City Heights Wants Place In San Diego Streetscape Tradition

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
By Megan Burks

San Diegans love their neighborhood signs. Communities from Carlsbad to Chula Vista don't just have them – they celebrate them.

In 2009, residents shot fireworks off of Hillcrest's sign as they hoisted it above the roadway. The festivities marked the 25th anniversary, not of the sign's first raising, but of its 1984 replacement.

Similar sign celebrations even spurred the first CityFest and Adams Avenue Street Fair.

While most communities opt for a modest concrete or wood sign on the side of the road, San Diego County seems to go big – and elaborate. El Cajon's sign over Main Street, for example, has lighting effects that change with the temperature.

City Heights resident Kenton Finkbeiner says now it's time for City Heights to show off. He's leading a campaign to raise $375,000 in private donations to bring a neighborhood sign back to his community.

Its first sign hung in the early 1900s at Boundary Street and University Avenue, where City Heights meets North Park. Light boxes Finkbeiner describes as "Wheel of Fortune letters" spelled out "East San Diego," City Heights' name before being incorporated into the city.

"Sometime during the Prohibition era, I'm guessing – somewhere in the 1920s, 1930s – that sign at Boundary was removed and it was replaced at the corner of University and Fairmount," Finkbeiner said.

That sign hung from 1954 to 1968 until the city removed it to widen the street.

Community members want to put their new sign near that intersection. It would have neon lights, marquee-style light bulbs and cast-concrete posts with designs celebrating the neighborhood's diversity.

"City Heights really struggles, in my opinion, for identity. It's one of those things where you've got so many people coming and going that there's very, very few uniting factors," Finkbeiner said. "What is the one thing that we can unify under? Bits of architecture – things that kind of give the neighborhood a (visual cue). 'That's what we're about. That's what we look like.'"

Finkbeiner bought and remodeled a foreclosure in the neighborhood in 2008. He said his pitch to longtime residents to put up a sign wasn't a slam-dunk. Many in the community are wary of gentrification.

"Before we even got to a look, we spent five or six once-a-month meetings talking about what it was going to do to the neighborhood," Finkbeiner said.

So what do such signs do for neighborhoods?

Luanne Hulsizer heads the Third Avenue Village Association in Chula Vista. She said the sign there set the pace for economic development along Third Avenue.

"We have found, even in the last few years, it becomes a meeting place, a destination," Hulsizer said. "So now people can say, 'Let's go to the Third Avenue Village. Let's meet for dinner. Let's shop. Let's dine there.'"

Hulsizer's predecessor, Jack Blakey, told Graphic Solutions, the company that built Chula Vista's sign, that the marker contributed to higher sales tax revenues, fewer vacancies on Third Avenue, and a boost in property values and rents.

Hulsizer credits the sign and branding that spun off of it with bringing the community its first craft beer bar. Third Avenue Alehouse is scheduled to open later this year.

But six miles north in Barrio Logan, Rachael Ortiz has a different take on her community's gateway sign.

She grew up in Barrio Logan and has run community nonprofit Barrio Station there since the 1970s. In that time, Ortiz has pushed back against junkyard operators, waterfront businesses, downtown developers and homeless service providers who had their eyes on Barrio Logan land.

"A lot of the houses that I used to go to as a teenager, junkyard owners bought them and slapped fences around them," Ortiz said. "I said, 'Oh my God. My community is disappearing.'"

With funding from the Port of San Diego, Ortiz and her neighbors raised their neighborhood sign in December.

"It's a sign of Barrio resistance to gentrification, Barrio resistance to being gobbled up," Ortiz said.

So what will a neighborhood sign bring to City Heights?

The only thing for certain is a stake in San Diego streetscape tradition.

"It's one of those things that kind of includes us," Finkbeiner said. "It's like, 'Hey, City Heights is really trying and doing it's best job to come up in the world.'"