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When he finished graduate school, Omar Passons moved to Washington, D.C. hoping to change the government from within. That proved harder than he’d hoped.
So after receiving his law degree there, he moved back to San Diego, where he grew up. He and his wife bought a condo in North Park, just a few blocks from the neighborhood’s towering neon sign, from where, for six years, they’ve watched the community change. Over that time, he became active in community groups and in a few years has become a local face familiar to North Park’s resident and business community.
Last year, he became president of the North Park Community Association, which aims to improve quality of life in the neighborhood.
The group has launched a graffiti removal program, organized community cleanups, staged summer concert series, and has worked with business owners and residents to figure out how they can foster a shared sense of community and responsibility for improvement.
I sat down with Passons at SoHo, a new restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard, to talk about how North Park is changing, what those changes have meant for local residents and businesses, and the problems the neighborhood is still trying to overcome.
How did you get involved in the North Park community?
I don’t know that I’ve ever lived anywhere and not been involved. When we were moving back to San Diego, we found the things that are important to us here, and it was an opportunity to be involved in a community that seriously cares, has some good diversity, and is interesting.
What attracted you?
I moved here in 2004. If you rewind back a few years, and went into any of the bars or restaurants or cafes we had then, it was a really interesting mix of people. You had age diversity, ethnic diversity, economic diversity. We liked that there was a substantial and growing gay community in North Park. It is a willingness to embrace just about everyone. That was one of the reasons we were drawn here.
You asked me to rewind four or five years. Why do I have to rewind?
Clearly you’re in the reporting business.
When my wife and I got here, there was no Urban Solace, no True North, The Linkery wasn’t there. That portion of North Park has undergone a pretty big shift.
Those changes have brought some real positives. They’ve also brought changes in who comes and who visits the neighborhood. The late night weekend party crowd is now descending on parts of North Park. There are pros and cons to that. I would love it if we had a more responsible set of visitors. Okay, so maybe the post-9 o’clock weekend crowd isn’t my thing.
Interestingly, if you catch our neighborhoods at the right time of day on the right days of the week, it still looks exactly the same as it did when we moved here four or five years ago. If you were to walk around right now (mid-afternoon), and went into any of the places that some people complain about, they look just like the other parts of our neighborhoods. True North, for example. It’s beautiful inside that place. You’d see old people playing pool, you’d see a couple of business people doing their thing, you’d see the college kids. It’s a mix.
Our neighborhoods collectively can’t be defined by some little stereotype.
You keep calling them neighborhoods. Why? Most people tend to think of North Park as a single neighborhood.
That question could take us two hours.
Greater North Park, just to frame the conversation, is the 805 and Park Boulevard on the east and west, Adams on the north, and South Park and the canyon on the south.
Neighborhoods, you’ve got Carmel Heights, Burlingame, Burlingame Manor/Burlingame Knolls, Morley Field. All these little nuggets of neighborhoods. To the north you’ve got Between Heights–
It got it’s name because you have Normal Heights to the east and University Heights to the west, and you had this group in between who were kind of voiceless, and they just decided, “Hey, we have a voice,” so a bunch of active people got together. The people in Between Heights really care about what’s going on beyond their mini borders.
What are some more of the distinctions between the different neighborhoods?
Greater North Park has a fairly well-heeled southern portion. As you move closer to University, you have more multi-family residential and lower income population. As you move further north, it starts to get a little more affluent.
My wife and I started a Park to Park shuttle that connects North Park, South Park, University Heights and Normal Heights. For the last two weekends we’ve been up at 2 in the morning riding the shuttle so we have a chance to see what’s going on in each of the hubs of North Park.
What have you noticed?
Our neighborhoods are safer.
North Park has also benefited from South Park. There’s a symbiosis there. The Station, Alchemy, and Hamilton’s in South Park all help North Park. They attract people. There’s this big flow of people who all like the same kind of things, and like to enjoy what our community has become.
What planning issues have come up as North Park has changed?
Parking is a big one. Parking alternatives are big, because there’s a decent biking community here. That’s a potential shift. We’d like to make it easier for businesses to replace parking spaces with bicycle parking. Don’t get me wrong, some are going to say, “Wait, just said we have a parking problem, and that will just make things worse.”
But our community is changing. Some businesses are offering a discount if you ride your bike. The Linkery is trying to get some spaces for bicycles outside its place. You can fit 10 or 15 bicycles in a single parking space. So from a planning standpoint, that’s one way to respond to the needs of our changing community.
What are your favorite things about North Park?
I just won a T-shirt answering that question. I love that my wife and I can bike to wherever we want to go. I like that the business owners are not cold and detached. It is a warm welcoming and for the most part clean place to live.
Your least favorite things?
I should have seen that coming. I don’t like that there are large portions of our neighborhoods that don’t get to go for a walk after dark without worrying. They have to watch where they’re going because of crime.
I don’t like that there’s still prostitution in our community.
Is the community association working on the prostitution problem?
Indirectly. When we heard the El Cajon Business Improvement District was trying to get a public right-of-way application approved so they could have sidewalk cafes, we said we’d support them. I went to support their application to the various community groups.
Putting more people on the sidewalks, on the streets, who are shopping or eating, will make it less interesting for the criminal element. That’s an indirect way.
If we can find a way to promote these businesses, holding mixers on the Boulevard, more people will know about us and businesses like this one will stay, others will follow.
Imagine if that business there wasn’t a strip club, but a really cool Thai restaurant. Then you wouldn’t have had that ridiculous shooting a couple of months ago.
Is there anything else that’s still important I haven’t asked about?
I think it’s important for people who live in greater North Park to know that the community association wants to include everyone who wants to be included in what happens here.
El Cajon Boulevard improving and that is an important story to be told. Prostitution still happens here and that is a bad story, especially for the young women often forced into that life. We want to change the story, and say we don’t want to be about prostitution.
North Park isn’t just 30th and University and it isn’t just bars and restaurants. There are lots of people who want a neighborhood to live in, and they can find one here.
When the lights are off and it’s not glitz and glamour on Friday or Saturday night, we still want a walkable, friendly, safe community.
— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO