Written by Jim Miller; Photos by Annie Lane
To walk in Golden Hill is to wander through a patchwork quilt of history and wonder. As a renter in a community full of grand old houses that I’ll never be able to afford to buy, I frequently think of Thoreau’s ruminations on ownership in Walden: “As long as it is possible, live free and uncommitted. It makes little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”
Indeed, the grand old houses of Golden Hill may now be well beyond the reach of most folks in the neighborhood to ever buy, but, if they have eyes to see, they can, as Thoreau says of the poet who truly sees the landscape, own the whole neighborhood. And I think of that as I watch the working class families out for walks with their kids, apartment dwellers strolling with their dogs, halfway house residents stretching their legs, or even my homeless neighbors lounging on the steps by the manicured lawn and lush garden of some lawyer’s office.
If they are really stopping and seeing what is there, they have “impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream” of the neighborhood without being stuck with the bill. As for my mortgage-bearing neighbors, the old courage teacher might say that they don’t own the houses; the houses own them. The neighborhood, on the other hand, belongs to all of us with eyes to see.
It was in this spirit that I took off with some members of the San Diego Free Press on a dérive through Golden Hill looking to capture some history and wonder as we took off on a purposeless stroll through the historic district, hoping to stumble onto something extraordinary.
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The historic district in my patch of Golden Hill is officially between 24th Street to the west and 25th street to the east, with A Street serving as the northern border and F street the southern limit. That said, the entirety of Greater Golden Hill is littered with historic houses, amazing gardens, surprising corners, and bold vistas. One can wander in and out of these borders, however, and still discover plenty of undesignated history, frequently juxtaposed with the unexpected.
Architecturally, Golden Hill is a pastiche of styles. As the 1978 official historic designation report notes, “Experimentation was the hallmark of turn of the century architecture and it was during this period” that the area was developed and came to reflect a “certain American confusion of taste.” This is because “no individual designer was exclusively responsible for the architectural trend so strongly represented throughout much of Greater Golden Hill.”
Hence, the wanderer inside and out of the historic zone will come upon Victorian, classical revival, Craftsman, Mission Style, California bungalow, “oriental” influence, Swiss chalet, Tudor, Art Deco, postmodern contemporary, and eclectic mixtures of various styles, and more. The “historic” mansion stands next to the stucco apartment complex, and the Arts and Crafts cottage is neighbor to the liquor store and taco stand. All in all, it is a beggar’s banquet, and the only thing one needs to enjoy it is time, two good feet, and a pair of open eyes.
The writer highly recommends border crossing as the houses of Sherman across the 94 seamlessly merge with those of Golden Hill, as do the homes of South Park. Below is a beginner’s primer on what one can find. So grab a coffee at Krakatoa or Rebecca’s or an IPA at Counterpoint or Hamilton’s and proceed to get lost.