dallas-Fort Worth, and both of our driver’s licenses indicate that we are residents of Arkansas. In the eyes of every suntanned local, we, too, are interlopers. 

As we navigate away from Lindbergh Field, the crowds of rentals and taxis and Ubers begin to thin out. We are soon sharing the road with everyday Californians, motoring east along Kumeyaay Highway, a name nobody uses. Just before the old stadium site, we slip off at Exit 8 and soon cross the intersection of Fairmount and El Cajon, where Pearson Ford no longer stands, alone or otherwise. (The sign of a good jingle: you still remember it even when the place has been gone for over a decade.)

We have entered City Heights. I have never been to City Heights. Still, much of it feels familiar. The street names: Orange, Van Dyke, all the 40s, and, of course, the major arteries, University and El Cajon. A few of the businesses stir feelings of recognition, a 7-11 here, a liquor store there. At length, we finally locate my family’s old house on Winona Avenue. 

But as I said, I have never been to City Heights. I grew up in East San Diego. 

Apparently, the name City Heights has been around since the 1980s, though I didn’t learn of it until just around the turn of the century. I didn’t care for it. City Heights sounded like the sort of label that gets slapped on a decaying neighborhood when the realtors decide that it’s ripe for gentrification.  I thought, Aspiring yuppies live in neighborhoods named City Heights.

But no yuppie ever set foot in East San Diego. East San Diego in the 1970s housed the working class, back when that was a descriptor rather than a political punchline. East San Diegans labored on aircraft assembly lines and street repair crews and behind secretarial desks. Diversity was a fact of life, and children of all races found friends, teammates, and bullies on their amusingly bipartisan journey from (Woodrow) Wilson Junior High to Herbert Hoover High School. 

Sponsored
Sponsored

Children don’t interrogate their environment. They simply take it all in and accept it as normal. For me, normal was roller skating across busy urban thoroughfares and past a movie theater that showed X-rated fare. Normal was also sitting in a smoky barroom knocking back Shirley Temples while memorizing the songs on the jukebox. (Does anyone remember the words to “Summer, the First Time” by Bobby Goldsboro? Sadly, I do.) Normal was a father who routinely bathed his demons in vodka, surrounded by friends whose names he only occasionally remembered. None of it bothered me; fish don’t complain about being wet. 

I lost my mother in East San Diego. For most kids, mortality is a concept that slowly seeps in. Others are not so fortunate. I had no idea whether or not my mother was sickly. She smoked obsessively, but that was not uncommon in those days. She was simply always there until one day in 1972 when she wasn’t. She left one morning for Balboa Hospital — nobody acted like it was an emergency — and she never came home. I was 10 and she was 46. We weren’t an emotive family, so everyone internalized their grief and moved on. I didn’t even learn how she died until years later, when I finally thought to order the death certificate.

My brothers were older and mostly on their own. My father was left with a daughter he barely knew and had no idea how to raise. His first instinct was to run. One day, he borrowed a girlfriend’s car and, after several hours on the highway, dropped me off in a rural town near Sacramento at the home of an uncle, an aunt, and a passel of cousins. I adapted quickly to this very different life, with its rules and chores, its lakes and horses. I assumed this was where I would stay, a pre-teen city girl fated to endure adolescence in rural America.

I lost all of my possessions in East San Diego. I didn’t know that yet, of course. I assumed my stuff was still in the house on Winona Avenue and that it would eventually rejoin me. But a couple of months later, my father called and instructed me to catch a flight back to San Diego.  He had a new girlfriend, and he assumed that she could relieve him of the burden of looking after an undisciplined pre-adolescent kid. Only upon my arrival did I learn that my father had moved and prepared for doing so by downsizing. That meant taking every artifact of my childhood and delivering it to Goodwill. The sense of loss and betrayal was overwhelming. But he never apologized. He was likely still grieving too, but doing so in his characteristically oblivious way.

Time heals, if not completely, and soon I settled back into my East San Diego life. But just as my own life had changed, the neighborhood was changing, too.  There was a flicker of danger that I had never noticed before. Was the area devolving, or was I simply growing old enough to recognize that the adult movie theater and the liquor stores had unsavory clients who walked the same sidewalks where I dodged pedestrians and bus stops? Regardless, the streets seemed meaner, and that meanness had spilled over into the school originally named after a president who failed, in his own time, to bring peace to the world. Wilson Junior High mirrored the hardening of East San Diego itself, and the rules of schoolyard engagement had become merciless during my time away. Children whose families were imploding in a mélange of drugs, unemployment, and crime visited their as-yet unchanneled rage on the kids they figured would not fight back. I was one of those kids. On a good day, my tormentors called me names and pushed me between desks; on a bad day, they punched and kicked me as I attempted to walk home.

To be sure, not all of my middle school memories evoke an unyielding urban hellscape. I still had friends and roller skates, and I could usually scrape together enough change to buy a candy bar at the Big City liquor store on University. My father brought me along on raucous bus rides from various east side bars to Chargers football games. I was the only minor on a bus full of happy drunks, broken men who nevertheless looked out for me and treated me with the kindness many could no longer offer to their own estranged children. I never cared about the Chargers, who lost most of the games I attended, but I did like the crowds, the noise, and the concession stands. And I was never sorry to return to my side of the city. Even as the neighborhood deteriorated around me, East San Diego gave me a sense of place, and I prided myself in my knowledge of its streets and alley ways. It was home.

I lost my family in East San Diego. Just before my 13th birthday, I contracted the flu. My father was in Mexico, for reasons that probably involved bawdy Tijuana nightlife. His girlfriend long gone, he had left me alone in our one-bedroom shack on 43rd Street. There was no way to reach him, even as my fever grew. I slept for hours, waiting for him to stumble his way back across the border so he could take me to the medical center where my mother had died.

At some point, my sleep was interrupted by a loud knock on our flimsy front door. A man was outside demanding to come in. He wouldn’t tell me his name. I told him to leave, but his knocking became more insistent. I tried to keep calm and asked God to please make him stop. At that point, however, he began jiggling the door handle, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until he pushed his way inside. I screamed that I was going to call the police and finally did. The knocking stopped and, soon afterward, a pair of SDPD officers arrived. I was sick and scared and embarrassed. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone, but it was too late for that.

With the bad guy missing, there wasn’t much for the cops to do. My father was unreachable. So they told me I could remain in the house and hope that my tormentor was truly gone, or I could let them take me to Hillcrest Children’s Receiving Home. I selected the latter option. I assumed I would be back on 43rd Street within a couple of days.

Instead, I spent several weeks at Hillcrest, watching as a parade of other kids checked in and out, either heading home or entering the foster care system. I lived in the moment, as kids do, and never entertained the thought that, at some point, I might be one of those children exiting into a new life. I still believed I was going home. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, my dad was busy signing me away. Some social workers spoke briefly with me, explaining something about custodial rights and signed waivers and new homes. It took a while before the full force of realization hit me: I was now a ward of the County of San Diego. 

The current struggles of the foster care system in Southern California are nothing new. I should have been an easy kid to place: a non-traumatized, good-natured pre-teen, benign and eager to please. Nevertheless, I bounced from house to house, mostly in East County, experiencing the full range of SoCal lifestyles. One family took me to a Billy Graham crusade at the stadium; another invited me to their daughter’s unofficial lesbian wedding. In the end, each of these families had one thing in common: they did not want to keep me.

In an act of desperation, the County sent me far from home to a town 45 minutes away from East San Diego, a place that had previously existed only on the evening weather reports: Carlsbad. Once there, I was a fish out of water in a village by the sea, an inner-city foster child more accustomed to gritty urban streets than manicured front lawns. There was, however, nothing gritty about Carlsbad. Grittiness would never have been tolerated by the doctors and lawyers who lived in the hills above town. Schoolyard behavior at Carlsbad High School was regulated through cliques and gossip, which might have upset me more had I not just moved from a place where the enforcement was more direct and physical. Carlsbad was what Main Street, Disneyland, would have looked like had Walt Disney been born in California in 1960. This time, my foster family chose to keep me — my foster mother, a psychologist, recognized that I badly needed a stable home — and I spent the next several years walking anonymously among the children of privilege.

One afternoon in 1978, my boyfriend (who would eventually become my husband) drove me back to East San Diego to visit one of my brothers. It was the first time I got to see my old neighborhood through the eyes — his eyes — of someone unfamiliar with the territory. The result was not flattering. At every stoplight, he surveyed the landscape for predators, as though we were the doomed gazelles on some cable nature show. He told me that when his family used to eat at Nicolosi’s, the venerable Italian bistro at 40th and El Cajon, they would always park under a streetlight. I was shocked. Did I grow up in the slums? I began to feel uneasy, wanting to come to the defense of my home turf, but also afraid that he would associate me with the people staggering out of the liquor stores. By the time we hit Fairmount on our way back to the freeway, even I felt a sense of relief, which troubled me even more.

Within a couple of years, I had moved with my husband to New York, beginning a journey that would take us through seven states and across five time zones.  When we returned to San Diego, we generally stayed downtown or with family in North County or El Cajon. We did make it to East San Diego on occasion, but usually only briefly, to pick someone up or drop someone off. Eventually, everyone we knew had moved out. My father, who ultimately sobered up, passed away in North Dakota, of all places. Meanwhile, the hollowing out of my East San Diego continued.  Pearson Ford decamped to Kearny Mesa. Nicolosi’s, driven from El Cajon Boulevard by an expansion of the 15 freeway, relocated multiple times before finally settling in the tonier environs of San Carlos. One of the local theaters became a church.

And now it’s 2019, at the very end of the Before Times, and we have arrived in this neighborhood in which I have never lived called City Heights to reconnect with a past with which I have still not fully reconciled. The sense of danger is gone, not so much because of the presence of yuppies — we still don’t see too many of those — but because our travels have taken us, without incident, through neighborhoods that many would describe as far sketchier. By contrast, if you find trouble in City Heights, it’s probably because you’re looking for it.

But there’s something more than that. The area has always been diverse, but now it pulsates with the energy of recent arrivals scrambling to stake a claim to success in their new country. Immigration has brought the streets of my childhood alive with a dazzling combination of vibrant cultures, thriving entrepreneurship, and excitement for the future. Pho cafes rub shoulders with taquerias and pizza parlors. Mom and pop grocery stores offer Asian and Latin American delicacies to customers eager for a taste of home. The battered American Dream somehow flourishes, out of sight of the cynics. Maybe it always has.

Even my own memories include a measure of sweet along with the bitter. The same house where I learned that my mother had died echoes with the sound of lively board games and singalongs and family dinners. The junior high school where I was tormented by girls twice my size is also the place where I met two lifelong friends. The streets with the winos were my streets, and I patrolled them with a sense of purpose. Bad things happen to every kid, and mine happened here, but so did almost everything fun and pleasant. My days were no worse, for the most part, than those of the kids in Carlsbad.

But they were different, different in ways that will never make sense to most of you. After departing Winona Avenue, I find myself drawn to one of the area’s more storied watering holes. It is a dive; it is meant to be a dive. And a little after 4:00 on this weekday afternoon, it serves two or three shadowy day-drinkers. It is dark and eerily quiet, and no Baptist has ever created a better advertisement for never touching an alcoholic beverage.

As odd as it may seem, some of my happiest moments as a child were spent in this dump. I have no clue what my father might have been trying to escape as we joined the early evening crowd all those years ago. But put a couple of drinks in him, and he transformed into Super Dad, ordering me sugary concoctions from the bar, handing me quarter after quarter to feed to the record machine, and sharing funny stories and corny jokes.  Quality time is where you find it, I guess. Alcoholism is never fun except when it is, and I savored those moments as other kids cherished their family camping trips.

Back into the sunlight. My husband and I spend a little more time driving down the boulevards, small roads, and back alleys. There isn’t much more to see, so I concentrate on the people. They aren’t the same people I grew up with, of course, but they are still familiar. People who work with their hands, often outside. But the sense of familiarity simultaneously highlights all of the differences, the things I cannot know or even understand about their lives and aspirations. This is their neighborhood now, and I am simply another out-of-state tourist with memories that mean nothing to them.

There was a time when I allowed myself to think of the people in this neighborhood as losers. How much ambition would it really take, I used to wonder, to just climb out, to move north or west, where the action was, where the money was? And the bars. I began to see each one as a destination for quitters, people who took a few to the jaw and then didn’t have the will to fight back. They opted instead to die a slow death, glass after glass, suicide disguised as recreation.

But now I realize how wrong I was.  And how my attitude was a betrayal, not only of East San Diego, but of myself. I am​ one of those people, even if I caught a few breaks along the way, — thanks, oddly enough, to the county foster care system. If they were losers, then so am I. Those people toughened me and reminded me that the good life is earned every day. They taught me that fate catches up with everyone and that you get through life the best way you can.

I lost my fear of the world in East San Diego.

I owe a lot to this neighborhood and its people. When I endured the county foster system, being ping-ponged from one family to the next, I drew on the lessons of my old neighborhood for sustenance. If I survived the tough girls at Wilson, I could surely handle the sting of rejection. When I finally earned my college degree at 26, it was because I learned to persevere in East San Diego. These streets instilled pride in me and yet reminded me not to spend too much time admiring myself in the mirror. My neighborhood knew me when I was just a drunkard’s daughter skating aimlessly through childhood.

We’re back on Interstate 8 now (Kumeyaay Highway, if you prefer), and it occurs to me that I may never again return to this place. Nor will I ever truly leave. But there really is no reason to come back to City Heights.

Because I never lived in City Heights. I grew up in East San Diego.

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