New and Old: North Park Upgrades

While North Park's boundary lines are debated, its hub is the intersection of University Avenue and 30th Street, which is where its story begins. Just northeast of Balboa Park, North Park is an epicenter of coffee shops and storefronts, restaurants and dive bars, thrift stores and couture boutiques--an odd mix, all in all. The University Avenue area in particular is an excellent point with which to chart North Park's recent surge of upgrading amid what is left of its former incarnation as somewhat of a slum. There is an interesting mishmash of polarities on display, from the flocks of homeless who congregate at the bus stops to the well-dressed professionals wandering in and out of Heaven Sent Desserts to the tattoo shop just kitty-corner from the newly renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. Thirtieth Street is a mix of rising condos and dilapidated single-family homes; the newly renovated Dino's is outfitted with white leather couches, while the local mainstay bars boast balding pool tables and PBR tallboys for three bucks a pop.

The surrounding neighborhoods reflect a mirror image of the changing environs. While scrubby, sun-scorched patches still dot the landscape, many homeowners have upped the ante and installed complicated sprinkler systems that catacomb through their gardens. The degree of landscaping, often done in yards no bigger than a postage stamp, is staggering, especially in comparison to the barren, patchy sod of their less-developed neighbors--the polarity at work again. These more modest gardens offer sagging armchairs on sagging porches that overlook dusty patches of grass, trees shading peeling-painted houses from the worst of the sun. Some lawns are all dirt, others all trash, tampons and chip bags scattered among 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and cigarette butts. Skinny cats wander in and out as family dogs trot happily down the sidewalk beside their owners. To be simple, it is what real estate agents deem a "community in transition."

Since its inception, those in North Park have had an eye cast toward development. In 1893, North Park's "first family," the Hartleys, bought up the 40-acre parcel of land where University and 30th now meet. After the Georgia Street Bridge was erected in 1907 and the first trolley lines installed not long thereafter, North Park began to look like viable real estate. A few years later Jack Hartley, along with his brother-in-law, began selling off parcels to eager entrepreneurs after the elder Mr. Hartley's death. These men, and others who owned tracts north of University Avenue, divided up their land into roads, which would later become the residential streets that exist to this day. As the neighborhood took shape, the deal was sealed, and boom, a community was born.

But it didn't last forever. After World War II, the shopping mall was invented, and in 1961, developers plunked the Mission Valley Shopping Center a few miles from North Park. "Mission Valley killed everything," says Roger Newton, over a heaping plate of hocks and lima beans at Rudford's on El Cajon Boulevard. North Park entered what would become a long slump, Newton explains; buildings sat empty, stores boarded up. Newton, a retired electronics engineer, spent his childhood in North Park and has owned a home there for eight years. He's bounced around the San Diego area for most of his life. The convenience of the mall, he explains, slowed the mom-and-pop businesses along University and El Cajon Boulevard to a crawl, eventually leading to their demise. "Once they built Mission Valley, bingo," Newton continues, "nothing but abandoned storefronts. That's where all these thrift stores and stuff..." He trails off, stirring his beans, then starts up again. "If you were in one of these buildings, you were lucky if you could get a massage parlor or a porno bookstore to move in!" he says, laughing. The residences, he also notes, fared poorly as a result. In an apparent profit-maximizing move, older single-family houses were torn down only to be replaced by the "Huffman six-pack," the motel-style stack of dwellings that were popular (and inexpensive) postwar and remain some of the cheapest housing available in San Diego. "By the time we get into the mid-'70s on into the '80s," Newton says, with a chuckle, "if you had one of these apartment buildings down here, your choice was which drug dealer do you rent to, not whether or not you rented to a drug dealer, because they were the only ones that had any money to rent. And these [buildings] would have, like, 50 percent vacancy rates."

And for decades, it remained this way, in a state of mild-to-moderate disrepair. "When I got here, it was nothing," says Les Swazzo, a part-time bartender at Scolari's Office and full-time poli-sci student who has watched North Park grow into its own in the five years he's lived there. "I was out here when I was in the service," he explains, "[and] I fell in love with the place. When I moved, I got lucky. I rented a house for, like, $500. You can't find that now." He recalls the days of vacant buildings and latent businesses, even in his relatively short stint in the community. But history, as Swazzo and the rest of North Park have discovered, repeats itself, and in the last five to ten years, depending on whom you ask, developers have once again flocked to North Park, sensing a lucrative opportunity.

"What we're going through is a rolling thing," explains Newton, who attributes the rise of North Park to a Reaganomic-like mode of out-pricing. He elaborates: "What happened was the dot-commers priced all the people there in Rancho Santa Fe out and moved 'em down to La Jolla. That priced all the people in La Jolla out into Mission Hills, which then bumped those people into Hillcrest, which bumped those people over here into North Park, which bumped those people into City Heights." However apocalyptic that might sound, North Park is seeing its renaissance. New buildings abound on 30th Street, fostered by the city's Redevelopment Agency, all glass windows and pastel stucco postmodern palaces in the middle of wartime storefronts. Little artsy shops display all sorts of wares, while the glittering North Park theater dominates University Avenue with its old-fashioned marquee lights. North Park seems to be employing all the things necessary to become a bustling urb. Phil Erdelsky, a 30-year resident, retired computer programmer, and webmaster of his own site about North Park, says with a smile, "I don't have to move downtown. They're building a downtown around me. Have you noticed?"

Both instrumental in and wary of these endeavors is the North Park Community Association, which formed in 1984 in response to the slowly but steadily changing landscape and increasing population as recommended by the Greater North Park Planning Committee, an advisory group to the city council that, at the time, had very little resident representation. Beth Swersie, president of the North Park Community Association, explains, "[The organization] started out in a time when the planning committee in the community was heavily populated with developers, and things were going differently than the general community really wanted in terms of knocking down bungalows and putting up six- and eight-plexes, what we call the Huffman Era. And eventually, a lot of the NPCA members ended up on the planning committee."

While the community association supports things like the renovation of the theater, it frowns upon the disruption and upheaval of some of North Park's finer features. To address this problem, the North Park History Committee was formed as an offshoot dedicated to preserving the neighborhood's landmarks. The reopening of the North Park theater has been a real treat for them. "[It] opened in 1929 as one of the first theaters set up for talkies," says Katherine Hon, secretary of the history committee, sitting across from the lily pond in Balboa Park. "[It's] really a beautiful theater, and it was empty after about '86. It was actually a church for a little while, and then it was just vacant, and then just in the last couple years it's been restored to essentially its original glory."

Among the history committee's efforts is a push to designate the area around 28th and Pershing a historic district, thereby placing heavy restrictions on the demolition of the residences, and a full-length book chronicling North Park from 1946 to 1996, originally authored by the late David Covington and now in the hands of the committee. At the forefront of the book's publication is Hon herself. "I would say [Covington] was probably about 90 percent done with it, and then he contracted leukemia and died in the summer of 2002," she explains. "And his wife, Karen, was trying to pull [the book] all together from his electronic files and his notes, and that was just really difficult for her. And then this June, I think, she felt she trusted me enough to turn it all over to me." The book is almost entirely laid out, and Hon and the committee hope for publication.

Understanding the groups formed to upgrade North Park is complicated at best. Swersie draws them out on a scrap of paper over coffee at the Other Side Coffeehouse. She explains, "There's the NPCA, and there's the planning committee. There's the PAC, which is for redevelopment issues. There's Main Street, which is our business improvement district. There's a MAD, which is the maintenance assessment district. [The North Park Community Association] keeps tabs on what's going on in all these other groups. We help out when we can, we offer community input, and we offer our website for getting the word out about what's going on in the community." The North Park maintenance assessment district picks up the slack where the City of San Diego leaves off, steam cleaning sidewalks and keeping public greenery fresh. The PAC advises the Redevelopment Agency on projects and tasks, and the business improvement district is called North Park Main Street, which acts as a liaison between the City and businesses, helping owners renovate their old buildings. Jude Thomas, Main Street's interim executive director, explains from a seat at his conference table, "Basically we're the business association, and we've been charged with the revitalization of University Avenue from Park Boulevard to 805." He continues, "I think the goal [is] to have a downtown area in North Park that is economically viable and self-sufficient in the sense that it serves the residents and the other businesses in the area so that people can come and get all their goods and services [locally]."

But still, there are skeptics. Despite the combined efforts of each committee and group, disdain remains palpable. "Actually, North Park's sort of a hole," Brandon Cornalo declares, as he puffs on a cigarette outside Scolari's Office, the dive bar/music venue just off University Avenue. Cornalo, 28 and a welder by trade, is a lifelong San Diegan and lived in North Park until recently, when he made his way to Clairemont. He doesn't appear to miss his old digs. "There's a lot of degenerate nigger fuckin' spic Jew bastards that don't give a fuck about anybody else," he continues. "It's the fuckin', for lack of better words, the legislature, you know, city council, whatever, they're trying to do better, with nice buildings and everything, but it's still not taking away from homeboy over here, wasted and fucking asking every Tom, Dick, or Harry that comes by for a cigarette." He jabs his own cigarette in the direction of a darkened doorway behind him where a duo of black men has camped out for the night. The "upgrading" of North Park doesn't impress Cornalo, as he rattles off a litany of problems: disrepair, homelessness, a populous existing largely without motivation. Most of these things, though, he attributes to a simple lack of caring, as he points out a bent traffic cone to his left. "There's plenty of money in the community of North Park," he says, "[and] if they give a shit they'd come out and repair that, but no, they're going to spend all their money on the goddamn richer parts of the city."

Cornalo's friend, Brian Bondie, gives his two cents. "I think in the last two years it's probably gotten a little seedier," he says. "[There are] more transients. More, I don't know, just like random troublemakers, trash talkin', stuff like that. I feel it's a result of this [indicates new condos on 30th Street], honestly. I do. [It's] gonna happen, you know, when you start cramming more people in here, no matter what, no matter where it's at, and when you're piling more people on top of each other. I think the problems are gonna increase exponentially." Bondie, 31, grew up in Georgia and has been in North Park for six years, after doing a Navy stint at Point Loma. He lives not far from Scolari's on 30th Street. Though he likes North Park--"My house got broken into two weeks ago and I fuckin' still love it!" he claims--he'd rather be back near the base. "I'd rather live in Point Loma if I could afford it," he admits. "Maybe it's just nostalgia, I don't know, but after the break-in, things are starting to set in."

Swazzo, too, sees some of the same problems in the community. "There are homeless people," he says, echoing Cornalo, "which is kinda, you know, a shame. They should just take them and...move them away." But he feels a sense of empathy. "When I came out here, I was homeless," he says, then looks toward the front of the bar. "You see Curtis outside?" he asks. "He's a black guy, a homeless black guy. Nicest guy in the world. Just...doesn't want to work. So he lives on the street. I give him cigarettes every day. He gets arrested 'cause he's vagrant. He's been living on the street now for, I guess, two years." He pauses. "The rents are going up [like] crazy," he continues, then chuckles. "Maybe that's why Curtis is on the street!"

But there are those who are comfortably situated, however wary of the new wave of buildings. John Keasley, who arrived in San Diego four years after his tour in Vietnam, bought a house in 1989. "When I got ready to leave home, it was either here or Baltimore," he says, laughing. "I had friends in both places. The guys in San Diego just picked up the phone first. That brought me, and the gay nightlife kept me." Keasley settled in North Park after scoring a great deal on a piece of property and has stayed ever since, starting work with a local AIDS service organization. "This is the longest I've ever lived anyplace," he says. "I've outlived two roommates, a roommate and a partner." Armed with a background in real estate, Keasley sees flaws in the development plans a layman may not. Recalling the '80s real estate crash in San Diego and the foreclosures that came with it, he predicts a repeat performance. "The banks allowed [homebuyers] to overextend themselves," he says, "and what happened was they found that they couldn't get their equity out of their houses and so they got foreclosed on. So after the '80s, we had a lot of foreclosure sales, where people got real estate real cheap. Now these same people, they've waited 20 years, and they sold [their property] at a profit, but the people who bought it are now overextended, so we're going to have another period of foreclosures."

For as much local skepticism as there may be--"Only an idiot would buy a condo!" Newton exclaims--there is no denying the increased residential attraction that has brought newcomers to the area. More homes have been purchased and fixed up rather than demolished, either by investors or by young families seeking out a little slice of California paradise for their own. With the older residents either dying or moving to retirement homes, residences have turned over, mostly to couples with babies and toddlers. "It's just incredible how many people are having children these days," Swersie says, laughing. And the more the merrier, it seems. For those who already own homes, at least. "Prop. 13 tends to reward people who stay put," Erdelsky says, then goes on to explain. "Proposition 13 was a statewide proposition passed in the late '70s. The principal thing is it said that real estate [can be reassessed] only when it is sold, and between sales [the assessed value] can only be upped as much as 2 percent a year. Before that they were able to increase assessments based on the general level of real estate prices." But renters do not have as much security. "One of the things that worries a lot of us is the condo conversions," says Swersie. "[That] has been a big issue. There's a lot of concern about the displacement of renters and the affordability of housing." Jude Thomas, of North Park Main Street, the business improvement district, recalls what a visitor to his office had to say. "A gentleman came in on Friday talking about how much he hates specific developments," says Thomas. "He's just an old guy who comes in about twice a year and he rants. He goes off on his spiels for a while, and then usually he goes, 'But you've been doing great work here, thanks a lot,' and then he'll leave. He's just someone who's lived here forever, and he doesn't like the changes. He complains about how they're pushing out poor people or pushing out the middle class." And the man has a point. Even with an option to buy, the package is expensive.

So what will North Park look like in five years? Ten? Can it all coexist, new and old, swank and well worn? Jude Thomas thinks so, speculating that the bars in particular will continue to hang on. "If you look at dive bars in San Diego in the last four or five years, they've gone through a big resurgence," he says. "You get the people who don't want to go to clubs, but they want to go out drinking--the indie-music-scene type thing--they see these dive bars as places they can go and hang out on a Friday and a Saturday night." Anything else with an arts focus, he adds, should be safe since it "taps into the whole arts culture and entertainment aspect of North Park that is what these real estate developers are selling to people." But others are worried, and not just about the change in businesses. Brian Bondie worries the new buildings will increase their allotment of lower-income housing. "I think all the new development and urbanization here is gonna usher in just...a new wave of Section Eights and everything that goes with that," he says. "[They are] the lower-income people that, while one of those condos might cost me $320,000 to $420,000 [or] whatever they're going for, it's 50 percent subsidized for [them]. I think it's a detriment to the social program." And Brandon Cornalo? "I don't give a fuck," he says.

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