Good neighborhoods require the right mix of place, time, and things, and the right people. But neighborhoods are not good simply because they are not bad, because rape and pillage are not going on at the end of the block and cops are not on permanent patrol. A good neighborhood is rare — clearly exceptional, fine-tuned and running well. Good neighborhoods are little secrets tucked away and known only to the few who live there. These portions of paradise have safe and attractive streets, and homes that are comfortable, but here also lifelong friendships bloom and those who move in often never want to leave. On a cul-de-sac in North Park, off 30th Street, quietly sits one such Shangri-la.
Olive Street is just ten minutes from downtown. Shopping needs are met at nearby University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard; movies and bookstores and eateries are close. In addition to these urban conveniences, Olive Street offers a bonus: Switzer Canyon.
Ephraim D. Switzer arrived in San Diego in 1868 and purchased five acres in the northeast section of the canyon, where he planted citrus trees. Today Olive Street lies on the northeast rim above where the Switzer farm once stood. The orange and lemon trees are gone, but in the canyon the Bewick’s wren sings, the orange-throated whiptail lizard suns itself, and the occasional coyote howls.
Most of the homes on Olive Street are small bungalows, 1920s and 1930s Craftsman-style units. There are no parents raising young children here (the only kids are a pair of teenagers); adults’ ages range from early 30s to 80s. A two-bedroom bungalow on Olive Street rents for nearly $1000 a month. There are only two people of color. Among the 37 residents, one man crafts jewelry, another is an architect, and a third delivers packages for United Parcel Service. Gays hang out with grandparents; single women, Midwesterners, and folks from the East Coast have found their ways here.
Between 1903 and 1909, the trolley expanded into the area east of Balboa Park. Thirtieth Street became the route, and a bridge was built to extend the street across Switzer Canyon, from Laurel to Olive. With the trolley expansion, Salathiel Gurwell acquired property north of Date and Elm. Olive Street was part of the land included in Gurwell Heights when it was officially listed as a subdivision in 1906. The street got its name around 1900, when the streets between A and Sacramento were named alphabetically after trees. While in this historical account, Olive Street, sitting between Nutmeg and Palm, finds its roots deeply entwined in San Diego’s urban development, this matters little in the ongoing lives of those who currently live there.
“I knew what I wanted,” said Lee Fargo, 44-year-old UCSD professor of psychology, waving her arms wide to take in the living room, the rest of the two-bedroom house, and the street on which it sits. “When I went looking for a place to live, I wanted to be on a block where the houses were old, where there were lots of built-ins. I also wanted a community. This was really important.”
Fargo moved here in 1995 after receiving her doctoral degree and finding herself no longer eligible for UCSD graduate-student housing in La Jolla. There, students joined in late-night potlucks and moved easily in and out of each other’s apartments. “And I wanted some of that same feeling. I wanted neighbors who cared about one another and did things together,” she said.
On all counts, as it turned out, Olive Street fit the bill.
Fargo’s white cottage, trimmed in blue, was built in 1932. Like much of North Park, Olive Street offers a pre–World War II view of San Diego that is generally lost among the ongoing spread of housing developments and newer mall-communities.
“I knew the minute I saw the house and the street that they were right for me.”
When she learned that Olive Street maintains a roster of residents’ names, telephone numbers, and pets’ names, Fargo was excited. She signed her lease, waited for the paint to dry, then moved in.
At her back, afternoon sunlight filtered into the living room through a pair of Roman shades, heavy unbleached cotton with deep horizontal pleats. Dispersed light ignited the red highlights in Fargo’s shoulder-length auburn hair. She spoke of her grandmother, who came from England in 1920, and of her grandfather, a one-armed Norwegian who was twice elected mayor of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Fargo, a natural raconteur, talked about her father, Vern Fargo, who on a visit to San Diego from Minnesota a couple of years ago suddenly discovered that he’d been given 13 cents too much in change at the hardware store. “I was driving, and he ordered me to turn around so that he could return the money.” Here in a cozy living room on a quiet street with sunlight bathing the room, time feels suspended and a quaint tale of an old man and 13 cents takes on the vitality and relevance of an act of conscience.
Fargo’s warm, invitational tones work to put a visitor at ease. I had made for her couch, a jumble of cushions, its sage-green damask upholstery covered with sheets and towels, when she stopped me. “K.C. is spotting,” she explained, and I shouldn’t sit there. K.C., a friend’s miniature pinscher, was a new mom and still bleeding a little. Fargo was dog-sitting. “Maybe you should try one of those easy chairs.” K.C. was not allowed on them and there my clothes would be stain-safe.
Fargo’s childhood, as she described it, was much like her house — comfortable and pleasant. She grew up in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, but from the first day of summer vacation until Labor Day, she was in the woods of northern Minnesota at her maternal grandmother’s summer home on Lake Bemidji (an Ojibwa name). Fargo remembers how the yellow wooden structure peeked at them through tall pines as her father drove up. Built in the 1800s and fronting a clear lake fed by the slim beginnings of the Mississippi River, the house holds for Fargo recalled enchantment. Her home on Olive Street reminds her of that house and time.
This is the first of two parts. Read the second part.