The first day I took my daughter to her new school, I questioned whether moving to Eastlake was the right move for our family. I had stopped by the Otay Ranch mall on enough weekday afternoons to know that the area has an abundance of fancy, perfumed stay-at-home moms. As a visitor, I found the idea charming — the way one might find charming the sight of backcountry women washing their clothes in the river. How lovely and provincial, one thinks, until one finds herself standing in the river with a pile of wet clothes, wishing for a washing machine.
I was raised on the sound of lawn mowers, birds, and Little League baseball. There was a time when it gave me a thrill to live among the sounds of radios and car horns and sirens, but my tolerance has since diminished. It’s true that, when looking to purchase a home, had we been able to afford a four-bedroom, four-bath house on a semi-quiet street in Hillcrest or South Park, or maybe a spacious downtown high-rise, I would have been all for it. But in the end we chose square footage over location. And as much as I hated the idea of leaving city life behind, I yearned for afternoon runs along wide, quiet boulevards with landscaped medians.
And then here I was, with my house and my medians, somehow surprised that the parking lot of my daughter’s new preschool was crowded with minivans and moms in full makeup, large sunglasses, and exercise clothes.
Driving back to my home office, I was near tears.
What am I doing in Eastlake? I thought. I don’t Zumba.
No one drops by anymore. Football season 2012 was lonely. When we have parties, I feel the need to apologize for the drive. Recently, my husband had a work party at our place. When one of the guys arrived, he stepped into the house and said, “Man, you guys live way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere.”
It’s true. For anyone who doesn’t know the way to Eastlake (and/or doesn’t care to pay for the toll road), take 805 South past National City and Bonita, and keep driving until you’re sure you’ve missed the exit. After that, head east on East H or Telegraph Canyon or Olympic Parkway. After another maddening five miles of intermittent large-intersection traffic lights, you will have arrived at our perfect little “has everything” planned community of storybook loveliness, complete with duck ponds and sprinkler parks.
One afternoon, I drove a ten-mile loop from the Olympic Training Center, past Otay Lakes Road, down the wide boulevards of Hunte Parkway and Proctor Valley Road, then south on Eastlake Drive, around the lake and down Eastlake Parkway, past the mall to the Border Patrol stakeout at the corner of Eastlake Parkway and Hunte Parkway. On the way, I counted 14 gardeners in orange-and-yellow vests, 4 Border Patrol vehicles, and 39 purple and/or yellow flags meant to draw the eye toward large signboards announcing homes available “from the low $300,000s.”
Love my neighborhood! Can't imagine living anywhere else.
Content with where I live. It's good enough for now.
Would move in a heartbeat.
198 total votes.
The western end of the loop consists of a series of shopping centers, all butted up against Eastlake Parkway, and all bearing names that declare their neighborhood allegiance: Eastlake Terraces, Eastlake Village Marketplace, Village Walk at Eastlake, Eastlake Village Center, Otay Ranch Town Center, and Marketplace at Windingwalk.
At the eastern end of that loop stand the developments of Eastlake Greens (2356 units); Eastlake Trails (1145); Eastlake Trails North (254); Eastlake Vistas (1326); Eastlake Hills and Eastlake Shores (a combined 1822); the Woods (344); and the Gates (64). CasaLago Eastlake, a new development of apartments and townhomes just east of Olympic Training Center, is a 427-unit community currently under construction. The Windingwalk community currently has 1965 units completed, with another 21 planned and/or under construction.
The entrance of each development is meant to be grander than the last, flanked with either sentinel clusters of palm trees, trickling fountains, and/or low stone walls bearing the name of the subdivision.
In San Diego’s city center, the boundaries between neighborhoods are usually major cross-streets or freeways, but in this area, it’s a little different. Joe Glover, my real estate agent, tells me the division between Otay Ranch and Eastlake “is all about the little subdivisions. It’s not about the cross-streets.”
And for those of us who are not developers or HOA managers, this makes for some overlap and variance in perspective. Case in point: if you look on the Barnes & Noble website and search for store locations, you’ll see that the one they call their “Eastlake” store has an address at the Otay Ranch Mall.
Although there are official boundaries, Joe says, “Eastlake is almost like a generic term for all these different subdivisions.”
For the managers of the area homeowners’ associations (three of which tend to Eastlake proper: Eastlake 1, Eastlake 2, and Eastlake 3), the distinction is significant. Debra Vaca, the operations manager of Eastlake 3, told me that her organization alone employs 21 gardeners and 6 guys on the “mow crew,” each of whom works 8 hours a day and tends to 151.24 acres, or 6,587,931 square feet. There is no overlap with these guys. They know exactly which median to manicure, which desert bush to trim back and away from the jogging paths.
For the sake of simplicity, however, when using the word “Eastlake,” I’m referring to the area east of the 125, between Birch Road to the south and East H/Proctor Valley Road to the north. Although it includes the Otay Ranch Town Center mall and the Windingwalk development, both technically part of Otay Ranch, they are within the area I generally refer to as Eastlake.
We live at the very eastern edge of Eastlake’s suburban landscape. At night, we can see the lights of Tijuana. Our bedroom window looks out over a wide canyon alive with sage and other desert brush, roadrunners, coyotes, bunnies, and rattlesnakes. On the other side of the canyon, across Hunte Parkway, sits Windingwalk, a development of single-family homes painted earthy yellowish tones, their roofs Spanish-red. At night, when the lights of the subdivision shine across the darkened canyon, I imagine that I’m in Oakland looking across the San Francisco Bay at the lights of an urban metropolis, rather than in one Eastlake development staring at a matching development in Otay Ranch.
It’s a holdover habit from a small-town childhood spent dreaming of big cities. When I was a kid living in Boise, Idaho, city planners completed Interstate 184 (known as “the connector”), a 3.6-mile stretch of freeway leading from the Interstate 84 to downtown. By that point, I had traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, and the connector symbolized Boise’s coming up in the world. It seemed the first step in my hometown’s becoming a bustling metropolis. On the connector, I’d squint my eyes to blur the buildings around me and make them look larger, more multitudinous and imposing. In those moments, I fancied myself a city girl. Years later, when commuting daily from Brooklyn to the Bronx, I fought my way up the FDR in an 18-year-old Toyota Tercel hatchback with a sense of having arrived at my real self.
Now I’m back to pretending.
Which, in Eastlake, isn’t all that easy to do.
For one, no amount of squinting could turn a ten-mile loop of Edward Scissorhands-in-terra-cotta-stucco developments into an urban anything. There is only so much yellowish-beige and Spanish-roof-tile-color one will find in a big city environment.
For two, strip-mall living isn’t urban no matter how you look at it.
For the first eight months we lived in Eastlake, I kept my daughter in her school in Kearny Mesa and drove the 25 miles twice daily, spending my days and my money in North Park and Normal Heights coffee shops, where I’d work until it was time to pick her up and make the trek home, which, on the southbound 805, could take as long as an hour. My husband considered this a waste of time and money, but it was important for me to stay connected to San Diego’s urban core, and maybe more importantly, to my city self.
When I gave up the drive, put my daughter in a close-to-home school, and sold my soul for the convenience of an easy commute, I completed the descent into suburban life.
At the same time, I celebrated our easy access to all things suburban: Home Depot, Panera Bread, Banana Republic, Target (oh, my God, Target!), Pier One, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Sprouts, Best Buy, Macy’s, Vons, Albertsons, Aveda, Macaroni Grill, Walgreens, Payless Shoes, Office Depot, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Rite Aid, Lowe’s, an AMC theater, Barnes & Noble, Cheesecake Factory, Subway, California Pizza Kitchen, TJ Maxx, Jamba Juice, SuperCuts, Quiznos, Bank of America, Sprint, T-Mobile, Wendy’s, Union Bank, Wells Fargo, Navy Federal, Chase, Sleep Train, Panda Express, Rubio’s, Walmart, In-N-Out, and PF Chang’s. In short, everything that Mission Valley has but without the crowds and the traffic. I would not miss fighting my way past buses on the corner of University and Fairmount to get to the 15 or driving all the way to Hillcrest for takeout sushi.
Although I do have some business and socializing that takes me “to the city” regularly, I have to admit that I opt out of opportunities and events on a regular basis because of the often-tremendous effort it takes to leave Eastlake. I’m telling you, it’s a trap, and we’re all doomed.
“Eastlake is an island,” my new friend Jill tells me one afternoon while we stand chatting in her yard.
Jill lives a mile or two from me at the northwestern edge of Eastlake, in a 2800-square-foot house with a 10,693-square-foot lot. I met her while searching for a community garden in the area. There is no community garden in the area yet (though Debra Vaca, the manager of our HOA, says she’s looking for a location), but there is a gardening meetup group, the Eastlake Organic Gardening Collective, which Jill started in April 2012.
Jill’s nearly quarter-acre corner lot is a veritable jungle of an ecosystem in the middle of a neighborhood where all the other houses are fronted with plain-green-patch yards. She had to petition the homeowners’ association to remove the patch of grass in front of her house and replace it with lavender, fennel, orange poppies, and African basil.
“You can’t have a yard of rocks,” she says, explaining the HOA rules, “or half a Buick.”
Most of Jill’s yard is hidden by a stucco wall topped with an iron fence and overhung with white roses. Beyond the wall, in an area that includes a fountain, two seating areas, a fire pit, and enough rose-colored poured concrete for spinning donuts on a Big Wheel, Jill grows a Japanese mulberry tree, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, corn, tomatoes, olives, melons, peaches, peppers, cucumbers, zucchinis, apples, and peanuts, as well as flowers and herbs.
“The minute I moved here in the summer of 2009, I started shoving things into the ground,” she says.
When Jill and her family moved to Eastlake, they’d been looking in Poway because they wanted to be in that school district. But when they discovered that many of the schools in Eastlake carry the same ratings of 8 and 9 on GreatSchools.org as do the Poway schools, they extended their search to Eastlake.
“I couldn’t find enough house for me [in Poway],” she says. “I didn’t want something that looked like it was from the 1970s. Everything up there was so dark. Everything here is so light.”
And then there’s the “everything” that Eastlake has. “We have three major grocery stores, and even my doctor is in Eastlake,” she says. “There’s no shortage of parks. I love Eastlake. The only thing I would say negatively is that people need to spend a week in the South, and learn how to make eye contact and say hello. Nobody spends time in their yards.”
As an internet sales rep for furniture vendors, Jill works from home and so doesn’t have to commute for her job. She does get most of her gardening supplies and “starts” (one step beyond seedlings) from City Farmers in City Heights and the Mission Hills Nursery, but she only makes that trek once or twice per growing season. Otherwise, she sticks to the neighborhood as much as possible.
“I joke that if I have to go anywhere past the 125, then I’m going to pack a bottle of water and a snack,” she says. “I even found a gym closer than the 125.”
Jill lives two miles (or four minutes, according to Mapquest) from the Eastlake Village Marketplace, a shopping area at the northwest corner of Eastlake Parkway and Otay Lakes Road. This intersection is one-tenth of a mile east of the Otay Lakes exit off the 125. Another tenth of a mile down the road, just under the overpass, on the left-hand side of the street, stands the LA Fitness sports club, where Jill was once a member but never could get herself to go. By Mapquest, that gym is a four-minute drive from Jill’s home.
“I just never went,” she says.
So she searched and found the Institute of Health and Fitness, which is even closer, near the post office, in a strange business park near the design district, where large warehouse spaces house gymnasiums, furniture stores, and temporary tax offices.
Jill’s new gym is 1.3 miles from her home.
“It’s like Cheers,” she laughs. “Everybody knows your name.”
Besides City Farmers, Jill says the only other reason to leave Eastlake is for two of her favorite kinds of food. And if she didn’t have to, she wouldn’t.
“If I could have Ethiopian and Indian [in Eastlake], I’d be home-free,” she says.
In March 2012, a user who goes by the handle “thepinksquid” started a thread in a forum on City-Data.com. The subject line read, “I’ll be blunt. Why is Eastlake/Otay Ranch so cheap?” She explained that she and her husband had been looking to purchase a house and couldn’t understand why, with so many conveniences, newer construction, and so few negatives (“except for the obvious, that it’s kind of bland and far out”), the house prices are so much lower than other parts of the county.
Echo42 suggested that the stigma of being a “thoroughfare for illicit border crossings more than 15 years ago” might be what’s keeping the area from being as desirable to the masses as it might otherwise be, “especially being within five miles of the border.”
Oddstray wrote, “Eastlake simply hasn’t yet had an opportunity to prove itself to be ‘a good place to live.’ After this financial mess calms down, which may take several years, I think, then whoever buys there at today’s prices will own a gem.”
Hitman619 wrote, “I think the biggest problem people have with Eastlake/Otay Ranch is race. Eastlake/Otay Ranch racial makeup is mostly Asian/Mexican Americans, with some whites and blacks mixed in.”
Kettlepot, who listed proximity to the border, foreclosures, and high Mello Roos fees among the reasons for lower housing prices in the area, also took up the race “problem.”
“After a certain tipping point in percentage of non-white ethnicity, property values decline,” Kettlepot wrote. “My guess would be that in San Diego, once the population drops below 50 percent white, concern begins to grow that an area might become a lower-income area with non-middle-class values.”
It’s the same north-of-the-8 vs. south-of-the-8 discussion that’s been going on since who knows when. The funny thing is that I remember the first time I heard someone say it, I thought they accidentally had it backward, and that what they’d meant to say was something to the effect of “South of the 8 is better.” Obviously, it depends on what you’re looking for, but my initial assumption was that everyone finds diversity appealing.
SANDAG’s 2008 statistics break down the 20,431 population of 91915 (which comprises the bulk of Eastlake) as: 8051 Hispanic, 5309 white, 907 black, 50 American Indian, 5172 Asian, 238 Pacific Islander, 13 other, and 691 two or more races. SANDAG’s regional growth forecast predicts that by the year 2050, those populations will experience triple-digit increases within the zip code — all but two. Other will increase by 1362 percent, and white by only 21 percent.
My friend Irene, who lives in Eastlake Greens, about a mile from me, moved to San Diego from Brooklyn with her husband and children in 2012. They first landed in a Tierrasanta rental, and in their search to purchase a house, they, like Jill’s family, chose Eastlake over North County, though for different reasons.
“You know, I can definitely say Rancho Peñasquitos and North County, I do not feel comfortable there at all,” Irene says. “I know people think everything above the 8 is desirable. I’m okay with north of the 8. It’s pretty, but I find it kind of sterile, like everyone works at the same office or something. Here [in Eastlake], I feel like there are all kinds of Navy people or nurses, bikers, and athletes. I do get a sense there is a very diverse population here, just by seeing people driving, peeking through their car windows, going to Parent Day at [Eastlake High School], or going to Target. When I drive, I know that people aren’t all just from the suburbs. I do feel like people have moved here from all parts of the world. I do feel an eclectic-ness, it’s just not in an urban form.”
I met Irene six months after we’d moved Eastlake. She was even newer to the neighborhood than I was. It turned out that we had hung in the same Afro-Bohemian circles in Brooklyn and knew many of the same people. We also had similar suburban upbringings, had spent parts of our young adulthood traveling and living abroad, and now have similar feelings about settling into marriage and motherhood in these particular suburbs.
“I love the amenities,” she says. “There’s a mall and an Apple Store. I can go get my computer fixed, go get groceries, get stuff for my kids. I can go to TJ Maxx. I can buy furniture. For day-to-day, Monday through Friday, I’m really good here. I have everything I need, and I have some peace and quiet.”
On the other hand, she, too, feels something missing. She doesn’t put it in exactly those words, but every time we meet up for tacos and beer at Tacos and Tarros (a Mexican bar/taquería on the outskirts of the Otay Ranch Mall), Irene comes up with yet another plan to make something happen in Eastlake. One week, she talked about starting an open-mic-type monthly event where people sing, read their poetry, or whatnot. The next week, she decided she wanted to host a reggae night. And she occasionally talks about starting an African-diaspora dance school, to give the Eastlakers a bit of flavor by way of samba, sabar, and moribayassa. I get the feeling that, even with all the diversity of which she speaks, the “peace and quiet” she likes so much is not quite enough to satisfy her.
Me, neither. And, like Irene with her daydreams, I too have ways of coping.
In African literature, one often reads references to “market day.” It’s always a big deal, people getting up before dawn, traveling from all corners with their wares, and setting up shop in a common location. The children in these stories are always exhilarated by the sights, sounds, and scents brought into the market from the larger world. I used to find the concept foreign because, as a child, market day meant my mom was going to the grocery store, and there was nothing novel in that. These days, however, I get it. If I haven’t ventured up the 805 and into central San Diego for a while, I look forward to the Tuesday farmers’ market and the Wednesday food-truck gathering maybe a little too much. I plan what I’m going to wear, to make sure it’s not what I wore last time or the time before.
The farmers’ market is rather strangely located on a narrow street in the middle of the Otay Ranch mall, rather than spread out in one of the large and mostly empty parking lots. Irene (and many Yelpers) complain that the one or two “token farmers” are not enough to call it a true farmers’ market.
I, however, hardly notice, because the rest of the vendors, serving prepared Ethiopian, Jamaican, Filipino, Japanese, and barbecue food, and selling gluten-free cookies, vegan Bitchin’ Sauce, and jars of anchovy-stuffed green olives transport me out of Chili’s-and-Cheesecake-Factory-Land and connect me to the world at large, without a 30-minute drive.
On warm evenings in spring and summer, when Eastlakers crowd the narrow walkway between vendor booths, I pace the length of the market two or three times, mulling over dinner options and digging the people factor. It’s the same when I go to the Wednesday food-truck gathering held in a roped-off area of the Eastlake Design District parking lot.
Jessica Lavender, owner of the Asian Persuasion food truck and organizer of the Eastlake Food Truck Gathering, calls it a “family-friendly tailgate-style party,” a fitting description. People set up collapsible tables and chairs in the parking lot and make an evening of it. Back when the gathering began, in September 2011, they had a DJ and music to help draw people. But the expense outweighs the profits, so there’s no more music.
Although Lavender says that, for now, she has enough trucks in rotation to keep things interesting, the permitting process for the City of Chula Vista is a turnoff to some truck owners. Not only is the permit $200 (in San Diego and La Mesa, it’s $70) but Chula Vista also requires fingerprinting and background checks, which costs an additional $86 for every person who works on the truck.
“Eastlake is one of those [gatherings] that we really enjoy,” Lavender says. “The community seems to love it. It’s one of the few things to do in the area. I’m trying to encourage more trucks to get their permits.”
Lavender and I agree the event would be that much better with a beer garden and some bands, but still, each time we go, my family and I stay longer than it takes to choose a truck and eat our food squatting on the curb (we have no collapsible table), because the gathering makes for good people-watching. As much as I like to stare out my window at sagebrush or read a book in the neighborhood’s clean, quiet parks, I also relish opportunities to bump up against my neighbors in places other than the checkout line at Target.
The people at Corky McMillin (the company responsible for Liberty Station in Point Loma, Torrey Highlands Center in Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch Marketplace, and other commercial developments) have big plans to create an urban center for the area to give it a “focal point.” Their 206-acre Millenia project (officially in Otay Ranch, not Eastlake) promises “a hybrid alternative to traditional suburban developments and transitional urban neighborhoods” on a plot of land across the street from the Otay Ranch mall. They’re planning a Main Street commercial district, a business district, hotels, parks, plazas, more residential areas, and so on.
On the phone, Todd Galarneau, the senior vice president of project development at Corky McMillin, tells me that Millenia will provide a central urban center for the area, which as of now “lacks a really strong heart, and a strong employment element.”
Their website says the Main Street area “will be ‘the place to be’ day and night in South County.”
For now, if you don’t live in Eastlake, there’s not much reason to visit, unless your aunt lives here or you have a soft spot for this particular Cheesecake Factory location. Our little island does, at times, feel isolated from the rest of the planet.
Those of us who spent our youths seeking the wide, wide world, and then later let our desires for quiet, convenience, and more square footage win out over our urban impulses, will never be fully content here. We address our need for urban connectedness by sucking it up and driving up the 805 to hold our grownup birthday parties at sexy downtown restaurants, take our children out for Ethiopian food in City Heights, and make contact with the wide, wide world whenever we can.
On the in-between days, we Zumba.