El Cajon is my city

A happy immigration story

Natives of El Cajon tell me downtown Main Street was entirely “trashy” before Chaldeans and other immigrants started opening up businesses.
  • Natives of El Cajon tell me downtown Main Street was entirely “trashy” before Chaldeans and other immigrants started opening up businesses.
  • Image by Evgeny Yorobe

Black and white at The Grand

Three large black men sat squished together in the back seat of my rental car as we headed east on I-8. The ping of my Uber app brought us together that Friday night. I was on the clock. They were dressed to kill, with scopes set on The Grand, a bar in El Cajon.

Mountains and foothills in every direction

Mountains and foothills in every direction

During the ride, the man in the middle started a conversation about different races understanding each other (I’m white). He urged me to watch the movie Imitation of Life. (Two years later, it’s next in line in my Netflix queue.)

As we neared the end of the ride, he spoke about The Grand as if it was something special in El Cajon — even something mysterious.

Chaldean men at backgammon game outside the courthouse off Main Street

Chaldean men at backgammon game outside the courthouse off Main Street

I dropped them off by the green “Grand” sign on West Main Street, a half block west of Sunshine. “El Cajon’s oldest known bar,” the sign touted. The two silent men opened their doors and stepped out. Before the third got out, he said to me, with serious intent, “El Cajon is my city.”

Charlie Lizarraga works on a logo for the German-American Club's Oktoberfest.

Charlie Lizarraga works on a logo for the German-American Club's Oktoberfest.

When I drive through downtown El Cajon and pass by The Grand, I think of my Uber customer and the things he said to me. I start asking questions. Some say The Grand is notorious. For what? Nobody will tell me.

Debbie: "At night you have to put anything valuable in your sleeping bag or sleep on top of it.”

Debbie: "At night you have to put anything valuable in your sleeping bag or sleep on top of it.”

So I pay a visit. The green “Grand” sign is no longer there. The first time I saw it I was reminded of the mysterious glow of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, the one Jay Gatsby would peer at from his mansion across the bay.

Champion NASCAR driver and El Cajon native Jimmy Johnson is honored by a sign on Second Street.

Champion NASCAR driver and El Cajon native Jimmy Johnson is honored by a sign on Second Street.

The green glow on Main Street has been replaced by a large solid black circle with “The Grand” set against it in small white letters. When I look at it I think of black holes and other celestial mysteries. After dark, white light illuminates the sign from behind the black circle, giving it an eclipse-like appearance.

Knox House Museum. Amaziah Lord Knox founded the city of El Cajon.

Knox House Museum. Amaziah Lord Knox founded the city of El Cajon.

It’s Sunday evening. There’s nobody manning the door. I step inside to the sound of a beat that is steady but not too loud. The atmosphere feels relaxed, the bar set straight ahead along the wall to the left. Aside from one person looking at me with a stone-cold look on his face, most people carry on their drinking and talking, indifferent to my presence.

Olivia Gross weaves at Sophie's Art Gallery.

Olivia Gross weaves at Sophie's Art Gallery.

I brush against the curtain of a photo booth on my right. The sound of pool balls clacking echoes from around the corner to my left. A chalkboard on the wall further in to the right reads, “Karaoke Tuesday and Thursday” and “Friday night steak dinner.” Pretty straightforward.

Shadow Mountain church art expo

Shadow Mountain church art expo

I sit at the bar, hoping the bartender has a free minute to talk. A blonde-haired woman sitting two stools down looks at me and says, “You don’t drink, do you?” It sounds more like a comment than a question. Her expression lightens when I tell her why I’m there.

“What is unique about this bar?” I ask. A couple different bar patrons respond.

Iraqi refugees work to beautify Wells Park.

Iraqi refugees work to beautify Wells Park.

“It gets really dark here Friday and Saturday nights,” answers one.

“They turn down the lights?”

“No, it’s all black.”

“You mean black people?”

She nods.

Another tells me about the motorcycle clubs that frequent there. “This is one of the bars in El Cajon that allows cuts” — biker vests. “The Boozefighters, Ugly MFs, and Sexy Bs all come here. We see Ironworkers too.” The Ironworkers sound most intimidating.

In walks Jeff DiLallo. He bought The Grand a couple years ago. He says he changed the name of the bar from “The El Cajon Grand” to “The Grand.” Last year he put the new logo on the sign out front.

Our conversation is quickly interrupted by two women who walk in and give him a hug. “Hey, it’s double trouble,” he says. “The kind of trouble we love,” one of the women responds.

He turns back to me. “We had a rough first year after taking over.” DiLallo says he wants the bar to be a diverse place that is safe and enjoyable.

“The N word and the F word are not allowed here.” He's referring to the six-letter F word. “At first we experienced a cultural pushback from El Cajon, but now we are succeeding remarkably. Our profits are 400 percent what the previous owners’ were.”

I ask him why people say the bar is notorious. His body language suggests my question hit a nerve. “The only trouble we ever have is with bikers,” he says.

When I walk out The Grand seems a little less mysterious than when I walked in.

I stop by the following Friday. I see black and white people. The only discomfiting thing I see is the street people standing around the Jack in the Box drive-thru next door. When I leave The Grand a crazy-looking lady from Jack in the Box stalks me to my car. I lock the doors when I get in so she can’t try to jump in.

The Big Box

The city of El Cajon came to life in the middle of a valley that rests in the shadow of mountains and foothills in every direction. One can stand at the center of downtown at Main Street and Magnolia Avenue, look at the horizon in all four directions, and see rising land.

Fletcher Hills to the west. To the south Mount Helix and its elongated eastern slope. Granite Hills to the east. The foothills of Bostonia form part of the northern wall. The El Cajon valley curves around the west side of Bostonia and continues further north through El Cajon’s airport, Gillespie Field. It shoots further north through Santee, where it is walled in to the north by Eucalyptus Hills and to the west by the mountains of Mission Trails.

Boxed in by natural walls in all four directions, the valley was named “the big box,” or el cajon in Spanish by Spaniards exploring the area. That’s how Knox House Museum curator Eldonna Lay explains it.

Best breakfast in town: Perry's Cafe

“This is what old looks like,” says the hat worn by an elderly man eating breakfast with his wife to my left. They are an interracial couple. A group of elderly white men sits around the bar, joking and playing with waitresses. A little boy from the booth in front of me tries to climb over the back of the seat. He looks at me with a grin hoping to impress me with his climbing skills.

I’m at Perry’s Cafe on Magnolia Avenue just south of I-8. It’s a staple of El Cajon, a meeting place for community organizations and groups of long-time friends.

Some diners fit my stereotype of what farmers and hunters look like, the remnant of another time. It seems fitting to order the Farmer’s Omelette.

It’s a good choice. The tomatoes, jack and cheddar, and bacon are tasty. It comes with home fries and a blueberry muffin.

My waitress, Connie Chamberlain, has worked here for 42 years (since she was a teenager), since before it was Perry’s Cafe. The restaurant has traded hands a few times since 1947. Her mother worked here as a waitress before her.

Karla, the hostess, says, “The same group of guys comes here every flippin’ morning and talks about solving the problems of the day. I’ve worked here for 20 years and they have been coming since before me.”

She tells me how the founder of Perry’s sold this location (the original Perry’s) to their cook, Joel Garcia, who continues working as a cook to this day.

Chuck Stewart gets off his seat at the bar, walks up and hugs the green support pillar next to the cash register. “I’m going to hold on to this pole so I don’t fall,” he says with a crack in his voice and a smile on his face. He’s joking. He walks out to his car just fine.

Stewart is a retired Teamster who has lived in El Cajon and has been going to Perry’s Cafe and its predecessors since the 1950s. He remembers the time there were no stop lights or stop signs in the city. “El Cajon is a good little town,” he says.

“It ain’t what it used to be”

“I learned to drive in the field that is now Parkway Plaza,” says Sheila Smelko. She has an unexpected opportunity to reminisce at the end of her day as a legal secretary downtown El Cajon.

She says, “When I was a child we moved to El Cajon. People said we were moving to the boonies.” She says there were “tiny little houses on large plots of land.” She misses the time there was more space and fewer people.

She tells me about “a little old lady with goats” who sold goat milk on her land on Peach Street just east of Second Avenue. “We called her the goat lady.”

“The ‘Jap store’ was on East Main Street by the freeway. A little old Japanese family sold unusual candy and produce. It’s an empty lot now.” She brightens even more when she talks about the drive-in movie theater at Broadway and Third. “Such good times.”

She goes on to describe an oldies version of The Fast and the Furious. “Oh my gosh, those were the days. The guys would park their cars on Second Street and pop open their hoods. The girls would stand around gossiping. Then the guys would go to the freeway and race.” She says sometimes they would race down Second Street, but that was more dangerous and more likely to draw attention from the police. The memories keep coming. “The first time I got in a car with the man I married was to race. He crashed.”

I ask Sheila about El Cajon’s official race track, the Cajon Speedway, which closed in 2005. She responds assertively, “Everybody misses it and wishes it would come back.”

Though not a Cajon Speedway driver, Champion NASCAR driver, and El Cajon native Jimmy Johnson is honored by a sign posted on the median on Second Street.

Color me calm

The homeless population in El Cajon is a daily reminder of the city’s crowded space. Nobody understands lack of space better than they do.

Deborah Winter looks forward to a therapeutic coloring session for adults at the library every Saturday afternoon. It’s a respite from the drudgery of homelessness. She’s feeling stressed after getting 18 months probation for sleeping outside next to the dormant East County Performing Arts Center. “I know people who have had a lot of tickets and they get dismissed. This is my first one. I think they’re trying to make an example of me or something,” she says.

“It gets scary out there. At night you have to put anything valuable in your sleeping bag or sleep on top of it.” Debbie says she’s not a drug user and not an alcoholic. She says she was living with a friend who had to move out because of an abusive relationship.

I ask her if she is trying to find a job. “Every day I ask, ‘How am I going to get a shower today?’ And it’s kind of hard when you spend half your day just walking to storage.”

The Zone

The El Cajon public library staff should consider putting a sign at the entrance to their computer lab that says, “Enter at your own risk.”

Patrons using computers hold their noses and cover their faces when a greasy-faced man who hasn’t showered in weeks walks in. Sometimes there are two, three, or four greasy-faced men. People begin to cough.

I prefer to go to the back of the library where there is more space and I can check out a laptop. But sometimes the laptops aren’t working right or I need to print something. So I enter The Zone.

Sitting to my right, a thin black-bearded man gets excited when he talks to himself and begins laughing uncontrollably. He looks down and he looks up, anywhere except at the YouTube video playing on the screen in front of him. He finds himself far more entertaining.

Blue sits to my left, a few computers down. I call him Blue because every time I see him he is wearing blue clothing. He often gets out of his seat and paces back and forth, huffing and puffing. He sits back down. He hears a woman sitting in between himself and me say something. He turns and yells at her.

“Stop talking sh-- about me, you stupid b----!” He says it again. She doesn’t seem intimidated. “I don’t even know you. Why would I talk sh about you? Shut the f--- up.”

Blue remains aggressive and continues yelling at the woman. Then Red walks in. I call him Red because he wears a red shirt, red shorts, red socks, and a red scarf — every day. He carries a red-striped backpack.

Red shakes his head. He holds his hands up in front of him. “Hey, hey. C’mon bro,” he says with a giggle. Red has one of those laughs that is contagious. Blue yells one more time. Then he calms down and puts his focus back on his computer.

Since then, I haven’t seen Blue around, but I see Red all the time. I see him at Starbucks and ask him if red is his favor color. “Why ever do you ask?” he responds with an animated voice. He begins to laugh. “I don’t understand why people always ask me that question.” His laughter fills the coffee shop. Then in a more somber tone he says, “It’s a lot of reasons,” but he won’t elaborate.

Babylon in El Cajon

It’s in the name of a grocery store, barber shop, boutique, jewelry store, tax service, and banquet hall. On March 25, locals put on a “Chaldean/Babylonian/Iraqi” dance presentation at Prescott Promenade.

As told in Genesis, Babel was the place where the world came together to build a tower to the sky but instead were scattered in every direction, and the diverse cultures and languages of the world were born.

When I ask people what they most like about El Cajon, the most common answer is its diversity and immigrants (Por Favor Mexican restaurant on Main Street and the Yogurt Mill on Broadway are runners up.)

El Cajon resident Talitho Mayo posted in the Facebook group You Know You’re From El Cajon When: “I love El Cajon even more now. When I grew up here there was one black family and the Hispanics were here to work. Now I live in an international El Cajon, and I love it.”

The varying hues of El Cajon are not hard to find. At Wells Park (Madison Avenue, one block east of First Avenue) on a Saturday morning, Mohammad Tuama gathers fifteen Iraqi refugees from the El Cajon community for a volunteer park beautification project. One refugee, Alaa Alsafar, is an artist. He gives the ten children present a painting lesson before they splash in. When they finish, city staff members put the paintings on display at the park.

After viewing the paintings, I walk through the park. As I walk past a play area, a girl playing next to a boy asks him, “Do you speak Chaldean or Arabic?”

“Arabic,” he responds.

She replies, “I speak Chaldean.” Their respective parents sit on opposite sides from each other, supervising.

On the other side of town on a Tuesday afternoon, a man riding a motorized wheelchair waves me down on Lexington Avenue, west of Magnolia. He points to a paper in his hands. He doesn’t speak English, and he is on the wrong street going the wrong way. He has an appointment at the International Rescue Committee on Main Street, a block east of Magnolia.

He points to himself and says one word, “Arabic.”

I wave for him to follow me. I use hand motions to tell him which street he needs to go to and which direction to turn. He indicates he understands then puts the palm of his hand on his forehead and says “Shukran” (thanks), and he zips away.

On Easter morning, I see people dressed in red and white marching down Main Street holding signs in Spanish that read, “Cristo Vive.” (Christ lives.)

Inside Sprouts at Main and Second, I approach Cecilio, who is quickly unloading a box of strawberries. I ask him if he has watercress. He responds in Spanish, too fast for me to make out any but the last of his words, “espinacas.” I know he’s saying something about spinach, but I’m not sure what. He walks me over and shows me. The watercress is next to the spinach.

A few blocks south of Sprouts, after Second Street turns into Jamacha Road, I carry my clothes basket into Fresh ‘n Clean Laundromat. (The sign still says Wash and Dry Launderland.) A man with a goatee greets me with a big smile and a wave, but no words. Kary Krumdick bought the business last November. He’s deaf and communicates with sign language. I don’t. But he’s a good lip reader and good at understanding and giving impromptu hand descriptions.

I have no problem communicating with him or using the machines. Some customers have a harder time. A few complain about having to write on paper what they want to say and some will look for another attendant instead of trying. But overall, one of Krumdick’s employees says customers love the better service they are getting under new management, and business is growing. Krumdick urges his attendants to help his customers as much as they can, even if that means helping them fold their clothes. It’s a level of customer service I have never seen at a laundromat.

Krumdick writes to me about his experience running the business and says it’s been fun and challenging for him. He hopes it will help the deaf community. He wants people to understand that the communication barrier he runs into with people is not because he is deaf, but because they have different languages.

Back in downtown El Cajon I learn about the city’s history at the Knox House Museum, the mustard yellow building on Magnolia two blocks north of Main. Before Amaziah Lord Knox founded the city, the valley was mostly owned by a Jewish businessman from San Francisco. He bought it from a wealthy Mexican family to whom it was given after Mexico took land away from Spanish clergy. Before that the valley was inhabited by Kumeyaay families. Knox House Museum curator Eldonna Lay tells me about a Kumeyaay history museum nearby.

I head east on Washington Avenue until it turns into Dehesa Road and winds through Singing Hills down into the Dehesa Valley. I turn right on Willow Glen Drive, then another right to visit the Sycuan Cultural Center and Kumeyaay Community College. I hear the main Kumeyaay running path that passed through El Cajon Valley was used for relaying information and trading goods between the coastal, mountain, and desert regions. I learn there was an important Kumeyaay seed grain processing center discovered near Chase and Avocado. The now extinct seed grains once grew in the valley. I hear words from the first language spoken in the valley. “Haawka” (hello) and “Yey ‘ehan” (thank you.)

America is my country now

Back to West Main Street in El Cajon, on the other side of Jack in the Box from The Grand. Inside Ishtar Restaurant, Saldini Hanna teaches me some Babylonian history and tells me about El Cajon’s Chaldeans. He has the same passion I see on the faces of Chaldean men all over the city; whether it be the older men consumed in a debate at Wells Park, or those watching a backgammon game outside the courthouse off Main Street, two blocks east of Magnolia; or the younger men gathering at one of El Cajon’s many Starbucks locations, the 24 Hour Fitness at Main and Sunshine, or driving their cars down Broadway.

Saldini says in an ancient time before Chaldeans knew Jesus they were ruthless killers, known as people “without mercy.” But after they “surrendered to Jesus” they became “very peaceful people who don’t want to fight and only want to run businesses, work hard, and make money.” He adds, “Chaldeans are people who will help anyone they can.”

Saldini came to America 40 years ago. “When I left Iraq there was peace. It was paradise.” He laments what happened after Saddam. “Iran took over Iraq. It’s finished.” He says he is more focused on his new home where his children were born. “America is my country now.”

He continues, “Chaldeans love America. We pray for America every day and say, ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, you bring us here to live in peace.’”

He says all has not been well between the city of El Cajon and the Chaldean community here. “Chaldeans had a meeting to talk about moving from El Cajon to Escondido. If Chaldeans move from here the city will go back to drugs again. We give a lot to the city, but we need the city to give back.”

(Natives of El Cajon tell me downtown Main Street was entirely “trashy” before Chaldeans and other immigrants started opening up businesses and the city began its revitalization efforts.)

Saldini says it’s hard for Chaldean businesses when the city puts pressure on them instead of cleaning up the “garbage, homeless, thieves and drugs” surrounding them. “I just saw somebody parked outside shooting a needle in their arm. You call the police and they don’t come.”

I see the underlying tension in several encounters at Chaldean businesses or with individuals on Main Street. One person I question says, “Are you going to take me to jail?” Why is he worried about going to jail? “They are not gambling,” says another when I ask about the table games the men are playing inside restaurants and at tables in the public square. I never said anything about gambling. Most Chaldean restaurant owners don’t want to answer any questions. I walk into the larger Chaldean grocery stores (Valley and Harvest.) They won’t let me in because I’m wearing a backpack.

More than 40 thieves

JJ agrees with Saldini about El Cajon’s crime. He lives just north of El Cajon. “Do you have any idea how many things I’ve had stolen in El Cajon? Everybody’s a thief [in El Cajon.]” A Nintendo Switch was picked from his bag while he was at the El Cajon trolley station distracted by a phone call. He says two-and-a-half bikes have been stolen from him in El Cajon. “One time I came back to find half a bike hanging from a fence. They cut off the other half. Who would think something so weird could possibly happen? I don’t ride in El Cajon anymore. It makes me nervous.”

City of Art and Churches

There is a hot pink wall in El Cajon. You’ll find it in the Rea Arts District a half block north of Main on Rea Avenue, just east of Magnolia. It’s the front of Sophie’s Art Gallery. The Saint Madeline Sophie Center was started by Sacred Heart nuns.

The gallery hosts an off-campus art program for artists with developmental disabilities. They do painting, printing, sewing, weaving, mosaics and more.

Olivia Gross weaves in a wheelchair accessible loom. Charlie Lizarraga works on painting a logo for the El Cajon German-American Club for this year’s Oktoberfest.

Teri Hawley is excited to have a visitor. She walks up to me with a smile on her face, asks my name and shakes my hand. She wears a green hat with a shamrock. She’s sporting different shades of green on her shirt and pants. Can you guess? Green is her favorite color.

Teri is doing a painting and a mosaic. She has birds on both, but she doesn’t call them birds. she calls them “ibons.” Even though she’s not Filipino he likes to use the Tagalog word. she makes a funny face when I take her picture. During the rest of my tour she repeatedly reminds me to send a copy of it.

A short walk down the street from Sophie’s is the Olaf Wieghorst Museum, the “hidden gem of East County.” The El Cajon resident was known as the “dean of western art.” Connie Gibson gives me a tour of Wieghorst’s artwork, his first home, and the cactus garden, which artists, sculptors and photographers use to stage their work. Gibson tells me there is “a lot of hidden art here” in El Cajon.

On a Saturday evening I find an art expo in an unexpected location, Shadow Mountain Community Church, on Greenfield Drive at Madison Avenue in Granite Hills.

Artists, photographers, poets, costume designers, actors, comedians, and others share their art. My favorite is Andrew Garvin’s watercolor of a fox.

Rappers, actors and musicians take the stage. Setche Kwamu-Nana steals the show with her comedy piece about how girls don’t always use their brains when responding to guys that show interest in them. She followed it up singing “Black Country Girl.” She is from Cameroon and explained that after visiting and living in many U.S. states and countries around the world and trying to learn how to sing different styles of music, she discovered she is a black country girl.

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I found a certain poetic essence to the city of El Cajon I didn't expect to find and before I did this story never realized how much art there is here. Colors seemed to be a part of many of the short stores I found, whether it be the cultural/racial diversity, the geography, the art galleries, or the numerous characters I encountered that happened to have favorite colors and sport them proudly. El Cajon is a place of many colors. One interesting bit of history I learned about the city is that is has been a hub for migration before the waves of Middle Eastern immigration started. The town historian told me when California first started offering relatively more welfare than other states, waves of poor southerners began migrating to southern California. The first major bus stop was in El Cajon, where many of them got off and made this town their home. Ironically, that bus stop was where Ali Baba restaurant now stands.

Nelson's version of an El Cajon story sounds boring compared to Eric's. And Nelson sounds like he has an axe to grind. Did Eric write something critical of you and you're trying to give payback? You give a pretty twisted view of what is actually in this story.

I’ve never met or know Eric and after seeing his other stories and retreading this article perhaps I was a bit harsh and I apologize for attacking his writing. Clearly he did put work and takes his craft seriously. Like I mentioned though, been hearing these stories all my life (except the rather “new” influx of the Chaldean population which have made El Cajon uniquely diverse) and frustrated and hoped to hear something new about the town many of us call home. Perhaps it’s boring but for the record I’ve never seen anyone shoot up, heard racist comments, or been to The Grand. But to be fair I don’t get out much these days. I have tasted some of the best Mexican food out here though, great middle eastern cuisine, relieved Big Lebowski moments at a great bowling alley, strolled around some great trails and parks and more or less live 30 minutes from any beach, mountain, restaurant and have met some of the most down to earth hard working (boring to some I guess) people out here in El Cajon. I will admit one thing though- July and August are scorching hot months and it can be brutal- oh but there’s Parkway Plaza air conditioning for that..

I grew-up in El Cajon, I would walk to Lexington Elementary school, and Holy Trinity Church. In 1968 we moved from a 2 bedroom apartment located on Concord street to a three bedroom house on Denise Lane. I was in walking distance and would walk to Cajon Valley Junior High where I attended 7th and 8th grades. I remember the first Black student that attended our Junior High, I believe his name was LeRoy McGee, he was a fine athlete. After I bought my first real bike, my yellow Schwinn, "I'm Evil Knievel, I started bike motocross" bicycle, I delivered newspapers for the Daily Californian.

While attending El Cajon Valley High School I worked as a part-time dish washer and was promoted to cook at The Top Sirloin Restaurant, now called Ali Ba Ba. At the time the restaurant was owned by a tall white haired, serious yet happy, kind and fair gentleman named Waldo Cleaver. Waldo had to be in his 70's and I remember when he met his new bride, he was as giddy as a teenager. He married that nice lady and give me a bit of advice and words to live by, he said "Don't ever think that you won't find someone, because I never thought that I would fall in love again and here I am getting married". I graduated from El Cajon Valley High School in 1975.

I cruised 2nd street and hung out at Parkway Plaza when it was first built. As a pre-teen and a teenager I went to movies every Sunday afternoon at the El Cajon Theater and when it changed hands and became the Pussycat Theater, well I would attend a showing once and a while, tradition, you understand.

I met my first love while cruising 2nd street and my 2nd love at Win Cody bar (now torn down). I still drive through El Cajon a couple of times a week. My memories are overwhelming as I see the streets that I use to walk and ride my bike through and the buildings and houses that I use to deliver newspapers to. Mike's Model Shop on Main street, I remember the old house converted into a neighborhood store called "Salazar's Market" on Claydell st.

You can't go back but some memories are priceless.

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