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Growing Up in San Diego

Before the malls in Mission Valley, and the 5, the 805, and the 52, there was a simpler San Diego. One filled with wide-open spaces and dirt roads, daylong Padres games that ended with a Beach Boys concert and fireworks, beachfront properties that sold for $600, and the freedom to swing from the branches of that big banyan tree in Balboa Park. Being a kid in San Diego was magic—and we’re not alone in our nostalgia. Here, 26 notable locals share their childhood memories of the city that was.


Marion Ross as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Old Globe in 1949

Marion Ross

Actress, b. 1928

I was 15 when we came here and started at Point Loma High School my senior year. We lived in Navy housing right by the Loma Theatre. It was right at the closing of the war. After the war, about 40,000 people came to San Diego. It was a tremendous immigration. During the war my father worked in the Panama Canal. He ran the electrical equipment. So he was a Navy civilian.

I couldn’t believe I lived there. I would walk to school past all these beautiful houses. Row after row. Big, beautiful houses! And wooden sidewalks. I was determined to have all that.

I traveled everywhere on the bus. That’s the way we went anywhere. I went to the Russ Auditorium. It was attached to San Diego High School. That’s where all the big shows were. And the ballet. All the great artists would come there.

It was so wonderful to come to San Diego, because of the Old Globe theater. I would hang around the Globe. Craig Noel was just returning from Tokyo after the war. He turned it into the world-class theater it is.

That we lived so close to Hollywood didn’t really interest me. I wanted to do the stage. There were about 10 theater groups, the La Jolla Players, the La Mesa Players, Lamb’s Players, maybe more, and there was a little local paper called the “Green Sheet” that listed all the auditions. I did Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal in La Jolla and I won a big prize. And then I went to San Diego State and someone from San Diego State brought me to Hollywood.


Danica McKellar and her sister, Crystal, at their childhood home

Danica McKellar

Actress, author, b. 1975

We lived in Olivenhain on top of a big hill off Manchester Road, which was super steep and felt like a roller coaster ride. My dad actually built our house in his early days of being a real estate developer; my mom designed the floor plan and they decorated it together. Lots of orange—it was the ’70s, after all! There were hardly any houses in the area, and now, of course, the whole area is built up. A couple generations back, my family also started the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, so we spent most of our weekends there. Some of my earliest memories are of that club. I remember getting my diaper changed in the women’s lounge, when it was decorated all in blue. And now I take my five-year-old kayaking in the ocean in front of the club. And yes, I’ve changed his diaper in that same lounge (now with a new light brown couch!).


Tony Gwynn JR.

Professional ballplayer, b. 1982

My first really good memory was the Chargers going to the Super Bowl in ’95. In my lifetime, I hadn’t really seen the city come alive like that, at least from a sports perspective. I watched the game on TV. We got beat up pretty bad by the 49ers.

And then the Padres, when they went to World Series in ’98. That was pretty cool. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Seeing the stadium so full. My mom had some seats by the dugout, and I remember looking up. It felt like the place was moving at one point. The shaking.

The city came out and represented as best they could. I walked away thinking, Wow. I had no idea San Diego got so excited about sports.


Shaun White, circa 2001, with Rob Lorifice, Alan Young, and Tyler and Lyn-z Hawkins

Lyn-z Adams Hawkins Pastrana

Professional skateboarder, b. 1989

When I was six, my brother, Tyler, got me a membership to the Encinitas YMCA skate park. You can ask anyone who skates; it is this legendary place, where the best of the best go. I don’t remember any time in my childhood when I wasn’t at the Y. Take any summer day, or a weekend. We would arrive at 8 a.m. and spend the whole day there. One of our moms would bring us lunch from Del Taco, which was the closest place to eat. My mom called it “meals on wheels.” Or we’d go to the snack shack. We felt so cool that we could walk there. We’d be there till closing at 8 p. m.—literally 12 hours. I grew up with Tony Hawk, Bucky Lasek, etc. They were always there. I never knew the greatness that was guiding me as I went from barely standing on a board to becoming a pro skater.


Chad Cline

Co-owner, Waterfront Bar & Grill, b. 1979

Island Court in Mission Beach was the first court north of the roller coaster, and the whole area was filled with tourists almost constantly. Still is. There was a lot of booze all over the place. Everyone had a cooler on the beach and a can in their hand. Everyone was loose-lipped and raw. There were characters everywhere. In the summertime, it smelled like sunscreen and saltwater. Once I was old enough, I started bartending at The Waterfront, which left my days open. Those days were filled with surfing as much as I could, and eating at a Mexican food place on the corner called Roberto’s, which we all lovingly nicknamed Regreto’s, for obvious reasons. Their quesadilla, with four rolled tacos topped with an almost glowing lime green guacamole and cheese, changed my life in my early 20s.


Todd Gloria at Pacific Beach in the late '70s

Todd Gloria

City council member, b. 1978

San Diego’s beaches are beautiful. They’re also free. Those features made them a regular weekend destination for my family as I grew up. As the son of a maid and a gardener, my entertainment options were limited by the family budget. But my brother and I didn’t know we were missing anything because my parents took advantage of our proximity to the coast. Torrey Pines and Pacific Beach were regular stops for the Gloria family, and those early experiences guided my interest in preserving our coastline and safeguarding our environment.


Rick Bregman, age 5, waiting to find out his time after a swim meet at the La Jolla YMCA

Rick Bregman

Market president, Bank of America San Diego, b. 1966

I’ll always remember being in the water—in a swimming pool or at the beach—almost every day as a youngster.

At five years old, I started competing in local swim meets all over San Diego, from El Cajon to Escondido, from Chula Vista to Brawley. I’m happy to say, we still have a picture that ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune of me competing in the La Jolla YMCA swim meet in 1971. Another fond memory was participating in the La Jolla Rough Water swim meet for the very first time as a five-year-old. I flash back on that experience every time I go to La Jolla Cove with my family.


The makings of SD's favorite fishmonger, in 1975

Tommy Gomes

Fishmonger, b. 1961

Growing up in the later ’60s in south San Diego, there was no 805 highway, just canyons and farms for as far as one could see. When I was around 10 years old, I would take my red wagon to the I.B. sloughs and dig up butter lip clams to sell on the pier as bait, two for a nickel. I grew up in a fishing family. I remember the tuna boats along the harbor and my mother, Dottie, who ran John Tarantino’s restaurant for 40 years. During junior high and high school, we’d sneak into the South Bay Drive-In and go to the Saturday skate sessions at Rocket Roller Rink. I remember when they were adding the outfall water pipes to the San Onofre power plant, and we skated those pipes long before skateboarding was so mainstream. Once, I grabbed the bumper off the back of a San Diego transit bus and hitched a ride to the beach on my skateboard. To grow up in San Diego during that time was badass.


Rebecca Minkoff

Fashion designer, b. 1980

San Diego was a very special and idyllic place to grow up. I have so many memories of my parents taking me to Mission Beach and getting to spend so much time outside. We’d spend those days swimming and building sand castles.


Famed screenwriter Cameron Crowe served as music editor of the El Cid student newspaper, circa 1972

David Coddon

Former editor, Union-Tribune,  b. 1955

When I was a student at University of San Diego High School (these days it’s Cathedral Catholic), Cameron Crowe and I, along with two other co-conspirators, dreamed up an underground newspaper. We called it Common Sense, a tribute to our Revolution-era hero Thomas Paine. The title was also a commentary on what we would-be revolutionaries regarded as a strict, incongruous world (in other words, high school) where common sense was in short supply.

Not wanting the priests and nuns who populated much of the Uni faculty to catch us, we all took pseudonyms for bylines. Rock stars being our idols, my handle was Keith Richards, Cameron’s Ozzy Osbourne. Common Sense took editorial potshots at some obvious targets, like the Uni High robot mascot, the rich girls and the beefy dudes in letterman’s jackets, and of course, the teachers. Our “Faculty Facts” column spared no one. Cameron, a generally shy guy who, besides being a clever writer, was artistically gifted, contributed a cartoon character named “Mr. Pencil” that gave our rag a mascot of its own. Neither that robot nor the school paper, the El Cid, was a match for Common Sense.

But we got busted—after only one issue. A brother (that’s an unordained priest) caught the four of us sneaking our mimeographed newspaper into our fellow students’ lockers one day, long after classes had ended. If we’d had more, uh, common sense, we would have left piles of them in prominent places, split, and then awaited the laughter and uproar of the following morning.

In spite of Common Sense’s benignly subversive content, there wasn’t any serious consideration given to our being expelled, or even suspended. We were just told to cease and desist. Common Sense was forced to die a premature and not nearly dignified enough death. Another revolution quashed.

Cameron Crowe was only just beginning to go where few precocious teens dared go. Within a year or so he’d be a wunderkind writer for Rolling Stone. I’d be off to the University of Southern California, where freshman year in the dorms I started another underground newspaper. Some kids never learn.


Floyd Bennett at Mission Beach

Floyd Bennett

Military veteran, b. 1929

Around 1935 or 1936, we purchased a lot in Mission Beach on Jamaica Court for $600. It was inexpensive, because everybody knew a tsunami was going to come up and wash away Mission Beach since there was no seawall. And it did wash away, multiple times.


Nick Novak

Professional football player, b. 1981

One of my favorite memories growing up in San Diego was packing up our Vanagon and going to watch the Beach Boys on the Fourth of July. Listening to “Kokomo” and “Good Vibrations” on the way to Jack Murphy on a perfect San Diego summer day. Tailgating before the game. Throwing the football or baseball in the parking lot with my dad and brothers. Watching all the beach balls getting tossed around. Staying for the fireworks. Great times.

A big part of my childhood was spent playing sports in our yard, building forts, and playing army with my brothers and friends in our neighborhood and in the area canyons. We used to keep stats when we played Wiffle ball in our cul-de-sac on George View Terrace. Until my sophomore year of high school, the only football I played was one-on-one tackle or touch football against my brother Chris, with my older brother, Andrew, playing all-time quarterback. He would usually be Dan Fouts, and Chris and I would pick NFL or college teams to represent, with one almost always being the Chargers or the Aztecs.


Joe Busalacchi

Restauranteur, b. 1958

I came directly to Little Italy from Sicily in 1966. I remember walking down India Street and visiting my favorite shops. I used to shop at Di Falco Grocery Store with my grandmother, where the old San Diego Reader was, and get meat from the local butcher at Tommy’s Quality Meats, which is now my own restaurant Trattoria Fantastica.


John Meanley (circa 1957) with his mother, Dottie, at his grandparents' ranch, which is now part of the Scripps Ranch housing development

John Meanley

Retired attorney, b. 1949

San Diego in the 1950s was much more sparsely populated than today. Take Miramar Road, built or at least commissioned by my great-grandfather, E. W. Scripps, to access the coast from his Miramar ranch. When I was about nine years old, I pedaled my red three-speed Schwinn from La Jolla to somewhere near Highway 395 (there was no I-15 back then) and don’t recall seeing more than a dozen cars the entire way. Miramar Road had one lane west and one lane east and nothing on the north but brush, weeds, and dirt. There were no businesses, no trucks, no intersecting roads. The only human activity was military aviation at Naval Air Station Miramar to the south. This area seemed so remote in 1954 that the city declined the Navy’s offer to transfer the airfield for civilian use at a price of only one dollar.

In high school, one of my surfing friends somehow got a key to the padlocked chain across the entrance to the road that goes down to Black’s Beach. I don’t know whether he got it directly from Mr. Black or his caretaker, but getting that key allowed us to drive down the road, which was a real rarity back then, instead of paddling over a mile north from Scripps Pier. Back in the 1960s, Black’s Beach was virtually uninhabited and getting there was a real adventure.


“Bobby” Fletcher with his cousins and grandfather, Ed Fletcher, in 1947

Robert Fletcher

Grandson of Ed Fletcher, b. 1943

Point Loma, when I was growing up, still had lots of open space. We used to play cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians. All the kids in the neighborhood would get together and be out all day.

My dad loved to hunt, and I got my first shotgun when I was 10. And I distinctly remember hunting doves in Mission Valley and El Cajon Valley. There was nothing there, just a few dairy farms. Fletcher Hills was completely undeveloped.

In the early 1900s, my grandfather had started buying up land on the south end of Del Mar beach. By the ’60s, he still owned about four lots near 18th Street, and they built houses on them for the family. I spent every summer there.

My grandfather absolutely loved the backcountry of San Diego, and owned a lot of property in Cuyamaca. I remember going up there and cutting down Christmas trees. We’d spend the whole day with my mother and father. We’d drive up the hill and go hiking and locate these beautiful Christmas trees that only grew up in the high elevation. The land was later donated to the state park.


Charlotte Rowe at the beach with her sisters and cousins

Charlotte Rowe

Eldest grandchild of Ed Fletcher, b. 1921

I remember my early days in Golden Hill. We lived at the end of B Street near a canyon, so there was lots of room to explore. And I remember riding the streetcar from 28th and B Street into downtown. It was very safe. Downtown was almost like a small village.

We went to the opening of the Fox Theatre [which is now Symphony Hall]. I was only eight. My sisters were six and four.

We sat in the front row to see the movie. When we were there, we saw Mickey Rooney. It was a big deal then. He was a child star. All the girls thought he was so cute.
It was so special. That was really the beginning of the big beautiful buildings downtown.

We were also allowed to go to the [California Pacific] Expo in 1935. We would take the streetcar to the park and spend the whole day touring the Expo. We had a little badge around our necks. And it was such fun for people our age! Balboa Park has changed a lot, but the buildings remain the same.

Marston’s was the big department store. And that’s where our mother took us to buy clothes. It was right downtown and quite a destination, with a doorman, and lilacs from the backcountry. They always had fresh flowers of the season on the counter. 


Chuck Gunderson

Historian, former advertising executive, b. 1962

My parents purchased a condominium in Loma Riviera off West Point Loma Boulevard, an area that we used to call “lower Point Loma.” It was wide open spaces back then, without the O.B. extension of Interstate 8. Both the Midway and Frontier drive-in movie theaters were practically in our backyard. The Famosa Slough was a favorite spot, where we played endless games of baseball, flew our kites, and had massive dirt clod wars. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor was just down the street, where we sipped on “Green Rivers” and relished long ropes of fresh red licorice. Balboa Park was magical to me: free pass Tuesdays, the fresh tortillas inside the Museum of Man, the big banyan tree across from the Casa del Prado Theatre, the pendulum that marked time inside the Natural History Museum, and the replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.


Joe Ditler

Writer, b. 1951

Coronado was a quiet little village. Large car-carrying ferryboats linked us to the mainland. It was a slow passage, and dictated a slow lifestyle on the island. The town itself had no one-way streets, no stoplights, just two green police cars, and one cop on at night who usually sat in the greasy spoon with spiked coffee, reading the paper. A slow train wormed its way through Coronado, carrying supplies to nearby North Island. The sounds you heard as you went to sleep were the train whistle and the tires of cars as they rolled over wooden planks to board the ferryboat for the last ride to the mainland. When the wind turned offshore, it was the tuna canneries you smelled. The Coronado Shores hadn’t been built and the Hotel del Coronado welcomed locals to join their Beach and Tennis Club, thoroughly intertwining our lives with that great and historic old hotel. The Village Theatre was the place to be in the 1960s. It was a postwar (1947) Art Deco structure built on limited funds and war-depleted materials. Still, it was a place we visited Sundays with the same regularity admirals’ widows visited church.


Claudia Sandoval

Chef, recent winner of Fox’s MasterChef, b. 1983

The old National City Swap Meet over by 30th and D Street was a pop-up flea market in the now-empty lot of what used to be the National City Drive-In. People were mostly selling reused goods to people like us who couldn’t necessarily afford to buy new things. I was about four or five then, but I remember it like it was a movie.

The wrinkled woman at the lonchera (food truck) was serious and fast, and would package up the aluminum-foil-wrapped burritos into a clear plastic bag before you could even pull the money out of your pocket. There was nothing quite like those soggy burritos. They tasted of home.


Tom Fetter in his backyard in Point Loma in 1948

Tom Fetter

Businessman, b. 1934

Shelter Island was first a sandbar, then dredged at the beginning of World War II to become an island. I camped there many times and collected the flotsam that washed ashore. Then the Navy built ammo storage on the north end, where the Bali Hai is today, and fenced that part off. It was finally connected to land in 1950, and filled with more dredge spoil. After a year it looked dry and I drove my old army Jeep out, only to find that it was only dry on the top crust. I sunk in and had to be towed out!


JJ Fetter, circa 1979, with her dad, grandfather, uncle, and grandmother

JJ Fetter

Olympic sailor, b. 1963

When I was learning to drive in 1979, the 52 was being built, but it only went past 805 to the east and stopped before Convoy. That part of San Diego was so undeveloped (basically, there was only the dump) that there were very few cars in the area. My driving instructor took us on 52 so we could learn how to drive at freeway speeds without having to worry about other cars. And we’d use the on-ramp onto 805 to learn how to accelerate around the turn and then merge with the few cars that were on it. Nowadays, if I get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 805 or 52, I sometimes have a flashback to how uncrowded it used to be.


Scott Mires

Creative director, MiresBall brand agency, b. 1959

I moved to San Diego as a high school freshman from the Bay Area, and immediately picked up surfing. I’ve remained a loyal surfer for more than 40 years.
My father was the news director for Channel 10, and I used to go there after school to wash the reporters’ cars for spending money. My dad hired Harold Greene as the lead anchorman, and thus the legend of Ron Burgundy began. Harold Greene was the top news anchor in San Diego, and had a personality that jumped off the screen. Producers of the movie Anchorman set out to copy Harold’s look for Will Ferrell.

Coronado High School didn't have the state-of-the-art campus it has now. We'd attend some of our classes in old Quonset huts, and the center of campus featured a volleyball court for lively, between-class calisthenics.

In my teens, I worked at the Hotel Del in the Crown Room, and accidentally spilled a full tray of food on a table of eight couples dressed to the nines.
I went to San Diego State and worked nights at the downtown Old Spaghetti Factory with my friend—and soon-to-become fish taco guru—Ralph Rubio.


John Ball

Creative director, MiresBall brand agency, b. 1961

I grew up around UTC, long before anything was there—not even a stoplight. My first concert was at the old Balboa Stadium in 1976. The lineup was Yes, Peter Frampton, and Gentle Giant.When I was in high school, I remember going to look at old Graphis magazines at the iconic UCSD library, no doubt a sign of my career to come. I was working at the Best Western hotel in Mission Valley the day the PSA flight crashed in North Park. A guy came in all freaked out. He was supposed to be on that flight.


Jeff Jacobs, with parents Irwin and Joan

Jeff Jacobs

Former executive officer, Qualcomm, b. 1966

I used to go shopping with my mom at La Jolla Shores Market or Jonathon's because nothing existed east of I-5, no La Jolla Village Square or UTC. I always got a pack of Wrigley Baseball Cards (to eat the gum).


Sam Chammas and coworker Lisa Deegan at his dad's pioneer hot dog cart in 1979

Sam Chammas

Restaurant and bar owner, b. 1965

y dad had a couple restaurants in downtown from the 1970s to mid ’80s: Sam’s Original Café and Tecate Sam’s. I worked at them from age 8 to 18. ’Tis true, bussing tables at 8 years old. Back then, the city would not allow food carts. Dad thought that was nuts and built a hot dog cart from scratch and put it in front of Sam's Original Café. A few months later we were cited for operating an illegal cart. Dad pushed the cart down to city hall with a bunch of news cameras following. He parked the cart on the steps during the hearing, and said, “Why can’t San Diego have the same big-city food carts that New York and Chicago have?” That got the ball rolling for the city to allow sidewalk food carts here.

During the late 1970s, Dad owned a bar called The Old Timer, and sold it after less than a year. In 1991, at a much-too-early age, my dad passed away. It shattered me. Later on, there was a chance to take over the location, and in October 1992, we opened Live Wire.

I am a native North Park kid. I will always remember: Seeing Bad News Bears at North Park Theater, buying baseball gloves at A-B Sporting Goods, the roller skate parties at Palisade Gardens on the corner of University and Idaho, the high dive (since removed) at Kearns Municipal pool (I chickened out twice before finally getting it right), and riding skateboards in the laundromat at 32nd Street and Thorn (now SD Ceramics). And I’ll never forget PSA flight 182. I saw the ashes coming down on us at Roosevelt Junior High. It changed North Park and San Diego forever.


Jason Russell and wife, Danica, circa 1988

Jason Russell

Co-founder, Invisible Children and Filmmaker, b. 1978

I remember jumping into the back of my dad’s truck with my brother and kids in the neighborhood and driving down streets at 40 miles per hour, before it was illegal.

I remember riding our bikes many blocks to the local 7-Eleven and playing the video game Mortal Kombat. I remember going to Mission Beach and looking up at the burned-down roller coaster and being mad at whoever lit the match. Then on my 12th birthday, my parents took me to ride the newly refurbished Giant Dipper. It was magical. When my wife Danica and I were eight years old, we were on the cover of Hotel Del’s in-room magazine for their 100th year anniversary. Almost 20 years later, we were blessed enough to have our wedding reception in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Del, a full-circle love story.



Photos courtesy of the Old Globe, Danica McKellar, the San Diego Padres, Shutterstock, Lyn-z Adams Hawkins Pastrana, Chad Cline, Todd Gloria, Rick Bregman, Tommy Gomes, Rebecca Minkoff, Cathedral Catholic High School, Nick Novak, the Bennett family, the Busalacchi family, the Meanley family, the Fletcher Family, Chuck Gunderson, Joe Ditler, Claudia Sandoval, the Fetter family, the Jacobs family, Scott Mires, John Ball, Sam Chammas, and the Russell family.

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