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San Diego Reader’s Best Of issue 2021

Joshua trees in Mission Beach, Ace Hardware in Hillcrest, the regulars at Liberty Tobacco, the unnecessity of Balboa Park, “We live on the edge of paradise”

Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change has gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth.
Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change has gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth.

Best Friend to Joshua Trees

Is there anything to be done about the plight of the Joshua tree? While state and federal agencies dither over whether the imperiled desert dweller deserves endangered species protections, one local architect has been advocating a more grassroots approach to preserving the iconic species: grow them ourselves.

Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change had gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth. “When they get older, they’re extremely durable,” says Craig, “But when they’re young, they’re completely different plants, and not durable at all.”

Place

Joshua Tree Plant Adoptions

1525 Fort Stockton Drive, San Diego

Technically, Joshua trees aren’t really trees, but members of the yucca family. It takes upwards of five years for the plants to resemble the crooked and spiky totems ingrained in the popular consciousness. Until that time, Joshua trees resemble small agaves, sprouting long, slender blades prone to drying or freezing under extreme conditions, or being devoured by the many rabbits populating the national park. Which means, despite a lifespan stretching 500, even a thousand years, scientific studies predict the park’s aging population will be wiped out before the end of this century. The extinction threat was only made more dire last year when a wildfire wiped out what had been the world’s largest Joshua Tree forest: an estimated 1.3 million trees covering Cima Dome in the Mojave National Preserve.

Even prior to that burn, several organizations were hard at work trying to replant Joshua Trees in friendlier habitats. But that’s not what Craig has set out to do, not at all. “People think that Joshua Tree is the ideal environment for them — that couldn’t be more wrong!” he tells me. “If you wanted to plant a couple of baby Joshua trees there, in about a week, they’d be gone. Maybe a day.” Instead, he believes the best way to save Joshua trees is by expanding their habitat: introducing them to less harsh environments outside the Mojave Desert — namely, people’s homes. And not just in the desert region.

Three years ago, he began buying seeds on eBay, and germinating them at his home in Mission Beach. “I saw an opportunity for some caring person to begin growing them,” he says. “So I looked at myself in the mirror and said, That person is me.” Today, Craig estimates he’s growing about three thousand baby Joshua Trees, a remarkable feat considering his tiny property is squeezed in among the alleys which are themselves squeezed into the narrow strip between boardwalk and bay. More impressive still is that the architect has shipped hundreds of baby Joshua trees via mail order to homes across the U.S., along with advice on how to nurture seedlings. (One key is to use well-draining soil to avoid devastating fungal growth; Craig starts them in a gravel and sand mixture.)

Mature Joshua Trees are virtually impossible to buy, and may cost thousands — if they can be found. However, six-month seedlings from Craig’s business — Joshua Tree Plant Adoptions — go for at $20 apiece, or $30 for more mature plants over one year old. With a little patience, a little persistence, and a little potted care, San Diego may be able to save what the eponymous National Park cannot.

— Ian Anderson

Best Place to Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It

San Diego’s best tobacconist is not to be confused with a contemporary “smoke shop.” Here you will find no bongs, no vape juice, and few customers under 30. Liberty Tobacco is a place for cigars, pipes, and the accoutrements that go with each. The shop’s bounty is tucked away modestly in the corner of a strip mall in Kearny Mesa. Like many charming spots in shopping center locations, this one’s insides manage to make up for the unprepossessing exterior — not in the form of aspirational luxury that some cigar places favor, but in a comfortable, cozy, worn-in way.

Place

Liberty Tobacco

7341 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego

Liberty has character: the couches and chairs are — like the tobacco — well-aged, books and magazines are available, and there is a self-serve Keurig. Walls and other surfaces are utterly crammed with antique tobacciana and photos. If you need the restroom, you’ll have to go out back, where you’ll find it under a sign letting you know that you’re entering Liberty’s Research and Development Department.

Liberty Tobacco is a place for cigars, pipes, and the accoutrements that go with each.

The atmosphere of the shop is kept lively by a large group of regulars, many of whom are known to one another and the employees. Even outside of the busy times, individuals and small groups can be found hanging out, both indoors and on the patio. Cigar guys make up the majority here, as they do in virtually all tobacconists today, but Liberty devotes a good deal of care to its pipe section, and the pipe devotee, that rarer breed of smoker, feels equally at home. On Sundays and Tuesdays, the shop also hosts the San Diego Pipe Club, for whom they have cleared out a seating space in the pipe section of the store. If a visitor to that section wants a sample of pipe tobacco, which used to be free, he just has to drop a coin into the sippy-top baby bottle to acknowledge the intrusion of the nanny state — something many at Liberty have strong feelings about. If the store’s name didn’t tip you off to this, spending time eavesdropping on conversations or noticing some of the stickers and old political campaign material might. Liberty’s owner, Charlie Hennegan, has long been active in sticking up politically for his industry and trying to fend off prohibitive regulation and taxing.

Liberty hosts occasional special events, is involved in a variety of community organizations, offers military discounts, and has a birthday club for which anyone can sign up. San Diego has nothing else quite like it. Except maybe the other Liberty Tobacco. I have been focussing so far on what I think of as the main store, but I should mention that Liberty has a second location in Del Mar’s Flower Hill Mall. It’s a different sort of space — smaller, newer, and cleaner. I’m sure it’s useful for those in North County; I see it as a helpful appendage to the mother store.

— David Kohanyi

Best Place to Do Something

There is a faction within my family that wants to move to Kansas City, for family reasons. There is another faction that wants to stay in San Diego, for San Diego reasons. When I’m feeling waggish, I will challenge the latter group: “Why do you care where you live? You can sit in your room and look at your phone anywhere, and it costs a lot less to do it in Missouri.” The other day, one of the group wagged back: “If I ever do decide to do something, it’ll be better — cooler — doing it in San Diego.” I like Kansas City, but I was willing to grant the point: “Touche, but don’t waste the opportunity.”

A homemade skate park of surprising quality — someone mortared cinder blocks, built forms, mixed and poured concrete, smoothed curves, and embedded metal trim to make the potential of the extant slab into the actuality of something cool.

When people hear that you live in San Diego, they tend to mention the weather. I think a big part of what they mean is that the weather doesn’t impinge on your doing stuff. (That’s certainly what my son thinks after four years of Midwestern collegiate winters.) The weather makes so many things possible. Aging Balboa Park booster that I am, I’ll run down the list with my phone-addled children: lawn bowling, dog park, archery range, golf course, etc. Hell, the Zoro Gardens Nudist Colony that caused such a stir at the 1935 International Exposition — actual peepholes in the fences! — required a certain climatological perfection in order to properly showcase its attractions.

But really, the park is unnecessary. I passed a butter yellow ‘70s Pontiac Grand Prix on the way to work yesterday, and thought, You can keep a car like that on the road forever here, if you’re so inclined. Also spotted on the way to work: a vacant lot with a neat hole clipped in the chain link fence. Inside, a homemade skate park of surprising quality — someone mortared cinder blocks, built forms, mixed and poured concrete, smoothed curves, and embedded metal trim to make the potential of the barren slab into the actuality of something cool — no matter how temporary. It reminds me that the space in which I’m writing this — the Carpenter’s Union Hall on Broadway, which houses the Reader office — once hosted punk shows with, ahem, questionable permitting. I know a guy who went to shows like that; he’s older now, with kids of his own. After his girls took over construction of the multi-level treehouse in his backyard, the boys dug out and reinforced a functional bunker. Because they could.

It takes a city of a certain size to support something like unauthorized punk show subculture. We have that. But there’s another way in which this is the world’s biggest small town, a connected series of neighborhoods wherein you can make your mark without having to suffer the pangs of celebrity. My godson has an artistic bent. A few years ago, he started making prints on clothing. Recently, he made his first sales at a Normal Heights street fair. Who knows but something may come of it? This paper was started by a guy working out of his Mission Beach apartment nearly 50 years ago. The point is, so much is possible here. The people featured in this issue know that, and so do the people who voted for them. I hope my kids figure it out — before they wind up in Kansas City.

— Matthew Lickona

Best Place to Go Nuts

Getting hardware has become weirdly difficult in 2021. Big-box home improvement stores either don’t have what I want, or they require me to buy a 300-pack for $79.87 when I only want one of whatever it is I need. This, in a nutshell, is why I remain fiercely loyal to Hillcrest Ace Hardware. It’s all I could want a hardware store to be.

Place

Hillcrest Ace Hardware

1003 University Avenue, San Diego

At the Hillcrest Ace, the neat little drawers of hardware contain what I want, in the quantity in which I want it. The people who work there are friendly and knowledgeable, and the phrase “Can I help you find something” is an invitation to competent assistance rather than an empty rhetorical gesture towards the appearance of customer service. They sell good tools in useful sizes, replacement toilet seats that actually fit most toilets, and home goods you really need. They have an absolutely killer selection of grilling and smoking equipment, and they keep all the good varieties of Traeger pellets on hand. For us dad types pushing middle age — at least those of us willing to embrace that stereotype — it’s basically heaven.

I remain fiercely loyal to Hillcrest Ace Hardware. It’s all I could want a hardware store to be.

When I was little, I loved going with my dad to the old hardware store (now long gone), where a clerk would extract bulk nails from big boxes using an ancient, wrought iron claw that looked like a medieval weapon. But what I loved most were the rows of little drawers containing equal parts hardware and mystery. I still remember my dad carefully filling a little paper bag with individual nuts, bolts, and washers from those perfectly organized hardware drawers. He would recite the contents of the bag to the clerk as a series of quantities and prices (expressed as a number of cents): “Four at six, four at ten, eight at twelve” etc. His recitation sounded vaguely talismanic.

These days, I am the dad with the talisman as I set my little bag of hardware on the counter at the Ace and tell the clerk “Two at twenty-seven and four at seventeen” etc. The price of bolts may have risen over the years, but in the out-of-time space of the hardware store, I still get that little-kid sense of mystery, and I want to rifle through drawers and explore shelves in search of something strange and cool.

Old-school retail may be dying, but the Hillcrest Ace embodies everything good about the in-person shopping experience. It’s also a part of the neighborhood, and it has weathered the changing times as well as anything else and better than most. But perhaps its most amazing trick is that it’s a serious hardware store with better, more useful inventory than the big boxes; and yet at the same time a friendly space where my wife, or anyone else who would rather go to the dentist than to a major hardware chain, would happily go, on her own, knowing that somebody will help her find what she needs without ripping her off or condescending to her. In the niche world of hardware stores, it truly stands above the rest.

— Ian Pike

Best Boards for Trodding

I moved to San Diego in 1995 to take a job with this paper, but my first visit to America’s Finest City came two years earlier, because of something I read in another paper, The Los Angeles Times. Theater Critic Emeritus Sylvie Drake had ventured south to San Diego and returned with a rave: “Staged by the [The Old] Globe’s artistic director, Jack O’Brien, with actor Hal Holbrook in the title role, this is the most rigorous and eloquent ‘Lear’ since ‘Ran,’ the Akira Kurosawa film based on Shakespeare’s play.” Great theater in that Navy town with the big zoo — who knew?

Place

Old Globe Theatre

1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego

Soon enough, I knew: I made a pilgrimage, and found Holbrook riveting as the ruined king. I will never forget the wild, white-haired sight of him, hand between legs, crumpling in on himself, spleening against womankind — “But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” — even as he turns his loathing upon himself. Almost as memorable: Master Jacques’ bellowed vow to cease dealing in truth, since it only ever brings misery, in La Jolla Playhouse’s 2005 production of Moliere’s The Miser. Or Robert Smyth as the leper priest Damien of Molokai at Lamb’s Players in Coronado, weighing the merits of his father’s financial ledger against those found in his mother’s book of saints. And on and on. This is a good city for theater, maybe a great one.

Hair is currently playing at the Old Globe

Or at least, it was. My review of LJP’s take on the Peter Pan story, Fly, was set to run as a cover story in March of 2020 when word came down that the production was pausing due to covid. We quickly pivoted to San Diego Rep’s House of Joy, but a day later, that too was paused. As the pandemic took hold and the city’s theaters went dark, I started wondering if they would ever open again. Who sustains theater? Older folks. Who’s most vulnerable to covid? Older folks. What are the odds they’re going to want to pay money to pack themselves into a room with each other anytime soon? Maybe ever again?

Hair

Happily, the feeling of security brought by the vaccine has allowed theaters to return to live performances. The Old Globe went with the hippie musical Hair, performed outdoors. It was a savvy choice: a show about those older folks in the audience before their own hair turned gray, back when they felt invincible, or at least wildly confident that they could bend the world to their will. They followed that with an original musical, The Gardens of Anuncia, this one performed indoors. La Jolla Playhouse premiered a garden-y show of its own, titled simply The Garden. Given those titles, here is a strong temptation to say something here about springtime after winter, about new life and regrowth. But maybe it’s enough to note that theater is a good thing, and a good thing about San Diego, and that San Diego has a chance, right now, to help make sure it stays that way.

— Matthew Lickona

Best Place to Take it All In

Cabrillo National Monument, on the tip of the Point Loma peninsula, has long been one of the most-visited National Monuments in the country. Even in the covid year of 2020, it came in at No. 5, according to 24/7 Wall Street, with the National Park Service reporting 523,878 visitors, not too far behind the Statue of Liberty (No. 3, with 576,396 visitors). Visitors come to see the spot where Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542, the first West Coast visit by a European.

At the very southern point of the monument, past the visitor center, past the huge statue of Cabrillo, and even past the historic Point Loma Lighthouse, is a gray bench that looks out over the water. Have a seat and enjoy the sweeping, majestic view, of a kind you won’t find anywhere else in San Diego. To your left is the downtown skyline, stunted by the Lindbergh Field flight path, but still stately and proud and an affirmation of San Diego’s somewhat reluctant status as a major city. And to your right, to your far, far right, is where the ocean flows into the bay, the two bodies of water separated by a mesmerizing imaginary line that practically begs to be stared at.

Have a seat and enjoy the sweeping, majestic view, of a kind you won’t find anywhere else in San Diego.

For a better perspective, cross over the rope barrier into the patch of dirt surrounded by Coastal Sage, Baccharis Broom, Cliff Spurge, and other native vegetation. On a partially overcast day, the imaginary line springs to life, with the deep blue waters of the bay on one side and the flatter, grayer surface of the ocean on the other. The waters are merely reflective of the sky, but no matter. Back when I was a kid in the early ‘60s, the only child of two German immigrants, there was another bench here, and it was a regular weekend destination for my dad and me. Most every warm Sunday morning, after church, my mom would pack us a pair of liverwurst sandwiches, thick with butter.

Place

Cabrillo National Monument

1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego

My dad and I would hop into his white 1956 Chevrolet sedan and we’d drive from our home on the very northern tip of Catalina Boulevard — the house was razed in 1991 to make room for a new Nimitz Boulevard offramp — to visit this very special place. We’d walk around the lighthouse, check out the old searchlight bunkers and gun batteries built by the military between the First and Second World Wars, take in a section of the old Nature Trail that hugged the western ridgetop, and then head to our bench to eat and gaze. Back then, you could drive along the narrow asphalt path that now wraps around the lighthouse and park alongside the curb. I don’t know if we parked where we did because of the bench, or if we settled on this bench because there was parking; nor do I remember what we talked about, or even if we talked about anything. About all I remember are those sandwiches, and my dad’s Mennen aftershave, and a much-smaller skyline, and that marvelous, magical imaginary line where the ocean flows into the bay.

— Thomas K. Arnold

Best Place to Find the Center

I was standing in a hilltop colonia in TJ, looking down at the effects of heavy flooding, and at how many homemade houses had slid in the mud after the latest rains. This house had fared better. It was built better. But the hillside still fell away abruptly. Tenuous.

“We live on the edge of paradise,” said the woman, Dolores, without irony. “I am lucky. I see a beautiful world. I have hope.”

And she was right. The clouds had parted to allow shafts of the setting sun to shine right at us, through the front window, and revealed a magic kingdom below. San Diego, Southern California. You could see down to far-off Point Loma, the shining waters beyond San Diego Bay, the backlit green trees of little Coronado island. “Paradise,” she said again. And as the sun lowered, and the light became more horizontal, the shafts rose to our level, and we were blinded by its rain-scrubbed purity. For a moment, it united San Diego and Tijuana in this flood of light. But then it was gone. It was suddenly cold.

“I am lucky. I see a beautiful world. I have hope.”

“Let me close that,” said Dolores, and tried to swing the window to vertical. But after the rains, the wood had swollen, and the frame stuck a couple of times. She finally jammed it closed.

Cut to Coronado beach. Another sunset. “She wanted to take her life,” says my friend Joe. We’re talking about a local girl we know. “She said she stood here on the beach for the longest time, looking for a sign, something to tell her it was worth going on. And then the damndest thing happened. A light started flashing from the hills of TJ. Obviously the sun reflecting back from some window, but she took it as a signal from the gods. They were telling her not to leave the universe. Can you believe it? A signal of hope from TJ!”

Which gets me to thinking. This whole area is special. This is Aztlan! It is the heartland of the mighty Aztec peoples. It’s where — for what it’s worth — that crazy-brilliant French-American, Jacques Istel, Father of American skydiving, decided the Center of the Earth was situated. So he built a desert town he called Felicity, population 2 (Jacques and his wife Felicia), 164 miles east of here.

More evidence this place is special? Remember the great diaspora of Northern Europeans, people like the Puritans, who sailed west across the North Atlantic in the 1600s? And another great blob of humanity that headed out from Southern Europe to South America? Those two great peoples spread to the west coasts, then bulged north and south and met in — drum roll please! SD-TJ! This where North and South America meet! It’s the busiest border crossing in the world for a reason. Not just because one of the energy centers of the world is supposed to be our Mt. Kuuchamaa, or Tecate Peak, but also because it just feels like people who end up here are a kind of living inflection point of the Americas. I believe Dolores. We’re on the edge of paradise. We could be in its center, if we play our cards right.

— Bill Manson

Best Place to Decompress After Seeking Justice

Justin Brooks might be the busiest man in San Diego. When I release him from the waiting room of our 11 am Zoom meeting, I find him multitasking. He is on another call. He shoots me an apologetic smile and wraps it up. I imagine that every second of his day is scheduled. Brooks is not the type to binge watch Squid Game in one sitting, or to sit around on a Sunday watching football. He probably doesn’t even own a TV. He is too busy changing the world.

While most people laid low during the pandemic, Justin Brooks, founder and director of the California Innocence Project, assisted in freeing four wrongfully convicted people from prison.

While most people laid low during the pandemic, Brooks, founder and director of the California Innocence Project, assisted in freeing four wrongfully convicted people from prison. His office helped pass a law to change the new evidence standard in California. He hosted multiple daily Zoom classes for law students in Mexico who were participating in the Mexican National Moot Court Team (developed and coached by Brooks), helped form a dozen or so Innocence Projects around the world, spoke to international change makers, and taught several classes, adding a new course to his roster: Intro to Law at the Western School of Law. “I have not taught that class in seven or eight years.” says Brooks. “I [teach] the cynical and jaded third-years who sit there, say nothing, and hope not to get called on. When you get them in the beginning of law school, their hands are up and they are excited. I missed that energy.”

As Brooks explains his latest projects, I get exhausted listening to him. “I think this is the busiest time in my life,” he explains in his matter-of-fact, east-coast-accented way. His Zoom screen Background is a California Innocence Project banner. He wears a navy-blue t-shirt that contrasts with his gray hair. While I cannot see the logo on it, I am certain it belongs to the CIP.

“In a way, covid helped [The California Innocence Project],” he continues. “It put a lot of pressure on the system. Its effect in prisons was devastating. I saw a stat that every single resident of San Quentin got covid! Every single person!” Brooks repeats the stat, shaking his head and pausing to let it fully sink in before continuing, “They needed to decrease the [prison] population. That created an opening for these innocence cases we’ve been screaming about for years. We got a bunch of people out. Many were cases we had worked on forever. That has been great!”

In 2022, Brooks plans to slow down. He is taking a nine-month sabbatical. Luckily for the wrongly convicted, his version of taking a break is not really a break. “I am traveling in India. I will give some lectures there and talk to people about innocence work. I am going to go to Japan. They have two projects there that are underway. I just started writing the first draft of a book titled You Might Go to Prison. I am going to hopefully finish that book. I have a couple of articles I am writing. I am thinking about starting some sort of immigrant services clinic here in San Diego to deal with what is going on at the border, to be part of that solution. I don’t know exactly what form it is going to take. I want to take some time thinking about that and getting involved.”

I don’t want to keep him much longer. He has more important things to do. But before ending our Zoom chat, I ask, “How do you stay sane and do this work?” Without hesitation Brooks answers, “One of the reasons I have been able to do this type of work for as long as I have is that every day, I come home to Ocean Beach, put my shorts on, and go for a walk and kind of decompress. San Diego is just a good place to live.”

— Siobhan Braun

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San Diego roads that have disappeared, vanished movie palaces

The 1972 ITT scandal covered up, Roscoe Hazard's photos of hangings, Kevin Starr sanitizes San Diego history, the sad fig tree on Grape Street
Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change has gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth.
Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change has gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth.

Best Friend to Joshua Trees

Is there anything to be done about the plight of the Joshua tree? While state and federal agencies dither over whether the imperiled desert dweller deserves endangered species protections, one local architect has been advocating a more grassroots approach to preserving the iconic species: grow them ourselves.

Bob Craig was visiting a friend near Joshua Tree National Park when he learned that climate change had gradually made the plants’ Mojave Desert home inhospitable to new growth. “When they get older, they’re extremely durable,” says Craig, “But when they’re young, they’re completely different plants, and not durable at all.”

Place

Joshua Tree Plant Adoptions

1525 Fort Stockton Drive, San Diego

Technically, Joshua trees aren’t really trees, but members of the yucca family. It takes upwards of five years for the plants to resemble the crooked and spiky totems ingrained in the popular consciousness. Until that time, Joshua trees resemble small agaves, sprouting long, slender blades prone to drying or freezing under extreme conditions, or being devoured by the many rabbits populating the national park. Which means, despite a lifespan stretching 500, even a thousand years, scientific studies predict the park’s aging population will be wiped out before the end of this century. The extinction threat was only made more dire last year when a wildfire wiped out what had been the world’s largest Joshua Tree forest: an estimated 1.3 million trees covering Cima Dome in the Mojave National Preserve.

Even prior to that burn, several organizations were hard at work trying to replant Joshua Trees in friendlier habitats. But that’s not what Craig has set out to do, not at all. “People think that Joshua Tree is the ideal environment for them — that couldn’t be more wrong!” he tells me. “If you wanted to plant a couple of baby Joshua trees there, in about a week, they’d be gone. Maybe a day.” Instead, he believes the best way to save Joshua trees is by expanding their habitat: introducing them to less harsh environments outside the Mojave Desert — namely, people’s homes. And not just in the desert region.

Three years ago, he began buying seeds on eBay, and germinating them at his home in Mission Beach. “I saw an opportunity for some caring person to begin growing them,” he says. “So I looked at myself in the mirror and said, That person is me.” Today, Craig estimates he’s growing about three thousand baby Joshua Trees, a remarkable feat considering his tiny property is squeezed in among the alleys which are themselves squeezed into the narrow strip between boardwalk and bay. More impressive still is that the architect has shipped hundreds of baby Joshua trees via mail order to homes across the U.S., along with advice on how to nurture seedlings. (One key is to use well-draining soil to avoid devastating fungal growth; Craig starts them in a gravel and sand mixture.)

Mature Joshua Trees are virtually impossible to buy, and may cost thousands — if they can be found. However, six-month seedlings from Craig’s business — Joshua Tree Plant Adoptions — go for at $20 apiece, or $30 for more mature plants over one year old. With a little patience, a little persistence, and a little potted care, San Diego may be able to save what the eponymous National Park cannot.

— Ian Anderson

Best Place to Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It

San Diego’s best tobacconist is not to be confused with a contemporary “smoke shop.” Here you will find no bongs, no vape juice, and few customers under 30. Liberty Tobacco is a place for cigars, pipes, and the accoutrements that go with each. The shop’s bounty is tucked away modestly in the corner of a strip mall in Kearny Mesa. Like many charming spots in shopping center locations, this one’s insides manage to make up for the unprepossessing exterior — not in the form of aspirational luxury that some cigar places favor, but in a comfortable, cozy, worn-in way.

Place

Liberty Tobacco

7341 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego

Liberty has character: the couches and chairs are — like the tobacco — well-aged, books and magazines are available, and there is a self-serve Keurig. Walls and other surfaces are utterly crammed with antique tobacciana and photos. If you need the restroom, you’ll have to go out back, where you’ll find it under a sign letting you know that you’re entering Liberty’s Research and Development Department.

Liberty Tobacco is a place for cigars, pipes, and the accoutrements that go with each.

The atmosphere of the shop is kept lively by a large group of regulars, many of whom are known to one another and the employees. Even outside of the busy times, individuals and small groups can be found hanging out, both indoors and on the patio. Cigar guys make up the majority here, as they do in virtually all tobacconists today, but Liberty devotes a good deal of care to its pipe section, and the pipe devotee, that rarer breed of smoker, feels equally at home. On Sundays and Tuesdays, the shop also hosts the San Diego Pipe Club, for whom they have cleared out a seating space in the pipe section of the store. If a visitor to that section wants a sample of pipe tobacco, which used to be free, he just has to drop a coin into the sippy-top baby bottle to acknowledge the intrusion of the nanny state — something many at Liberty have strong feelings about. If the store’s name didn’t tip you off to this, spending time eavesdropping on conversations or noticing some of the stickers and old political campaign material might. Liberty’s owner, Charlie Hennegan, has long been active in sticking up politically for his industry and trying to fend off prohibitive regulation and taxing.

Liberty hosts occasional special events, is involved in a variety of community organizations, offers military discounts, and has a birthday club for which anyone can sign up. San Diego has nothing else quite like it. Except maybe the other Liberty Tobacco. I have been focussing so far on what I think of as the main store, but I should mention that Liberty has a second location in Del Mar’s Flower Hill Mall. It’s a different sort of space — smaller, newer, and cleaner. I’m sure it’s useful for those in North County; I see it as a helpful appendage to the mother store.

— David Kohanyi

Best Place to Do Something

There is a faction within my family that wants to move to Kansas City, for family reasons. There is another faction that wants to stay in San Diego, for San Diego reasons. When I’m feeling waggish, I will challenge the latter group: “Why do you care where you live? You can sit in your room and look at your phone anywhere, and it costs a lot less to do it in Missouri.” The other day, one of the group wagged back: “If I ever do decide to do something, it’ll be better — cooler — doing it in San Diego.” I like Kansas City, but I was willing to grant the point: “Touche, but don’t waste the opportunity.”

A homemade skate park of surprising quality — someone mortared cinder blocks, built forms, mixed and poured concrete, smoothed curves, and embedded metal trim to make the potential of the extant slab into the actuality of something cool.

When people hear that you live in San Diego, they tend to mention the weather. I think a big part of what they mean is that the weather doesn’t impinge on your doing stuff. (That’s certainly what my son thinks after four years of Midwestern collegiate winters.) The weather makes so many things possible. Aging Balboa Park booster that I am, I’ll run down the list with my phone-addled children: lawn bowling, dog park, archery range, golf course, etc. Hell, the Zoro Gardens Nudist Colony that caused such a stir at the 1935 International Exposition — actual peepholes in the fences! — required a certain climatological perfection in order to properly showcase its attractions.

But really, the park is unnecessary. I passed a butter yellow ‘70s Pontiac Grand Prix on the way to work yesterday, and thought, You can keep a car like that on the road forever here, if you’re so inclined. Also spotted on the way to work: a vacant lot with a neat hole clipped in the chain link fence. Inside, a homemade skate park of surprising quality — someone mortared cinder blocks, built forms, mixed and poured concrete, smoothed curves, and embedded metal trim to make the potential of the barren slab into the actuality of something cool — no matter how temporary. It reminds me that the space in which I’m writing this — the Carpenter’s Union Hall on Broadway, which houses the Reader office — once hosted punk shows with, ahem, questionable permitting. I know a guy who went to shows like that; he’s older now, with kids of his own. After his girls took over construction of the multi-level treehouse in his backyard, the boys dug out and reinforced a functional bunker. Because they could.

It takes a city of a certain size to support something like unauthorized punk show subculture. We have that. But there’s another way in which this is the world’s biggest small town, a connected series of neighborhoods wherein you can make your mark without having to suffer the pangs of celebrity. My godson has an artistic bent. A few years ago, he started making prints on clothing. Recently, he made his first sales at a Normal Heights street fair. Who knows but something may come of it? This paper was started by a guy working out of his Mission Beach apartment nearly 50 years ago. The point is, so much is possible here. The people featured in this issue know that, and so do the people who voted for them. I hope my kids figure it out — before they wind up in Kansas City.

— Matthew Lickona

Best Place to Go Nuts

Getting hardware has become weirdly difficult in 2021. Big-box home improvement stores either don’t have what I want, or they require me to buy a 300-pack for $79.87 when I only want one of whatever it is I need. This, in a nutshell, is why I remain fiercely loyal to Hillcrest Ace Hardware. It’s all I could want a hardware store to be.

Place

Hillcrest Ace Hardware

1003 University Avenue, San Diego

At the Hillcrest Ace, the neat little drawers of hardware contain what I want, in the quantity in which I want it. The people who work there are friendly and knowledgeable, and the phrase “Can I help you find something” is an invitation to competent assistance rather than an empty rhetorical gesture towards the appearance of customer service. They sell good tools in useful sizes, replacement toilet seats that actually fit most toilets, and home goods you really need. They have an absolutely killer selection of grilling and smoking equipment, and they keep all the good varieties of Traeger pellets on hand. For us dad types pushing middle age — at least those of us willing to embrace that stereotype — it’s basically heaven.

I remain fiercely loyal to Hillcrest Ace Hardware. It’s all I could want a hardware store to be.

When I was little, I loved going with my dad to the old hardware store (now long gone), where a clerk would extract bulk nails from big boxes using an ancient, wrought iron claw that looked like a medieval weapon. But what I loved most were the rows of little drawers containing equal parts hardware and mystery. I still remember my dad carefully filling a little paper bag with individual nuts, bolts, and washers from those perfectly organized hardware drawers. He would recite the contents of the bag to the clerk as a series of quantities and prices (expressed as a number of cents): “Four at six, four at ten, eight at twelve” etc. His recitation sounded vaguely talismanic.

These days, I am the dad with the talisman as I set my little bag of hardware on the counter at the Ace and tell the clerk “Two at twenty-seven and four at seventeen” etc. The price of bolts may have risen over the years, but in the out-of-time space of the hardware store, I still get that little-kid sense of mystery, and I want to rifle through drawers and explore shelves in search of something strange and cool.

Old-school retail may be dying, but the Hillcrest Ace embodies everything good about the in-person shopping experience. It’s also a part of the neighborhood, and it has weathered the changing times as well as anything else and better than most. But perhaps its most amazing trick is that it’s a serious hardware store with better, more useful inventory than the big boxes; and yet at the same time a friendly space where my wife, or anyone else who would rather go to the dentist than to a major hardware chain, would happily go, on her own, knowing that somebody will help her find what she needs without ripping her off or condescending to her. In the niche world of hardware stores, it truly stands above the rest.

— Ian Pike

Best Boards for Trodding

I moved to San Diego in 1995 to take a job with this paper, but my first visit to America’s Finest City came two years earlier, because of something I read in another paper, The Los Angeles Times. Theater Critic Emeritus Sylvie Drake had ventured south to San Diego and returned with a rave: “Staged by the [The Old] Globe’s artistic director, Jack O’Brien, with actor Hal Holbrook in the title role, this is the most rigorous and eloquent ‘Lear’ since ‘Ran,’ the Akira Kurosawa film based on Shakespeare’s play.” Great theater in that Navy town with the big zoo — who knew?

Place

Old Globe Theatre

1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego

Soon enough, I knew: I made a pilgrimage, and found Holbrook riveting as the ruined king. I will never forget the wild, white-haired sight of him, hand between legs, crumpling in on himself, spleening against womankind — “But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” — even as he turns his loathing upon himself. Almost as memorable: Master Jacques’ bellowed vow to cease dealing in truth, since it only ever brings misery, in La Jolla Playhouse’s 2005 production of Moliere’s The Miser. Or Robert Smyth as the leper priest Damien of Molokai at Lamb’s Players in Coronado, weighing the merits of his father’s financial ledger against those found in his mother’s book of saints. And on and on. This is a good city for theater, maybe a great one.

Hair is currently playing at the Old Globe

Or at least, it was. My review of LJP’s take on the Peter Pan story, Fly, was set to run as a cover story in March of 2020 when word came down that the production was pausing due to covid. We quickly pivoted to San Diego Rep’s House of Joy, but a day later, that too was paused. As the pandemic took hold and the city’s theaters went dark, I started wondering if they would ever open again. Who sustains theater? Older folks. Who’s most vulnerable to covid? Older folks. What are the odds they’re going to want to pay money to pack themselves into a room with each other anytime soon? Maybe ever again?

Hair

Happily, the feeling of security brought by the vaccine has allowed theaters to return to live performances. The Old Globe went with the hippie musical Hair, performed outdoors. It was a savvy choice: a show about those older folks in the audience before their own hair turned gray, back when they felt invincible, or at least wildly confident that they could bend the world to their will. They followed that with an original musical, The Gardens of Anuncia, this one performed indoors. La Jolla Playhouse premiered a garden-y show of its own, titled simply The Garden. Given those titles, here is a strong temptation to say something here about springtime after winter, about new life and regrowth. But maybe it’s enough to note that theater is a good thing, and a good thing about San Diego, and that San Diego has a chance, right now, to help make sure it stays that way.

— Matthew Lickona

Best Place to Take it All In

Cabrillo National Monument, on the tip of the Point Loma peninsula, has long been one of the most-visited National Monuments in the country. Even in the covid year of 2020, it came in at No. 5, according to 24/7 Wall Street, with the National Park Service reporting 523,878 visitors, not too far behind the Statue of Liberty (No. 3, with 576,396 visitors). Visitors come to see the spot where Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542, the first West Coast visit by a European.

At the very southern point of the monument, past the visitor center, past the huge statue of Cabrillo, and even past the historic Point Loma Lighthouse, is a gray bench that looks out over the water. Have a seat and enjoy the sweeping, majestic view, of a kind you won’t find anywhere else in San Diego. To your left is the downtown skyline, stunted by the Lindbergh Field flight path, but still stately and proud and an affirmation of San Diego’s somewhat reluctant status as a major city. And to your right, to your far, far right, is where the ocean flows into the bay, the two bodies of water separated by a mesmerizing imaginary line that practically begs to be stared at.

Have a seat and enjoy the sweeping, majestic view, of a kind you won’t find anywhere else in San Diego.

For a better perspective, cross over the rope barrier into the patch of dirt surrounded by Coastal Sage, Baccharis Broom, Cliff Spurge, and other native vegetation. On a partially overcast day, the imaginary line springs to life, with the deep blue waters of the bay on one side and the flatter, grayer surface of the ocean on the other. The waters are merely reflective of the sky, but no matter. Back when I was a kid in the early ‘60s, the only child of two German immigrants, there was another bench here, and it was a regular weekend destination for my dad and me. Most every warm Sunday morning, after church, my mom would pack us a pair of liverwurst sandwiches, thick with butter.

Place

Cabrillo National Monument

1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego

My dad and I would hop into his white 1956 Chevrolet sedan and we’d drive from our home on the very northern tip of Catalina Boulevard — the house was razed in 1991 to make room for a new Nimitz Boulevard offramp — to visit this very special place. We’d walk around the lighthouse, check out the old searchlight bunkers and gun batteries built by the military between the First and Second World Wars, take in a section of the old Nature Trail that hugged the western ridgetop, and then head to our bench to eat and gaze. Back then, you could drive along the narrow asphalt path that now wraps around the lighthouse and park alongside the curb. I don’t know if we parked where we did because of the bench, or if we settled on this bench because there was parking; nor do I remember what we talked about, or even if we talked about anything. About all I remember are those sandwiches, and my dad’s Mennen aftershave, and a much-smaller skyline, and that marvelous, magical imaginary line where the ocean flows into the bay.

— Thomas K. Arnold

Best Place to Find the Center

I was standing in a hilltop colonia in TJ, looking down at the effects of heavy flooding, and at how many homemade houses had slid in the mud after the latest rains. This house had fared better. It was built better. But the hillside still fell away abruptly. Tenuous.

“We live on the edge of paradise,” said the woman, Dolores, without irony. “I am lucky. I see a beautiful world. I have hope.”

And she was right. The clouds had parted to allow shafts of the setting sun to shine right at us, through the front window, and revealed a magic kingdom below. San Diego, Southern California. You could see down to far-off Point Loma, the shining waters beyond San Diego Bay, the backlit green trees of little Coronado island. “Paradise,” she said again. And as the sun lowered, and the light became more horizontal, the shafts rose to our level, and we were blinded by its rain-scrubbed purity. For a moment, it united San Diego and Tijuana in this flood of light. But then it was gone. It was suddenly cold.

“I am lucky. I see a beautiful world. I have hope.”

“Let me close that,” said Dolores, and tried to swing the window to vertical. But after the rains, the wood had swollen, and the frame stuck a couple of times. She finally jammed it closed.

Cut to Coronado beach. Another sunset. “She wanted to take her life,” says my friend Joe. We’re talking about a local girl we know. “She said she stood here on the beach for the longest time, looking for a sign, something to tell her it was worth going on. And then the damndest thing happened. A light started flashing from the hills of TJ. Obviously the sun reflecting back from some window, but she took it as a signal from the gods. They were telling her not to leave the universe. Can you believe it? A signal of hope from TJ!”

Which gets me to thinking. This whole area is special. This is Aztlan! It is the heartland of the mighty Aztec peoples. It’s where — for what it’s worth — that crazy-brilliant French-American, Jacques Istel, Father of American skydiving, decided the Center of the Earth was situated. So he built a desert town he called Felicity, population 2 (Jacques and his wife Felicia), 164 miles east of here.

More evidence this place is special? Remember the great diaspora of Northern Europeans, people like the Puritans, who sailed west across the North Atlantic in the 1600s? And another great blob of humanity that headed out from Southern Europe to South America? Those two great peoples spread to the west coasts, then bulged north and south and met in — drum roll please! SD-TJ! This where North and South America meet! It’s the busiest border crossing in the world for a reason. Not just because one of the energy centers of the world is supposed to be our Mt. Kuuchamaa, or Tecate Peak, but also because it just feels like people who end up here are a kind of living inflection point of the Americas. I believe Dolores. We’re on the edge of paradise. We could be in its center, if we play our cards right.

— Bill Manson

Best Place to Decompress After Seeking Justice

Justin Brooks might be the busiest man in San Diego. When I release him from the waiting room of our 11 am Zoom meeting, I find him multitasking. He is on another call. He shoots me an apologetic smile and wraps it up. I imagine that every second of his day is scheduled. Brooks is not the type to binge watch Squid Game in one sitting, or to sit around on a Sunday watching football. He probably doesn’t even own a TV. He is too busy changing the world.

While most people laid low during the pandemic, Justin Brooks, founder and director of the California Innocence Project, assisted in freeing four wrongfully convicted people from prison.

While most people laid low during the pandemic, Brooks, founder and director of the California Innocence Project, assisted in freeing four wrongfully convicted people from prison. His office helped pass a law to change the new evidence standard in California. He hosted multiple daily Zoom classes for law students in Mexico who were participating in the Mexican National Moot Court Team (developed and coached by Brooks), helped form a dozen or so Innocence Projects around the world, spoke to international change makers, and taught several classes, adding a new course to his roster: Intro to Law at the Western School of Law. “I have not taught that class in seven or eight years.” says Brooks. “I [teach] the cynical and jaded third-years who sit there, say nothing, and hope not to get called on. When you get them in the beginning of law school, their hands are up and they are excited. I missed that energy.”

As Brooks explains his latest projects, I get exhausted listening to him. “I think this is the busiest time in my life,” he explains in his matter-of-fact, east-coast-accented way. His Zoom screen Background is a California Innocence Project banner. He wears a navy-blue t-shirt that contrasts with his gray hair. While I cannot see the logo on it, I am certain it belongs to the CIP.

“In a way, covid helped [The California Innocence Project],” he continues. “It put a lot of pressure on the system. Its effect in prisons was devastating. I saw a stat that every single resident of San Quentin got covid! Every single person!” Brooks repeats the stat, shaking his head and pausing to let it fully sink in before continuing, “They needed to decrease the [prison] population. That created an opening for these innocence cases we’ve been screaming about for years. We got a bunch of people out. Many were cases we had worked on forever. That has been great!”

In 2022, Brooks plans to slow down. He is taking a nine-month sabbatical. Luckily for the wrongly convicted, his version of taking a break is not really a break. “I am traveling in India. I will give some lectures there and talk to people about innocence work. I am going to go to Japan. They have two projects there that are underway. I just started writing the first draft of a book titled You Might Go to Prison. I am going to hopefully finish that book. I have a couple of articles I am writing. I am thinking about starting some sort of immigrant services clinic here in San Diego to deal with what is going on at the border, to be part of that solution. I don’t know exactly what form it is going to take. I want to take some time thinking about that and getting involved.”

I don’t want to keep him much longer. He has more important things to do. But before ending our Zoom chat, I ask, “How do you stay sane and do this work?” Without hesitation Brooks answers, “One of the reasons I have been able to do this type of work for as long as I have is that every day, I come home to Ocean Beach, put my shorts on, and go for a walk and kind of decompress. San Diego is just a good place to live.”

— Siobhan Braun

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