Friday, January 13, 2006 | Before I begin what might sound like a dig on San Diego, let me make a confession.
I’m from the Bay Area.
The need for that disclaimer should be clear to people who’ve moved here from what I would describe as more grown-up cities. If you’re a native, perhaps that description doesn’t make sense. It might even seem offensive (especially following the self-conscious little tattle with which I began.) But my mission here isn’t to offend – it’s to explore a particular, strange quality of San Diego that makes it so different from so many other cities its size. So hang on.
Last week I delivered a (rather dry) recounting of the history of a few colorful signs that display the names of various uptown neighborhoods in bright neon. What’s so cool about these relatively old signs (North Park’s went up in 1925) is that despite the fact that they were erected originally by neighboring, but separate, and competing business districts, they all more or less follow the same design aesthetic. Kensington, Normal Heights, Hillcrest and North Park all raised signs of about the same dimensions and with similarly lit and shaped type styles above their main intersections between 1925 and 1960.
Just what’s so cool about that? Consider this: What else do the many separate neighborhoods (especially non-signed ones) of San Diego share, apart from the Chargers and Padres, frequent sunshine and a local government with disconcerting habits?
Exactly – pretty much nothing.
San Diego is the second largest city in California; it alternates between being the nation’s sixth or seventh largest. Yet it is adolescent. It doesn’t quite know who it is yet. The uncollected, vital-but-unrecognized history of those nifty neighborhood signs is a perfectly ironic fable of its lack of cultural identity, especially considering what happened to them after 1960.
Which is: they multiplied. Well, they had to die first. By most accounts, through the suburb-springing rush of the ’60s and ’70s, the four existing signs weren’t doing so hot. But by the ’80s, their pigment had been revived. The lights were on again, and in some places festivals had sprung up around their rededication ceremonies.
And something else happened. As San Diego grew upward after having grown very much outward, as interest in the urban neighborhoods grew, those old signs came to represent a sense of community. The kind 20th-century idealists thought cities could have. The kind that can be so lacking in the silent, gated, turned-in ‘burbs – a feeling of vitality and vibrance, but also of shared fortune and belonging.
Call it an ideal. That’s how the leaders of the other gridded hoods thought of it, because they chose to represent themselves more or less the same way. In 1988 the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association erected the largest of the neon signs over “The Boulevard.” It differed quite differently in style from the originals, but the spirit – and the neon – were unmistakable.
In 1997, the long ill-defined University Heights built itself a sign over Park Boulevard that vividly visualized its past as the host of a huge trolley depot.
So in 2000, when Little Italy was undergoing a massive revitalization, they knew they had to put up a sign if they wanted to be among the “real” urban neighborhoods of San Diego. Even the Gaslamp sort of had one.
Having built four original temples of electric locale (or perhaps five, if you count City Heights’ mythical signifier), and then another four after the coolness of the originals was re-realized, San Diego is a pretty darn well-lit town. You’ll never wonder which neighborhood you’re in as long as you can find the main drag.
There’s a charming little irony to those well-lit thoroughfares: the “City of Villages” chose to differentiate parts of itself in almost exactly the same way, thus creating one of its only examples of architectural and aesthetic continuity. In trying to define themselves economically and politically, the different neighborhood associations ended up visually defining much of our fair town – something no one else but the weatherman has been able to do. As inconsequential as a benign neighborhood sign may be on its own, having eight in a more or less contiguous style makes them not a coincidence, but a landmark.
What makes this a story of urban adolescence and cultural immaturity is that the importance of the signs – and perhaps with them architectural, cultural and political unity – seems rather far from being realized by this city as a whole. Even this basic outline of the signs’ common history had yet to be completely collected. I pieced it together through research in local archives and the Web, a fact of which I remain incredulous.
Which is where that early disclaimer about my origin comes in. Only in San Diego would such nifty little signposts be regarded as special solely by the neighborhoods that put them up, unrecognized as little shrines of everyone’s local culture. But, alas, most San Diegans probably live in a neighborhood without a sign – and most likely without any visible link to any other San Diego neighborhood. Remembering the history of a few bright areas won’t bring citywide community to all. But it may light the way to a time when an inquiry into our city’s character needs no disclaimer.
Send your own curious tips about San Diego neighborhoods to Ian Port at