|North Park, San Diego's first major urban suburb, was founded in 1897.|
BACKGROUND CHECK--This week, LA Times travel scribe Irene Lechowitzky is the latest in line to report how hip North Park has become. “Food, art and a hipster vibe in San Diego’s North Park” is the LAT’s headline with the subhead reading: “Forbes [magazine] has declared it hip, and no wonder. Foodies love the place, and there’s a lot to see during the Ray at Night art walks.”
There you have it. North Park, one of San Diego’s first major suburban nodes is officially hip. What’s not to like about a neighborhood that was heretofore known for the USA’s largest surviving collection of craftsman bungalows?
North Park is home to a lengthy list of restaurants and bars catering to aficionados of the craft beer revolution. After all, San Diego County is the national hot spot for boutique breweries. North Park in 1990 had two non-chain restaurant (Peking Café/Paesano’s). Now the eatery number is huge: (Linkery, El Take it Easy, Carnitas Snack Shack, Smoking Goat, Il Postino, Jaynes Gastropub, Wang’s Ritual Tavern, Urban Solace, Urbn Pizza, Heaven Sent, Alexander’s, Sea Rocket, Rancho’s, Casa Luz and others).
Hip is cool, but this blog believes the bigger story is what factors led to North Park becoming cool and trendy. A generation ago, as urban historians will remind, was eligible for federal aid as a blighted area as recently as the early 1990s.
What happened to a 100-year old community to go from a middle class suburban city within a city to urban blight?
--1960s--North Park’s thriving retail core (30th & University) was crushed by the opening of Mission Valley shopping malls that bled traditional customers away.
--1960s to 1990. Lack of leadership from city hall allowed commercial landlords to fill empty storefronts with social services instead of new retail. Without a civic plan for revitalization for North Park and other midcity nodes, a three decade decline in overall property values ensued.
--By mid-1980s, North Park Community Association (including aging yuppies and a big core of journalist residents) welcomed new leadership, who believed North Park was worth saving. NPCA homeowners fought to save single family residential zones within North Park to stave off an over-apartmentization of the historic neighborhood.
--Early 1990s. New community leadership was vocal in electing pro-neighborhood city council candidate John Hartley. Community groups (NPCA) and Hartley forces pushed through major restructuring of city hall allowing for district elections. From 1990s on council members had to reside in 3rd district to be elected. That major move resulted in a long series of bright, energetic councilmembers to focus on the neighborhoods first: Christine Kehoe, Toni Atkins, Todd Gloria.
--May, 1993 founding of North Park News. Unabashedly, pro-neighborhood, this monthly publication championed historic element of North Park as bungalow heaven; fought against arrival of big box retail mentality and held the city bureaucracy to provide North Park with its fair share of redevelopment dollars. NPN argued that the city was using North Park as a dumping ground for social services. Other districts in city needed to host its fair share of social services. One by one, social services sites moved from non-prime location. With the freeing of new prime location retail spots more restaurants noticed North Park’s huge 125,000 population base as future customers.
--1995--Under leadership by new “people first” city council representation, North Park had it place a federal Main Street redevelopment program. It was Main Street’s first urban node undertaking.
--Late 1990s--North Park Main Street and District 3 office soon galvanized community groups to forge a new plan for revitalization by creating the North Park Arts District. Artists and small retailers were encouraged to lease prime location retail spots instead of social services. Now, thanks to energized leadership wanting to make a success, things started to move forward.
--2000--North Park Main Street allied with community leaders that wanted the abandoned and crumbling city-owned North Park Theatre turned into a live-theatre venue. The rebuilding of the North Park Theatre was an emotional issue for the community as many saw it as a metaphor for the rebirth of the area. North Park sees lack of parking cause a blunting of revitalization progress. The now steamrolling momentum, led by District 3 council offices, pushed for and created a massive new parking structure providing needed parking.
--2005--Thanks to funds provided by The Fischer and the Birch families, the North Park Theatre has its grand reopening. Restaurant interest in area to support live theatre production causes restaurateurs to start looking at North Park.
--2005 to Present--With parking woes abated, restaurateurs and other retailers now began investing heavily in North Park. With more restaurants and bars succeeding, more retailers begin flocking to the area. Small mom and pop businesses return and thrive.
Bottom line: Thanks to enlightened elected official leadership that built coalitions from a proactive collection of powerful neighborhood entities, North Park is once more cool and hip as it was in the 1940s and 50s—By Thomas Shess.