With boundaries that are blurry to some, University Heights has a debatable wingspan. It's bounded by Hillcrest and North Park, but seemingly seeps into the latter. The eastern borderline is the most contentious. The San Diego Assessor's Map claims University Heights reaches as far as Interstate 805, while other sources (including Google maps) indicate that it comes to a halt at Texas Street.
The heart of University Heights, though, is a steadfast spot for locals who bask in a lingering small town feel. They park themselves at the token dive bars, chatting away while crafting, practicing magic tricks or swapping neighborhood gossip. All the while, they're watchful of their turf, which earned its name in the 1880s when it was a proposed University of Southern California satellite location. The site instead became a teacher's training school and the predecessor of San Diego State University, according to the University Heights Community Development Corporation.
Aside from its educational assets, travelers were drawn to the picturesque cliffside vista points that housed an amusement park and later gardens, as arranged by Dr. John Spreckels. Cobblestone pillars and a redwood gate along Adams Avenue, which were the entrance to an ostrich farm, still signify the park's existence. While it declined as Balboa Park flourished, the now-present Old Trolley Barn Park still serves as community quarters.
Inspired by the trolley repair shop that contributed to University Heights' importance in the 1900s, the landmark sign creators hung a representative cable car logo over Park and Madison. Below, the pavement steers locals toward dive bars, worldly cuisine and Old Trolley Barn Park.
Mahin Mofazeli—Owner of Soltan Banoo
"We were lucky that we came to this neighborhood," says Mahin Mofazeli, owner of Persian restaurant Soltan Banoo (4645 Park Blvd.) Mofazeli is the classic American success story. An Iranian immigrant, she moved to New York in 1988 so her two daughters could get an education. In 2000 she moved to San Diego, and with the help of her daughters, opened a small café specializing in Iranian breakfasts. She quickly outgrew the space and three years later moved across the street to open Soltan Banoo, which translates to Lady King in Persian. In a time when establishments open and close at a rapid rate, her restaurant has been a fixture for more than a decade. Mofazeli credits the close-knit community of University Heights with helping her succeed, "I know many people that come here once a week, twice a week. I know them by name. Sometimes it feels like I am the mama of the neighborhood." While she no longer does all of the cooking, allowing herself two days off a week, Mofazeli has no plans to stop. "This is my child. As long as I am alive, this restaurant has to be here."
Shantih Beeman—Trivia host at Lancers
Sitting outside Small Bar (4628 Park Blvd.), Beeman works out the kinks in his friend's shoulders just like Mueller College's massage therapy instructors (4607 Park Blvd.) taught him back in 2000. He's typically easy to spot in his red velvet hat and equally eclectic outfits. His ensembles accompany his renowned side burns, which are the inspiration behind the name and logo of his leatherworks company, Nice Chops. People recognize him from trivia night at Lancers, his trumpet playing and the time he shut down a few blocks of Park Boulevard to get married under the University Heights sign. Since he and his mom moved to University Heights in 1998, he has spent the majority of his life there. "I moved back here because screw everywhere else in the country," he says. "This place is awesome." He's cautious about the direction it's heading though. "It's getting more Gaslamp," he says, citing "PB douchebags" who filter into Park and Rec (4612 Park Blvd.), which he says is known as "Wreck my Parking." In case trouble follows the changing scene, he's joked about starting up a University Heights militia, a citizen's patrol group like North Park's Xtreme Justice League, with the slogan: Welcome to University Heights, don't be an asshole.
Bernie Horan—Co-owner of of Twiggs Bakery & Coffeehouse
In a big city, it isn't easy to find a coffee shop filled with baristas who know your dog's name, how you like your eggs and which direction you walk home. But Twiggs Bakery & Coffeehouse (4590 Park Blvd.) has encapsulated that small town feel, with owners Bernie Horan and Dan Stringfield working to fill the community with homemade pastries and a sense of welcoming. Twiggs has served up more than coffee since the two took over. "Dan and I would meet at Twiggs and discuss opening a bakery," Horan says. "When we realized it was going to close, we offered to buy it." Since reopening in 1997, Horan has helped it grow into not only a bakery, but also a music venue and community center. "I was a drug-and-alcohol counselor, and one group asked if they could use our green room for their meetings." Now, there's at least two meetings here a day. "We're proud to be a part of their recovery," he says. Although Twiggs no longer houses live music, its claim to fame is that Jason Mraz was discovered at one of its open mic nights, and he credits Twiggs with having some of the best cakes in town. Outside of Twiggs, Horan serves as president of the University Heights Community Association. "Weíre trying to maintain the character of the community because there's nothing like it."
SAVE A HORSE, RIDE AN OSTRICH
There are two on top of the landmark sign. A likeness is featured on the logo for Parks and Rec. There's even a life-sized statue on Mission Cliffs Road. Depictions of the ostrich are everywhere in University Heights, yet the significance remains a mystery to most people. How is it that an African flightless bird came to represent a San Diego neighborhood? The answer goes back to the turn of the century, when University Heights was a burgeoning streetcar suburb. At the time ostrich feathers were the hottest trend in woman's clothing (the Coachella flower crowns of the 1910s). Ostrich farms were common throughout Southern California and one of the most popular was Harvey Bentley's on Coronado "Island." In 1904 he decided to move his farm to Adams Avenue in University Heights, where it became a popular tourist attraction. Visitors could buy feathers and fresh eggs, feed the birds and even ride on their backs. After World War I, ostrich feathers became unfashionable and many of the farms closed up, including Bentley's. While the ostriches are long gone, the world's largest flightless bird remains a symbol of University Heights and its unique history.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows...the words to The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." But sometimes that place can feel right out of a David Lynch movie, where everything feels a little bit surreal—peculiar in a way that's hard to put your finger on. Five of us ventured deep into Cheers (1839 Adams Ave.), a multi-colored, reasonably priced gay-friendly watering hole as if we were wandering our way into the Black Lodge—one in which the hallucinatory giant won't just be saying "It's happening again," but follows it up with a stirring rendition of a mid-'00s hit. The mood at Cheers is friendly and vibrant, but on a recent Tuesday night the age-diverse crowd leaned heavy on ballads, some of them delivered with a curiously emotional conviction. When CityBeat arrived, we did our best to keep it lively; I belted out Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)"; web editor Ryan Bradford took Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" (and was asked if he lost a bet); columnist Alex Zaragoza sang the hell out of Mary J. Blige's "Real Love"; art director Carolyn Ramos killed "My Humps" and staff writer Torrey Bailey offered up some Vanessa Carlton. We earned some kudos from regulars, particularly Larry, an older man in a bright pink outfit who can sing himself some Roberta Flack. In Cheers, everything is fine.
Cheers is right up the street, but Derrol Murphy is truly the guy who knows everybody's name. The bartender at the Diversionary Theatre (4545 Park Blvd.) has been a staple at the famously LGBTQ-friendly playhouse for more than 17 years, and has worked in nearly every department in the theatre, from house manager and usher, to dresser and actor.
"Pretty much everything but directing," says Murphy laughing. The Maine native moved to San Diego to pursue acting and originally worked at the 6th @ Penn Theatre before landing some parts in several Diversionary productions. Still, he says he's just as happy socializing with the theatre regulars or having their favorite drink ready for them when they arrive.
"I've always considered Diversionary my home," says Murphy. "Some people still remember me from when I was a baby an onstage, but I wasn't quite as tattooed as I am now."
ON A SCALE OF ONE TO DRUNK
Where to drink on a scale of relaxed (1) to raucous (10)
Late-night taco shops are so pervasive in San Diego that you can throw a Sublime CD in any direction and you'll likely hit one, but El Zarape (4642 Park Blvd.) stands above the rest. And like any quality late-night food joint, El Z draws the stoners out like totally high moths to the, like, hella-rad flame. Here's a guide on what to order based on your level of high.
You hit a joint: Gotta go with the fish tacos, bro. It's a classic San Diego food, and they're so cheap, man. Get 'em in a combo plate.
You hit a pipe: You should totes get the veggie supreme burrito and feel good about your life choices cuz it's, like, healthy?
You hit a bong: OMG get the house burrito. Only four ingredients, nothing confusing: mole, rice, beans and chicken...wait, what is a burrito? What if we're all the house burrito?
You take a dab: Just drink the free cilantro-lime salsa from your hand.
— Ryan Bradford