Dino the dachshund and a Chihuahua/Brittany spaniel mix named Olivia walk through Kensington on a cool, clear afternoon. Behind them ambles Peter LaMontia. The trio head for Village Vino. Every one of Kensington’s restaurants features sidewalk seating. Village Vino is LaMontia’s favorite, partly for their happy hour but also because its situation on the corner of Adams Avenue and Kensington Drive places Peter and pooches in the heart of town. Dino and Olivia tangle their retractable leashes among the chair legs while LaMontia sits at his favorite table, sips wine in the golden light, and chats with neighbors passing by.
Kensington is a small town in a big city. The entire neighborhood is one big cul-de-sac, an engineered refuge that keeps traffic at bay to the benefit of children at play. The eastern end of Adams Avenue, after it crosses I-15, runs through the town’s quaint business district, and it’s the only way in and out (if you don’t count the meandering Marlborough Drive, which eventually leads south to El Cajon Boulevard from its northern terminus on a cliff overlooking Mission Valley). Along Adams in the center of a town that spans five blocks, one can find nearly a dozen restaurants, a library, a park with a playground, a bank, a couple of salons, an organic grocer, a small gym, a deli and liquor store, an ice-cream parlor, a classic one-screen cinema, and a nightclub that is a destination for cheap drinks, live music, and stand-up comedy.
The business district may be the heart of the neighborhood, but it’s Kensington’s residents that keep it beating. LaMontia, a 61-year-old sales manager, lives in Kensington Heights, closer to the canyon than Adams Avenue. Originally from Brooklyn, LaMontia moved from Oceanside to Kensington 30 years ago. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is like a real neighborhood,” he tells me as we sip white wine in his backyard, an expansive space designed to look like an Italian piazza: the ground is laid with terra cotta tiles; the trees are Italian Cypress, olive, fig, and lemon; grape vines and wisteria drip from a pergola, and butterflies flit between potted geraniums and lavender; the silence is broken only by the occasional chirp from a nearby sparrow and the steady trickle of water in two fountains.
When asked to elaborate on what makes the neighborhood “real,” LaMontia says, “People walk their dogs, they say hello, they watch out — they’re not nosy, they keep a little to themselves, but they still watch out.”
LaMontia explains that he has watched out for a woman who lives alone — on some occasions, when he notices her garage door is still open as it begins to get dark, he will call or text to remind her to close it. He is convinced that Kensington is the only “real” neighborhood in San Diego. “Go to Hillcrest, Mission Hills, or North Park, you’ll see,” he says.
LaMontia recently went on an excursion with his partner Juan to test his hypothesis. They went to other neighborhoods looking for people who were walking their dogs. “They just walk the dog,” he reports, noting that the dog-walkers he observed elsewhere did not greet the people they passed on the sidewalk.
“There’s little interaction with others, because those communities are so much bigger.”
Though he’s come to love his neighborhood for its sense of community, it was its appearance, namely the style of the original Kensington homes (some dating back to the 1920s), that first caught LaMontia’s eye. The homes were mostly Spanish colonial, with red tile roofs and white stucco walls thick enough to hold the heavy tiles. This style was enforced for 50 years by a local supervisory architectural board. After settling in to his current Kensington home (his first was south of Adams Avenue, or what he refers to as “Baja Kensington”), LaMontia took a trip to Italy. The character of the houses, with the stucco and tiled roofs, reminded him of Kensington, save for one major difference: there, the houses were not white.
“The region I fell in love with, Tuscany, the homes there were this yellowish color,” he remembers. “So I came back, and told my partner at that time, ‘I’m tired of this white, the white has to go.' So we did this.” He gestures toward the mustard-hued stucco of the exterior.
As charming as the idea of people “watching out” for each other can be, the caring neighbor is a double-edged sword. After painting his house, LaMontia discovered a message on his driveway, scrawled in chalk. “Your house looks like a taco stand.” Fellow neighbors pointed their fingers at the woman in the house adjacent to his. “I just ignored it and washed it off with the hose. I wasn’t insulted. We actually read it and laughed.”
Resistance to change seems to be a long-standing tradition in Kensington. One of the first organized oppositions occurred in 1953, when then-president of the Kensington Park Business Association, a veterinarian named Phil Haims, promoted annexation of the town by the City of San Diego. He distributed a petition to place the issue on the ballot. Haims, along with other supporters of the initiative, sought city services such as police protection, fire insurance, and trash collection.
According to neighborhood historian Dr. Thomas H. Baumann, “Immediately a vociferous group of activists started a campaign in opposition to the annexation. They handed out all sorts of handbills and talked with everyone who would listen about how high taxes would go. Dr. Haims became their main target. His phone rang every 15 minutes from daylight to dark for three weeks.” Ultimately, a meeting was held at the Kensington community hall for the annexing advocates to make their case. The direct communication with the community was a success — on October 23, 1953, Kensington Park was annexed by the City of San Diego.
“There are a lot of people in that community who are really used to getting their way,” says Craig Madden, a chef who has worked in four Kensington restaurants over the course of seven years. Most recently, Madden was the executive chef of Stehly Farms Market, a grocery store that opened in October 2015 in Kensington Commons, at the corner of Adams and Marlborough, the newest and largest building in the business district, which also houses 34 apartments and a handful of other street-level businesses, including a dental office and a UPS store.