Community readies to honor the newest beacon of Hillcrest
by: Morgan M. Hurley
To most who live and work in Hillcrest and its surrounding neighborhoods, CityFest is the end-of-the-season party; the last big hoorah of the summer. Many call it “Pride Lite,” since it lasts just one day and always falls within a month of our blowout week of Pride festivities every year.
But CityFest is more than just a party.
Historically, CityFest has been a celebration of the Hillcrest sign itself, and its various iterations over the many decades the sign has adorned University Avenue between Fourth and Fifth avenues.
Some of the Backstory
According to research, there have been four different signs to celebrate:
The first sign was donated to the community in 1940, by “a group of women shopkeepers” in the business district. Despite their best intentions, the sign came with problems – the wooden posts were unsightly and had to be replaced after community complaints; and within 10 years, the sign went dark for decades.
According to HillQuest.com, the next sign, much beloved for its 240 feet of pink neon tubing forming the H I L L C R E S T letters, was unveiled in 1984 after being completely rebuilt. The new sign was 21 feet long, three and a half feet tall, and weighed 800 pounds. The support poles, donated by SDG&E, were 75 feet high with 15 feet set below the ground.
The first official CityFest was held in August of 1985 on the first anniversary of the sign’s relighting.
While CityFest continued each year, another cause for celebration was in 1994, when a cosmetic upgrade was made to the sign’s support poles through a public art project. The upgrade added green glass globes to the poles that sustain the sign’s span on either side of the street and the artist then capped them both with aluminum cones. A new paint job for the fading red metal backdrop of the sign was added for good measure.
In 2009, another paint job was undertaken for the 25th “silver” anniversary of the sign, and the celebration was again brought back under the sign, with a large stage and music lasting into the night.
After several years of flickering and individual letters going “dark” where the neon blew out, the sign was pulled down in 2011, and the community learned that the pink neon used to drive its landmark sign was no longer sustainable.
Thanks to generous donations, a new sign with white LED letters was unveiled in August of 2012. The new LED-based sign was to be more energy efficient and would last longer than the previous gas-driven neon tubing, but the community mourned the loss of the pink neon, just the same. All the character that the billowing pink neon offered Hillcrest’s LGBTQ community was suddenly gone. Besides, who could cozy up to bright white LEDs?
Despite the disappointment with the LED, CityFest continued to bring thousands of people to the heart of Hillcrest to celebrate its new beacon of bright light and the festivities and its footprint continued to expand throughout the neighborhood.
Thankfully, after just a short stint in storage, the old sign was auctioned off by the Hillcrest Business Association and has remained on display within the community ever since.
The sign first went to Brett Serwalt, the owner of Obelisk Bookstore, who was able to take possession of the sign after a three-day auction held in 2012, which became a bidding war between many of our well-known and longstanding Hillcrest business owners. Obelisk was located between Rich’s and Flicks on University Avenue, and Serwalt felt the beloved sign would be a perfect addition to his remodel, after a fire had damaged his bookstore the year before.
For the sign’s 30th anniversary in 2014, the first “CityFest After Dark” was launched, an extension of the typical Noon to 7 pm celebration, adding a 21+ aspect from 7-11 pm, with a special lineup of DJs and light shows emanating from the main stage at Fifth and University avenues, with dancing in the street and an extended hours beer garden.
In 2015, Obelisk closed its doors for good and the original sign went to local business owner Nick Moede, the proprietor of Rich’s at the time. Moede had been one of many who had bid against Serwalt at the previous auction. Rich’s refurbished the neon and mounted the sign from the ceiling in its front bar, facing University Avenue. You can still see the sign lit up every night from the street to this day (so much for not being sustainable).
Even though we were told the new LED sign would not have the same type of “outages” that were typical of the pink neon, it didn’t take long before this was proved incorrect, with letters in the LED sign also often going dark, caused by outages within the technology, and the sign’s bright light began to fade over time.
Fast forward to 2022, and the latest revision of the sign, which we will celebrate on Sunday, Aug. 13. Due to the continued dimming of the sign, it was turned off late last summer and eventually pulled down.
Thanks again to more generous donations, the sign was revitalized once more and unveiled this past February, just in time for Mardi Gras, with its letters lit up in colors of purple, green and gold. With a palette of 16 million different hues now available, the letters can be any color — green and red for the holidays; rainbow colored for Pride; or a solid color across all the letters. Pink, anyone?
In years past, CityFest activities often took place right under the sign, but expanding crowds forced the majority of the festival to be confined to Fifth Avenue in 1990, and while it returned full force in 2014 for the After Dark activities, once again it retreated to Fifth Avenue after the pandemic.
This year, with the new sign brightening the streets of Hillcrest, the HBA is bringing the CityFest celebration back under the sign. Officials say they will construct a “massive stage under the sign and hold the largest, free, all-ages dance party in the city.”
Come celebrate the Hillcrest sign with your neighbors and community on Sunday, Aug. 13, from Noon to 11 pm.
This year, expect over 150 vendors (artists, craftsmen, local businesses, etc.) and a 50-vendor strong international food court with something for everyone. The current footprint extends from University to Brookes, with vendors also along Robinson. Add to all this two cocktail bars, a massive beer garden, Drag Queen Story Time, carnival rides, face painting, a Lego mountain, stilt walkers, street performers, a children’s garden, balloon artists, and live entertainment on two different stages, and you have the perfect street festival.
With over 20 hours of live entertainment this year, the list of performers is so long, we can’t possibly share it here – but you can research all of them by visiting bit.ly/3qlN6Cz.
A new addition this year will be Oasis, held in Mural Alley (between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, south of University Avenue and behind The Studio Door and Arreviderci). Billed as “a party within a party,” Oasis will take place from 2-7 pm and offer a live DJ, entertainment, special alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails, and the return of WET with Benny Cartwright — a wet underwear contest. Entrance is free but you must be 21 or over to enter.
A bike corral will be available for those who choose to bike to CityFest, but according to the HBA, parking will be available throughout the neighborhood at many private lots and on the street. Remote and free parking is available at the San Diego Unified School District offices at Washington and Campus streets and at the DMV at Cleveland and Lincoln streets. An ADA accessible shuttle will be available to access these lots from 12 noon until 8 pm. Public transportation is also always a viable option.
Like any great event, CityFest couldn’t happen without its many dedicated volunteers. The HBA is still seeking volunteers for the three shifts that are available: Vendor load-in starts early Sunday morning, and you’ll be helping vendors find their booths for the day. The two ID check-assist shifts are to help make sure those who are over 21 with ID can get a wristband for the cocktail and beer gardens. Volunteers will receive a T-shirt, lunch, and even a couple drinks in the beer garden if you are eligible. If you’d like to volunteer, email the HBA at [email protected].
For more information about CityFest and all it has to offer, visit fabuloushillcrest.com.
Special thanks to HillQuest for a detailed history of the sign to pull information from. Check them out at bit.ly/43UsUpj.
—Morgan M. Hurley is the editor-in-chief of this newspaper. You can reach her at [email protected].