Azalea Park is triangular, with several finger canyons reaching in from all directions. Poplar Street cuts through the small, somewhat secluded City Heights enclave. The wide, tree-lined street— which starts at Fairmount Avenue and ends less than a mile west at Azalea Community Park—serves as the main corridor of the diverse community.
Residents have started envisioning Poplar as a perfect new home for the arts. In fact, the name Azalea Park Arts District has already started making the rounds, even serving as the headline of a recent article in The Parkster, Azalea Park's neighborhood newsletter.
Azalea Park is nice, albeit a little rough around the edges. Known by many as "Gayzalea Park" or "Gayberry" because of a high LGBT population—the result of a purposeful marketing campaign led by the Azalea Park Neighborhood Association in the early '90s, which touted the tagline "What a difference a gay makes"—homes in the neighborhood range from ragged to charming. Artistic, carved-wood street signs that reflect the tree and plant-named streets are scattered throughout the area, but the scribbly, spray-painted lines of taggers can still be found on nearly every block. Neighbors also recently worked with city police to chase out an alleged prostitution ring operating in RVs parked in the community, and, in 2012, a 17-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting on Poplar.
"There are challenges," says Ricardo Moran, president of the Azalea Park Neighborhood Association. "This is still a low-income area, but we believe that a little elbow grease goes a long way."
Moran and his partner, Jim Martin, bought a home in Azalea Park a little more than three years ago. The place was rundown, but they've since fixed it up, inside and out. Now they've set their sights on the rest of the neighborhood. Martin, who owns a landscape-design firm, started a community group called the Meerkat Patrol that beautifies parkways. Moran has many goals for Azalea Park, but one of his newest pet projects is the emerging Azalea Park Arts District—an idea spearheaded by longtime resident Vicki Leon. Leon is a well-known glass artist who moved her studio from Golden Hill two years ago and has since had visions of the bustling hotbed of creativity Poplar Street can eventually become.
The first stop on a quick tour of Azalea Park is a tiny garden surrounding a painted electrical box and one of the carved-wood street signs. Thanks to the Meerkats, what used to be waist-high weeds, the occasional shopping cart and graffiti is now a handsome, landscaped strip filled with agave and other water-smart plants.
Next is a walk through the water-conservation garden within Azalea Community Park. Several large-scale sculptures by local artists are scattered amid succulents and cacti. Two young boys stand atop a bench in the garden, eyeing a strange fabric art installation hanging from a tree. The piece is by Karena Velikan, an artist who lives in Azalea Park and constantly adds to the installation, which includes a beautiful woven nest on a tree branch. She scatters things like sand dollars and shells throughout the garden and fills the nest with fun items for kids to find. Other community members have started filling the nest with things like poems and trinkets, as well. Nearby the garden are walls filled with colorful murals.
Moran and Martin proudly show off a few other murals, pocket parks, canyon-access points and landscaped parkways as they cruise through the rest of Azalea Park.
The tour ends with the recently completed Manzanita Gathering Place, a canyon-side parklet with benches and a shade structure held up by sparkling mosaic columns incorporating tiles made by Azalea Park residents. A product of a partnership between the San Diego Foundation, other community partners and the Pomegranate Center, a nonprofit based in Washington state, the project successfully transformed a blighted piece of land into a nice little public park. Martin says it's a great place to catch a killer sunset.
"We really believe that if we increase the arts and increase beautification, it really helps increase the safety of our community," Moran says.
"The idea is that gang members don't want to hang out where it looks pretty," Martin adds.
The Azalea Park Arts District has started taking more definite shape in a nondescript commercial building next to a Mexican bakery and a taco shop. Leon's studio, at 4354 Poplar St., serves as a storefront and a workspace where she makes and displays her jewelry and sculptural glass work (vickileaonartist.com). She shares her space with artist Olivia Denis, who does both sculptural and functional woodwork. Next door, at 4352 Poplar St., is aka (galleryaka.com), run by artists Jason Feather and Javi Nunez. The two use the space to make their own art and print their apparel line, Industry Bastards. They also do high-end screen-printing for clients. On the other side of Leon is Danny Win, the designer behind the clothing line Wolves & Winners. Leon and Feather worked with the community on the creation of the mosaic pillars at the Manzanita Gathering Place. They also recently held a joint open-studio event.
Soon, the dirt median in front of the building that houses the arts studios will be home to an artistic Azalea Park welcome sign designed by Harmon Nelson. The project's been in the works since 2005, but it's getting closer to fruition. With the sign in place, Leon says, the Azalea Park Arts District will be more recognizable as a cultural destination.
"As soon as you say arts district,' people bring up Barrio Logan because that's what's really active right now," Leon says. "This is never going to be that. The difference? Diversity. This could be one of the most interesting places . There's no telling what could happen."
Felicia Shaw, who heads the San Diego Foundation's arts programs, lives in Azalea Park. While she acknowledges that the arts district is in its nascent stage, she says that if any neighborhood can make a dream a reality, Azalea Park can.
"It's certainly quite feasible," she says. "What I like about the neighborhood is that we speak it, and by speaking it, it becomes more of a reality.
"There's lots of activism here," she continues. "There's something authentic about Azalea Park. It's not perfect. It's still a little gritty, but people here intend to make this an extraordinary place."
*The original version of this article referred to artist Karena Velikan as "an artist the community knows as Carina." She emailed us after the article was published.