Anna, I have read your article with much interest, as I am coming from the East Coast this week to explore the city life of City Heights with the intention to make this community our home within the next year.
Thanks so much for sharing some history and your personal experiences…I look forward to exploring! MaryBest July 21, 2012
It is not unheard of for someone to tell you that he intends to move to San Diego from some other state. It is frankly rare however, for someone to say that she is planning to move to San Diego and wants to live in the community of City Heights. Out of all the other communities in San Diego, she wants to live in City Heights?
Back in June of this year when my first City Heights Up Close & Personal column was published, I received an intriguing comment from Mary Best that she wanted to move to City Heights within the year. We exchanged emails and spent a long afternoon together a few weeks later when Mary came to town.
We hit it off immediately and by the end of our introductions over coffee at Cafe Dore, we began walking the streets of City Heights. I pointed out the redevelopment projects- the police substation, adult education center, Rosa Parks school, the Weingart City Heights Library and Performance Annex and the Urban Village commercial center, explaining that these were the first significant infrastructure investments after decades of neglect.
Our own personal stories were woven into that walk. I learned that Mary and her husband George live outside of Washington DC in a community similar in many ways to City Heights. Mt. Ranier Maryland is also a diverse, vibrant community with significant socio-economic challenges. When they began considering a move to San Diego to be closer to a family member in north county, they thought about the kind of community they needed in which to flourish and Mary somehow discovered City Heights.
We talked about noise, crime and the progressive community. While a sense of personal security and access to transit were important, Mary also wanted to be part of a community that cares about human rights, peace and social justice. The arc of her adult life has been shaped by those issues professionally and on a deeply personal level.
I was suddenly reminded by Mary’s question that City Heights does indeed care about human rights, peace and social justice. We have churches who distribute food to the elderly and poor; immigrant and refugee assistance programs, health clinics, San Diego Organizing Project, Activist San Diego and Street of Dreams, and this is not in any way a comprehensive list.
When Mary left that afternoon, we were friends. She told me that she and George would return in November and spend a few days looking at housing and neighborhoods in City Heights. I would have another opportunity to play City Heights Good Will Ambassador.
On our November encounter, we took off by car. I wanted them to see two of our canyon communities– Cherokee Point and 47th Street Canyon. My Beloved and I have friends in both of these communities and I imagined Mary and George settling into a new home that came complete with good neighbors.
We drove all the way to the end of Cherokee Drive and parked. Cherokee Point is not only west of the I-15 freeway, but it is also a good seven blocks or so south of University Avenue. Except for the constant white noise of the freeway behind us, Cherokee Point feels “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”
The homes are almost exclusively single family and well maintained. A number of them exude a unique “personality.” The large trees in private yards there shade the sidewalks and soften the linear cityscape. We became acutely aware of how much trees- street trees or in peoples’ yards– humanize the urban environment. As we drove north toward University Avenue and then turned east, trees and landscaping grew more sparse and the houses began to look exposed and neglected.
We had a completely different canyon experience a few miles to the east at the 47th Street Canyon. As we drove there we passed the bright orange fences and buildings of the Buddhist temple and turned down 47th street with its small houses that fall short of charming cottage status.
Within a few more blocks, yard trees appeared around houses that looked more expansive and well maintained until the street abruptly ended at a huge dense planting of cactus. The stop sign was completely redundant. This place, which is not simply one thing or another, is beauty’s ultra-fringe. It has a Dionysian quality to it in contrast to the other canyon communities’ more buttoned down appearance.
We had the good luck to run into our friend Lisa Matt, who lives across from the cactus patch and has spent a number of years working to remove every sprout of the arundo giant cane that threatens to strangle out the native plants. Lisa has also been active in having the canyon renamed as Olivia Canyon, in acknowledgement of resident Olivia Marlow who has been a fierce protector of the canyon for over fifty years. Olivia and her canyon will get a future column of their own.
Mary and George now had a general mental map of City Heights, which included the canyon neighborhoods (Mary and I had visited Azalea Park, Swan and Fox Canyon on her first trip) as well as Teralta East and West.
After dinner at Taste of Africa, we were ready to explore some more. I pointed out the small community garden and aqua farm operated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) at Fairmount and University Avenue. Mary walked inside and a few moments later that evening nursery manager Antonio gave us a mini tour. It is astounding how many plants and tilapia were contained on this small plot of ground. They provide food for the gardeners as well as homeopathic remedies. This tiny place is an oasis of green set in one of the busiest areas of City Heights.
George was interested in exploring the other side of Fairmount Avenue and we ended up in El Rey Tattoo Parlor and Barbershop. It is a new business. The large front windows lured us in with the display of a shiny chopper surrounded by interesting and curious objects. The entry room was the barbershop area, minimally furnished. The short row of old time leather barber chairs was the beautiful focus of that room, which was separated by a short wall from the tattoo parlor behind. We spent a long time there talking to the staff and visitors about the flash art, regulations and tattoo parlors in San Diego.
It was early evening and dark. University Avenue was filled with pedestrians. We stood outside a bar and listened to some live music. Mary and George executed a short dance on the sidewalk to the Mexican banda beat. We poked our heads into little shops selling dulces and sundries.
Our walk ended on the University Avenue transit center above I-15. One young woman sat beneath a sputtering overhead light, waiting for a bus. The doors to the bathroom were locked. We felt dwarfed on this concrete pad that was supposed to house small shops and provide access to north-south rapid transit on the freeway below us and knit the community back together. Instead, it is a dead space where promises made two decades ago and dreams have died.
We reversed our steps and in a few moments were once again part of the energy and life of City Heights. It took these unique visitors to remind me that after 25 years, I am still searching for City Heights.