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Almost every day, Angeliki Marietou and her young daughter head to the Community Park a few blocks from their home, the park with the giant green frog and dozens of small sculpted frogs hopping all over the playground.

But as bright as the playground is, Marietou watches Kyveli, sporting green pants with flowers on the knees and a red and blue polka-dot vest, carefully as the 20-month-old slides down a slide nearby. The park feels neglected sometimes, Marietou said. She’s had to steer Kyveli away from poop in the sand and pieces of broken glass.

Sometimes Marietou prefers to go to the Trolley Barn Park in University Heights even though it’s farther from home. “University Heights is always clean, never any rubbish,” she said.

Marietou, 30, and her husband live south of University Avenue in North Park. This is the closest park to her house, but it means crossing University to what can feel like a different world. North Park is rapidly developing and has a vibrant business district at its heart. More young families are moving here and, like Marietou, finding the neighborhoods to the south of the University dividing line nicer and safer than the neighborhoods north of the thoroughfare.

Photo by Kelly Bennett
Angeliki Marietou and her daughter Kyveli

Nearby, 26-month-old Fernando ran circles around his mom, 27-year-old Hilaria Gómez. They live on this northern side of University, near Illinois Street and El Cajon Boulevard. “I don’t know why it’s different, that side and this side,” she said. She said she often sees people in the park smoking marijuana. Others appear to be homeless. And her proximity to El Cajon Boulevard means she sees “lots of ladies walking around.”

Photo by Kelly Bennett
Hilaria Gómez and her son Fernando

In a densely populated neighborhood, residents want more and better parks — the kind of community green space that allays the city grit of busy streets and multi-story buildings. City budget cuts haven’t been kind to park maintenance, but residents are hoping to the city will insert more green space in North Park that feels safe and clean.

In a neighborhood named for them, not all of the parks have had the same sparkle. This Community Park, for example, has come a long way in the past few years, but as Marietou explains, she wants to fret less about Kyveli playing there. A new park just opened at Jefferson Elementary, but the arrangement means residents must wait until after school hours or on the weekends to use it.

I’m spending the week in the uptown and downtown neighborhoods of District 3, a densely populated, urban City Council district that includes neighborhoods like North Park, University Heights and Hillcrest. I’m spending time with people who live and work in these neighborhoods to get to know the issues and questions they’ve encountered. Then, I’ll take them to the district’s representative, Todd Gloria, who’s running for re-election against no one.

There are a couple of other issues that came up repeatedly in my conversations in the neighborhood this week:

Safety:

There are some high points in the neighborhood’s safety. The neighborhood recently shifted to be under the Mid-City division instead of the Western Division of the San Diego Police Department. That means police are based in nearby City Heights instead of on Morena Boulevard, quickening their responsiveness to the neighborhood’s calls, residents told me. The SDPD launched a program to send cops on bikes through North Park to deal with the crowds and spillover effects brought on by new bars. The new program has coincided with a sharp drop in aggravated assaults. (Read my colleague Keegan Kyle’s Q&A with the sergeant who oversees the unit.)

The bike team has made a dramatic improvement, said Derek Dreyer, who minds the door at Tiger! Tiger!, a relatively new craft beer bar and restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard. “I still keep my head on a swivel,” he said, but the difference with the cops on bikes has been “100 percent.”

And North Park residents are working with a long-running citizens’ patrol in Hillcrest to develop a nighttime watch group to alert police to vandalism, public drunkenness and fights. Nikki Berdy, president of the North Park Community Association, emphasizes that the patrol will be hands-off. “Not like what you saw in Florida,” she said. “We’re just extra eyes and ears for the police.”

Non-car Infrastructure:

This is one of the biggest issues across uptown. People want to get out of their cars, but the main streets are scary to ride or walk on. At Tiger! Tiger!, manager Morgan Wood said he was hit by a car on Adams Avenue while riding his bike. Yet he would still ride on Adams again before he would ride on El Cajon Boulevard, he said.

Sitting at his restaurant The Linkery, Jay Porter waxed spectacular on what could make the walking experience better in North Park. “Why not take a nine-block area and close it to cars?” he suggested.

But he’s also frustrated by smaller dreams taking years to be realized. He’s tried for three years to get one street parking spot in front of The Linkery replaced with a bike corral that could hold a dozen bicycles. The North Park Main Street Association put up the money, the community agreed, but for a reason Porter doesn’t know, the plan “keeps getting stopped.” It’s now completely stalled, he said.

“If we can’t do something as simple as take one spot away, how do we expect the city to become a better place to live?” he said.

Planning and Neighborhood Vibe:

There’s lots people like about North Park. (I live there, near the neighborhood’s southern boundary.) A revitalized theater, a slew of restaurants, bars and boutiques, and a bunch of housing have energized the neighborhood’s heart, University Avenue and 30th Street. The neighborhood boasts a couple of business improvement groups that make the neighborhood feel more cohesive and an arts district along Ray Street. The North Park Community Association sponsors concerts in Bird Park in the summer and runs a graffiti removal program. Neighborhood advocate Omar Passons, who’s been volunteering there for years, said he wants Gloria’s office to keep up its efforts to tie North Park together — north and south and residents and businesses.

Marietou and her husband, scientists, moved from Greece first to University City, which felt to them character-less. But when they first came to visit North Park, “We saw people walking around!” she said. “We were like, ‘Yeah! It’s like Europe!’ Well, not exactly.”

Berdy, the community association leader, wants the city to take a measured look at the permitting process for any new bars and restaurants. She said a cynical sentiment crops up every once in a while in North Park that the city is pro-business, no matter what.

“It’s a very fine line,” she said. “Nobody is against the businesses succeeding here. It’s just a question.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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