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Postcards from Chula Vista


My grandfather sent me postcards from Chula Vista, years before I ever dreamed I’d depart my native Michigan for California. The city’s name sounded so exotic compared to prosaic Highland Park—and as a child of the cold climes, I could hardly imagine what it would be like to sit in the garden in shirtsleeves in December, as Grandpa described.

But that very vision had sent my snow-weary aunt and uncle trekking across the country with their children back in 1960, then eventually pulled my grandfather west, too, to inhabit a cottage in their backyard.

They had done their homework, writing to various chambers of commerce until they finally settled on the place with the most ideal climate year-round. The deciding factor: a postcard of Chula Vista’s charming downtown, then newly planted with baby palm trees.

By the late ’70s, when I made my own cross-country drive to San Diego, the California branch of the family had such deep roots in Chula Vista that even though my aunt and uncle had transplanted themselves to Golden Hill, the place they took their newly arrived niece to celebrate was Jimmy’s Fireside Room in Chula Vista. At Third Avenue and Oxnard Street, this fancy little prime-rib annex to the inexpensive Jimmy’s Family Restaurant is only a few blocks from the garden where my grandfather once scribbled his sunny notes.

Just that sort of juxtaposition—pockets of porterhouse prosperity chic-by-jowl with blue-collar burger practicality, bordered by residential areas with their own personal history—has come to represent much of my view of Chula Vista, a town the rest of the county largely ignores if not outright disparages, and rarely visits. Their loss, I say.

Each workday as I drive to downtown San Diego, I feel sorry for the hordes in North County crawling down I-5 and I-15. While there may be some mutual exchange of pity—I know only too well that many sneeringly call my city “Chulajuana”—I think I’ve got plenty of reasons to smile. My 7-mile commute most often takes only marginally longer at rush hour than any other time of the day. I live in a home that costs me half what folks in the tonier enclaves of San Diego County pay. And the gently rolling green hills and new, pretty subdivisions are all around me, just as they are up north.

Indeed, Chula Vista is a microcosm of the county, with ritzy Rancho Santa Fe–like estates only a mile from Johnny-come-lately condo projects lining the hillsides; clusters of businesses whose revenues vary from booming to ’bout-ready-to-burn-it-for-the-insurance; highways encroaching on horse trails; parks aplenty and bayfront marinas afloat in boats. There’s even a mini-downtown, stretching five whole blocks, with one high-rise building (it’s all of 16 stories) to gawk at and point out. And as is true of San Diego County in general, Chula Vista is growing by leaps and bounds, fits and starts.

The sheer size of the city comes as a surprise to many. It’s the county’s second largest, with a population pushing well past 150,000. How does an entity that substantial escape notice?

Explains Rod Davis, executive director of the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, “If we weren’t sitting next to San Diego, the sixth-largest city in the United States, we’d be a star in our own right. We are, but it’s hard to get people to understand what we have to offer.” And though I understand it very well—and so does Davis, longtime resident and enthusiastic advocate for his city of choice—some of the reasons bear repeating.

There’s America’s favorite avocation, shopping. It’s a love affair shared by Mexicans eager to part with pesos. Smack dab between downtown San Diego and the international border, Chula Vista is “really the shopping center for the South Bay,” Davis says, “which is why we have two Costcos and two Kmarts and two Targets, three Office Depots, two Ross Dress for Lesses, six Vons, two Ralphs—it just goes on and on and on. The folks who cross the border legally from Mexico and come to Chula Vista to shop spend $1.4 billion dollars annually in the city.” That’s almost a third of the $4.5 billion they drop countywide.

That proximity to the border has always been a blessing for Chula Vista. It’s meant additional revenue from the maquiladoras mushrooming on Otay Mesa. The folks who flock to and from Mexico make many a stop in the South Bay, with the advent of the trolley rivaling the importance of Interstates 5 and 805 as cash corridors bringing in bucks from tourists, employees and residents. The world’s busiest border crossing sends ripples of riches north along with all that traffic.

Business at this end of the bay is good, for the most part, and getting better. Though Rohr, Chula Vista’s biggest single employer for decades, was recently sold to B.F. Goodrich, word is that the aerospace company’s operations here are expected to remain the same. The 2,200 Rohr employees are no doubt relieved, but there’s no lack of opportunity in other areas. Nearly half a dozen business parks have sprouted on the eastern edge of the city over the past 15 years, with increasing development in southwestern sectors rolling right along with the trolley route. And the car dealerships that once crowded onto main-drag Broadway—and ran a distant second to those on the National City Mile of Cars just a pennant flap down the road—are reaping the benefits of relocating to Otay Valley Road, a site visible from the I-805 freeway. Out from the shadow of the considerable competition, revenues have increased nearly twofold.

Farther east, on the shore of the Otay Reservoir, the ARCO Training Center that opened in 1995 seems a fitting symbol for a city whose motto is “Catch the spirit.” It’s new, it’s huge, and it’s a point of pride. “There are only three Olympic Training Centers in the United States, and we have the largest, by a factor of five—five times larger than the other two,” Davis brags. “Ours is state-of-the-art.

“People thought that when the Olympics went away, the Olympic Training Center went away. But it’s there all year round. It’s the only summer, all-winter, all-weather, all-year venue. The other two are in Lake Placid and Colorado Springs, which have a habit of getting cold in the wintertime, which kind of prevents you from going out and doing sports.”

Even if residents are not exactly Olympic material—and that’s not a given anymore—little stands in the way of Chula Vistans looking for sports and recreation. There are dozens of parks scattered citywide, recreation centers offering organized sports and classes, three golf courses on which to putt a lazy day away and, for the summer months, a squeaky-new water park, White Water Canyon.

Not into sports? Hate getting wet? The Parks & Recreation Department sponsors free concerts in the parks and open-air theatrical productions. Rather pay for your concert entertainment? The 20,000-seat MCA Amphitheater, set to make its own splash south of Otay Valley Road near White Water Canyon, is expected to open in time for the 1998 season. On weekends, Kobey’s will use the $15 million venue for more of its open-air markets. And if you’d rather swap your cash for carrots or cucumbers, a farmers’ market stakes out downtown Chula Vista each Thursday afternoon.

Add to all this longstanding annual events like the Harbor Days Festival, the Arturo Barrios Invitational 5/10K, the Starlight Yule Parade and Christmas Circle, and it’s a wonder anyone ever leaves town. Once the “village concept” becomes reality within newly annexed Otay Ranch, with pedestrian-friendly plans encouraging a more insular, community-centered lifestyle that fits right into place with the telecommuting centers already on line, residents may never have to venture far from home.

As that huge ranch slowly grows into the neighborhood over the next 50 years, scrupulously safeguarding its greenbelt—the master-plan promise is for almost 60 percent of open space, according to Mayor Shirley Horton—Chula Vista will, in a way, have come full circle to its rural beginnings. Yet no one could mistake this cosmopolitan, bustling city for the agricultural area incorporated in 1911.

The citrus orchards that once earned this slice of South Bay the title “Lemon Capital of the Nation” (what, you thought maybe Lemon Grove?) now brighten only in memory, celebrated by the Lemon Festival each spring. Today’s growth is in other places, other directions, and master-planned communities have become the chief crop. The 9,200-acre Otay Ranch annexation, largest in California history, boosted the city’s square miles from 35 to 50. Another 2,500 acres will further extend the boundaries when Rancho San Miguel is corraled into the incorporated area next year.

These giant steps come only a dozen years after Chula Vista —then bordered by the ocean and I-805, L Street and Highway 54—doubled its size by annexing the established Castle Park, Otay and Harborside neighborhoods south of the original city. Though those southern communities were warmly welcomed to the tax base, the challenges they offered the folks who govern Chula Vista were hardly different from the everyday business of steering the existing city. That’s not the case with the open lands in the east. But almost without exception, the people in charge use the word “opportunity” in referring to the newly piggybacked portion.

Police Chief Rick Emerson sees—you guessed it—opportunities where others might see headaches. The policing problems presented by the city’s burgeoning boundaries, the 50 events planned for the MCA Amphitheater, even the ongoing discussions with developers who prefer to build gated communities that restrict patrol-car access? Opportunities, every one.

It would be easy to view this as cockeyed optimism, but Emerson is unabashedly sincere. And his results speak loudly enough to convert the most cynical skeptic: The community-oriented policing programs the chief has established in his five years on the job in Chula Vista are credited with an overall 22 percent decrease in crime.

Chief Emerson is quick to acclaim the 100 Senior Volunteer Patrol members who provide “extra eyes and ears for us.” He looks for innovative ways to solve problems, and he attributes much of that program’s success to the 80 percent funding provided by the Chamber of Commerce, which solicits donations of services and products to make it work. And it’s likely he doesn’t even realize he’s talking about himself as much as his valued volunteers when he says, “One of the hallmarks of this city is that people do really care.”

The caring people of the Citizens Adversity Support Team apply “emotional first aid” for families who’ve suffered a traumatic loss such as a sudden death. Describing this volunteer program, Emerson notes, “Oftentimes, when people do it themselves, when the community comes together and does it, there’s a much greater sense of satisfaction.”

The top cop exemplifies the pride and care shown by the people who work for the city—most of whom live there, too. Excited by the impact they’ll have on the future of Chula Vista, they are nonetheless diligent in seeing that older segments aren’t slighted for the new. As attractive as Parks & Recreation director Jess Valenzuela finds the prospect of creating preserves and parks in the untouched east, for example, he makes sure to implement improvements wherever he can in the built-up west. Officials here pay much more than lip service to the ideal of happy constituents.

Of course, life in Chula Vista isn’t all a cheery bowl of cherries. Crime does still exist, as do areas in need of renovation or replacement. And inevitably, there are growth-related disputes within and without. Neighboring Bonita, increasingly wary of what the grabby giant next door may do to its quietly rural way of life, has spawned a group called Preserve South Bay. Protesting the southern extension of SR-125, slated to run through the eastern end of Bonita by 2000, a PSB newsletter says with some alarm, “Horses will become as rare in Bonita Valley as cows have become in Mission Valley if the tollway comes through.”

Maybe. Or maybe they’ll find their way to that 60 percent of open space Mayor Horton has committed the city to preserving in the Otay Ranch area. If the much-maligned least tern can make its home in the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, alongside the very highway whose construction it halted for so long in the 1980s, surely the horses can locate a stable environment somewhere nearby.

Yes, I’m a hopeless Chula Vista chauvinist. Perhaps I’ve been lulled by the fine phrases of slow-growth development, but it seems impossible to me that the caring citizens of Chula Vista could not work out a compromise with their neighbors. Even if there are twice as many Chula Vistans as there were 25 years ago.

Like many semi-natives, I am beginning to feel that San Diego and Chula Vista have been discovered by quite enough people, thank you. But I’d gladly welcome at least a few more. Following tradition, I write to the family I left behind in the East, enticing them westward with talk of sunshine and warm weather. So far, although many of them have visited and admired the area’s beauty, no one else has made the move. Perhaps if I send postcards...

San Diego Magazine copy editor Phyllis DeBlanche is in her 20th year of Chula Vista living.
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