By Jim Miller
The southern border of Golden Hill is clearly marked by the 94 Freeway that sets it off from what much of the city still refers to as “Southeast San Diego.”
Despite City Council Member George Stevens’s successful effort in 1992 to ban the use of that moniker in any official city business, it lives on in the cultural imagination of San Diego and, for many white suburbanites, stands in for “the bad part of town,” teeming with gangs, crime, and urban squalor.
Indeed, despite years of dropping crime rates and gentrification, the image of the southern part of Greater Golden Hill as a kind of liminal zone between “South Park” and the ‘hood persists in some quarters of San Diego’s culture of fear.
As someone who spent a lot of time visiting friends in the neighborhood back in the day, well before this current wave of gentrification began, I find this to be an amusing but sad phenomenon, as even when Golden Hill was grittier than it is now, it was never rough compared to other big American cities like Los Angeles or Oakland.
What distinguishes Golden Hill from other parts of San Diego then is not crime, but race and class, as it is still browner and more working class than downtown, Bankers Hill, or “South Park.”
During the course of our Golden Hill focus a striking number of friends of mine who moved to the area to buy homes in recent years have confessed to me that their realtors made a point of telling them to stick with “South Park” rather than “Golden Hill” as it was a “better area.”
Interestingly, another friend who works at UCSD recently told me that his colleagues chastised him for “risking his children’s future for his idealism” because he chose to send them to a public school in the area. Thus, to make a long story short, there’s still a good amount of urban mythology out there in our fair city.
The historical roots of all this are clear. In the beginning of the twentieth century, San Diego’s Anglo booster oligarchy was overtly hostile to any influx of black or brown workers with the Chamber of Commerce itself openly opining that “negro colonization is not to be encouraged.” This was still true during the middle of the last century.
Even as the war industry brought large numbers of industrial jobs, the president of Vultee Aircraft freely declared that, “it is not the policy of this company to employ people other than the Caucasian race.”
As I note in Under the Perfect Sun, despite President Roosevelt’s Executive Order banning racial discrimination in the war industry along with a labor shortage at the time, “the Navy, the Chamber of Commerce, and San Diego city government all maintained a Jim Crow perspective.”
Thus, it’s not surprising to find things like a December 1944 article in the Union reporting on the efforts of whites in Golden Hill to drive out African American residents for fear of dropping property values. And these kinds of individual examples were just part of a larger systemic effort to shape the racial and class character of the city. Again in Under the Perfect Sun, I point out:
As Leroy Harris notes in The Other Side of the Freeway: A Study of Settlement Patterns of Negroes and Mexican Americans in San Diego, California, “Throughout its history as an American city, San Diego has contained a numerically and proportionally smaller number of Negroes and Mexican Americans than most other large American cities.” In addition to the overt social and economic discrimination faced by people of color in San Diego with regard to employment and civil rights, the persistent efforts of realtors have also stood in their way. As Harris’ study shows, “restrictive covenants in real estate deeds” and the active “role of real estate agents in the formation of segregated housing patterns” were a very strong force in creating a segregated San Diego.
Indeed, as late as 1964, the San Diego Realty Board lobbied hard against the Rumford Act, California’s fair housing law, and actively campaigned to have it annulled through a ballot proposition. The Committee for Home Protection, speared-headed the anti-Rumford Act drive. Their public relations consultant was William Shearer, an ultra-conservative former Oceanside newspaper publisher and then administrative assistant for Republican Assemblyman Richard Barnes of San Diego. Shearer, who also wrote for the segregationist journal The Citizen arguing that the GOP could win national elections if it could “kick free of the ball and chain of integration,” helped frame the anti-Rumford Act fight as a defense of property rights and freedom of choice.
The California Real Estate Association may have been embarrassed by the support it received from the American Nazi Party members who marched outside the El Cortez Hotel where they met in 1963, but when the realtors voted overwhelmingly to fight against the Rumford Act and all future legislation against housing discrimination, they were marching in lockstep with the fascists. Proposition 14 which would have overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act passed with a large majority in the state and by more than two to one in San Diego County.
If not for the California Supreme Court, the far right would have won . . . In addition to housing discrimination, in 1965 the Fair Employment Practices Commission called San Diego one of the most segregated areas in the country and linked that segregation to employment discrimination.
Thus, by the time San Diego reporter Harold Keen checked the “mood of the barrio” in the late 1960s, the legacy of this history was clear as Mexican-Americans had the highest unemployment rate of any minority group at 25%, the highest school dropout rate, the lowest level of educational achievement, and dilapidated, deteriorating housing and schools.
The white flight out of the center city area of San Diego in the sixties and seventies, resulted in the Southeastern part of San Diego becoming much more diverse and working class than in previous decades, neighboring Golden Hill included.
It was during this period that white progressives, hippies, and later era hipsters defied the culture of fear and moved into Greater Golden Hill with its cheaper rents and vital cultural mix, embracing the very things from which the folks in the white bread suburbs had fled.
But if we are to take the fear of the urban head on, it should be noted that while Golden Hill, and San Diego in general, have never had the same level of gang activity as other big American cities, gangs were and are still here though gentrification seems to have greatly reduced their presence in the neighborhood. As Lonewolf notes in “A History of Varrio Lomas (Golden Hill)” on his interesting blog, Brown Kingdom:
Varrio Lomas had its birth in the 1950s during an era when the predominant ones in the Golden Hill community were white biker stoner gangs – real tough mofo’s back then. Little by little, the vatos began to make a stand and consolidating their turf by battling the biker gangs in the area and soon their name began to be known all around . . . The first Original vatos in the neighborhood began to claim Golden Hill and later on also started calling their Varrio Lomas De Oro – or – Oro Lomas, but by the 60s the name was shortened to LOMAS, even though they would still use GOLDEN HILL . . .
These vatos first began to hang out at “The ALLEY” behind Broadway in-between 25th street & 26th street and began using the name THE ALLEY Locos. From this Alley they extended out to 25 Street Park – over to an area known today as Golden Hill Drive – a magnificent view loop overlooking downtown and the bay. This view loop was also common ground for all kinds of Lowrider Raza which cruised up and down 25th street, down to Crosby Street (later renamed Cesar Chavez), across National Avenue in Barrio Logan, all the way to 43RD (Shell Town) -south onto Highland Avenue in Old Town National City. The Hey-Dey of cruising, stretching from the heights to the bayside – in one big loop around.
Lonewolf goes on to note that the various factions in the neighborhood eventually united behind the name “Lomas 26,” a tag still commonly seen around Greater Golden Hill from the 94 through the now trendy South Park. According to his history, Lomas 26 turf extends from the 94 in the south to Juniper in the north with the I-5 and the 15 representing the western and eastern borders. He also notes that Varrio Lomas prides itself on having a clean looking community, is family oriented, and has spawned several car clubs such as “The Corner” which was formed by members and locals who hung out on the corner of Broadway and 25th Street.
While the occasional graffiti tag might scare off wary suburbanites, Golden Hill residents are more likely to see evidence of this history when a parade of lowriders cruises down 25th to the park, showing off their cars on a Sunday afternoon, than in gunshots in the night.
Even back in the grittier seventies, many of the old hippies who lived in the collective houses in the Golden Hill of that era will tell you that neighborhood peace between the gangsters and the hippies was frequently purchased by the sharing of copious amounts of weed and there were very few problems.
The fact is that the crime rate in Golden Hill today is lower than in many other parts of the city during a period of historically low crime rates and, truth be told, greater violence has been done to many of the longtime working class residents of the neighborhood by racism, poverty, and dislocation than by street gangs.
Indeed, if you want to be afraid of something, stay away from the chichi Gaslamp Quarter or Pacific Beach after the bars close on the weekends as far more violence is done there than on my block in Golden Hill within eyeshot of the “other side of the freeway.” The only positive that the legacy of the urban myth of the “bad neighborhood” has, in my estimation, is in keeping the rents lower in the southern part of Greater Golden Hill.
As one of my students whose family has lived in the community for many years said when I told him I was writing this piece, “We already can’t afford all the new places in the neighborhood to live in or eat at. If some white folks being scared keeps our rent where it is, good.”
Sadly, however, it appears this may not last as even the southernmost reach of 25th Street is marked by a fancy new development, and the more of this that happens, the less affordable the neighborhood will become. Here’s hoping the fate of Golden Hill’s working class renters is not yet more dislocation via gentrification. History on this point, however, is a narrative that hurts.
IMPORTANT GOLDEN HILL COMMUNITY NOTE FROM THE EDITORS:
On Saturday, June 1st, there will be a community meeting for Golden Hill residents to discuss the the 94 Freeway Expansion and the Future of Golden Hill at the Japanese Christian Church (1920 E Street) starting at 3pm.
Caltrans is expanding SR 94 through Golden Hill and this will have a huge impact on the neighborhood. This meeting is an opportunity for the community to participate in the plans for this expansion. One idea being proposed is the possibility of building a Park Lid/open Space covering over the freeway between 22 the freeway between 22nd and 25th Street.
Come to this meeting, learn more, and let the CalTrans representatives and elected officials who will be present know what you think. For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org