Bob Braswell moved to San Diego from Alabama when he was in fifth grade. It was the early 1950s, and he was just in time to start the school year at Midway Elementary in the Frontier community, where, suddenly, he was expected to know fractions.

“In Alabama, we called fractions ‘those funny looking things,’” he said. “They were something I saw on the board for 8th graders, then I got to California and all the 5th graders already knew them.”

It would be another decade before the city sent final eviction notices to the remaining residents of Frontier, the community built by the federal government to house military workers during a crushing housing crisis 10 years before Braswell’s family arrived. Braswell arrived in the middle of Frontier’s life.

The federal government’s Frontier Housing Project in Midway separated by a no-man’s land buffer from Loma Portal neighborhood as seen in 1946. / Photo courtesy of the San Diego History Center

Now an 81-year-old grandfather who lives in Chula Vista, whose kids have decamped for Los Angeles, Braswell said he only recently realized that in the area where he lived, Fordham Court, it was only Black families. That didn’t stand out to him then.

More acute were the typically southern California memories he collected there – wading into the crystal clear water near the Mission Beach jetty, despite the fact that he couldn’t swim, to catch crabs with his bare hands so he could take them home for his dad to boil. Or, putting together skateboards from grocery store carts, before bombing down hills with lookouts minding the intersections they had no choice but to fly through.

And he remembers getting jumped.

“Four guys got me, because I was the new kid,” he said. “I got them all back – I whooped all of them, one at a time. That’s the way we did it back then. My daddy said, ‘You find out their names, and go get them, or that’s it.’ Then we grew up as friends, played sports together forever.”

He remembers, in other words, a classic American childhood – if a typical American child was a Black kid in a neighborhood of mostly other Black and Latino kids, a short walk from the beach in southern California just as its population was exploding.

By the mid-1960s, the city of San Diego had bulldozed Frontier. Braswell had moved on – first to military housing in Linda Vista, then into the growing Black community in southeastern San Diego, before he joined the Airforce. He graduated from Lincoln High.

Southeastern San Diego was by then already the home of the region’s Black community, segregation driven by redlining, restrictive zoning and real estate industry practices both formal and informal. It would for years welcome Frontier residents, displaced from a community that the city – and surrounding neighborhoods – decided to end.

In Frontier’s place, the city built the San Diego Sports Arena amid a sprawling parking lot.

Clockwise from left: Pechanga Arena in Midway. / Photo by Megan Wood. And Midway neighborhood. / Photos by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran.

Now, the city is trying – desperately, haltingly, in its special San Diego way – to again build a community there. A developer, Midway Rising, proposes rebuilding the arena and adding 4,000 some homes. Voters agreed this fall to help the project along by waiving a 30-foot height limit on all new buildings that’s been in place for the area since 1972.

Kids could soon collect childhood memories there again, just as Braswell’s generation of Frontier kids reaches the end of their lives. When they do, they’ll take the last vestige of the city’s collective memory of Frontier with them. Frontier’s history rests on archives and occasional news stories, but what we now call the Midway Community is not home to plaques, statues, elementary schools named in commemoration or any of the other trappings of a place people try to remember.

Barnard Elementary School, for instance, was one of three elementary schools built to accommodate the kids of defense workers in Midway. The school was relocated to Pacific Beach 10 years ago, after the San Diego Unified School District sold the property to help close its budget gap.

Frontier was itself built as a desperate response to a crippling housing crisis reminiscent of San Diego’s today, as Scott Lewis covered in a history of Frontier last year. Workers flocked here from all over the country, chasing jobs in a booming defense industry in the years before World War II. But there weren’t homes for all the new workers. They formed mass encampments throughout Mission Valley, and soon lived in squalor in a city that prided itself for its quality of life.

A deus ex machina in the form of the federal government arrived. It built two neighborhoods, as instantly as it’s possible to build two neighborhoods, in Linda Vista and what we now call Midway. Outside of southeastern San Diego, they were the two neighborhoods where people of color were welcome in large numbers. Frontier was once home to 20,000 people.

And it was never loved by the city’s powerful, or its neighbors in Point Loma. It had long been derided as a slum, with forced relocation of its residents the city’s explicit goal, when the city finally cleared out the last residents and made way for the Sports Arena.

The generation that remembers it is getting smaller all the time.

Antonio Marshall used to live in the Frontier neighborhood, which is now considered the Midway area, back in the 1960s.
Antonio Marshall used to live in the Frontier neighborhood, which is now considered the Midway area, back in the 1960s. Marshall at Mountain View Park in February 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Antonio Marshall was the first person I talked to about life in Frontier. After reading about the history of the community last year, I realized the people who grew up there were still alive to tell their stories, but wouldn’t be much longer.

A few months after we spoke, Marshall died suddenly of a heart attack, alone in his home on 55th Street. He was 70 years old.

I met Marshall during a Black History Month celebration in Mountain View Park, down the street from where he moved after the city pushed his family out of Frontier. It’s also where he saw Muhammed Ali, during a 1967 visit to San Diego, get challenged to a fight by the toughest kid in the neighborhood. Ali did not oblige.

For most of his life, Marshall’s friends called him Pretty Tony.

Those included years he spent in jail. But by the last year of his life, when he shared his childhood memories of Frontier, “Pretty Tony” was a name reserved for references to a past life.

Living in Frontier, he remembered, was “a terrible time, and it was a great time.”

“When you were in Frontier, you could sense all the time that the neighborhood around it, the rest of Point Loma, there was a lot of racism outside of our little cubby hole,” he said. “But it was good, we was close knit – all the guys around my age, if you fight one, you fight ‘em all. I had more brothers than my momma had kids. I had 150 brothers.”

Marshall couldn’t remember exactly when they moved out – somewhere between 1960 and 1962, when the city moved everyone out. He would have been 8- to 10- years old then.

“It was good times and it was bad times,” he said. “You know, if I went to your house and ate your food, your momma could whoop me. Everybody who lived in that little project, got whooped by everybody. If the times was like that now, we wouldn’t have all the trouble we’ve got. All this gang bangin’ and stuff, we wouldn’t have that.”

When his family moved to Mountain View when the city was clearing out Frontier, plenty of his friends and neighbors did the same. He kept in touch with many of them for the rest of his life, he said.

Southeast San Diego Mountain View
An aerial view of southeastern San Diego on Nov. 4, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“I’m just glad I survived it all,” he said. Marshall got out of jail for the last time in 2004. He finished parole for the last time in 2007. He was working as a janitor and living in Mountain View when he died last year.

He doesn’t remember being friends with any White kids from Frontier.

But one White kid who lived in the neighborhood was Frank Ducote. Like Braswell, he moved there when his dad took a job in the defense industry, and eventually left for military housing in Linda Vista. He too went to Midway Elementary, and stayed there until the city pushed the last residents out. (“Midway Elementary was where the Target is now, but it’s hard to tell, since there aren’t any landmarks or anything,” he said.)

“It was such a looser time, I remember a neighboring woman would give me quarters every day so I could go buy her cigarettes at the store,” Ducote said.

It wasn’t until Ducote’s 50th anniversary that he learned the community was internally segregated, when one of his Latino classmates brought it up.

“In Frontier, there were white enclaves, and Chicanos had a spot, and there were Black areas,” he said. “We all went to the same churches and schools, and then at night we returned to segregated neighborhoods within the community.”

Braswell had a similar experience – he had moved from the segregated south, so ending up in the mostly segregated Frontier didn’t stand out to him. Years later, during his successful career in banking, he learned about San Diego’s history of redlining. That was before his boss asked him to cut his afro, at a customer’s request, leading him to quit on the spot.

“You don’t think of those things as a kid – you live where you live and you have fun,” Braswell said.

Bob Brensley at Eucalyptus Park in Chula Vista on September 13, 2022.
Bob Braswell at Eucalyptus Park in Chula Vista on September 13, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Ducote is now an acclaimed urban designer living in Vancouver – for a time, he worked for the city of San Diego’s planning department.

And Frontier, for its warts, offers some lessons for building a community, he said.

“A community should be built from a child’s perspective,” Ducote said. “Is it safe? Is it fun? Is it experientially rich? If you build a place with a child’s perspective, you’ll provide the type of community people love. We had nature, whether it was the ocean or the canyons in Linda Vista. Housing projects, from a kid’s perspective, can be wonderful, because they’re designed in ways that don’t let traffic just go roaring through. There was a physical characteristic everywhere you went. Schools were close. We all had open space. The grocery store on Midway Drive – that was huge if you didn’t have a car. There was a food mobile that drove around once or twice a day, and you could hop on the back and go get your milk and bread.”

Frontier wasn’t the only military workforce housing in the area. Marian McGee lived in a neighboring area called Gateway, near the east gate of Liberty Station today. McGee, 80, is White, and now lives in Mission Hills.

Her house, she said, served as a de facto daycare for kids from both Gateway and Frontier. Her mom would buy paint and butcher paper, lay it out in the backyard, and let kids paint on it all day.

“My mom said, ‘The world is not one color,’ and so I went to all kinds of kids’ houses, and all kinds of kids came to our house,” she said.

McGee said she can remember dinner conversations when the city started talking about tearing down Frontier. Her parents thought it was a terrible idea, but the city wanted to grow its tax base. She remembers a neighborhood council for Frontier, like a modern HOA, that set rules about landscaping.

“My impression was they didn’t tear it all down at one time –  There were many actions taken by the residents to forestall the city’s advancement, because the people who lived there loved it. I may be a romantic idiot, but that’s what I remember.”

Midway Rising is now holding community meetings as it prepares to turn the rough sketch of a project that it relied on to win development rights from the city, into a community once again. The company will pay the city rent so it can turn a profit developing the area, while relying on public subsidies to pay for low-income homes as part of the project.

Ducote thinks there’s an easier way.

“It’s very interesting to me that the most housing ever built at one time was during World War II, on the government dime, and for people who could live and work in San Diego, and put a roof over their head,” he said. “If the future is going to be anything like the better part of the past, you need more government involvement – either because the government builds it, or subsidizes it, or better regulates it so it better matches demand,” he said.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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  1. “A community should be built from a child’s perspective,” What an interesting perspective and not really a bad one.

  2. Interesting article. I first came to San Diego in 1969 when the Sports Arena was already in operation. But I remember the Frontier Drive In Theater on Midway Drive and had no idea it was named after an extinct community! The Frontier closed for good in 1985 and is now a parking lot:

    1. There’s a geocache series that commemorates the locations of the drive in theaters, the Frontier is one of them.

  3. What is being proposed for Midway is hardly a “community”. Posh high rises, a hotel, a jumbotron arena and somewhere in the mix some lower income housing.

  4. Many thanks to VOSD for snatching up this piece of SD history before it was lost. The story of the Midway neighborhoods is like the larger story of San Diego. When the military blew up the population of San Diego during WW2, the feds build two whole new neighborhoods designed to be affordable to middle income workers at the defense industry and the Navy. But wealthy families in Point Loma objected to their proximity to the Midway neighborhood. They city hall politicians responded to those complaints by pursuing a racist planning model that doomed the Midway community and also impacted those living in Linda Vista. Many of those people moved to new ghettos in southeast SD.

    Today, the city has an opportunity to have developers build affordable housing in the Midway district again. But instead, it is only requiring a small percentage of the new housing to be affordable. The vast majority of the thousands of new housing until will be upper-income “market rate” housing.

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