I left San Diego in 1999, with two kids, a dog, a cat, an Aerostar van and a U-Haul trailer filled with our worldly possessions. I pointed the van east and never looked back. After 16 years in California, I moved back to Maine, where I grew up. I’ve been gone from San Diego now for as long as I lived there.
This week, I took a stroll around my old neighborhood.
“Normal Heights is a walking neighborhood,” I wrote in a parting piece published in San Diego Magazine. “I suppose that’s what I like best about it.”
It still is. When I returned to visit San Diego this week, I took my girlfriend on a short walking tour. We walked along Adams Avenue, the main drag, and over by the park and the elementary school my kids attended. We walked past my old house and out to the bluff overlooking Mission Valley. We stopped into the Normal Heights Community Center, where once upon a time I edited a small community newspaper called the Adams Avenue Post.
The newspaper is long gone, but the Adams Avenue Business Association is still headquartered there. After a few moments of hesitation, the man behind the desk and I recognized each other. It was Scott Kessler, the AABA’s executive director, with whom I had worked closely on the newspaper, the annual Adams Avenue Street Fair, and other local projects. Scott is once again directing the AABA after a ten-year hiatus to pursue other interests.
We had a bittersweet conversation about people who have died or moved away. But then he said, “The Avenue looks good, doesn’t it?”
It does. The façade rebate program that Scott shepherded when I lived there has paid dividends. New bicycle racks have sprung up, along with well-delineated bike lanes. When I interviewed Scott for the San Diego Magazine piece, he told me that rehabilitating a deteriorated urban neighborhood can take as long as thirty years. I’ve been away for more than half that time, and the improvements are evident.
Normal Heights prepared me for the life I now enjoy in Bangor. I rented a house three blocks north of Adams Avenue and two blocks south of the edge of the bluff overlooking Mission Valley. I walked to my job and bicycled or bused to my classes at San Diego State University. The grocery store was within walking distance, too, and I developed the habit of what my son calls “European shopping” – buying smaller amounts of supplies on more frequent trips to the store.
I did have a car back then, but on many days it sat in the driveway. We used it to go to the beach, or up into the mountains or out to the desert, but much of our lives were conducted on foot. The kids walked to school, and the number 11 bus took me right to San Diego State on the rare days when the weather was too bad to bicycle.
Among the possessions packed into the U-Haul were several boxes of vinyl albums, many of them purchased at Nickelodeon Records, a used record store, run by Ruth Bible and Betsy Scarborough, tucked into an Adams Avenue storefront. When I lived in Normal Heights I amassed my second record collection. The first had been liquidated long ago. But I hauled the second one across the country, and have continued to add to it since.
The store is still there, amid many new and old businesses along the Avenue. I pulled a Warren Zevon album from the bargain box near the front of the store, and remarked that I used to shop here years ago. The two women looked at me a moment, and then one of them said, “Didn’t you have a dog? And two little kids? You used to sit out on the pavement and sift through the fifty-cent records.” I couldn’t believe they’d recognized me after all this time. Of course I bought a few albums. They’re shipping them to Maine so I don’t have to take them on the airplane.
Despite the improvements, Ruth and Betsy reported that Adams Avenue retains its funkiness. Though it’s no longer officially “blighted,” Normal Heights will never be entirely gentrified, and that’s a good thing.
It felt like a visit to a life that could have been. “I could stay if I wanted to,” I wrote in that 1999 magazine piece. “Someday, perhaps, I will find a place where I will truly immerse myself in a community and shed my fear of sinking roots. If it was going to happen anywhere in San Diego, it would have happened in Normal Heights.”