by: Benny Cartwright | Photo by Aria Roth via Instagram (@theariq)
In a dynamic, ever-changing neighborhood like Hillcrest, it’s rare to meet people who are actually from San Diego. This neighborhood is one that people from all over come to visit and stay in, many escaping places where they felt they couldn’t be themselves. And while we are so glad that our neighborhood is made up of people from all over, it’s not often you meet someone who was not only born and raised in San Diego, but actually born in Hillcrest.
Yes, I was born in May of 1980 at what was then referred to as “University Hospital” – now UC San Diego Health Hillcrest. I was also lucky enough to get to spend a good deal of my youth in the neighborhood. My mom worked in an accounting firm that had its office on various parts of Fourth Avenue in the 1980s and early ’90s. Being that she was a single parent and even then, childcare was expensive, I would often ride the city bus after school from our Allied Gardens neighborhood to Hillcrest to hang in my mom’s office. Her co-workers would often give me a $5 bill and send me on a walk up the street to Baltimore Bagel (now Einstein Bros. Bagels) to get the box of a dozen bagels that were like $2.99 or something after 2 pm.
My family also enjoyed eating at the Chicken Pie Shop when it was on the corner of Fifth and Robinson (most recently Starbucks, now vacant), and we’d usually sit at the same window booth that had a direct view of the entrance to The Brass Rail (now called The Rail).
I watched with curiosity as the evening crowd would go in and out of that bar, having no idea that in 2001, it would be the first San Diego gay bar I would visit after turning 21.
When I was 15 years old and started to understand that I was gay, I really wanted to get to Hillcrest. Even though the bus only cost $1 back then, I didn’t always have $1, and if I did, I wanted to save my dollars for my favorite – the Jumbo Jack Meal at Jack-in-the-Box, which was only $2.99 then. I realized that I could ride my bike to Hillcrest from the house I grew up in if I just took a few streets, then followed El Cajon Boulevard all the way down.
That first trip I took to Hillcrest on my bike only lasted a few minutes as once I got to the neighborhood, I was a bit overwhelmed and realized I hadn’t made a plan as to where I would go once there. There wasn’t easily accessible internet service back then, where I could’ve just looked up suggestions for coffee houses or places to go. So I had a look and turned back around. It was a nice bike ride.
Ever since about two years after that, Hillcrest has been my home-away-from-home or home. I have had a connection to this neighborhood since birth, and I care a lot about it. I have seen it grow and change quite a lot – but it is also experiencing another period of pretty drastic growth, and there are a variety of mixed feelings about it.
As one of San Diego’s central, urban neighborhoods, filled with vibrant nightlife, dining, and more, it is a very desirable place to live. It’s minutes from downtown, and close to just about everything else.
The city is facing a housing shortage and it’s not uncommon for there to be heavy competition for available rental units. San Diego is now the most expensive rental and housing market in the United States, and all of us in Hillcrest are especially seeing that. As the city works to solve this crisis, all sorts of new development is happening. Some development, like we have never seen before in Hillcrest.
For example, after nearly 40 years of sitting vacant, the Pernicano’s building at one of the neighborhood’s most visible intersections, Sixth and University avenues, was finally torn down last year to make way for an eight-story apartment and retail development. As the project nears completion, it is almost unbelievable to see, no matter how long this development has been in progress now. It stands tall over the previously very prominent buildings, like the former City Deli space on Sixth and University, and the Guild Theater building on Fifth. It butts up against the back patio of Number One Fifth Avenue, and if you haven’t been back there lately, it’s wild. The entire back patio is surrounded by the development and it’s a fascinating example of the old and new coming together in the neighborhood.
This is part of Hillcrest’s ever-changing, dynamic nature, but it’s perfectly understandable that some people are concerned about what is next for the neighborhood. Many of the new apartment buildings have price tags starting around $2,000 for a 300-square-foot studio, all the way up to $5,000-$6,000 a month for a two bedroom. This will certainly bring in a different class of people to the neighborhood, which has for many years been affordable for the many service industry workers and young LGBTQ people who came to find their place. Will Hillcrest remain affordable for these groups?
Also, as I alluded to in my column last month, these new developments may bring in non-LGBTQ people who are attracted to the shiny new buildings and their amenities, situated in the midst of a neighborhood that has a lot of exciting things going on. Will these people care about our neighborhood’s history and the importance of the spaces we have created? Will the future residents of the building that basically surrounds Number One Fifth Avenue’s popular outdoor patio complain about the noise and find a way to have it shut down? Will we lose our neighborhood identity, or even our designation as a gayborhood if it changes enough?
These are all questions and concerns that many are grappling with. The neighborhood has changed many times over its 125-year history, but this time, we risk losing the LGBTQ identity that was created over a 50+ year time period, due to a society that wouldn’t accept us anywhere else in town. I think it’s important we fight for our gayborhood, no matter how much the physical neighborhood changes.
One way to do this is to support the Hillcrest Business Association’s LGBTQ Cultural District Proposal. According to the proposal, “Hillcrest and its rich LGBTQ+ history requires creative solutions to ensure it is preserved and protected. We must take action now to ensure its longevity as a hub for LGBT culture and business in San Diego.”
If the city were to designate Hillcrest as such, there would be some added protection to ensure that this place maintains its identity. Learn more at hillcrestbia.org/lgbt-cultural-district.
Finally, support our local LGBTQ venues, businesses, bars, organizations and establishments! I know our community can be particular, but right now we need to be there for everyone who is trying to create and maintain spaces for us. A recent series of Facebook threads about a possible Hamburger Mary’s franchise coming to the neighborhood garnered a lot of negative feedback. We need more LGBTQ venues, not less. Let’s give everyone a chance who wants to make it here, and support them! Otherwise, we might become like every other neighborhood with our best dining option being a corporate chain restaurant like a Chili’s (and no hate on Chili’s, it’s a favorite, but we’re lucky to have more unique options)!
Next Sunday, Aug. 13, is the annual Hillcrest CityFest and I hope you’ll spend a few moments that day thinking about why Hillcrest is so important and worth saving – and then come out and celebrate this neighborhood with all you’ve got that day!
–Benny Cartwright is a longtime activist and community leader. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @BennyC80.