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Normal Heights transplants

The couple next door were next: a thick stack of no-fault eviction papers were left taped to their door.

Portrait of cat with date palm in background, pre-beetle.
Portrait of cat with date palm in background, pre-beetle.
Video:

The couple next door were next: a thick stack of no-fault eviction papers were left taped to their door.


I moved to San Diego after college almost seven years ago. Originally, I’m from northern Georgia, where I grew up in a double-wide trailer on three acres of land. I drove a big, orange lawnmower over the grass dozens of times. My parents never thought twice about having their daughter do the yard work…

Julie B. Anthony

Where I’m from, it rains continuously. The trees soak up every bit of water and grow so densely that you never see distant views, only pine trees and maples crowding the landscapes.

Now I spend most days in a dimly lit cubicle at a biotech company. I rarely get to enjoy the weather that is promised to transplants arriving in San Diego. But sometimes, I catch the smell of fresh cut grass outside my neighborhood, and it takes me back to Georgia.

I moved to Normal Heights in early 2021 when the pandemic was at its height. It was the first time I had signed a lease on my own. If you’re not familiar with Normal Heights, I’ll paint a picture for you. The neighborhood sits high on a hill and is surrounded by highways and bridges. Here, the houses don’t match, the buildings are old, and there are bodegas every few blocks that sell liquor and Hot Fries. Some yards are manicured while others have overflowing weeds that cover fence posts.

Normal Heights is an amalgamation of people at different stages in life. The college kids who couldn’t afford to live closer to campus. The baby boomers who bought a house in the ’90s and are staying put. The transplants, like myself, who needed somewhere affordable to live.

I’ve lived alone these last three years. Most days, I sit down at my small wooden table that is pressed up against a window with a view of the neighboring houses and apartments below. When I moved in, there was a palm tree across the street with a thick trunk and fronds that stuck out in a symmetrical halo. The tree reached higher than the two-story buildings surrounding it, so that I could see the fronds pressed up against the skyline. I watched as the wind sent ripples through the palm fronds, each one waving in turn. To many transplants, the palm tree embodies the idea of California. Having a view of one outside my window felt significant.

But one summer, there was a big thunderstorm, and afterwards, the fronds of the palm tree began to wilt. The foliage suddenly had a part in the middle, like someone had combed the leaves to one side. Each day, the fronds lost more of their color. They started dropping to the ground, until there was nothing left but the trunk. The tree still stood tall after all of its foliage was lost. I wondered if at some point, the trunk would fall over too.

A few months later, I noticed a vine crawling up one side of the tree. The vine grew and stretched for several weeks until it wrapped around the entire column. It climbed to the top of the tree trunk and continued reaching out in all directions. The vine cloaked the tree so that you could no longer see the deep brown trunk beneath. Broad, almond-shaped leaves the color of lime growing from thin spindly tendrils. Summer came, and lovely red flowers started bursting out from the vine. If you hadn’t seen the progression, you might think the tree itself was blooming.

* * *

When I first moved to Normal Heights, I was excited. My friend lived in the apartment below me and there were bars we could walk to. The price was right, and I signed the lease within 24 hours of seeing the unit. But when I actually moved in and slept there overnight, I started to have doubts about the neighborhood. I didn’t know about the unhoused people who called the banks off the highway their home. The first few nights, I feared someone might break in. I could hear loud banging sounds outside my apartment window. My mind immediately conjured images of gunshots fired from farther down El Cajon Boulevard.

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I parked in an alley behind the building. I met countless unhoused people there. They could be found sleeping in my parking space or digging through the dumpsters. Getting home after dark meant walking through this alley alone without much light, unlocking the gate, and checking around for someone in the shadows. But I was determined to stay in this part of town. There was nowhere else I could pay this price for a one-bedroom. I would make this place my home.

In the daytime, I walked. I crossed the bridge over the 15 into Kensington, where I found a beautiful neighborhood full of jacaranda trees and jasmine bushes. Sometimes, I’d walk west as far as Park Boulevard, past a park with a view into Mission Valley. At night, I brought the people I loved to my neighborhood. We watched the sunset from the rooftop at Ska Bar before it closed down, and we drank champagne on New Year’s at the Rabbit Hole. We grabbed chai lattes at Dark Horse before walking down Adams Avenue, where we’d stop for breakfast at Jyoti-Bihanga or thrift at HomeStart.

Over time, I got used to sharing my alley with the unhoused people. I thanked them as they held open the dumpster lid for me and I threw my trash in. One day, I realized that the loud banging sound was happening every night at 7:55 pm. It wasn’t gunfire after all. From my hilltop perch, the SeaWorld fireworks could be heard, miles away.

My neighbors watched out for me. Checked on me from time to time. In our building, there are 18 units that face each other across a small courtyard. One neighbor who lived across from my balcony had called this her home for 35 years. She kept to herself, and always wore her hair in a neat bun. The couple next door to me lived here for over 30 years. I smelled their food cooking: the aroma of warm tortillas filling the air as I crossed the courtyard. Laughter rang through their screen door as I walked up our shared set of stairs.

Living alone wasn’t so scary anymore. I felt safe. I forgot there was ever a time when I thought moving here was a mistake. Soon, I felt proud to call Normal Heights my home, like it was a badge I’d earned.

I put in a lot of work to make this place a home, but then I found out the building was being renovated, and soon the tenants would be evicted. The first to receive notice was a lady across the courtyard. She tried to fight back and refused to leave her apartment, but she was ultimately forced out. The couple next door were next: a thick stack of no-fault eviction papers were left taped to their door. Sixty days’ notice to move out.

Those neighbors had raised their children here and called it home, but last fall, I watched as they carried their lives out in trash bags and Home Depot boxes. Now, the remaining tenants watch as plants disappear from balconies and cars stop returning to their parking spaces. Now, as I walk through the courtyard, I see gutted apartments, hollowed out by contractors who pull every last bit of the past from the walls. My unit is coming up. The apartment I live in now will double in rent once it’s renovated, and I won’t be able to afford it.

* * *

For years, I assumed that a summer storm took down the palm tree. But recently, a friend told me about the palm beetle. An invasive pest that has descended San Diego County in recent years. The beetle lays its eggs in the crown of date palms, and their larvae hollow out the tree’s trunk. Eventually, the palm’s leaves wilt and drop to the ground. The tree outside my window was likely one of these date palms. A non-native species of palm from the Canary Islands, taken down by an invasive insect from South America. The vine that grew and wrapped around the decaying trunk was not from San Diego either, but a species of trumpet vine from the eastern United States.

Everything involved, including the tree itself, was a transplant, just looking for an opportunity to root and grow. Always trying to play catch-up. Competing with others looking for the same real estate. As of last summer, San Diego was rated the most expensive place to live in the U.S. For most of us, the idea of purchasing a home is almost out of the question. We must rent and save and rent and save, so that maybe one day we’ll catch a break and make this our permanent residence.

When I leave this apartment, they will tear down everything that is inside, leaving a hollow shell. The contractors will rip out the drywall where I hung pictures of my siblings and my grandmother. They will pull apart the built-in bookshelf where I displayed my most loved books. If I were to hide a note, hidden behind a baseboard somewhere, that would disappear too.

Soon, my apartment will be filled with hardwood floors and stainless-steel appliances. I will be living somewhere else. Taking root in some other place. And I wonder, who will be the one looking through my dining room window next year?

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Portrait of cat with date palm in background, pre-beetle.
Portrait of cat with date palm in background, pre-beetle.
Video:

The couple next door were next: a thick stack of no-fault eviction papers were left taped to their door.


I moved to San Diego after college almost seven years ago. Originally, I’m from northern Georgia, where I grew up in a double-wide trailer on three acres of land. I drove a big, orange lawnmower over the grass dozens of times. My parents never thought twice about having their daughter do the yard work…

Julie B. Anthony

Where I’m from, it rains continuously. The trees soak up every bit of water and grow so densely that you never see distant views, only pine trees and maples crowding the landscapes.

Now I spend most days in a dimly lit cubicle at a biotech company. I rarely get to enjoy the weather that is promised to transplants arriving in San Diego. But sometimes, I catch the smell of fresh cut grass outside my neighborhood, and it takes me back to Georgia.

I moved to Normal Heights in early 2021 when the pandemic was at its height. It was the first time I had signed a lease on my own. If you’re not familiar with Normal Heights, I’ll paint a picture for you. The neighborhood sits high on a hill and is surrounded by highways and bridges. Here, the houses don’t match, the buildings are old, and there are bodegas every few blocks that sell liquor and Hot Fries. Some yards are manicured while others have overflowing weeds that cover fence posts.

Normal Heights is an amalgamation of people at different stages in life. The college kids who couldn’t afford to live closer to campus. The baby boomers who bought a house in the ’90s and are staying put. The transplants, like myself, who needed somewhere affordable to live.

I’ve lived alone these last three years. Most days, I sit down at my small wooden table that is pressed up against a window with a view of the neighboring houses and apartments below. When I moved in, there was a palm tree across the street with a thick trunk and fronds that stuck out in a symmetrical halo. The tree reached higher than the two-story buildings surrounding it, so that I could see the fronds pressed up against the skyline. I watched as the wind sent ripples through the palm fronds, each one waving in turn. To many transplants, the palm tree embodies the idea of California. Having a view of one outside my window felt significant.

But one summer, there was a big thunderstorm, and afterwards, the fronds of the palm tree began to wilt. The foliage suddenly had a part in the middle, like someone had combed the leaves to one side. Each day, the fronds lost more of their color. They started dropping to the ground, until there was nothing left but the trunk. The tree still stood tall after all of its foliage was lost. I wondered if at some point, the trunk would fall over too.

A few months later, I noticed a vine crawling up one side of the tree. The vine grew and stretched for several weeks until it wrapped around the entire column. It climbed to the top of the tree trunk and continued reaching out in all directions. The vine cloaked the tree so that you could no longer see the deep brown trunk beneath. Broad, almond-shaped leaves the color of lime growing from thin spindly tendrils. Summer came, and lovely red flowers started bursting out from the vine. If you hadn’t seen the progression, you might think the tree itself was blooming.

* * *

When I first moved to Normal Heights, I was excited. My friend lived in the apartment below me and there were bars we could walk to. The price was right, and I signed the lease within 24 hours of seeing the unit. But when I actually moved in and slept there overnight, I started to have doubts about the neighborhood. I didn’t know about the unhoused people who called the banks off the highway their home. The first few nights, I feared someone might break in. I could hear loud banging sounds outside my apartment window. My mind immediately conjured images of gunshots fired from farther down El Cajon Boulevard.

Sponsored
Sponsored

I parked in an alley behind the building. I met countless unhoused people there. They could be found sleeping in my parking space or digging through the dumpsters. Getting home after dark meant walking through this alley alone without much light, unlocking the gate, and checking around for someone in the shadows. But I was determined to stay in this part of town. There was nowhere else I could pay this price for a one-bedroom. I would make this place my home.

In the daytime, I walked. I crossed the bridge over the 15 into Kensington, where I found a beautiful neighborhood full of jacaranda trees and jasmine bushes. Sometimes, I’d walk west as far as Park Boulevard, past a park with a view into Mission Valley. At night, I brought the people I loved to my neighborhood. We watched the sunset from the rooftop at Ska Bar before it closed down, and we drank champagne on New Year’s at the Rabbit Hole. We grabbed chai lattes at Dark Horse before walking down Adams Avenue, where we’d stop for breakfast at Jyoti-Bihanga or thrift at HomeStart.

Over time, I got used to sharing my alley with the unhoused people. I thanked them as they held open the dumpster lid for me and I threw my trash in. One day, I realized that the loud banging sound was happening every night at 7:55 pm. It wasn’t gunfire after all. From my hilltop perch, the SeaWorld fireworks could be heard, miles away.

My neighbors watched out for me. Checked on me from time to time. In our building, there are 18 units that face each other across a small courtyard. One neighbor who lived across from my balcony had called this her home for 35 years. She kept to herself, and always wore her hair in a neat bun. The couple next door to me lived here for over 30 years. I smelled their food cooking: the aroma of warm tortillas filling the air as I crossed the courtyard. Laughter rang through their screen door as I walked up our shared set of stairs.

Living alone wasn’t so scary anymore. I felt safe. I forgot there was ever a time when I thought moving here was a mistake. Soon, I felt proud to call Normal Heights my home, like it was a badge I’d earned.

I put in a lot of work to make this place a home, but then I found out the building was being renovated, and soon the tenants would be evicted. The first to receive notice was a lady across the courtyard. She tried to fight back and refused to leave her apartment, but she was ultimately forced out. The couple next door were next: a thick stack of no-fault eviction papers were left taped to their door. Sixty days’ notice to move out.

Those neighbors had raised their children here and called it home, but last fall, I watched as they carried their lives out in trash bags and Home Depot boxes. Now, the remaining tenants watch as plants disappear from balconies and cars stop returning to their parking spaces. Now, as I walk through the courtyard, I see gutted apartments, hollowed out by contractors who pull every last bit of the past from the walls. My unit is coming up. The apartment I live in now will double in rent once it’s renovated, and I won’t be able to afford it.

* * *

For years, I assumed that a summer storm took down the palm tree. But recently, a friend told me about the palm beetle. An invasive pest that has descended San Diego County in recent years. The beetle lays its eggs in the crown of date palms, and their larvae hollow out the tree’s trunk. Eventually, the palm’s leaves wilt and drop to the ground. The tree outside my window was likely one of these date palms. A non-native species of palm from the Canary Islands, taken down by an invasive insect from South America. The vine that grew and wrapped around the decaying trunk was not from San Diego either, but a species of trumpet vine from the eastern United States.

Everything involved, including the tree itself, was a transplant, just looking for an opportunity to root and grow. Always trying to play catch-up. Competing with others looking for the same real estate. As of last summer, San Diego was rated the most expensive place to live in the U.S. For most of us, the idea of purchasing a home is almost out of the question. We must rent and save and rent and save, so that maybe one day we’ll catch a break and make this our permanent residence.

When I leave this apartment, they will tear down everything that is inside, leaving a hollow shell. The contractors will rip out the drywall where I hung pictures of my siblings and my grandmother. They will pull apart the built-in bookshelf where I displayed my most loved books. If I were to hide a note, hidden behind a baseboard somewhere, that would disappear too.

Soon, my apartment will be filled with hardwood floors and stainless-steel appliances. I will be living somewhere else. Taking root in some other place. And I wonder, who will be the one looking through my dining room window next year?

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