The discreet charm of Encanto

There's no snooty people here

Of a population of 15,000-plus, 32 percent of Encanto's residents are Hispanic, 29 percent black, 22 percent white, and 17 percent Asian.
  • Of a population of 15,000-plus, 32 percent of Encanto's residents are Hispanic, 29 percent black, 22 percent white, and 17 percent Asian.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Encanto could be the setting for a John Steinbeck novel. Drive along its meandering roads, and pass vintage trucks on blocks. Rottweilers and Dalmatians barking behind chain-link fences, a couple of abandoned sofas with stuffing tumbled out, and endless acres of California sagebrush, flattop buckwheat, wild-flowers, mustard plants, laurel sumac, and white and black sage.

Don Dauphin: “There’s good people here. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, people treat you the same—nicely."

Don Dauphin: “There’s good people here. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, people treat you the same—nicely."

It is a study in beauty and ugliness, as are most charismatic places. Sunrises are Technicolor bursts over its 11 hills, which, in some places, look as they did when Spanish conquistadors claimed them two centuries ago. Encanto’s winding roads, leading 225 feet above sea level, are dotted with pepper trees, palms, toyon, avocado trees, eucalyptus, and prickly pear cactus. These vistas strikingly contrast with the orderly, grid-patterned streets and tract homes of Encanto’s neighboring suburbs.

Encanto offered many African-Americans their first opportunity to own homes.

Encanto offered many African-Americans their first opportunity to own homes.

But “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs are common sights in the area, and castaways — lawn chairs, mattresses, a soiled bag of clothes—can be found on many overgrown lots. Road-kill — which, on one Saturday morning, included two cats, a dog, and an animal of unidentifiable species — is a frequent hazard in an environ where pet owners let their animals run free.

Encantans may continue guarding their community’s rural sensibilities, while urging the “yuppification” of their main drag,

Encantans may continue guarding their community’s rural sensibilities, while urging the “yuppification” of their main drag,

Ask Encanto’s citizens about its “charm,” and many will attribute it to the people. According to the 1990 census, Encanto is a racially balanced place. Of a population of 15,000-plus, 32 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent black, 22 percent white, and 17 percent Asian. Nearly 39 percent of Encantans speak a language other than English in their homes. In some cities, “melting-pot demographics” cause discord. But the people who live within Encanto’s borders stress that there are little tensions between the ethnicities.

“One of the things that’s different about Encanto is that it’s not a community where the races are separate,” says Carolyn Smith, president of San Diego’s Southeastern Economic Development Company (SEDC):. “You can see that everybody mixes together.”

Adds Don Dauphin, owner of Don’s Bait and Tackle, who’s operated his store at 6407 Imperial for 21 years, “There’s good people here. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, people treat you the same—nicely. There’s no snooty people here.”

Who are the Encantans? At the time of the last census (1990), 61 percent worked as administrative support staff, service personnel, and manufacturing laborers. Only 15 percent had college degrees but, despite this, the community managed to generate a median income of $33,582. Eighteen percent of Encanto families lived below the poverty level, however, some in overcrowded housing.

Encanto has had its share of bad press, when it’s been the site of shootings drug busts, or, in March of 1998, emu abuse. Its residents protest that this is a bum rap. “It’s actually very safe here,” says Linda Churchill, an Encanto Heights resident. “I don’t hear about problems like break-ins from any neighbors. It’s the people I know who live in places like La Jolla who seem to have those types of concerns.”

This may be because God lives in Encanto. Drive along Imperial Avenue, the city’s somewhat austere main drag, and count His considerable real estate holdings: several run-down single-level stucco buildings with blank facades; a few tall, stately brick edifices with steeples and glinting crosses. Neon signs, wooden placards, marquees, and banners proclaim God’s presence in Encanto and urge passersby to come in and be saved.

But the SEDC is actually the entity that’s attempting to save Encanto. In 1993, the organization sank $400,000 into a “Streetscape Art Project” designed to revitalize the avenue’s median strip from 62nd to 69th Streets. The strip was repaved with pink concrete and landscaped with 35 trees and more than 1000 gaily colored plants. Local artist Eddie Edwards created 24 panels featuring scenes from Encanto’s history and contemporary life, which were displayed on art-deco-inspired lightposts. A street fair was thrown on August 21, 1993, to commemorate the completion of the work, which attracted thousands. It has become an annual event.

Imperial Avenue is Encanto’s “walking boulevard” — an anomaly in the Southland. Women push baby strollers to the Trolley Shop Plaza as bright-red trolleys whiz by. On their way home from Marie Widman Park, white-shirted latino youths amble past Chollas Creek, whose miles-long cement cradle sits beside the roadway.

According to SEDC’s Smith, Encanto’s business district is in need of services other San Diego communities take for granted. “Right now, there’s only one major grocery store in all of Southeast San Diego,” she says. “We’ve been trying to encourage others to come into this neighborhood, but we’ve had difficulties. They say the median income is too low, but I tell them, ‘All people have to eat.’ A lot of people say the reason for their unwillingness is racism.”

Despite Encanto’s size, it has no library branch or post office within its boundaries. Its shopping district is rife with single-owner grocery stores, beauty parlors, thrift shops, Laundromats, and liquor stores but is noticeably lacking in “one-stop shopping superstores.” Last year, the SEPC purchased a 14-acre tract of land between Market Street and Imperial Avenue, east of 54th Street, to be the site of a 25,000-square-foot past office. The organization is also offering loans of between $5000 and $50,000 to locally owned small businesses that agree to spur further revitalization of Encanto.

Two hundred years ago, when Encanto was 11 hills of chaparral, it was part of a 58,875-acre Spanish farm holding called Rancho de la Mis-i6n San Diego de Alcala, which extended from the pueblo of El Cajon and National City to what is now Clairemont. On June 8,1846, it was deeded by California governor Pio Pico to one of his former employees, Santiago Arguello, “in consideration of past services.” But the following month, Arguello received unexpected visitors who coveted his land. The USS Cyane had sailed into San Diego Bay carrying a battalion of volunteers who promptly “secured” the land for the United States. Among the group was John C. Fremont, who marveled at the “stream-side gardens” of the Spanish that overflowed with “pears, peaches pomegranates grapes olives and other fruits...”

The Americans subdivided the land, and the site that is Encanto became part of the 3350.5-acre “Ex-Mission lot No. 13,” which itself was later subdivided into 10-acre tracts.

In 1880, Abraham Klauber built a country cottage for his family on the “Klauber Park subdivision” of this land. The property later became known as “the Old Klauber Homestead.” Although Klauber’s primary residence was eight miles away in the downtown district, Klauber, his wife, and 12 children took frequent buggy rides to the new homestead. Views from the area at that time were spectacular; on a clear day, one could see Point Loma, Coronado, Spring Valley’s flatlands, the San Miguel Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean. One of Klauber’s daughters remarked that there was not much to do in the environs except look at the views and smell the sage and tar weed. But that, she said, was enough.

Klauber’s oldest daughter, Ella, is the person who gave Encanto its name. Lore has it that she paged through a Spanish dictionary searching for an appropriate appellation. She finally settled upon “Encanto,” which means “Enchantment.”

On October 7,1891, Abraham Klauber requested that a map of his property at Lot 7, tract 1385, be filed. Two years later, on May 6, 1893, he filed a second map for the subdivision of Lot 13, which comprised his cattle ranchland.

A group of adventurous Montanans next left their imprint upon the land, when, in 1907, they arrived in San Diego, hoping to profit from the booming California real estate market. They formed the Richland Realty Company to handle their land acquisitions and attempted to name their holdings “Richland” but found the name already had been taken. After platting their acreage, they subdivided the land into ten-acre lots and sold the parcels to other Montanans for $200 an acre, before returning to their home state. Many of Encanto’s streets are named for these turn-of-the-century speculators: Sullivan, Tyler, Robison, Wunderlin, Copdand, Tooley, Kendall, Tarbox, Gibson, Zeller, Williams, Hilger, Falon, Woodman, Medigar, Fergus, Grant, Hunsaker, O’Neill, and Richey.

Abraham Klauber died at his Encanto cottage in 1911 but lived king enough to see his hillside wilderness evolve into a rural community. Farmers and ranchers who lived near Klauber became Encanto’s first “commuters.” They left their buggies and wagons at the Encanto railroad station—the first suburban destination on the San Diego/Cuyamaca Railway line — to catch the San Diego and Arizona Eastern train into town.

Promoters flooded into Encanto during the early years of this century, praising the land as a “buyer’s paradise.” “Encanto Heights is showered with possibilities that no man can at present gauge, and now is the time to buy,” one brochure raved. The eager salesmen were masters of hyperbole and gimmickry. Some initiated a “buried treasure” campaign and buried gold pieces of different denominations in the dirt of Encanto’s unsold land parcels. “Bring your shovels!” they encouraged prospective buyers, and even dispensed free railway tickets to the area.

A few Encanto boosters even believed that, with an elaborate publicity campaign, they could transform Encanto into “Hollywood South.” They feverishly courted the fledgling Hollywood community and even named two of their subdivisions “West Hollywood” and “Hollydale,” but their efforts were for naught. The film community remained “intractable” in Los Angeles.

Cheap water was the impetus for Encanto’s annexation to San Diego. The town’s earliest property holders had made arrangements with the Southern California Mountain Company to furnish water to the area because its main ran through the district, from southeast to northwest. Several landholders formed the Encanto Mutual Water Company to build additional conduits and distribute water. But when their water fees tripled (one resident reported that it rose from $.10 per thousand gallons to nearly $.35 per thousand gallons), Encanto citizens reluctantly voted to become part of San Diego so that they could obtain their water at more reasonable prices.

Encanto formally annexed with San Diego on April 24, 1916, which, ironically, became a year of too much water. Terrible flooding caused a 5-foot-wide creek at what is now 64th Street to overflow its banks and become a 100-foot-wide “lake.” The creek had been a favorite play site for children, who would leap across it on their way to the two-room schoolhouse, which was located dose to where Encanto’s Elementary School now stands (822 65th Street). The original school was later converted into Randall Hall, a community auditorium.

Then, in the 1920s, the automobile changed the face of Encanto, as it replaced the streetcar as residents’ primary mode of transportation. Winding roads were etched into the hillsides, and homes sprung up alongside them. Tracts were further subdivided, and, by 1931, Encanto boasted a population of 1200 souls, as well as a school, church, and Encanto Improvement Society.

Lots in the community now ranged from one-half to ten acres in size and sold for $100/acre, with terms of “one-third down, balance of $10 per month, unless special arrangements are made.” Within Encanto’s boundaries sprung up numerous agricultural concerns: poultry ranches, small orchards, and other unusual botanical ventures: “A distinctive feature of Encanto,” said one San Diego guidebook published in 1937, “is the commercial cactus gardens.”

By the mid-1930s, many Encanto residents earned their principal incomes raising fruits and vegetables. Some cultivated orange and lemon trees. Others specialized in growing grapefruit, olives, and berries. Orchards in Encanto sold for between $500 and $800 per acre. The most productive ones were valued at $1000 to $1800 per acre.

To lure more agrarian entrepreneurs to the area, promoters touted Encanto’s soil as nonpareil. They described it as “rich and of unsurpassed fertility” and “soft and of fine quality” due to its “peculiar decayed mineral condition which makes the ground loose” and its “natural slope which carries off rain.” Exaggeration aside, Encanto's fertile soil did nurture bumper crops for its residents.

Prior to World War II, Japanese immigrants had formed a thriving settlement in Encanto, raising flowers, tomatoes, beets, and carrots. They introduced asparagus and white celery to the region, and, until their banishment from the area when war broke out, earned the admiration of their non-Japanese neighbors for their harvests and diligent work ethics. Many Japanese families rose at midnight to work in their fields until 4:00 am, before returning home, napping, then venturing back into the fields at dawn.

During the 1940s, however, Encanto’s demographic profile changed. Many — perhaps most — of the Japanese families who had settled in the area prior to their internment and relocation did not (or could not) return to their lands once they were free to resettle along California’s coastline. A massive influx of new residents descended upon Encanto, which spurred a bungalow-building frenzy. The area became more residential and less countrified, which was fine by the new Encantans. In 1940, for example, the residents demanded that San Diego officials force a dairy at 65th and Wunderlin to cease operation because “it was in the middle of a built-up section and they wanted it moved.”

A whopping 980 homes (or 23.2 percent of all existing Encanto structures) were built during the 1950s. New highways were created, which crisscrossed the land nearby, further increasing Encanto’s accessibility. Innovations in earth-moving techniques allowed developers to mow down physical barriers that threatened to preclude subdivision sales. Slopes were cut away, canyons were filled, and natural runoff channels were diverted.

African-Americans began to settle in the area during the 1960s. Many moved from Logan Heights (Southeast San Diego). To them, Encanto was a welcomed change from their former haunts: “There is nothing particularly picturesque about this southern end of town,” warned one San Diego visitors’ guidebook about Logan Heights. “The buildings and houses are old and in need of repair, there is considerable poverty and little wealth; if any part of the city could be called a slum, this is it.” Encanto offered many African-Americans their first opportunity to own homes.

Some racial tensions arose, and more than a few long-term white residents moved to more “exclusive” (segregated) sections of San Diego. But Encanto’s “neighborliness” seemed to have developed during this decade. Community members launched activities designed to unite residents of all races: concerts in the park, a Christmas ceremony (with requisite tree), and a civic club for airing grievances and planning community affairs.

During the go-go ’60s also came increased commercial development in Encanto. Warehouses, transportation terminals, building supply companies, frozen food distributors, freight forwarders, and other industrial concerns that utilized rail shipment established their squat, bland presences along Imperial Avenue. South of these buildings, new residences mushroomed, too, but the homes were somewhat more suburban-generic in design than their northerly counterparts.

A second housing boom struck Encanto in the 1970s when 866 homes (20.5 percent of all Encanto abodes) were built.

Today, the city’s housing remains affordable for first-time buyers. Nearly 96 percent of Encanto’s homes are valued at under $200,000. The average price for a home in 1997 was $123,000. Local organizations have initiated projects to build and restore low-priced homes for Encanto’s residents. The San Diego Urban League has completed two rehab projects in Encanto (6164 and 6205 Wunderlin), according to the organization’s president, John Johnson. And San Diego’s Habitat for Humanity erected seven houses at 910 60th Street as part of Jimmy Carter’s “Work Project” in 1991. At the site, Habitat also restored the home of San Diego’s first mayor, Edward Capp, who served from 1899 to 1901 and again from 1915 to 1917.

The largest and probably most expensive residence in Encanto is a 6000-square-foot estate owned by Willie Morrow, at 6333 Tooley Street. Morrow, a former barber who grew wealthy from his Imperial Avenue-based California Curl beauty-product’s firm, built the giant structure in Encanto to show his devotion to the community.

The Churchill Addition at 1267 Weaver is perhaps the most architecturally significant building in Encanto. Designed by award-winning architect Jeanne McCallum for a husband-and-wife muralizing team, the 1900-square-foot building is a pomo fantasy structure. It features an arced bridge at street level that leads to an eight-foot-square wood-and-glass entrance tower or “time machine” and then to a main tri-level living space.

As the 21st Century tolls, more buildings like the Churchill Addition may arise on the hills of Encanto, which is already attracting “artist-types” to its hills. Encantans may continue guarding their community’s rural sensibilities, while urging the “yuppification” of their main drag, which has defied beautification to date with its banal commercial strips. Plans are underway to give the buildings’ depressing facades facelifts and decorate them with brick, glass, awnings, tasteful signage, and faux finishes. Already on the drawing board for the street are jazz and blues clubs, ice cream shops, candy stores, restaurants/cafés, and bookstores.

And an Encanto history museum.

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