Hillcrest: Uptown and Offbeat

"Hillcrest" graphic
"Uptown and Offbeat" graphic

By Ron Donoho | Photographs by Jeff Wiant

Brimming with coffee shops and cafes, Hillcrest is a steamy rush of caffeine. Some avoid it; others find it addictive. Can we tawk? It excites in bursts and spurts. Eventually the high wears down-but a visitor can find a cup of joltin' joe almost anywhere in the neighborhood. Fancy extra whip on that almond latté? No problem. If a Fifth Avenue Starbucks-either one-is too corporate for your hazelnutty taste, check out the effortless Pannikin (formerly Quel Fromage), the Living Room or The Study.

If you want to measure the pulse of Hillcrest, sidestepping into The Study proves serendipitous. The joint offers an ambience of hip academe. Bookshelves are lined with hoary encyclopedias. A casual air of introspection circulates through overhead fans bolted to a way-high ceiling. Muted jazz wafts down from hidden speakers, drifting by eucalyptusa sign for Hillcrest sprigs centered in thin glass vases on stained-wood tables. Stopping by for an herbal iced tea after catching a foreign flick at The Guild, a 1990s swinger might note, "Daddy, this place is money."

During one particular damp day, each and every Study patron is topped by a chapeau of sorts. The black man in a baggy orange shirt quietly sipping French roast wears a dull-blue knit cap. He glowers out the window at a lingering misty rain. Rivulets of water stream curbside down University Avenue. Definitely a hat day. A dapper gent-cutting effeminately into an avocado-and-cheese sandwich-sports a pressed gray cabbie hat. The Asian student with chemistry textbooks strewn across a table tugs the brim of a plain white baseball cap. This range of headgear draws to mind that for which the community of Hillcrest is most noted: diversity.

A local publication recently printed a factoid deemed of import to the gay community. Trying to effect an insider tone, the short piece noted that a particular event would interest "the Hillcrest crowd."

Hmmm. Apparently the area's reputation has been molded. But before we cast a net over the entire region, let's double-check the demographics. Hillcrest

an exterior view of the Alibi barAssociation executive director Warren Simon says 36,000 people live within a 1-mile radius of University and Highway 163. The 1990 Census figures show that within Hillcrest's central business area-a tract between Front Street and Park Boulevard stretching from University to Upas Street-the median age is 39; roughly 37 percent have college degrees; and nearly 10 times as many residents rent as own homes. And according to an estimate by Simon-in a category the Census doesn't track -about half the denizens of Hillcrest are gay.

Try to traverse Hillcrest terrain without tripping over an eclectic element. There's an Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Fourth Avenue. The most renowned gay bar is the Brass Rail. Kickers, a country/western dance club adjacent to Hamburger Mary's, offers same-sex couples a corral in which to tush-push the night away. There's the artsy Guild movie theater, Tidbits Cabaret and Diversionary Theatre, which recently staged the holiday production Our Gay Apparel.

Got a problem with any of this? Hillcresters don't. Most communities wouldn't supply sufficient patronage to keep a store called Gay Mart in business. Hillcrest does. "Business isn't bad," says affable Gay Mart clerk Joe Gill. The corner market opened last July on University. Adult videos are on sale in the back. Out front, shoppers peruse rows of gold-lamé disco shirts, pink tank tops and purple bun-hugger bathing suits. Sure, the store gets its share of crank calls from pickled frat boys, says Gill. And sometimes scavenger hunters invade. Otherwise, it's just another day of "same old, same old" behind the cash register.

Though sexual orientation skews it politically to the left, Hillcrest is practically the geographic center of the city of San Diego. Located in the Uptown District, north of downtown, Hillcrest is more like a village than an urban center. Colorful awnings invite shoppers into antique stores (Circa a.d.), specialty shops (Laguna Trends), kitsch emporiums (Babettethe exterior of the Corvette bar Schwartz), furniture stores galore (Metropolis, Forma Artful Furnishings, Lawrance Contemporary Home Furnishings), specialty food outlets (Bread & Cie), bookstores (Bountiful Books), salons (Tango's) and the self-explanatory Condoms Plus.

Hillcrest is also an epicurean's delight. Fine dining is available at Busalacchi's, California Cuisine and Montanas American Grill. The City Deli is open till midnight (and later on weekends). Choose from the Taste of Italy, Taste of Szechuan or Taste of Thai restaurants. Or drive up to the Corvette Diner, Bar & Grill, where neon rules, a deejay spins Del Shannon, and you can order a Dion burger and a Blue Suede Shoes cocktail.

The area's over-the-top reputation doesn't suit everyone's taste. That it's a gay enclave in right-leaning San Diego is both a draw and a deterrent to potential visitors and residents. There's no doubt in Simon's mind that Hillcrest is regarded as "the gay community" in most other parts of town.

"But that's not how we look at it," he says. "There are families here and there are gay couples and there are straight single couples-there's a little bit of everything. Most of the time we consider us all just people living here. Nobody thinks, 'Oh, how many gay people are here and how many black people?' The people who live in Hillcrest are people who enjoy diversity and are accepting of all walks of life."

During the early 1900s, few walks of life inhabited this area so close to downtown San Diego. Folks needed a horse-drawn carriage to make it up a steep grade unnavigable by streetcars. But late in the summer of 1906, William a couple in a barWesley Whitson received a juicy business tip from his sister-in-law, Laura Anderson. Secretary at a law firm, Anderson heard that the George Hill estate-a 40-acre hilly tract just north of downtown-could be bought for a mere $115,000. The price was a bargain; an adjoining land parcel had recently sold for half a million dollars.

Whitson rounded up money from friends and relatives, sold shares in his proposed "Hillcrest Company" and raised $100,000 from banks. A deed to the Hillcrest Company was recorded August 2, 1907, and Whitson was in business.

At first, the neighborhood was sparsely settled. St. Joseph's Hospital was at Sixth Avenue and University. A couple
of one-story houses were a few blocks away. About a half-dozen businesses were scattered to the east. Whitson's real estate office was at Fifth and University (where today stands a Union Bank). He set about selling blocks of land, in lot sizes averaging 50 by 135 feet. Prices ranged from a

$2,500 tract on Second Avenue to $10,000 for the lot on Fifth where the Corvette Diner is now parked.

At least 43 houses were built by the Hillcrest Company within the original subdivision. Of that number, 17 still exist, and eight-most in the 3900 and 4000 blocks of Third Avenue-have survived with virtually no alterations.

By 1920, Hillcrest had become San Diego's first suburb. The Hillcrest Association was founded in 1921 (it duly celebrated its 75th anniversary last year). Beginning with only a handful of retailers, the association's membership grew to 160 by 1957. In 1984, with city council approval, the association formed a Business Improvement District. Membership rocketed to 1,000, and a new era of business expansion began.

1984 was also the year neglect, weathering and pigeon droppings were defeated -on one front, at least. A community fund-raising campaign aided in financing the cleanup of the 21-foot-long, 31¼2-foot-high, 800-pound Hillcrest sign. A 1940 gift from the Women's Business Association of Hillcrest, the sign hangs over University at Fifth.

At night, the sans-serif sign-a source of considerable civic pride-lights up with a pink neon glow. It's impossible to know exactly how forefather Whitson would react if he were alive to behold it or witness the community's evolution. Since aa sign for the Crest Cafe Rubio's logo now hangs near the site of his original real estate office, it's surmisable Whitson would at the very least be surprised by one species of Hillcrest resident: the fish taco.

No doubt Whitson would delight in CityFest. The 13th annual street fair takes place in Hillcrest on August 4. As in years past, there will be an abundance of all kinds of tacos, kielbasa sandwiches, sushi and stir-fry. In 1996, more than 90,000 guests partied with 340 vendors who set up booths on seven blocks open only to foot traffic. The throngs also grooved to free performances by local bands. Back this year by popular demand: Candye Kane & the Swingin' Armadillos and the retro-cool stylings of Haute Chili.

CityFest was launched in 1984 as a tribute to the refurbishment of the Hillcrest sign. The inaugural event attracted 6,000. Attendance began to swell in the late '80s, but by 1990, the festival had developed a cash-flow problem.

"We had event promoters running CityFest, but we were losing money," says Simon, who has headed the Hillcrest Association for 14 years. He says CityFest lost about $14,000 in 1990. Changes were implemented, but a wine-tasting promotion went sour, and the addition of sponsors didn't turn the tide of red ink: In 1991 organizers still wound up $3,000 in the hole. Consequently, a death knell was being sounded.

That's when Cindy Lehman stepped forward. "I said no, we can't let this end," says Lehman, vice president and manager of the Grossmont Bank on Fifth. Lehman, who hails from a small town in Kansas, disagrees with Dorothy's oft-repeated line from The Wizard of Oz. There is a place like home. "In Hillcrest-like my hometown -anyone is welcome, no matter who you are," she says. It would be a shame, she felt, to lose such a public celebration of that sentiment.

Lehman proposed an all-volunteer staff to run CityFest. The concept worked, and she went on to chair the street fair committee for four years. Last year, the event raised $10,000-all used for civic projects. Though she's the a picture of a manfinancial-planning savior of CityFest, she takes the most pride in the atmosphere provided by the day-long party. "We've never had any trouble; never had an arrest. People behave themselves-even in the beer gardens-and I think that's because people know this is a neighborhood. So people treat it like one."

Ann Garwood is among the legion of CityFest volunteers. Owner of the Ad Ink advertising agency, Garwood is one of many Hillcrest business owners who don't have far to commute to work: Her residence on Seventh Avenue between Robinson and Pennsylvania doubles as her office. Before last year's CityFest, Garwood was up at 3 a.m., chalking booth spaces for vendors on Fifth Avenue. "Hey, it's all volunteers, so somebody has to do that," she says. "It works out just fine, because I get my work out of the way early. Then I can walk through the fair and not feel guilty about having some fun."

Like Garwood's, Tom Stoup's commute to work is short. It's a 10-minute walk to his Blue Door Bookstore on Fifth from his house near Balboa Park in tony Marston Hills, also home court of Boston Celtics basketball great Bill Walton. Though you won't find it mentioned on most maps, Marston Hills retains infamy as the site where Betty Broderick murdered her ex-husband and his new wife-a chapter

of history preserved in two made-for-TV movies. Incidentally, the Broderick house is presently occupied by the dynamic duo who own (among others) Hillcrest's Corvette Diner and Kemo Sabe restaurants-David and Lesley Cohn.

Stoup is a 65-year-old retired English teacher. Offered a chance to buy the Blue Door in 1987, he jumped at it. Stoup, who describes the bohemian bookstore as "old and musty," refuses to stock his shelves with the New York Times bestsellers or an author-of-the-month. Instead, he deals in "important literature from small presses."

Don't ask Stoup about business these days. "We're doing awful," he says bluntly. "Revenues are down 35 percent." Still, he vows he won't sell out to commercialism, so don't expect to find Danielle Steele among his inventory anytime soon.

"The thing I like best about Hillcrest is that it reminds me of old Europe," Stoup says. "Many people live near their stores. We know all the street people-which ones might be dangerous and which ones are not." (Mirroring a citywide trend, the total crime index in Hillcrest has fallen 12 percent over the past two years, according to San Diego Police Department statistics.)

"The community is tight-knit," adds Stoup. "When one store goes out of business, we all genuinely feel saddened." He bemoans the creep of "Wal-Martization" into Hillcrest. "Because we live here, we are careful to keep the area clean. That's not the case with the national chains moving in. I called the Seattle headquarters of Starbucks twice to get them to have somebody sweep the sidewalks in front of one of the stores here."

And so here we are, back where we started: a coffee shop. Stoup is correct in his assessment that Starbucks does not typify the neighborhood retail genre. Yet for the sake of community prosperity, some applaud the chain arrivals. Many were reluctant to see Village Hillcrest enter the area, but now the shopping plaza-with its 800-space underground parking lot-is a business district staple. A Trader Joe's recently joined the Uptown District mix; a Whole Foods Market will be completed this year.

"The community is definitely growing," says Simon. He also points with pride to a 16-unit Cable Building Lofts project at Seventh and University that-bucking a slow market for residential development -is slated to be finished sometime this summer. Stoup and others just hope the additions don't call for too much subtraction from the neighborhood flavor. For now, though, grab a double espresso or caffé mocha-and enjoy another cup of diversity. 

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