This Secret San Diego Neighborhood Has Nothing to Do With Surfing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s no beach or SeaWorld — and that’s a good thing.
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In San Diego, there’s a neighborhood where, nestled among palm-tree-lined streets and popping street art, you can sip bourbon while having your beard trimmed next to dudes playing pool. Or buy gifts like a tray that says “Fuck my liver/Let’s drink” before ducking into the Observatory — a refurbished 1920s-era art deco theater — to see a band you’ve only heard on vinyl.
In many ways North Park is the antithesis of what San Diego is known for. There’s no beach, no SeaWorld, no wine and sunsets at cliffside mansions. In a city where locals’ favorite mode of transportation is their car, North Park prides itself on relative walkability. Outdoor seating for bars, cafés and restaurants lines the sidewalks for residents to sip coffee by day and beer by night. Open-air arcade bars and clubs maintain the lively atmosphere after dark.
It’s a welcome contrast to the decades this centrally located neighborhood, bordered by City Heights and Balboa Park, was a bit dodgy and, for many, just a place to snag affordable rent. “[People] feel like they’re part of something that’s transpiring,” says Angela Landsberg, who grew up in North Park and is executive director of the business improvement organization North Park Main Street.
And while hipsters don’t typically meet the criteria for originality, the area’s architecture certainly does.
But for other longtime residents, there’s much more to the neighborhood than bars and kitschy accessories shops. It’s the authenticity that “really makes North Park special,” says Katherine Hon, secretary of the North Park Historical Society. And while hipsters don’t typically meet the criteria for originality, the area’s architecture certainly does.
You’ll see a mix of Craftsman cottages, Spanish-style stucco homes and bungalows called “Depression-Era Collectibles.” The varying styles tell the story of the first half of the 20th century in San Diego — from the influence of Balboa Park’s 1915 world’s fair to the more modest designs resulting from the lack of building materials after World War I. Hon loves strolling down the quiet residential streets looking at these “completely irreplaceable” buildings — houses that for some create tension, pinning social progress and preservation against each other. “Every home that’s demolished for us is a tragedy,” she argues.
Before the neighborhood turned less desirable in the 1960s, when residents left for the suburbs, North Park was a bustling commercial area with a sense of community. People came here on the trolley to shop at J.C. Penney, and multiple Piggly Wiggly grocery stores dotted the streets; there was even a designated “Busy Corner.” The legacy of North Park’s booming commerce is the Toyland Parade, dating back to 1936. During the holiday season, the annual parade features floats — in the past, as many as 100 — vintage cars, bands and dancers, and swarms University Avenue with sweaty Santas, wreaths and sparkling lights.
Whether the current sense of community is the result of a kombucha tasting room, matcha bar, camping-themed restaurant (with tents) and multiple male facial-hair-focused establishments is unclear. But perhaps progress comes with a mixture of old and new, of preservation and development. Chito’s Shoe Repair — whose original sign above Holsem Coffee’s storefront remains unchanged — recently moved from its coveted University Avenue location to North Park, where it fixes San Diegans’ shoes via cash-only transactions. There’s homestyle Mexican food at El Comal; and the Olympic Café, whose Greek-born owner recalls his North Park upbringing fondly, has been serving Greek cuisine since 1985. But there’s also a new restaurant culture simmering, says San Diego–based food and real estate writer Jackie Bryant, “so everything is new — making it kind of a blank slate.”
Despite having the markings of a typical hipster neighborhood, North Park still holds an identity wholly unique for a city famed for surf and sun. Go ahead and say “fuck you” to your liver — there are enough craft breweries that you could easily spend an entire day on a crawl — and take a moment to remember the 100-plus years of history surrounding you.
Go There: North Park in San Diego
- Take a walking tour with North Park Historical Society and get the full story about how North Park has developed since the 1890s — don’t forget to take your picture with the iconic water tower and North Park sign on University between 29th and 30th streets.
- Make piñatas, nichos (shadow boxes) or matchboxes at Artelexia’s workshops.
- Make the trek north of University and 30th Street to Cantina Mayahuel, where there is a selection of 200 tequilas and 100 mezcals. It’s rumored to have one of the best happy hours in the city.
- There’s no shortage of great cafés. The “OG” of coffee is Caffè Calabria. Holsem Coffee, Communal Coffee and Young Hickory are all local favorites.
- Get kitschy, organic or eclectic souvenirs at Pigment, Shop Good and Love & Aesthetics.