By Jim Miller
This week I move from interviewing a recent arrival to Golden Hill to a longtime resident.
Peter Zschiesche and his wife Pam Clark have lived in the Greater Golden Hill community since 1971 and have seen the neighborhood change quite a bit over the years. Peter was involved in anti-war movement politics in the early seventies and later became a leader in the Machinists Union and played a key part in the strikes at NASSCO in the 1980s. He is the Founding Director of the Employee Rights Center, which began in 1999, and he currently serves as Vice President of the Board of Trustees for the San Diego Community College District. Thus most of Peter’s adult life has been spent fighting for social justice in the service of workers, students, immigrants, and others in Golden Hill and San Diego at large.
I am proud to call him a friend and neighbor. My wife, Kelly Mayhew, and I got to know Peter well when she interviewed him for her portion of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See (2003), an alternative history of San Diego, which we co-authored with Mike Davis, another Golden Hill neighbor.
When did you move to Golden Hill? Why did you choose this community?
We moved to Golden Hill in early 1971 from the heart of Detroit. We had been active in the anti-war movement and involved in community organizing there so we were looking for a place in San Diego with those kinds of connections.
We found them in Golden Hill. It was a diverse working class neighborhood with low rents, comfortable living “space,” and easy access to the pocket parks on the East side of Balboa Park. It was blue collar, white collar, pink collar, no collar, and enlisted Navy personnel who were stationed at 32nd Street Naval Station. It had housing collectives, a food coop, and connections to the “movement.” At a local UFW picket line we met one of their organizers living in Golden Hill and then met other activists living in the neighborhood who were drawn by low rents and its diversity.
We moved around some: from a one bedroom apartment near 28th and Broadway for $95 per month, to a $120 per month, three bedroom apartment in an old house on Ivy Street (now a stone’s throw from The Station,) to a $125 per month three bedroom, one bath house back on 26th Street. We lived all over what is “Greater Golden Hill” and never heard the words “South Park.” Maybe Golden Hill spoke of its classy reputation from past decades.
How would you describe the Golden Hill of the 1970’s? What was there?
In the 1970’s Greater Golden Hill was not a cool destination for good restaurants or fun bars. There was the Turf Club, an old-fashioned neighborhood piano bar; the Whistle Stop was a leather bar; and The Station was Snippy’s, a sleepy neighborhood bar. Maybe the predecessor to Hamilton’s was then refusing to serve African-Americans as their history tells it now – don’t know, I only shot pool there once. The 1970’s “in scene” was not in Golden Hill or in South Park, a name we had not heard yet.
Where to eat? Around 25th and 28th Streets, the choices were KFC (then Kentucky Fried Chicken), Lomita’s Taco Shop, the Golden Hills Coffee Shop, a little bakery where Panchita’s is now, and the Turf Club. No eats on Beech Street. Mazara’s Pizza and another little bakery across the street anchored what is now South Park. For groceries, besides Jaycee’s, Jaroco’s, Food Bowl, and Millers, there was the Safeway where Gala Foods is now. Not until around 1980 did Judy’s Big Kitchen on Grape Street take over an old neighborhood coffee shop. She was the first “new thing” in Golden Hill that we can remember.
Part of the official story of gentrification is about how present day Golden Hill/South Park is much “nicer” than it used to be back in the days of yore? What do you make of this?
Was it a tough area? Not by our standards. True, we lived just north of the largely Latino and African-American communities that extended south of Market all the way to the bay. Maybe that affected some folks who could not handle racial diversity in the whole urban core east of downtown. There were drugs and some out-of-control youth, but no more so than in other neighborhoods; and it never made us want to move. Golden Hill was multigrain and certainly tougher than white bread.
And working class folks could afford to live there?
Want to buy a house? You could! In 1975 you could get a three-bedroom house in one of its single-family areas for $35,000. We knew shipyard workers at NASSCO who on their modest journey-level wages bought apartments in North Park as investments to fix up and maintain for their retirement. Golden Hill, South Park, and North Park were all very “affordable.”
What changed? Why did those prices leap so high in later decades for basically the same old houses?
What changed was that urban living near downtown San Diego became increasingly attractive to more and more San Diegans. In my opinion it all started with the redevelopment of downtown San Diego, the accompanying marketing by realtors, and the gradual upscaling of the amenities.
We were told by one local realtor in the area that the South Park name became prominent to sell homes in the area north of A Street because the 92104 zip code that started there and went north had lower crime rates and other better statistics than the 92102 zip code that went south from A Street.
In the 1970’s San Diego’s downtown was declining as new development spread to Mission Valley and beyond. Lower Broadway and a “red light” area catered to the weekend splurges of Navy personnel. There was no Seaport Village, no Horton Plaza, and name department stores were on the way out. Going downtown, much less living downtown or even nearby, was not what realtors and developers saw as attractive living. Greater Golden Hill lived and thrived under the radar – and it was affordable!
Parts of Greater Golden Hill are still more affordable than others. But they are disappearing. In the 1990’s the apartments next to us had hotel workers living there – until the owners made “improvements” and raised the rents out of reach for most of San Diego’s hotel cooks and housekeepers. These are part of the gentrifying economics that have been managed by developers and our real estate industry.
Where do you see Greater Golden Hill going in the future? What’s your take on the whole Golden Hill versus South Park thing?
For new, potential residents of Greater Golden Hill I see no easy solutions to this situation. To the extent that our community’s planning committee and the GGHCDC can have an impact on development in our area, I urge them to make affordability one of their core values in deciding issues they approve of or promote.
Despite the economics of it all, we love the Greater Golden Hill vibe that has survived decades of change, and I agree with Ernie McCray saying that it is a “gift” to our “South Park” neighbors. No need to argue over names because the place is great and just as much a “state of mind” as anything. Just don’t put down Golden Hill when you argue because that is definitely the wrong state of mind!
I’d like to thank to some other “over 40 year” residents for helping us remember this slice of our past.
Part 2 coming soon: “The Left in Golden Hill”