Morgan M. Hurley | Contributing Editor
A dozen decades shown through rare, vintage photographs
Over 100 years before North Park became the metropolis filled with hipsters, art, craft beer, throwback video games, coffee houses, clubs and restaurants that it is today, it was nothing more than dirt and trees as far as the eye could see.
Thanks to a dozen or more locals — some who have lived in North Park their entire lives — a pictorial history of North Park, with over 200 rare and vintage photographs tracing all the way back to those days of dirt, has just been released.
“San Diego’s North Park,” part of Arcadia Publishing Company’s “Images of America” series, is a 127-page softcover book that tells the story of one of San Diego’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods, mostly through rare and vintage photographs.
The North Park Historical Society (NPHS), a 501(c)3 made up of over 50 members and led by a dedicated, 12-person all-volunteer board, steered the project under the guidance of the publisher.
This new offering is not to be confused with longtime local historian and San Diego State professor Don Covington’s larger, ring-bound “North Park: A San Diego Urban Village.” That book was first published in 2007, four years after its author’s untimely death. While Covington’s book only covered the first 50 years and relied on a great deal of text across its 250 pages to tell the intricate stories of the neighborhood, “San Diego’s North Park” covers the entirety of North Park’s history in half the pages and does so mostly through photographs.
Although NPHS wasn’t established until 2008, many of its members had assisted Covington and worked to bring the first book to fruition after his death. At that time, they were known as the North Park Community Association’s Historical Committee.
“They are the people whose shoulders we are standing on,” said Katherine Hon, board secretary of NPHS.
The group almost disbanded after Covington and several other members died in close succession, but they became “reinvigorated” Hon said, and saw the project through.
Hon and her husband Stephen, president of the NPHS, joined the NPCA’s committee right around that time as part of the original project. She said Arcadia had first approached the Historical Committee back in 2007, just before they published Covington’s book, but that project was “special” to them and they weren’t willing to adapt his book to the limitations of Arcadia’s template and format.
Arcadia acquiesced, but didn’t go away for long. Hon said the popularity of Covington’s book had people ask, “When are you going to tell the rest of the story?” So when Arcadia came calling again five years later, they brokered a deal.
“The timing was right,” Hon said. “We wanted to tell the whole story and bring it up to current times. Arcadia really wanted to have the North Park story out there because they can see it is a community of great interest to people.”
Arcadia’s format would allow them to do just that, and the rigid template, a hindrance before, was now an advantage. They no longer had to be concerned about design and structure.
“To know they were a very experienced publisher that focused on niche community histories, allowed [us] to just pull the material together, the photos and the text, and [Arcadia] did the production,” Hon said.
The changes in responsibility for publishing, reprinting and distribution were also appealing to the group, Hon said, adding that NPHS can now only sell to individuals.
Acadia Publishing Company’s “Images of America” series consists of thousands of other vintage books about local communities all across the United States. A number of other San Diego neighborhoods are included, such as Pacific Beach, La Mesa, Ocean Beach and soon Mission Hills.
The book will be distributed through various local retailers, such as Pigment in North Park, North Park Hardware, The Grove in South Park, the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park, Barnes and Noble, and organizations like Save Our Heritage Organisation’s shop at the Whaley House in Old Town.
North Park’s story began in the 1870s, but it really began to take shape in 1910 when a large segment of it was leveled and divided into parcels for both commercial and residential development by John Hartley, whose late father James had purchased the land in 1893 intending it to be a citrus grove.
In the years since, North Park — named by the elder Hartley after a development due south then known as “City Park” — has seen it all.
The thriving urban existence of the 1920s and 1930s soon saw the area grow into a commercial centerpiece after WWII, with Woolworth, J. C. Penney and dozens of specialty and discount stores lining University Avenue. The Toyland Parade brought 300,000 viewers along that same avenue year after year. Nearby El Cajon Boulevard became the region’s “hot rod cruising strip,” due to its wide lanes, its long, straight stretch of roadway and its drive-in restaurants. President John F. Kennedy even motored down “The Boulevard,” just months before his death in 1963.
Big outdoor malls built nearby in the 1970s put an end to the area’s commercial success and North Park began to lose track of itself for a while. But the Craftsman and the Spanish Revival homes in the area, as well as the Art Deco and Modernist buildings along University Avenue, always stayed strong, no matter who inhabited them. Many of yesterday’s buildings are still recognizable today.
Michael Good, author of San Diego Uptown News’ “House Calls” column, contributed greatly to the book. Good, who can trace his family’s North Park roots back to 1911, said he got involved with the book to “help out his neighbors,” but that wasn’t all.
“I also got involved for the same reason I moved back to North Park — to feel some connection with my past and honor my ancestors,” Good said. “My grandmother thought wherever she lived was the greatest place in the world. She would not be at all surprised with how popular North Park has become with the young and hip.”
Good now lives in his grandmother’s bungalow on Granada Street.
“San Diego’s North Park” is broken into eight chapters, the first four bring the reader through a chronological history of the area and four others are focused on special categories: “Churches and Schools,” “The Toyland Parade,” “Changes and Revitalization” and “Community Life.” Half of the photos were sourced from the San Diego History Center and the rest came from various organizations, media and local families. The constant diversity of what has always been North Park is apparent throughout.
Included are photos of J.C. Penney’s, where Wang’s is today; various Toyland floats; the Palisade Roller Rink at Utah Street and University Avenue; various views of the Switzer Canyon bridge; street cars on a number of different roadways; Ted Williams on his front porch; the PSA crash of 1978, and many many more.
“North Park has always been a lively place,” Good said. “It’s gone through more revitalizations than an aging Hollywood starlet. It’s been more egalitarian, less exclusionary — if not less exclusive — than many San Diego neighborhoods.”
“San Diego’s North Park” was launched with a lecture and book signing at the San Diego History Center Sept. 23 and more celebratory events are in the works. On Oct. 4, starting at 9:30 a.m., the San Diego History Center and the NPHS will host a real-time “now and then” tour of the North Park’s commercial area, using photos from the book for comparison. For more information visit sandiegohistory.org/NorthParkWT. On Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m., in conjunction with the University Heights History Society, there will be another lecture presentation about the book at Grace Lutheran Church. “San Diego’s North Park” will be available for purchase at both events for $22.75, which includes tax.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at email@example.com