Kensington: the only real neighborhood in San Diego

Where a guy can paint his house the color of a taco stand.

Kesington is a small town in a big city.
  • Kesington is a small town in a big city.
  • Image by Frank Colosi Photography

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.

Peter LaMontia at Village Vino

Peter LaMontia at Village Vino

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 caring neighbor is a double-edged sword.

The caring neighbor is a double-edged sword.

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.”

Peter LaMontia’s Kensington home. LaMontia discovered a message on his driveway, scrawled in chalk. “Your house looks like a taco stand.”

Peter LaMontia’s Kensington home. LaMontia discovered a message on his driveway, scrawled in chalk. “Your house looks like a taco stand.”

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.”

In Kensington, it's different

In Kensington, it's different

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.

Kensington Commons. Residents formed a group to halt its construction.

Kensington Commons. Residents formed a group to halt its construction.

“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.

Craig Madden

Craig Madden

“They know how to organize, and they have the money to do it. There are a lot of lawyers, and people who do this stuff [such as city planning] anyway, so when they don’t want something, they know how to come together as a community and stop it.”

So it was when residents formed a group to halt the construction of Kensington Commons the moment they learned it was to be built on the site of an old gas station. The group, which took the name “Heart of Kensington,” filed a lawsuit against the city after the planning commission and city council approved the project. Because the city was indemnified, the cost of the suit would have fallen on the shoulders of the developers, including architect and developer Allard Jansen. “We could not afford the fees or risk the delay, so we settled the suit directly with Heart of Kensington,” says Jansen.

What residents wanted most was to know their concerns had been heard. “So, we had this big workshop and presented conceptually what we were going to do over there,” Jansen says. “I brought in a board with different images of different communities and buildings and gave everyone red and green dots and instructed them to place a red dot on something they didn’t like and a green dot on something they did like.”

In terms of appearance, the neighborhood wanted the building to remain in a style they dubbed “Spanish eclectic,” with white stucco and a red-tiled roof. In the end, Jansen’s original, city-approved design was scrapped, and five years later construction began on the neighborhood-approved version. Among the 23 points that were agreed upon were size and height and limitations on the types of businesses that can lease (e.g., no “national chain pizza restaurants,” no “high turnover convenience stores such as 7-11,” no “check cashing or adult content businesses”).

Based on his experience working in Kensington, Madden insists that successful business owners in the region recognize that residents within a walkable radius make up the overwhelming majority of the district’s customers. Aside from the occasional date night that draws non-Kensingtonians to a restaurant or the theater, he says, “Nobody goes there unless you know somebody who lives there.”

Long ago, when he was a cook at Kensington Grill, Madden remembers how the chef (Hanis Cavin, now owner of Carnitas’ Snack Shack) took care of his regular customers, one of whom was the wife of ex-mayor and Kensington resident Jerry Sanders.

“We nicknamed her La Patrona, because she was the boss’s wife,” Madden remembers. “She would always come in and bring us an empty squeeze bottle, and we’d always send her home with a full bottle of the remoulade that Hanis made for the burger. He never charged her for it — you just do that for people there because those are the people that are supporting you. This is not a destination neighborhood.”

Cucina Sorella

4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington

When business at Kensington Grill began to wane, Tracy Borkum, who owned Kensington Grill, reinvented the space and opened Fish Public, which never quite caught on with the regulars. So, after closing Fish Public, before planning her next step, she turned to residents — she posted a detailed survey on the neighborhood social network site nextdoor.com to find out what the community wanted most. After digesting all of the feedback, she opened the Italian-themed Cucina Sorella. Gracie Valtierra, the current manager, is new to the neighborhood, but in the six months since their doors opened, she has come to know a handful of regulars and has fallen in love with what she refers to as a “close-knit” community.

“There is a strong presence of LGBTQ community here, political activists, lawyers, students — all with a common interest in the neighborhood happenings.”

Madden lives in the College Area, east of Kensington. His wife, Liz, grew up Kensington-adjacent, on the other side of the 15 freeway, in Normal Heights, which is now called North Adams. She went to St. Didacus parochial school in Normal Heights and then to Academy of Our Lady of Peace (high school) in University Heights.

All of her friends from childhood, both from school and Irish dancing, lived in Kensington. Now, as a 30-something mother, Liz understands Kensington from a parent’s point of view.

“Growing up, you don’t think about the neighborhood — you just have friends across the 15, and you go over there, and the trick-or-treating is awesome, and it’s very clean, and when you walk down the street you say hello to everyone. As a kid you don’t think, Oh, this neighborhood is better than mine, or, This is safer.”

Madden hands me a glass of prosecco and puts out a cheese-and-charcuterie plate, leftovers from an event he recently catered. We are in the Maddens’ living room, and four-year-old Claire repeatedly falls face-first into a Claire-sized pile of pillows she’d arranged on the carpet for this purpose.

When asked about the character of Kensington, Madden’s answer is near identical to LaMontia’s, though the two have never met.

“I’ve always said about Kensington that it’s one of the few real neighborhoods in San Diego,” he says. “You know everybody in the neighborhood, you know the families, there’s multiple generations of families there, and it isn’t just one block — it’s the whole neighborhood.” But, he adds, the cost of living there is prohibitive for most young families. “To afford living in Kensington, you have to either be really old, not have children — therefore, lots of gay couples — or be the third or fourth generation of family there, because that’s what a lot of that neighborhood is.”

It was while working at Stehly Farms Market that Madden had the most interaction with locals. Gesturing at his daughter, he says, “I would see a lot of people with kids her age, and I’d be curious — ‘How did you end up with so much money and you’re four years younger than me?’” When he got to talking to some of the regulars and learned their professions, he says, “Almost every time it has something to do with family money, or they’re back home, but they live in this huge house where it’s not like having roommates, it’s more like, ‘You have your wing and I have my wing.’”

Madden recalls a recent spate of catering for a real estate agent hosting open houses in the area. “The one that got me, it was a 1260-square-foot Spanish-style remodel of an old Craftsman home, a tiny little house, a quarter of the original lot, less property than this place, and it was going for $1.2 million.”

The median home price in Kensington is around $700,000. Despite the expensive real estate, Madden insists the majority of residents he encounters are blue-collar workers.

“Sure, you run into your random guy that did well with tech or stocks or something who’s 36 and single and bought a house in Kensington, but then you have a lot of people in their late 50s or early 60s, their kids are our age now, they’re not super rich, they just bought young.” He refers to a friend in the neighborhood whose father owns a concrete-cutting company and whose mother is a teacher. Their daughter grew up with Liz, and the families are still close friends.

“They all grew up together, and they live in these amazing pieces of property that they’re never going to sell, it’s never going to leave the family — you don’t give that up once you have it.”

According to data aggregators Onboard Informatics, Madden’s sense of the working majority isn’t quite accurate: Kensingtonians with blue-collar jobs make up only 33.1 percent of the population. What he’s right about is the lack of children. Of the nearly 17,000 households, just under 3000 have children; the average number of people per household is two.

“You see really young kids and old people and gay couples, but you don’t see teens or kid-kids,” says Madden.

One popular hunch as to why there are relatively few school-aged children, from business owners and residents alike, has to do with the perceived quality of the nearest public school. One member of the Kensington Talmadge Business Association who wishes to remain anonymous best summarized this popular sentiment: “We’ve got a pretty older group of residents in Kensington who bought their first house here, raised their children here, and never moved. We’ve also got an influx of a really younger group coming in that is starting a family. They love this neighborhood and they have children, but then as the kids get a little older, what happens is parents go, ‘What are our choices for school?’ And they look at Hoover High School. And inevitably they move to Poway [known for its good schools] or send their kids to Francis Parker, if they can afford it.”

Hoover High School

4474 El Cajon Boulevard, Talmadge

Hoover High School is in City Heights, just south of Kensington, in a lower-income neighborhood. “When I was growing up,” Liz remembers, “the biggest threat my family could throw my way when I was messing up in school was, ‘If you don’t figure it out, you’re going to Hoover,’ and it worked as a threat. You didn’t want to end up at Hoover. I don’t know if it’s the same as it was, but the fear was absolutely valid when I was growing up.”

The negative perception of Hoover High dates from the 1980s. According to three Educational Leadership professors at San Diego State University who worked directly with the high school, in 1988 Hoover High had a “huge dropout rate, many incidents of violence, low academic achievement, and low teacher morale” that resulted in high turnover. In a report on which they collaborated, the professors note that since 1998 (when the school partnered with SDSU faculty to create the City Heights Educational Collaborative), Hoover has been steadily improving. But it still falls short of other schools in San Diego County. For example, Hoover’s graduation rate is 85 percent, compared to Poway’s 97 percent. Teachers at Hoover must deal with the challenge of a higher incidence of literacy issues, which the professors attributed to the 39 languages spoken on campus. The percentage of economically disadvantaged students at Hoover is a whopping 76, compared to Poway’s 19 percent and Coronado’s 4 percent.

Though she works closer to downtown and lives in the College Area, Liz often brings Claire to the park in Kensington. “If you go to the park on a Saturday, they’re all young, affluent families, and everyone has at least a two-person stroller.”

“Irish twins,” says Madden, referring to all the young siblings who are a year or two apart in age.

“They all have two children, they all live in yoga garb — nobody wears jeans,” Liz says, looking down at her jeans. “You go in your yoga pants, and you push your double stroller. I just sit on a bench and read my book.” One of the main reasons Liz enjoys bringing her daughter to Kensington has to do with how little traffic there is, and she doesn’t see this changing. “It is not a thoroughfare. You’re either ending up there on purpose because you meant to get there or you accidentally missed the 15.”

Jansen says it’s not just the location of the neighborhood that curtails traffic, but also the way the buildings were designed. Kensington Commons was not his first construction project at the central intersection of Adams and Marlborough. Jansen moved to the area with his wife, Hannah, in the early ’90s.

“I had my architectural office, and Hannah said, ‘You’ve got to get involved in the community — there’s this planning group, and they meet once a month. You should get on it.’”

He became an advisor for one of the group’s subcommittees. It was at that time that one of the two gas stations on Adams and Marlborough was torn down. “The planning group said, ‘Allard, you’re an architect and you understand zoning — we want to know what’s going to go on that property.’ I looked at the zoning and told them what was allowable, but I had no intention of buying the property.”

Jansen had an idea for a mixed-use building and sought a developer to partner with. But the developer who was most interested had a different vision.

“He said, ‘A one-story strip center makes the most sense economically here,’” Jansen remembers. “And I said, ‘No, it’s got to be a mixed-use project with office and residential above and retail below.’” The developer threatened to move forward on the project, with or without Jansen. “So I went home and told Hannah, ‘They’re going to do a strip center,’ and she said, ‘Well, we’re going to buy it, then.’”

Jansen’s biggest issue with a strip mall was that the parking would be in front of the storefronts, which meant cars constantly pulling in and out. Jansen’s vision was to put the parking in back, so that the face of the neighborhood would be more pedestrian-friendly, with storefronts on the sidewalk.

According to Jansen, the character of Kensington — from the residential homes to the business district — boils down to one thing: walkability. Referring to new developments in both North County and South Bay, Jansen says, “It’s all pretty much big garages on the sidewalk and strip malls with parking in front. You come home, you go into the garage, you close the door, and you’re in your house. In Kensington, it’s different — the garages are generally in the back of the lots, and the storefronts are on the sidewalk. So what you have in the front are porches, so people gravitate to the front of the house, so it’s a walking community.”

Regarding the “realness” of the neighborhood to which LaMontia and Madden referred, Jansen says that the structures encourage this pedestrian experience. “The thing that makes this community so wonderful is the ability to meet your neighbors by chance. When you go to Starbucks in the morning, you run into everybody on the street. Could you imagine if that was a parking lot out in the front and you had to circumnavigate? You’d be constantly fighting automobiles trying to get into the property, so you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking along the sidewalk when you’re competing with all the cars. I’m not putting down North County, but you have to be in a car to go from one store to the next — you do not go walk in those neighborhoods. In the village of Del Mar, maybe you do it, but Mission Valley? No way. You have to be in a car, and you have to fight through all the stop lights.”

When Jansen’s first project in Kensington was under construction, the neighborhood was supportive. He points to an image taken the day they broke ground.

“It was an empty lot with a view of the back end of the building now occupied by Burger Lounge, and it was pretty hideous. So when they found out we were developing, they said, ‘Can you make it taller?’ I wasn’t expecting that, but they said, ‘Whatever you do, just make it taller so we don’t have to look at that thing.’ So we did.”

In 2000, after Kensington Park Plaza was erected with retail on the ground floor and 11 live/work lofts above, Jansen received an Orchid award for outstanding architecture from the San Diego Architectural Foundation.

The pushback came when Jansen announced that Starbucks would be coming into the building.

“The community became unglued,” Jansen recalls with a wince. “They said, ‘You’re going to kill the neighborhood, it’s going to be terrible!’ And we said, ‘Um, no, we’re taking Starbucks,’ because that would help us become financeable with the bank, and Starbucks is probably the best credit tenant you could have in your building.”

Liz Madden recalls the upheaval in the neighborhood over the Starbucks announcement: “We didn’t like the whole idea that chain stores were going to go in there, because the whole thing with Adams Avenue was that there had never been a chain, aside from Vons and 7-Eleven, which were scars upon the face of the neighborhood. Oh, God, they didn’t want the Starbucks. The neighborhood fought tooth and nail.”

The first week Starbucks was open, someone threw a brick through the window and put glue in the locks on the front doors.

LaMontia was one of the residents who opposed Starbucks, though he does not condone the vandalism. “Everyone was shocked,” he says. “They were, like, ‘What’s coming in to the community? What’s happening?’” His main objection was that the coffee conglomerate was moving in across the street from the neighborhood mainstay, Kensington Coffee (now Kensington Cafe). “Here’s a small mom-and-pop business, and here comes a big chain. Everyone was concerned.”

Though he admits it all seemed to work out, LaMontia still refuses, nearly two decades later, to support the business. “I don’t go to Starbucks, or any of those places — the dry cleaner [now closed] or Edward Jones, the financial advice place, or that burger place [Burger Lounge.] They’re all just another chain to me — things are produced and formed from a distance without the consumer knowing, and they’re just big corporations, all about the bottom line and not about the person working for them. That’s why I love Ponce’s. I go there and to Kensington Cafe and Village Vino. And to Stehly Farms — I’ve become a big fan of their parma prosciutto.”

Despite his distaste for the corporate outposts in town, LaMontia appreciates Jansen’s vision for the neighborhood. Jansen says Kensington reflects the sort of community he experienced as a child in Holland, where neighbors frequently met by chance. “When you’re out of your car and making eye contact, you are more likely to know your neighbors.”

Jansen stands in his office, a live/work loft in Kensington Plaza, next to the floor-to-ceiling window that must be 16 feet tall. He looks across Marlborough toward Kensington Commons and explains that now, with a building there instead of a gas station, traffic is even more reduced as cars no longer pull in and out of four curb cuts. He smiles and waves at someone he recognizes on the sidewalk below.

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