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Thursday, January 06, 2005 | UPTOWN – At night they tower like eerie temples of neon above sprawling avenues, glowing signifiers of stylish identity spanning a city that aches to define itself.

Their electric message?

You are here.

But the well-lit signs that span the main intersections of San Diego’s beloved neighborhoods do more than spray luminescent color out through the city night (or day). They stand as some of urban San Diego’s most definitive landmarks – not necessarily for the tourists who for a week bounce between Hotel Circle and the beach (though give it a few years) but for invested locals who can’t help but romanticize the art-deco elegance of a great, lost metropolis.

I say “lost” because like the city’s character, the spirit of its neon neighborhood signs is wrapped up in a past that apparently few deem worth remembering. Their origins are retained solely in the minds of a few interested old-timers or among ancient newspaper clippings in the basement of the San Diego Historical Society. Waiting there is a picture of San Diego that would now seem foreign – one of ostrich farming, land speculators (OK, not that foreign), trolley cars and bright, ambitious neon.

It is in such a curious spirit that Voice has commissioned this weekly exploration of the San Diego region. I see it as an opportunity to answer the unanswered question of San Diego’s true character from the ground up. I hope you will see it as an opportunity to find answers to the questions about this region that make you wonder.

The colorful signs of uptown, with their murky and telling past, seem like a good place to begin. So that I don’t historicize you into boredom, we’ll divide this recounting into two pieces: here, the glory of the original signifiers; next week, the story of their more modern cousins.

EARLY LIGHT

As one of San Diego’s first uptown suburbs, North Park was the first to have a sign. Mid-century articles from the San Diego Union explain that the original North Park sign was raised way back in 1925, as a gift from what was then called the “Businessmen’s Association Women’s Auxiliary.” Apparently, the original piece was replaced by a lighted one in 1931, which spanned the intersection of 30th Street and University Avenue diagonally. (Today the sign stands perpendicular to University, about half a block from 30th.)

A photograph of North Park from the ’30s shows the original sign – white letters on a dark (green?) background, as today – suspended by cables high above an intersection bustling with Model-Ts and trolley cars. The sign was erected to mark a thriving business district and transportation corridor, but as the century wore on, suburbanization and the automobile pushed shoppers toward shinier destinations like Mission Valley.

The original North Park sign was removed in 1966, to be replaced by a rotating version that would help revitalize the district. But the rotating work was never built, and the area floundered without a sign until 1993, when a massive revitalization of the 30th and University area once again returned attention to aesthetic concerns. Today’s North Park sign was dedicated in October 1993 as the centerpiece of an urban revival that continues today.

The story of the North Park sign – ambitious beginnings, a neglected middle age, and a recent renaissance – is the same for many of the others. The Hillcrest sign went up in 1940 as a gift to the growing district from the Hillcrest Women’s Association. Originally suspended from two huge wooden poles that were replaced a few months after it was put up, the rounded red corners and white “wings” on the sides of the sign evoke the “streamlined” aesthetic so fancied in the ’40s and ’50s. According to Hillquest.com (a fantastic source of information on all things Hillcrest), the sign was refurbished in 1984 after darkening into disrepair. The relighting ceremony on Aug. 16, 1984 drew thousands to University Avenue, and inadvertently began the annual CityFest street party that continues today.

Another of San Diego’s annual uptown street festivals – the Adams Avenue Street Fair – also began with the relighting of a once-neglected neon neighborhood sign. According to Gary Weber, a longtime Uptown resident and urban planning consultant who worked with the neighborhood associations that revamped many of the uptown signs, the first street fair on Adams began with the relighting of the Normal Heights sign on April 3, 1982.

Marion Martin, whose father-in-law Lee Roy Martin built and “probably” designed the work, remembers the Normal Heights sign going up in either 1955 or ’56. “The only sign man” in town at the time, owner of a self-titled neon shop, was a natural choice for the business association’s commission.

Weber says that by 1979 the marker was “dead as a doorbell. It looked horrible.” Since the day then-Mayor Susan Golding hit the switch at the rededication ceremony, the sign has been repainted three times – each time a different color scheme.

Mystery still buzzes through the neon tubes of the other sign on Adams Avenue, a precise history of which even this fact-mole could not muster. But photographs taken not long after Christmas season 1954, when written sources say the Kensington sign went up, show white letters over a dark (green) background – exactly how it looks today.

And speaking of mysteries, Weber remembers another in the original generation of San Diego’s signs – City Heights. No photographs are known to exist, and Weber said he’d failed when trying to locate the sign on a junkyard some years back. But he swears it was there.

So why all this fuss about a few feet of neon and sheet metal? Because I still remember the feeling of discovering the signs one at a time, realizing that they shared purpose and some design elements, and wondering what else. To a visitor or a newcomer it seems exceptional that such a synergy of aesthetic enterprise could take place.

Knowing that the originals were all put up individually and in vastly different eras, for basically the same reason, sheds some light on the character of our city today (and more than that it’s still neon sign friendly.) What we will absurdly call the Modern Era of San Diego Neighborhood Signs – the few that were dreamed up and dedicated for the first time in the waning years of the twentieth century – help tell the story of San Diego growing up into the bustling burg of today. A story we now know began around 1925 in a little suburb called North Park.

To be continued.

Send your own curious tips about San Diego neighborhoods to Ian Port at

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