Some believe that in the East County city of La Mesa farmers wipe their brows in the inland heat, cows graze in the sprawling fields and the hills decline into Arizona. Not exactly. In reality, La Mesa is located a few exits past San Diego State University on Interstate 8. While the city may have a reputation for being a retirement home for hicks, that’s a perspective locals reject. No, celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s western-themed Gingham restaurant didn’t catch on, but the city is undergoing change. Boutique coffee shops such as community-centric Public Square or Sheldon’s Service Station (which was inspired by the gas station that once inhabited the space), are moving in. New restaurants such as BO-Beau Kitchen and BLVD Noodles are popping up, too, and breweries such as Helix and Bolt aren’t to be overlooked, either. They’re joining family-friendly, long-time eateries in and around La Mesa’s downtown strip, called The Village. The streets don’t have a scarcity of mothball-scented antique shops or consignment stores. La Mesans cherish the small-town feel, even though the population’s nearly 60,000. They keep it in check with hyper-local spots like the secret stairs around Mt. Nebo and Windsor Hills, the Walk of Fame that honors city activists and a bronze Helix snail sculpture, which inspired Mount Helix’s name. La Mesa’s nine square miles are rooted in suburban pride for now, but locals are opening their doors to progressive perspectives and opportunities.
La Mesa Boulevard and Spring Street intersect at the heart of La Mesa Village, a historical strip where many buildings stand unchanged since the city was incorporated in 1912. The crossroads are trafficked with cars, trains, trolleys and people stopping by for candy at Centifonti's, cigars at Hoffer's or sandwiches at Swami's.
Peter Carzis — Owner, Peter's Gentlemen's Resale Clothiers
Seventy-three-year-old Peter Carzis sits outside his self-titled store, Peterís Gentlemen's Resale Clothiers (8239 La Mesa Blvd.), outfitted in a sleek suit and multi-tonal Oxfords. Palm frond-covered pots, which he makes in his spare time, frame the storefront and once decorated 12 Chase Banks. "I ride my bike every morning for 20 to 30 minutes, and these things were everywhere in the streets," he says. "My girlfriend had a real nice plant in an ugly pot, and that's how all of this started." His girlfriend is the reason he moved to La Mesa in the first place, after they rekindled a high school romance. "She called me up on my 70th birthday to wish me a happy birthday. She found me on the Internet. I had no clue who I was talking to, but she kept asking me all these questions about high school, like whether I ran track, or played football. And I was like, 'Who is this?'" On finding out, he hopped on a train down from Ventura County and moved into La Mesa shortly thereafter, where he says the people are friendlier. However, San Diego's t-shirts-and-sandals dress code doesn't fly with Carzis. "When guys come in and out, I have to dress them from start to finish...They're so out of touch."
— Torrey Bailey
Mark Arapostathis — Mayor of La Mesa; Director of Theatre Arts at La Mesa Arts Academy
When mayors are congratulated on being elected, it's not typically by their elementary school students, who are really wondering if they still have a vocabulary quiz coming. But that's the case for La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, or Dr. A, as everybody calls him. Growing up in the city that he now runs has resulted in some ironic circumstances. Dr. A teaches in a classroom where he used to be a student, and a resident once told him that Dr. A won his mayoral vote back when he was a punctual paperboy. "Who knew that when I was twelve I was gathering votes," he says. As if two jobs weren't enough, Dr. A also directs a pair of after-school theater programs. In the time he does have off, he rides around the city in his golf cart. "You really have a different perspective when you're lower, it's open, there aren't any windows, and you don't have the radio blaring," he says. "I can see what's happening, what roads need to be repaired and what neighborhoods have different things going on." He even knocks on doors to check up on public works complaints. (Hear that, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer?) "People think that if you're a mayor, you do this, and if you're a teacher, you do that. But, I sort of cross boundaries."
— Torrey Bailey
Knikki Royster — Creator, San Diego Backyard Food Alliance
Knikki Royster moved to La Mesa in 2001 because her family was getting too big for its two-bedroom Hillcrest apartment. "I cried because I thought we were leaving this diverse community for the white middle class," she says, laughing. Royster quickly discovered that La Mesa was more diverse than she expected, with a community of artists, aging punk rockers and professionals whose desire for space didn't mean closing their minds. Royster found a home and also a calling, literally, in her own backyard. She started growing lemons, guavas and other vegetables for herself as well as raising chickens and making her own kombucha. The bounty was appealing, but the variety wasn't, so Royster created the San Diego Backyard Food Exchange, a Facebook group with nearly 2,300 members that meets to swap homegrown and homemade items. Currently, the backyard exchangers hold monthly swaps at Lake Murray, Kit Carson Park in Escondido and De Anza Cove near Mission Bay. More locations are planned in the future. "All the products are organic and grown locally, including bread, cheeses and fruits," Royster says. "And it's a bargain. At the last swap, I was able to trade my kombucha for food that we figured out later would have sold for $229 at a supermarket."
— James Vernette
I'm inclined to believe that La Mesa is the thrift store capital of San Diego County, especially around the La Mesa Boulevard strip. After a long absence, I recently returned to score some treasures.
Act II (8321 La Mesa Blvd.): An all-female resale store, but I was still awed by the costume jewelry selection and the sheer gaudiness of a glitter-soaked sweatshirt that simply read "AWESOME." Treasure scored: A poop emoji coin purse for the GF. Because romance.
Park Estate Company Antiques (8371 La Mesa Blvd.): A nicer store with tons of kitschy knick-knacks, including an entire case of "Precious Moments" figurines. Treasure scored: So much temptation, but settled on an antique Mexican donkey salt-and-pepper shaker set.
La Mesa Thrift Shop (8340 Lemon Ave.): A cash-only shop with piles of junk and lackluster selection, but super-cheap prices. Treasure scored: Nothing, but the Donald Teague knockoff Western painting will haunt my dreams.
La Mesa Antique Mall (4710 Palm Ave.): In the market for an antique harmonica or pitchfork? No? OK, well, there's still 6,000 square feet of other American Pickers-worthy odds-and-ends. Treasure scored: A rather retro-looking "invisible vase" that made the cashier go, "Oooooh... This is nice. I want this." Too late, Sally! It's MINE!
Goodwill (8250 La Mesa Blvd.): A pretty standard Goodwill store. Meh. Treasure scored: A VHS copy of The Sound of Music and a Miami Vice-looking sports coat complete with shoulder pads. The tag is all in Chinese so you know it's a quality item.
— Seth Combs
LA MESA ROCKS
La Mesa's sunshiny suburbia rep hides a startling secret: A few oddball bits of music history happened here.
· In 1954, musical revolutionary Frank Zappa visited Alan's Music Center (8315 La Mesa Blvd.) and purchased The Complete Works of Edgard Varese Volume 1, an album of avant-garde electronic music that he considered one of his biggest inspirations. Considering how many musicians he inspired, it can be argued this is the record purchase that changed rock.
·An ugly strip mall at 7578 El Cajon Blvd. is all that stands of a major La Mesa music landmark. In the 1950s and '60s, it was the Cinnamon Cinder, a popular nightclub owned by Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks. Acts such as The Drifters and Shirelles used to perform here back in the day. In the 1970s, it became Straita Head Sound, where local metal and punk bands used to bang heads.
·Magnolia Science Academy (6365 Lake Atlin Ave.), right on the border of La Mesa and San Carlos, was known as Cleveland Elementary in the '70s. In January 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer fired shots at the school, killing two people and injuring eight. Her rationale for the shooting, "I Don't Like Mondays," inspired Bob Geldof to write a song with that name that became a worldwide.
· Rock luminaries who briefly lived in La Mesa include Megadeth singer Dave Mustaine, who reportedly spent his early years in the town.
·Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder lived in La Mesa at one point, and returned last year to sit in with a band at the Riviera Steakhouse.
· At least three members of the seminal Americana band The Beat Farmers lived in La Mesa, including Buddy Blue and Joey Harris. Country Dick Montana was even student body president at Grossmont High. The band got its start at the Spring Valley Inn, just outside the La Mesa city limits.
· The most bizarre La Mesa rock landmark is a birthing room at Grossmont Hospital where Michael Jackson's third child, Prince Michael Jackson II (aka "Blanket"), was born in February 2002.
· The La Mesa music scene is undergoing a renaissance. Bands with local ties include Splavender, Spooky Cigarette, Lucid Season and The Loons, an internationally respected psychedelic pop band led by Mike Stax, who publishes the popular zine Ugly Things.
— James Vernette
GIVE 'EM THE BOOT
La Mesa Boulevard is a picturesque microcosm of small-town living so quaint that I wouldn't be surprised if businesses were still referred to as "shoppes." Spend too much time there, however, and it's easy to feel the Lynchian unease of perpetual quaintness. To escape that creeping dread, I turned to my tried-and-true method of coping: getting loaded.
Centifonti (8365 La Mesa Blvd.) is part candy shop(pe), part restaurant, and part bar—all wrapped together with some vaguely European theme. It doesn't make a ton of sense, but you just have to roll with it, especially since it offers "Das Boot," its iteration of beer served in a boot-shaped glass (a German tradition).
Centifonti's boot comes in two sizes: 64-ounces ($25) and 128-ounces ($35). I went for 64-ounces of a 5.5 percent Märzen, despite a group of regulars sitting at the bar hassling me for going for the smaller size. "More like Das Slipper," they said. "You'll grow into it." I've never felt so shamed for drinking the equivalent of only five beers.
Drinking Das Boot requires a little finesse—a quality that turns out is hard to remember when you're chugging beer out of a novelty glass. Tip it the wrong way, and you're in for a messy face-shot of beer from the air-bubble trapped in the toe.
With the help of CityBeat staff writer Torrey Bailey and account executive Jenny Tormey, we took down that boot in puff-puff-pass fashion. Only Jenny experienced the wrath of the air-bubble, but luckily for us, none of the regulars saw.
— Ryan Bradford
ON A SCALE OF ONE TO DRUNK
Where to drink on a scale of relaxed (1) to raucous (10)