The Morning Report
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Friday, May 26, 2006 | Only one entree at Hawthorn’s restaurant on University Avenue can be had for less than 20 bucks: a chicken breast dinner for $18. Anything else, like the steak or the salmon – all served a la carte, of course – will run you at least a solid Andrew Jackson prior to departure.
Those rates are nothing unusual for a swanky San Diego food-palace with crisp, snowy tablecloths, but one detail sets this joint apart from the oodles of other high-dollar Uptown foodie haunts.
Hawthorn’s is in North Park.
Which, until very, very recently, was not the land of big spenders. North Park used to be the place to go at 3 a.m. for a carne asada burrito the size of your forearm for $4 (if you wanted a good one); the upper echelons of its culinary world began at the Lumberjack Grille and ended at Rancho’s gourmet Mexican restaurant and market, where you can get a plate of almost anything smothered in worship-worthy mole sauce for around $10.
But now, alas, the white tablecloth colonizers have arrived, and with them the end of North Park as many San Diegans knew it. Hawthorn’s shares a building with two other harbingers of The Future: the recently revamped North Park Theatre and – please try to contain your elation – another Starbucks location (at least the fourth along less than two miles of University Avenue.)
Yet the arrival of the Starbucks- and seared-ahi set only foretells change – it doesn’t produce it overnight. While their sanitizing presence seeps into surrounding property values, the contrast between the new, trendy, $20-entrée North Park and the old, gritty, $4-burrito North Park makes for a fascinating portrait of urban evolution. Three years ago, native friends told me (in suburb-bred paranoia) that there were shootings nightly in North Park; in its current, rapid phase of change, with elite eateries arriving at about the same rate as city buses (which many residents still rely on), that patina of authentic exoticism only makes the place more expensive.
It’s starting to look more and more like Hillcrest everyday, but North Park is still (barely) on the hip side of the hip-versus-yuppified redevelopment scale. Wide-eyed skateboarders fly down the middles of main streets in the middle of the night. Independent musical instrument shops – for drums, acoustic stringed instruments, and woodwinds – support the area’s acoustic and ethnic music scenes. Sleek galleries and design studios are starting to line up along University Ave. In that oft-repeated evolution of urban redevelopment, where slums are colonized by artists, who turn them into hipster districts, which subsequently become safe for wine bars and cigar boutiques, North Park is cresting the “authentic, arty cool” stage and fast approaching “early yuppiedom.”
But something is different here: It seems everything is happening really quickly. The arrival of Hawthorn’s and Starbucks might be a glimpse of the inevitable future a little bit too soon, because they still stand out like posh islands in a sea of struggling, marginalized residents. Services for these people still occupy most of the storefronts on University Ave: A Salvation Army thrift-store, a handful of rundown beauty salons, fortified liquor stores, coin Laundromats, pawnshops and a “Checks Cashed” spot on every block. The bus stops still draw sprawling crowds of people who look like they work hard – or not at all – for a living.
Redevelopment isn’t for these people; that is eminently clear. The La Boheme condo project, with forests of fresh beams swathed in an endless green tarp, hulks over the cityscape in a telling portrait of domination, humbling the ethnic markets and newsstands as it spills out onto 30th Street.
Its name obviously aims to elicit our deeply-embedded dreams about the thrills of city life as free-spirited bohemians – it might as well be called “San Diego’s Left Bank.” As if that wasn’t clear enough, the development’s ads in local newspapers play on the self-image of potential customers, with cartoons of gaunt, trendy characters schmoozing in self-congratulatory superficiality about the incredulity of granite countertops and free window treatments.
Do you weigh approximately 80 pounds and wear hoop earrings with a diameter larger than a basketball? Then La Boheme is for you.
But even beautiful people need dessert once in a while; in North Park, they can now get it all the time at Heaven Sent Desserts, another recently-plopped outpost of the culinary elite, which was touted by the North Park News as “the creamy topping to community renaissance.” The anchor tenant in a fresh expanse of stucco storefronts, Heaven Sent’s outdoor granite tables and cute flowerboxes seem just as safe as the suburbs, which is exactly the point.
The irony of urban redevelopment is that what would seem to be a main draw – the grit, danger and harsh beauty of a real, diverse city – are what it seeks to eradicate with its crystal place-settings and towering parking garages. I don’t mean to damn Starbucks or fancy food (I’d sure miss them), but it’s worth pointing out that our pattern of development is on repeat, playing the same espresso-and-sushi song, block after block, blighted neighborhood after blighted neighborhood.
As the transit classes get priced out of an interesting neighborhood, the so-called creative ones slowly sell its soul.