Friday, February 24, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

Few single streets tell the story of today’s San Diego as well as University Ave. Look at Google maps and you’ll see the huge line it cuts through the bulk of mid-city, beginning just east of Lindbergh Field and arching way over to where 125 and I-8 intersect in the distant satellite of La Mesa.

Not only are there not many honest-to-goodness long-distance urban thoroughfares like this in San Diego (especially that are as straight), but few other avenues display the many stages of social and economic ascent and descent that mark the modern American city.

The neighborhoods along University fade between elegant opulence, exhilarating diversity, bewildering poverty and bland sprawl – showing the vast inequalities of urban life in California, and the visual and cultural collisions therein. A tour down University isn’t merely a jaunt across town, it’s a reminder of the many different kinds people with whom we share this peculiar cityscape.

Washington St. is an unassuming exit off I-5, between the I-8 intersection and the airport exit. Take it east up the hill and you’ll get to a little ramp shooting off to the right. This is the unassuming beginning of the great, transmetropolitan University Ave.

Mission Hills, the headwaters of our beloved boulevard, is maturing into quite a yuppies’ nest these days, and so is its super hip neighbor to the east, Hillcrest. But you can’t blame the established folks (or the poor students) for wanting in. Near gorgeous mesa-top views and trippy backyard ravines, nifty old wood structures house a mess of garden furniture stores, chic cafes and cutesy boutiques. While some of the prewar Arts & Crafts-era buildings shrug in peeling enamel, much of the area has been upgraded to fit the fashionable set.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the intersection of University and Fifth Ave. in the heart of Hillcrest. It’s surrounded by a moat of ethnic restaurants you’d be hard pressed to find in such a congregation anywhere else: Afghan, Thai (x2), Japanese, Lebanese, Greek, French, Hawaiian, Indian and American.

The whole of Hillcrest, which runs along University to Park Ave, exhibits a similar taste for flavor and style. The shiny stucco of fresh development extends the feeling of recent renewal along the whole stretch, housing a slick strip mall of chain stores on one side, and a stint of antique stores, bookshops, furniture galleries, coffeehouses and any other postmodern frivolity you could ask for on the other.

As soon as you cross Park Ave., the scenery changes drastically. The first establishment that catches the eye is the uniform putty stucco of F Street Adult Bookstore and shortly after, the neon window signs of a sea of liquor hovels. You know you’ve gotten to North Park when all the windows have bars.

Not that the neighborhood is without its charms. Indeed, as one of midtown’s oldest neighborhoods, North Park attracts a fascinating diversity of visitors and residents, each of whom seem to have a different idea of what the area is. An Afro-centric barber and a whole shop dedicated to reggae culture break up the iterations of coin laundries, 24-hour taco shops and grungy garages between University and central North Park.

The neon sign spanning the intersection of 30th and University marks the newer middle of the ‘hood as much as its neighbor, the renovated North Park Theater. Across the street, the Claire de Lune café and Off The Record show the signs of a new population moving in: young urban hipsters. Their smoke shops and stylish eateries share space with the faded lunch counters and check cashiers that serve the base of North Park’s residents, who seem to be a diversity of Latino or Asian descents.

The presence of this ethnic mix intensifies as you cross the 805 freeway, which effectively severed the original, huge blue-collar hood when it was completed in 1975.

The remnants of this surgery are hardly visible today apart from the way structures on both sides of the interstate seem to hang right over it; but the legacy of the split is palpable as soon as you cross the bridge. Whereas western North Park feels like an old struggling core area finally on the rise (if you could call Starbucks an improvement), the eastern half of the neighborhood bares the ethnicity (and relative poverty) of its residents unabashedly.

Hand-painted signs and whole structures are not uncommon; many (most?) of the advertisements and window ads are in either Spanish or various Asian languages; and the numerous garages now have their chain-link fences armored with tin panels and barbed wire. There’s still a matrix of iron on any street-level glass, and even fewer white people on the streets.

But not surprisingly, the amount of life that takes place on the sidewalk increases as you move east – here, crowds of freshly freed workers wait for the bus or young moms with strollers fill the narrow sidewalks. Our avenue can’t decide how many lanes it wants to be.

Yet even this seemingly bleak point of entry for recent immigrants holds an unmistakable charm. It’s easy to look at the window bars and cracking paint and feel in danger or severely out of place, but isn’t it amazing to be able to feel out of place in one’s home town?

Just miles from where we hastily toil for endless collections of consumer goods are neighborhoods that feel like foreign countries, where the store windows don’t speak your language and the restaurants serve foods you’ve never heard of.

City Heights begins as we cross the 15, continuing the same pattern of small ethnic storefronts, markets and car garages. The Red Sea Ethiopian restaurant is a crown jewel of the area at the corner of University and Euclid; it serves the large local population of African immigrants with traditional food and tasty beers bottled in distant capitals.

This stunning diversity halts abruptly at the intersection of 50th and University, where a gigantic Sears Essentials cement box arises on the right like the dead ghost of suburbia. The complex continues with a cubby for every chain establishment we’ve not been missing; this is the end of University as we’ve known it

The two-lane stretch from here to La Mesa is marked by the utter predictability of strip malls, World War II-era bungalows, tire shops, condos, hotels and every other wearying petal typical of San Diego’s commercial flowering.

Here, the city has given way to the suburb. The window bars disappear, the sidewalks empty, and the pale faces appear more frequently. We’ve started at glitzy, trekked through exotic, and arrived back at garden variety – all on one road.

That’s the diverse beauty of San Diego’s University Avenue.

Send your own curious tips about San Diego’s public spaces to Ian Port at

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