The home my husband and I bought in City Heights over two decades ago is a four mile straight shot along University Avenue from the little house we had rented in North Park for six years. Despite the short distance, the trips east to our new home were initially disorienting. Yes, there were the same low buildings constructed between the 20’s and 40’s lining University Avenue and the uninterrupted march of billboards knitted the two communities together seamlessly with their visual blight.
But North Park, even though it was in the throes of urban decay, still had a palpable urban energy and a diverse concentration of businesses in the area of 30th Street from University to El Cajon. There were small specialty shops, thrift stores and restaurants, and even a JCPenny, all of which attracted a diverse segment of the population in the area. City Heights on the other hand lacked an identifiable destination with a similar broad appeal. In City Heights, circa 1987, there was no there there.
The blocks along University Avenue between Fairmount and Euclid to the east were a pastiche of small, often dimly lit businesses. There were Vietnamese restaurants advertising pho (soup); check cashing businesses; the completely unexpected new age vegetarian restaurant The Prophet; adult entertainment venues; salones de belleza (beauty parlors); bars; auto repair and tire shops with signs in Spanish or Vietnamese; and Synthetic Trips, a well known head shop.
Each of these establishments seemed isolated from the surrounding businesses. Each seemed to speak a secret code directed to a specific segment of the population that was largely invisible to me. This diffused reflection of the community including its sometimes illicit desires was repeated along the length of University Avenue in City Heights. I wanted to be part of the life of this place, but I couldn’t find a point of entry.
Oddly enough, it was within the walls of our modest craftsman style house, constructed in 1927, that I was able to establish my first connection with City Heights. While the private lives of residents remain locked for eternity within mute lath and plaster, stucco and stone, a faint tracing of their unique stories is maintained in the archives of the downtown library’s California Room.
In the hush of the California Room I opened the first of the thick Frye & Smith directories stacked beside me on the reading room table. They are more commonly known as reverse directories, and were later promulgated by Polk.
These old directories, dating back to the late 1800’s and ending in 1984 are a chronicle of the names of occupants within the City of San Diego, as well as some outlying areas. Beginning with the 1927 edition, a reader can look up a particular street address, find the name of the dwelling’s occupant, then look up that name in the alphabetical section of the book where additional information is often included.
I opened up the 1927 volume and thumbed through the thin pink pages of the newly added street address section. There was our street and house number, followed by the names “Devany, Bernice Mrs.” and “Palmer, Eliza H.” Turning to the alphabetical section at the front of book, I found that Bernice Devany was the widow of J T Devany. Two adult relatives also resided in the household– Jno H., a baker at the Contintental Baking Co., then located in Hillcrest, and Mildred, a cashier at the Rivoli Theater in downtown San Diego. Hello Mrs. Bernice Devany!
In the years between 1927 and 1940, nine different residents occupied our house. John T Mincher, who lived here in 1929 and 1930 was a deputy sheriff. His wife Bessie was a seamstress at the County Hospital. Robert Burns, 1931, was a laborer in the City Park Department. Edgar P Woods, 1932, was a janitor with City Schools, and was married to Helen. The first phone listing occurred in 1938, when Harold and Edith Pelton occupied the house. Mrs. Ruth C Powers, 1939, was a teacher with City Schools.
Between 1941 and 1948 there was a clear shift from civilian to military related employment. Lee R Guinn who lived here for a few years with his wife Joy was a member of the US Navy. David Rawson, 1942, was an aircraft worker with CA Corp. Then Guy Watson lived here with his wife Ora until 1948 and he was also in the US Navy.
I opened, hungrily read and then closed the deteriorating covers of over fifty of these directories. One Mrs Mary M Glover occupied our house for twenty- one years, from 1948 to 1969. Aside from the note that she was the widow of Louis, I was unable to glean any additional information about the mysterious occupant who resided here and lived through the middle class boom after WWII until the Vietnam War years.
The story of the occupants of our house ended in 1984–but only in the directories, of course. Van-Than Duc, interpreter, had lived here since 1977. The fall of Saigon which had occurred on April 30, 1975 would reverberate in the working class community of City Heights, half a world away, setting it on a whole new course.
After all those hours perusing these city directories for the first time back in 1987, I had indeed found an entry into this community. That entry was made possible with the glimpse into the humanity of the strangers who had called my house their home too. My husband and I were now part of an old story and would make it new yet again.
I returned to the California Room a few days ago to fill in the details that I had forgotten. I was able to discern the threads of a larger narrative that were unapparent to me a quarter of a century ago. City Heights has been and continues to be a community of energetic workers who leave their homes to keep the often invisible machinery of commerce and government functioning and productive.
We have historically been laborers, painters, cashiers, floor managers, seamstresses, police and teachers. Long established businesses here continue to provide parts, replacements and repairs. We are essential to the larger economic health of San Diego and are largely unrecognized as such. We don’t make history–we live and die within a bracketed time and space created by forces outside of us.
It is late. For the moment, I am content to simply raise a glass to Mrs. Bernice Devany, the first occupant of my house, and Mr. Van-Than Duc, interpreter, one of the last. Here’s to you, Ione E Madden, 1969. Your very name resurrects the memory of ironed white cotton handkerchiefs with delicate crocheted edges emitting the faint whiff of a long forgotten perfume.
My eight hundred square foot house in City Heights is filled with the living and with the dead. To them all I say ” Thank you, and good night.”
Post Script: My Beloved and I have lived longer in this house than even the mysterious Mrs. Glover. Perhaps this is the only place that curious fact will ever be noted.
Previous installments of City Heights Up Close & Personal here.