Strip malls, strip clubs, Red Lobster, smoke shops, massage parlors, endless parking lots and congestion. Few places in San Diego are both as useful and unsightly as the Midway area. If you’re walking in Midway, something likely has not gone well for you, or you’ve just joined the Marines. On the other hand, if you need a drill bit or a needle for pumping up basketballs, you know where to go.
I assumed Midway was not particularly unique amid the hundreds of thousands of poorly planned areas the land barons of the western United States developed after the wide adoption of the automobile.
I assumed also it would be impossible to mold Midway into a coherent neighborhood.
Then city planners spent 11 years drawing a new community zoning plan. The City Council put a measure on the ballot that voters approved to remove a 30-foot height limit on new development in the area. In the meantime, the city proactively let many of its tenants’ leases expire to open the land for redevelopment options. Things were moving.
Looking at all of this, I briefly thought that, in my lifetime, we could watch Midway transform. Maybe it would help welcome more diversity to Point Loma and offer more people the chance to live in a central location, affordably. Perhaps area schools with battered enrollments could grow again. Development fees could address longstanding needs in parks and rec centers.
Maybe it could be a neighborhood.
I had no idea until recently that it already had once been one. That where the Target and Home Depot and Sports Arena and strip clubs stand now, a neighborhood, the Frontier Homes Housing Project, thrived in the 1940s and 50s and grew to 20,000 people. An eerie parallel: 20,000 residents is how many the newly updated community plan now envisions Midway accommodating, someday far in the future.
That’s not the only vision for the future that was actually already Midway in the past. Frontier was a diverse community made possible by cheap rents. There were three schools and a recreation center.
It’s hard to find relics of them and of Frontier now. I’ve read about cities ruining historic neighborhoods for years with any number of injustices or freeways. But I had never read of a San Diego neighborhood that we just erased from memory.
Yet here I was learning about Frontier, an entire neighborhood that once existed near my own, for the first time.
In most of the United States, the brand of suburban Americana strip mall sprawl that dominates Midway now is usually the first development to grow out of old farmland or a ranch. But here, the city demolished a functioning neighborhood to make way for it.
There’s only one reason why city leaders would prefer what is in Midway now to what was there before: They didn’t want the people who were there to be there. Maybe that’s because they didn’t like them. Or maybe it’s because they wanted them to pay rent or buy homes elsewhere.
It seems like a little of both had a role. Regardless, only two neighborhoods in San Diego allowed and accepted people of color in any significant concentration outside of southeastern San Diego before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Frontier was one and Linda Vista was the other. Both were federal government projects and powerful neighbors hated both. The tenants in Linda Vista, however, organized and won the right to buy their homes. The neighborhood survived and remains one of few islands of diversity north of Interstate 8.
But the city had no patience for Frontier, and Point Lomans had no love for Frontier. A mayor that long derided it as a worthless slum finally was able to evict the remaining families and erase the neighborhood from memory. Within a couple years, city officials even changed the name of Frontier Street to Sports Arena Boulevard.
Since I first learned all this, I have spent hours reading newspaper archives of the time. The Sports Arena, or now Pechanga Arena San Diego, is part of my daily vista. But I don’t think I will ever look at it the same. If you look at it long enough, you can see working people, people of color and White people, make homes on Point Loma’s porch during a world war, a severe housing crisis and only after emergency federal intervention. And then you can follow a 20-year, unceasing campaign to drive that community out.
The Sports Arena is a landmark – a vivid reminder of a successful effort to re-segregate a wealthy part of San Diego.
As a result, the city still owns so much of the land and now it is trying to engineer a massive overhaul of the entire area. Affordable housing is fundamental to the city’s development plan – it even had to redo the whole effort to make that unquestionably clear. Voter removal of the height limit encouraged five qualified bidders (as opposed to the previous two) to present visions for what they would do to the city’s land around the Sports Arena. But then, the city again fumbled the project, badly.
Opponents of this redevelopment organized a group called Save Our Access and they persuaded a judge that the height limit had been removed illegally. They celebrated the city’s failure to build a new neighborhood in Midway.
It’s hard not to hear the echoes of the people who pushed out the last one.
I was delighted when I called Bill Fontana and he answered. Almost 30 years ago, the Reader quoted Fontana, 81, in an article about Frontier. And for several days the article, and Fontana’s quote, wreaked havoc in my mind.
Fontana, who became a developer of homes himself, lived in Frontier until he was 10 in 1950. He lived where the medical offices in Midway are, southwest of the what’s now a strip club with a Pizza Hut delivery shack.
Fontana, who is White, told the Reader he had friends from many backgrounds at the development. He spent all his time at the recreation center and he feels like living in a diverse community made him a better person in the long run.
In the years before World War II many people had immigrated to San Diego – mostly from other parts of the United States – to work for the booming defense industry. But they had nowhere to live. San Diego refused federal housing assistance but the federal government grew so concerned about the homelessness and squalor that it insisted on building 3,500 units of housing in the Midway area. They were affordable, well-built homes.
Eventually, the area housed 20,000 people. It had three schools.
I was delighted to learn Fontana was alive. I asked him if the neighborhood was as diverse as the history reads.
Fontana said it very much was.
“Minorities and Caucasians got along wonderfully there. Everybody kind of pulled together to help one another,” he said.
I asked him if he knows what happened to it.
“It was so close to Point Loma, they probably felt it was the wrong group of people in the wrong location,” Fontana said.
He isn’t wrong.
In 1941, San Diego Mayor Percival Benbough took a reporter, Frank Taylor, from the Saturday Evening Post, on a tour. It was several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but the city seemed to know war was coming: Hundreds of millions of dollars were flowing into San Diego’s defense industry. The jobs it created were attracting tens of thousands of migrants from across the country.
The mayor apologized for what Taylor was seeing: people living in squalor.
“Swinging around toward Mission Valley, we passed camp after camp of auto trailers, crowded together on town lots, each trailer connected with a temporary gas meter. The bare ground between the trailers were jammed with children and washtubs and beds. In a city known for its homes and gardens, these mobile slums presented an incongruous sight,” Taylor wrote.
It was incongruous but not new.
It was the result of the battle that has long framed San Diego’s civic discourse: geraniums vs. smokestacks. Some people want to make money and create jobs (smokestacks) and others just want a nice place to live (geraniums). In San Diego, they are always vying for supremacy.
Countless articles, books and even Taylor’s piece pivot off that framing – that as those sides vie for supremacy, San Diego swings like a pendulum between growth and preservation.
The truth was, there was no pendulum. Both sides always won, and still do. The people who wanted to make money with industry and create jobs always got their way. But so did the people who fought to preserve their neighborhoods.
The result was what newcomers to San Diego still experience: a job but no housing. The losers in the battle were not the geraniums or the smokestacks but the people who had to live in the camps, on the street or in the jalopies they drove in with.
“‘Last year, we wouldn’t allow that sort of thing,” Mayor Benbough told Taylor. “Now, what can we do? These people have to sleep someplace.”
By October 1943, the war had come — a true global war with our warfighters involved in battle on opposite sides of the planet. San Diego had become a major military hub that was crucial to supporting the Naval battles raging in the Pacific.
But Point Loma homeowners were engaged in a more familiar battle. They flooded the office of their congressman, Edouard Izac, a Naval war hero himself, with telegrams about the urgent need for him to intervene.
The issue? Their neighborhood character was in jeopardy. Two years after Benbough took Taylor on the tour of boomtown squalor, homelessness and desperation, the housing crisis in San Diego had somehow gotten even worse. The Navy and federal government had grown so concerned about adequate shelter for the many workers needed to support the military and defense contractors and manufacturers, they made plans for thousands of units in the Midway neighborhood.
The city had steadfastly refused to build housing projects with the federal government’s help. The feds now would do it themselves.
Midway was empty. For centuries, San Diego River flooded the area and modern efforts to tame it were clumsy. By the 1940s, though, the flatlands between what we now know as SeaWorld and Old Town were stable.
The homes, as federal authorities planned them, would blanket the entire area where Sports Arena and the Target sit now southeast to Rosecrans. Neighbors could stomach that but blocks of the multi-family units would also stretch up the hill toward Plumosa Park in Point Loma.
That wasn’t going to fly. Even the military during an unprecedented global conflict wasn’t going to get a pass from Point Loma homeowners enraged by the idea that the housing project would connect to their homes.
Weeks of protest and negotiations followed, until finally, in November, the federal government, the city of San Diego and the Plumosa Park residents came to a deal: The housing project would stop at least 500 feet from the existing homes in Point Loma. The city would allow no connections between the neighborhoods.
The newspapers described the space between them as a no-man’s land — a particularly vivid image for a wartime newspaper to evoke.
On Nov. 2, 1943, the San Diego Tribune-Sun reported the potential deal: “Plumosa Park, a restricted residential area, would be separated by a 10 or 12-acre strip from the proposed 2500-unit federal public housing development spreading up from the bay flats, according to a compromise offered by the FPHA to the City Council yesterday.”
That word “restricted” is a loaded one in the history of housing in the United States. When developers first built Plumosa Park and Loma Portal, they were not shy about what it meant. It meant that there’d be no “shacks,” no apartments, no telephone poles and another key feature: no people of color.
“Property in this tract is not sold and can never be sold to any except members of the Caucasian race,” reads an ad from the San Diego Securities Company that ran in The San Diego Union in 1913. Those ads are, sadly, not difficult to find in the archives the Union-Tribune maintains of the old Union, Evening Tribune and Sun papers.
By 1943, though, “restricted” was no longer supposed to refer to race. Explicit housing restrictions based on race were, by then, illegal. But they were still there, in the air. Everyone knew what “restricted” meant. After the Supreme Court ruled that racial restrictions were illegal, the San Diego Realty Board and citizenry (both the geranium and smokestack parties) pushed for restrictive zoning.
Residential zoning didn’t explicitly bar people of color but if new housing could be kept out and if existing homes soared in value, they could be acquired only at a high price. Add a drop of discrimination and touch of bigotry, cut off access to financing and they wouldn’t have to explicitly bar anyone to effectively bar them.
The people of Point Loma knew what was coming with the Frontier development. It was the second largest federal housing project of its kind, second only to one up the road: Linda Vista. The federal government had just built 3,000 units there. Linda Vista and now this new development in Midway were the only two places outside of southeastern areas of the city of San Diego where Blacks and Latinos were allowed to live and could be found
It stayed that way well into the 1960s.
In the 1992 Reader article, writer Margot Sheehan quoted Robert Matthews, a civil rights icon in San Diego. He, sadly, died last year. Matthews, who was Black, told Sheehan he had gotten a job in 1955 teaching at Frontier Elementary School, one of the three schools in the neighborhood. He was the first Black teacher in the neighborhood even though many Black residents had lived there for a decade by then.
Matthews couldn’t find anyone who would rent to him in Point Loma or Ocean Beach.
“When I moved here in 1955, San Diego was very segregated. As segregated as any city in the deep South. … And none of the private renters would rent to non-whites,” he told Sheehan.
Frustrated and wasting money in hotels, Matthews turned to the school district, whose leader was enraged. The city, which by that time had purchased most of the Frontier land, agreed to allow Matthews to rent a home in Frontier. But the city gave Matthews only one year of housing. When that year ended, Matthews went to live in southeastern San Diego.
The city had taken control of the land and was actively plotting to eradicate the neighborhood as soon as possible. The city told taxpayers it would resell the property later at a handsome profit. For the most part, it never did. Killing a neighborhood is not easy.
The federal government had warned the city it could not destroy the homes until it formally declared they were no longer needed. But what is need, really? Is it the person who needs an affordable place to live or the landlord who needs someone to pay a higher rent somewhere else?
The city was getting what it wanted: the homes in Midway gone.
They were not a part of Point Loma no matter how close they were. Christine Killory, an architectural historian, wrote an essay about the “temporary suburbs” in San Diego like this and the Linda Vista development for the San Diego History Center. She wrote Linda Vista and Frontier suffered mostly because they lacked connection to existing communities in San Diego.
That was by design.
In this photo of the project from 1946, you can see the homes in Point Loma and the new Frontier homes with the no-man’s land in between.
After the war, people didn’t want to leave Frontier. Veterans turned college students needed places to stay. Families couldn’t easily rent other homes.
The smokestacks were still creating jobs and the geraniums were still resisting housing – single-family homes built further out from the city center were the only projects acceptable. Smokestacks can go on making money but only if everyone agrees that the new people taking the jobs live somewhere out of sight.
The housing shortage was dire. Newspapers from the time have dozens of stories of neighborhoods rejecting permits for encampments.
Frontier housing was not luxurious compared to Point Loma but the testimony of people who lived there is positive.
The city, though, had long since determined to clear Frontier out as soon as possible. After acquiring much of the land from the federal government, the city began studying and planning for what it could do to “rehabilitate” what City Council members and reporters routinely called slums.
“Harry Haelsig, city planning director, said the area with the greatest deterioration extends generally from the Midway-Frontier and Morena areas to the city’s southeast boundary at National City,” reported The San Diego Union in September 1960
At the top of the list was Midway-Frontier.
The city described how “areas of deterioration have common denominators,” as reported in the Union.
These areas contained:
- The highest number of arrests
- The oldest houses (exceptions for Mission Hills, Loma Portal, Kensington)
- Highest number of renter-occupied dwelling units.
- The lowest rents. (The majority under $60 a month)
- The lowest property tax revenue. (“An area in Southeast San Diego returns $171 per residentially developed acre as contrasted with $924 per acre in four-unit apartment developments in Pacific Beach and North Park.”)
- Greatest concentration of population.
There’s no other way to read this than that an area is a slum if too many people live in it and they don’t pay enough rent or taxes.
In April 1962, the city sent final eviction notices to 256 families still living in Frontier. San Diego Mayor Charles Dail finally succeeded in eradicating the neighborhood he called a slum.
The entire name, Frontier, was left to the archives.
Now the city had land and its leaders cast about for several years for a kind of SeaWorld or expo or convention center that may help San Diego draw more tourists. All they could lure, in the end, was the developer of the Sports Arena, who paid much less rent than the residents of Frontier: The arena operator paid $1 per year in rent. The rest of the land filled in with whatever could pay the rent and taxes.
Midway has some charm. If Kobey’s Swap Meet ever disappeared, there would be nostalgia. The arena has created beloved memories.
The arena looks, though, the same as it did in 1967 and not in an entirely good way. The whole area is unattractive. It feels like a failure for a city so focused on attracting the world’s attention and its travelers.
In researching why that happened, what hurt almost as much as the racism was to learn that San Diego had started something better. Of all the bad things the Navy left us on our land, Frontier was a neighborhood that created by all the public accounts of people who lived there a pleasant community for its residents who gathered around institutions: recreation centers, churches, schools and libraries.
It would be one thing if residents had neglected Frontier and abandoned it. But to learn the city forcibly evicted them, seized the land and then preferred to build what’s there now was painful for me to comprehend. There’s no problem with Frontier they couldn’t have addressed if the city had tolerated the people living there. Housing deteriorates? Restore it. City doesn’t want to be a landlord? Sell the homes, offer them to their renters, first.
We have a chance now to make Midway a place people do want to see — a functioning neighborhood.
Our options do have constraints. And the biggest one is the height limit. It would be illegal to rebuild the Sports Arena at its height now because in 1972 voters approved a measure imposing a 30-foot height limit on construction on all land west of Interstate 5, north of downtown, within the city. The petitioners who pushed for that measure were not particularly concerned about Midway but “west of the 5” was a lot easier to explain to voters than a more complicated boundary and Midway is mostly west of the 5.
Building subsidized affordable housing in any significance will require market-rate housing and a few more stories allows for a lot more options to reach housing goals and also subsidize public amenities like parks. Putting it most simply: Probably none of the bidders for the Sports Arena land would actually bid for the land if they had the height limit constraints. Only two bids came in the aborted first round when removing the height limit removal was just a hope. After it appeared that voters had removed the height limit in Midway with Measure E, five suitors for the land lined up. More competition will produce a project with more public amenities.
A few weeks ago, though, a judge ruled city leaders failed to fully study and report what effects removing the height limit would have on views and that made the entire measure void.
The group that led the charge isn’t solely or even primarily motivated by views or strict adherence to environmental impact reporting requirements. They more explicitly oppose the thousands of housing units envisioned and the impacts of those people on other coastal neighborhoods. Allowing more people to live near the coast would imperil the entire coast but simultaneously block access to the coast. And that’s the name they adopted: Save Our Access.
“A better vision: A large park for the public, with sports fields for amateur sports. This will serve Midway residents and other San Diegans; it will also take pressure off over-crowded beaches,” reads their campaign site.
I asked John McNab, who is helping lead Save Our Access, if he knew the history of the Midway land and the old Frontier neighborhood and whether he sensed any echoes in his work from the Point Loma homeowners of the past who fought affordable housing projects nearby.
He wrote in an email that Frontier’s housing “ran out of energy” after the war and that adding more housing in the area now would not alleviate San Diego’s lack of housing.
“Instead, it will vastly lower every San Diegans’ future quality of life. Particularly for the working class and lower income populations who use coast parks in a greater proportion than other subsets,” McNab wrote.
When I pressed him about the segregation that defined Point Loma’s past and helped fuel its opposition to projects in the past, McNab wrote a story about witnessing racial tensions as a boy in Los Angeles.
“It is why I focus on creating a gateway to the coast for low income and minority residents while the party line is to red line the coast,” he wrote. Red lining is the common term for the formal and informal restrictions racial minorities faced when they sought housing or mortgages in areas where they were prohibited.
In other words, to him, building homes in Midway would be actually what blocked people of color from the coast.
Even with the new community plan, a large part of Midway area will remain commercial zoning only – including the patch of land where the Target, Home Depot, Ralph’s and Dick’s and Petco and El Pollo Loco are now. Owners of that land won’t be able to build homes.
But across the street and in the warehouses to the north closest to the old river, there is potential. None of the five plans the city got for its land under and around the Sports Arena propose tall towers but they do want to go above 30 feet. To build the number of low-income units they promise, along with the parks and new arena that all but one bidder have committed to, lifting the height limit is essential for the developments to work.
The five groups each propose between 3,200 and 5,400 homes with at least 1,000 of all of them reserved for low-income residents.
A new state law forced the city to prioritize affordable housing for land it wants to lease or sell. The city already fumbled once trying to avoid this requirement. The new mayor, Todd Gloria, forced staff to redo the process.
Once again, a more remote government, this time the state, recognizing a severe housing shortage in San Diego, has asserted itself to compel the city to accept new housing. Once again, people live in encampments scattered all throughout San Diego as rents and home values rise to previously unimaginable levels.
But this time, Midway isn’t an open field with great potential. It has a history that’s kind of dark. That history has left Midway — San Diego’s gateway to Point Loma and Mission Bay — a giant bowl of urban spaghetti that is unattractive and yet congested. In spite of how hard the work appears to be, city planners, the volunteers at the Midway Community Planning Group and many others have been working relentlessly and methodically on a plan to build a true neighborhood with significant numbers of affordable homes.
And once again a proposal for housing at a large scale in the Point Loma Midway area is facing tremendous pushback from people nearby.
Just a note of thanks and acknowledgement to the San Diego Reader for its 1992 story by Margot Sheehan, which you can read here. Also thank you to the Union-Tribune for its excellent archives of Union and Evening-Tribune papers from throughout the 20th Century. It is so easy to search and free to subscribers, you should pay for journalism and archives like this.