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The Greening of Golden Hill
Concrete paved Golden Hill into existence. At the same time that this neighborhood started showing up on the map of San Diego, the world was just beginning its modern love affair with concrete, and Golden Hill happened to “grow up” concurrently with the cement industry. The proof is in the pavement. Every fifty feet or so, the concrete sidewalk has a name and date cast neatly into it, sometimes accompanied by a company logo or motif, marking who paved that section and when. Some of the cement setters used the same letterforms that were used to cast street names into the curbs at intersections, and some used what seem to be brands custom made for the sidewalk. Most of the dates fall between 1900 and 1917, petering out with the onset of World War I. The oldest one I’ve found is on the south side of Broadway, right by the bus stop between 22nd and 23rd, from 1896.
Just a hundred-some-odd years ago, Golden Hill was a sagebrush-covered mesa on the outskirts of downtown San Diego. I imagine this area had a frontier flavor in those days, with a handful of wood-frame houses punctuating the chaparral landscape. The streets were dirt, crudely scraped into the hard adobe soil. Lonely and tall above the rough roads and low scrub vegetation, the few houses would have cast long shadows by day, and taken the form of solitary glowing beacons by night, radiating whatever brightness and warmth came from their wood fires. Without sidewalks, streets, gas lights, and trees, this place must have felt a bit isolated—so close to the bustle and buildings of downtown, yet empty enough to feel detached. Enterprising landowners and developers sought to transform this dusty tract, on the edge of what was then called City Park, into a respectable neighborhood. Concrete provided the foundation.
Early Golden Hill residents were attracted not only to its views of the harbor, its proximity to the municipal park, and its ample space, but also to its markers of up-and-coming civilization. As Robert Forward wrote in the Journal of San Diego History, “The street car was only a couple of blocks away on Broadway and soon the streets would be paved, they hoped.” To those who took a chance and built their homes here, it must have been a comfort to see men pouring the sidewalks and straightening the uneven streets. Golden Hill residents would have greeted the workers cheerily, as they smoothed the sidewalks with trowels and tamped the curbs down with an air of progress. When they cast their names and dates into the drying concrete, workers marked the exact moment that they improved the landscape by paving over it.
The greening of Golden Hill began, ironically, at the same time as its paving. Despite a relatively arid climate and naturally low-growing, heat- and drought-resistant vegetation, early city boosters promoted San Diego as a lush West Coast "Eden." Throughout the early 1900s, Kate Sessions organized a mass importation of exotic plants to color the city’s paradisical image, and San Diegans developing Golden Hill at the time planted various (non-native) trees and shrubs to provide themselves with the appropriate vegetation. The 75-foot-tall Norfolk Island Pine in front of our house, one of several majestic gymnosperms that line the broad streets of this neighborhood, is a species visiting from a small island in the Pacific situated between Australia and New Zealand. The majestic magnolia in the east yard hails from the Southeastern U.S., while the palms that line B, and many other San Diego streets, most likely come from someplace tropical. The Blue Jacarandas along 25th Street and the Monkey Puzzle trees in Golden Hill Park come from South America. So do the Floss Silk trees, those spiny-trunked, pink-blossomed ones that produce the huge fluffy pods. Though they are far from their native habitats, the trees seem to have accomplished the goal of their planters: a hundred years later, the green foliage and sturdy trunks form a shady canopy reminiscent of a much leafier clime.
Busy cementing the future of the neighborhood, Golden Hill planners created a place where park meets pavement. Today, broad streets, tidy sidewalks, tall trees, and handsome old houses attract enterprising residents, who have lately been sprucing up the vicinity. Restoring it to its former prestige, inhabitants and business owners have taken a shine to Golden Hill. In recent years, this southwestern-most edge of Balboa Park has seen the addition of several restaurants, a yoga studio, a community garden, several front-yard produce plots, and, just a couple weeks ago, a farmer’s market. Now we know we’re green! The proof, this time, is on the pavement.
Out on a walk one day last year, my husband and I stumbled upon a hydroponic lettuce-growing operation right on B Street. In front of a little old Craftsman-style bungalow, where a lawn or garden might be, practically on the sidewalk, sat several specially constructed hydroponic growing boxes, about two feet wide by eight feet long. It started out with a couple of the all-white boxes placed neatly on top of the concrete-paved yard, stocked with heartily thriving crisp green lettuce plugs. They looked delicious (and nutritious!), sitting out there for all passers-by to see, casting a healthy green glow on the neighborhood. Very soon the farmers added drip irrigation and nets to keep off insects. More beds quickly followed, along with signs advertising the sale of the leafy greens and the fact that they were organic.
Not long after we started noticing the lettuce, a front-yard produce operation popped up right on our block! Two houses down from ours, the neighbors planted corn, strawberries, sweet peas, and, of course, lettuce, in planter boxes situated on top of a yard they had just recently filled with rocks. Over on A Street, we came across yet another front-yard “farm,” planted in garden patches atop the dirt fill behind a set of concrete retaining walls. Under the orange glow of the city street lamp, we read the tags identifying the tiny seedlings: “Pepper 3/6.” “Pumpkin 3/7.” “Carrots 3/7.” “Lettuce 3/6.” The spring planting is in the ground! Or what counts for ground in this urban enclave.
Just like the founders of this neighborhood did a century ago, modern-day residents squeeze whatever green they can out of the paved landscape. A burgeoning city produce enterprise, here amongst many mature specimens from Kate Sessions’s exotic plant collection, seems to be the latest iteration of San Diego’s “Garden of Eden” identity. On the 100-year-old pavement, whether they know it or not, those front-yard farmers are carrying on the tradition of the greening of Golden Hill.