Andy Hinds | Parenting
Having lived in my home in North Park for almost 10 years, sometimes I feel like an old-timer. I find myself more and more telling recent transplants on the block about the people who lived in their house three owners ago, and how different things were way back in the “aughts.”
I’m not the only person who is qualified to chronicle the heady, pre-recession era in the Morley Field area, though. Luckily there are a handful of real pioneers right on my block, with whom I have the pleasure of catching up on neighborhood gossip reaching back beyond the early 2000s, and sometimes as far as the beginning of the previous century.
I recently sat down to chat with one of my neighbors who first moved to her home in 1943, at age 5. She got married and moved away in the early ’60s, and then returned to her childhood home six years ago when her mother fell ill. I asked her what it was like to be a kid in North Park in the middle of the 20th century.
My neighbor – I’ll call her Sally – first confirmed something I heard before from other long-time residents of my block: my house had indeed been an honest-to-God shack up until the ’80s, when it was upgraded to a drab rental property with vinyl siding and iron bars on the windows. She added that when she was a kid, there was a mean old lady who lived in our erstwhile shanty.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a big iron cauldron in her kitchen,” Sally told me. If a kid threw a ball into the lady’s yard, he would write it off rather than approach her sinister hovel.
Living two doors down from a possible child-eating necromancer notwithstanding, Sally’s youth sounded pretty typical of a kid in any small(ish) town in America. She played kick-the-can in the middle of Texas Street without any worries about traffic, stayed outside unsupervised until the streetlights came on, walked to the movies at the North Park Theater – a dime for the movie and a nickel for popcorn – and roller skated at the Palisade Gardens rink, which she described as the hottest gathering place in the area for teens.
Sally’s dad was a meat cutter at the now long-defunct Juniper Foods on 30th and Juniper streets in what we currently call South Park. Her mom, who lived in the home until the day she died two years ago, stayed with the kids early on, and then got her teaching credentials at SDSU and taught adult education classes. Sally remembers, perhaps a bit wistfully, that North Park, along with the rest of the city, was quiet in the ’40s and early ’50s. Apparently though, it was a bit too quiet for her parents, who would travel to Los Angeles, and later Las Vegas, to enjoy the dancing and nightlife they were denied in sleepy San Diego.
Like virtually all the kids in the neighborhood, aside from the ones who went to Catholic school, Sally attended Jefferson Elementary in the original building, which was torn down in the early ’60s, then went on to Roosevelt Junior High and then graduated from San Diego High in 1958. In those days, North Park was considered a working-class neighborhood, and its public schools were as good as any in town.
Sally remembers Morley Field itself being a mostly wild place: dusty chaparral with a handful of amenities such as what we now know as the Bud Kearns Municipal Pool (called “the Muni” back then), a few tennis courts and a casting pond. There was a velodrome in the old days, but it was in a different location than the one where hipsters currently congregate on Tuesdays to watch the fixed-gear gladiators battle, and it was little more than a dirt track for bicycles.
Through the ’50s, Sally said, the area grew busier and louder, a development about which she was ambivalent. Businesses flourished on University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard and commuters and shoppers crowded the streets. But Sally resented the increasing noise of air traffic heading to and from Lindbergh Field, and was saddened and annoyed when dump trucks started rolling down Texas Street every day on their way to Morley Field, which was used as a landfill from 1952 to 1974.
After she graduated from high school, Sally worked at a gift shop in Hillcrest where, she told me, there were a lot of doctors, one very low-profile gay bar, and the same frustrating dearth of parking that it suffers from today. “I practically had to park next to the water and walk to work from there,” she said.
Sally got married in 1961, and moved out of the neighborhood. Over the next two decades, she witnessed a decline in her childhood stomping grounds from across town. Although she doesn’t attempt to connect all the pieces that led to the blight at the doorstep of her family home, she knows that it was concurrent with big changes like the construction of Interstate 8 and subsequent near-abandonment of El Cajon Boulevard as a thoroughfare and business district and the attractiveness of brand new, affordable tract homes in other parts of the city.
Businesses on University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard disappeared, there were fewer young children in the neighborhood, the schools struggled, and many of the homes fell into disrepair.
Almost imperceptibly, though, as those of us who have been in the area for a while know, Sally’s neighborhood started to enjoy revitalization. By the time she moved back into her childhood home, the corner of University Avenue and 30th Street once again lived up to its old nickname, the “Busy Corner,” and the houses with peeling paint and bars on the windows were restored or transformed into much grander houses than they had been in the past.
I asked Sally if our neighborhood bore much resemblance to the North Park she grew up in, and she shook her head. “Well,” she said, “visually, it’s similar. Most of the houses look pretty much the same. But the people and the energy are completely different.”
—Andy Hinds is a stay-at-home dad, blogger, freelance writer, carpenter and sometimes-adjunct writing professor. He is known on the internet as Beta Dad, but you might know him as that guy in North Park whose kids ride in a dog-drawn wagon. Read his personal blog at betadadblog.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @betadad on Twitter.