By Jim Miller
May is Golden Hill month here at the San Diego Free Press where we will do our collective best to spotlight one of San Diego’s oldest and most dynamic communities.
A particularly interesting question we will be engaging is how the imagined community of Greater Golden Hill that is shared by many long time residents as well as entities such as the Golden Hill Community Development Corporation conflicts with the official separation of Golden Hill from South Park.
The more narrow designation of Golden Hill’s boundaries sets Interstate 5 as the western border and 34th Street where A, B, and C Streets end as its easternmost limit. To the south, the Martin Luther King Jr. freeway separates Golden Hill from its neighbors in ShermanHeights and Grant Hill while Russ Boulevard and A Street mark its northern border.
“Greater Golden Hill,” on the other hand, covers a much larger area. According to the Greater Golden Hill Community Profile page from the City of San Diego’s Planning Division, this section of the city consists of “approximately 441 acres, located east of downtown San Diego and adjacent to Balboa Park. It comprises the historic Golden Hill neighborhood, SouthPark, and the areas north and east of SouthPark including the Choate’ addition and BrooklynHeights.
The Greater Golden Hill Community boundary is Balboa Park and Juniper Street on the north, 32nd Street between Juniper Street and Hawthorn Street, then along Marlton Drive to the 34th Street canyon to Beech Street on the east, State Route 94 on the south and Interstate 5 on the west.”
If one goes with the narrower characterization of Golden Hill, the community is predominantly working class and heavily Latino whereas Greater Golden Hill encompasses parts of the city that have been much more gentrified, are more affluent, and have a white majority. Thus SouthPark has higher rents and property values and fewer immigrants and poor people.
This leads some long-time residents like Judy Forman, owner of the local institution, The Big Kitchen, to opine that, “’SouthPark’ is a name Republican real-estate people want. They want to be detached from Golden Hill because Golden Hill has an [image problem].”
Those of us who reside here (I live on 25th Street near Broadway) know that some folks who dwell north of A Street identify themselves as South Park residents—there’s even a sign at 28th and A spelling this out. Others, though, have gone so far as to create a Facebook page called, “It’s Golden Hill, Not South Park Dammit!”. Over the next few weeks we’ll engage this issue as well as many more as we explore the history, culture, politics, and citispace of the imaginatively contested terrain of Greater Golden Hill. But where did it all start?
From Indian Hill to Golden Hill
Before Anglo real estate developers set their sights on it, Indian Hill, as it was called in the early 1870s, was home to local Native Americans who lived in the then largely open land that is now known as Golden Hill. The area’s journey to becoming Golden Hill involved both the displacement of the indigenous people who first occupied this space and the riding of the boom/bust/boom roller coaster of late 19th century capitalist expansion.
The early history of the Greater Golden Hills Precise Plan focused mostly on the extreme western slope of the area facing downtown and collapsed when the first efforts to build a transcontinental railroad link failed, which halted the development of San Diego’s larger business interests and its overall development.
Booster plans for the area lay dormant for a few years until a new scheme to bring the railroad to San Diego fostered the Great Boom of the 1880s when the city’s population exploded from 8,000 to 30,000 between 1885 and 1887 fueling renewed land speculation and increasing property values. It was then, in 1887, that a group of developers petitioned to rename Indian Hill, Golden Hill. The city granted their request, and the new community was celebrated in a bit of booster poetry by Daniel Schuyler:
As the sun rolls down and is lost to sight,
Tinting the scene with its golden light,
The Islands dim and the fading shore,
The ebbing tide through our harbor door,
The drooping sails of an anchoring fleet,
The shadowy city at our feet,
With the Mountains’ proud peaks so lofty and still,
‘Tis a picture worth seeing, from Golden Hill.
Despite this hopeful start, the Great Boom collapsed with the bursting of the railroad bubble when Los Angeles bested San Diego’s eager boosters by luring the Santa Fe Railroad away with a bigger subsidy. This dealt San Diego a blow to its image that would fuel over a century of resentment and competition with our much-maligned northern neighbor. By 1889 the population of San Diego dropped back to 16,000 as thousands of the California dreamers the city drew in to the boom fled for greener pastures elsewhere.
Nonetheless, by 1895, the GoldenHillLand and Development Company took on the task of promoting and developing the area once again and soon large lots with big houses, great views, and ample infrastructure made the new community an attractive neighborhood for the city’s political, social, and economic elite.
While the Gaslamp’s Stingaree was home to San Diego’s multiethnic working class and the soapboxers at Heller’s corner, site of the bloody Free Speech Fight in 1912, Golden Hill was an affluent refuge a world away from sordid fray of the city.
Over the next three decades development continued and Golden Hill became the home of mayors, councilmen, judges, and other city patriarchs. Around this elite enclave, the aspiring middle class clustered and the establishment of the streetcar lines after the turn of the century made Golden Hill even more attractive and accessible.
So by the 1920s, Golden Hill was a gorgeous hub of fine architecture and manicured lots, complete with its own park, the Gateway to BalboaPark, with a beautiful fountain and attractive landscaping. It was the place to be. The legacy of this period is located in the Golden Hill Historic District that is filled with more architecturally significant housing stock than any other area of San Diego.
As the city grew in the twentieth century, San Diego’s elites left Golden Hill for even more exclusive confines and some of the great old homes were demolished or subdivided into apartments. The racial and class composition of the neighborhood gradually became much more diverse with rehab facilities, halfway houses, and lawyers’ offices taking over some of the grand mansions of elites past. By the 1960s, there were a number of communes in Golden Hill as the area was one of the hearts of San Diego’s counterculture and fledgling Left.
By the late sixties and early seventies middle class white flight to the suburbs further transformed the character of Golden Hill, and today it is a heavily Latino neighborhood with a significant segment of younger residents including artists, musicians, and garden variety hipsters.
Golden Hill south of A Street is poorer than the San Diego average and has a higher percentage of immigrants and houses where English is not the primary language. But even that portion of Greater Golden Hill is now receiving a reinfusion of middle class residents moving back into San Diego’s urban core. If we move north of A, South Park’s recent transformation serves as a prime example of a previously working class community being renewed and changed by this demographic shift for both better and worse depending on who you ask.
At this point, the neighborhood is a vital mix of people and, if we think of Greater Golden Hill more inclusively, one of the most wide-ranging and exciting neighborhoods in the city. It is a community that embraces the beauty of its diversity and has resisted many of the downsides of one-size-fits-all gentrification.
Still, the future is unclear as those who hope to maintain the traditional funky, eclectic feel of the neighborhood are wary of too much redevelopment. That said, there are also plenty of good people in Greater Golden Hill who love it as it is and are working hard to make it a good home for everyone from hotel workers to lawyers.
Over the next few weeks, we will be bringing you interviews with Golden Hill community leaders, business people, activists, artists, and more. There will also be articles on local history, restaurant reviews, walking tours, and other fun and important topics. We hope to represent a wide range of perspectives on Greater Golden Hill and be guided by the line from Walt Whitman, “I resist anything better than my own diversity.”