Photos by Torrey Bailey unless otherwise noted
These intertwining freeways cut off Normal Heights from San Diego's surrounding burgs, harboring its offbeat behavior and earning the nickname Abnormal Heights. El Cajon Boulevard claims the southernmost boundary, while Interstate 8 borders the north side, Interstate 15 owns the east and the 805 takes the west, although some might argue otherwise (looking at you Polite Provisions). But that's a bone to pick with Google Maps. Only bunnies and brush inhabited this trapezoidal plot when D.C. Collier and George M. Hawley came around in 1906. Nods to them can be seen in residential street names as well as in bars like The Rabbit Hole. The neighborhood adopted its name from University Heights's The Normal School, but bears no resemblance to that description. The mid-city neighborhood is anything but commercial, instead housing new age bookstores, fabric shops and an impressive number of plant-based restaurants along Adams Avenue. The locals who live there are equally diverse. In 2001, Normal Heights' residents perfectly reflected the percentages in San Diego's ethnic makeup, as found by The San Diego Union Tribune.Small town stars such as the late owner of Mariposa Ice Cream, Dick Van Ransom, embellish its reputation, and late folk singer Jim Croce once called the neighborhood home.
The landmark sign at Adams Avenue and Felton Street could use a fresh coat of paint, but its wear and tear plays into the neighborhood's appreciation of all things authentic. This corner pinpoints the middle of the Adams Avenue Business District. Head West for the main drag of boutiques and restaurants, or travel east for local watering holes.
Brandi Munoz - Owner of La Loupe Vintage
“It’s that happy medium. It’s not super busy and commercialized. It’s a good community with good community involvement, and it’s just a mix.” These are the aspects that draw Brandi Munoz back to Normal Heights, or Abnormal Heights as she lovingly calls it, over the past 20 years. She lives in the neighborhood with her husband/business partner, and together they recently celebrated the second anniversary of La Loupe Vintage’s second location (3337 Adams Ave.). Their boutique, which mostly holds pieces from or inspired by the ’60s and ’70s, was named after a French pulp fiction book titled La Loupe (“the magnifying glass”). “It actually has so many deeper meanings,” she says. “We love that you have to look a little bit closer to see what’s actually inside the store. You have to dig a little bit. It’s part of the hunt, a little bit of detective work on our end and the customers’ end.” Munoz not only hunts and gathers her vintage pieces, but also does consignment with local online vendors. She got her start as an Etsy vendor before taking on La Loupe full time and eventually quitting her corporate job. Over time, she’s watched the store’s development and the neighborhood’s changing landscape. “We love seeing it grow, and it’s growing at just the right pace. Not too fast, not too crazy.”
Sara Swieca - Co-Manager of Villainous Lair
While book, music and other physical media stores are going out of business, Villainous Lair (3220 Adams Ave.) is a rare success story. In the five years it’s been open, the comic book, game and accessories store has become a go-to neighborhood spot thanks in no small part to co-manager Sara Swieca. She prides herself on being on a first-name basis with everyone who walks through the door. “Some people thought we’d only be open for a few months and look at us now,” says the Michigan native who says she learned to read on X-Men comics. “The biggest difference between us and other stores is that we’re all part of this community.” Swieca wears many hats (or, eh, helmets?) in the store, handling everything from the marketing and PR to regulating the sometimes heated exchanges that occur in the store’s giant game room in the back. “We try to make sure this is a safe place where everyone is welcome,” says Swieca, who points out that it can sometimes be hard for new customers to immediately feel welcome, especially women and LGBTQ people. “We want anyone who comes in to know that it doesn’t matter how you got here, you’re here now.” And while the store’s employees could be seen as Swieca’s proverbial Justice League teammates, the Robin to her Batman is undoubtedly Tiamat, the rather large Red Iguana who has a terrarium in the store. “She’s my baby and everyone loves her,” she says.
Photo by Chloe Salsameda
Tommy Quinn, Owner of The Ould Sod
On mundane Monday nights it’s uncommon to find a bumping bar with lively music and livelier owners. Cut to Tommy Quinn, co-owner of The Ould Sod (3373 Adams Ave.). Since 1989, he and Mick Ward have not only been serving up drafts behind the bar, but also the feel of an authentic Irish pub. After relocating to San Diego from Ireland, it was only natural that Quinn and Ward spread their Irish roots to locals. “Mick and I met at an Irish bar here in San Diego,” Quinn says. “After becoming friends, we bought a house together. Then when this place went up for sale, it was only natural to buy it.” The Ould Sod is the third-oldest licensed establishment in San Diego. “I think we have been around for so long because of the experience of the people we’ve hired. They like what they do, they’re good at what they do, and they attract a good base of people,” he says. Over the years, Quinn and Ward have remained involved in the Normal Heights community. “We sponsor a lot of sports teams, charities and the local school, St. Didacus. Our kids went to school there, and we think it’s important to give back any way we can.” Their philanthropic efforts also include donations, concerts and auctions that benefit everything from wounded vets to breast cancer survivors.
As pleasant, friendly residential neighborhoods go, Normal Heights is full of peculiar curiosities. Take a walk along Adams Avenue, west of Interstate 15, and some of its side streets, and you’ll find some.
Rock House: If you’re driving west along Adams from Kensington, one of the first things you notice after crossing the neighborhood border is a Mission revival style house whose exterior is covered entirely in rocks. You can’t miss it. Just this year it got a historic designation from the City of San Diego, 90 years after it was built. The house is a private residence so you can’t just mosey on in without permission, but you certainly wouldn’t be the first to marvel at its architectural curiosity from the sidewalk. (3920 Adams Ave.)
Subud House: Among a row of businesses on Adams Avenue is a curious, windowless building that reads “Subud” on the outside. And if it looks like a place of worship of some sort (if not a 1984 -style Ministry of Somethingorother), that’s because it is—sort of. Subud is a spiritual movement, though according to the Subud San Diego website, it’s not actually a religion. Started in Indonesia almost 100 years ago, it boasts 10,000 members worldwide. They don’t advertise or market, and the lack of windows might have to do with separating worship ceremonies from onlookers or non-believers. So, for now, what’s inside remains a mystery. Sort of. (3521 Adams Ave.)
Botanica Mama Roots: Normal Heights is also, incidentally, the place to go for all your witchcraft needs, if clandestine Eastern spiritualism isn’t your thing. The “botanica” in Botanica Mama Roots comes from the large supply of herbs it carries, often used in spells or rituals, but the friendly neighborhood witchcraft emporium also has a large supply of candles, pentagrams, tinctures, beads, skulls, incense, voodoo dolls, tarot cards and books on spells and Aleister Crowley. They also have readings inside the store, in case you need some guidance from the spirits. Just look for the giant pentagram—you can’t miss it. (3512 Adams Ave.)
Mannequin House: Plenty of houses in Normal Heights have lawn ornaments or sculptures (including a garden of rocks once shaped like genitals—now disappointingly changed to a heart and a happy face), but only one boasts a mannequin couple inside a makeshift gazebo. Logic would lead me to believe that the mannequins—dressed in a wedding dress and a sailor suit—represent the owners, but there’s something unsettling about them. The bride in particular has that Norma Desmond/Miss Havisham feel, but plastic, and it’s an eerie sight, to say the least, when the sun goes down. (corner of 36th and E. Mountain View)
THE WILD LIFE
After several alleged bobcat sightings in the Normal Heights area made news a couple months ago, we decided to investigate. Our intrepid web editor ventured deep into the neighborhood, armed with only his catlady-like intuition and “safari jorts” (his words). The following are entries from his journal:
12:11 p.m.: There’s an undercurrent of savagery to this neighborhood. Despite the “Clean Up After Your Pet” signs and manicured lawns, you can practically taste the tension of a neighborhood racked by fear. Sweat drips down my brow as I search for the untamed beast.
12:21 p.m.: A “Lost Cat” poster hangs on a telephone pole—undoubtedly another victim of the bobcat.
12:31 p.m.: I approach an elderly gentleman watering his lawn, seemingly in full defiance of the threat of bobcat. The native’s bravery is truly remarkable. His name is Bob—coincidence? I ask about bobcats. He hasn’t seen any, but does lay out his grievances with this street’s rainwater drainage system, which apparently “empties into Dr. Kellogg’s pool.” These Normal Heightsians are a curious people, indeed.
12:45 p.m.: The danger’s too great, so I retreat to The Rabbit Hole, where I order a mule. These are the animals I can handle.
Photo by Ron Donoho
VERONICA MARS LANDED HERE
Before Kristen Bell landed the titular role in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall , and starred in strings of national TV commercials with her robotic actor/husband Dax Shepard, she spent three seasons playing the lead role in cult-fave series Veronica Mars (2004- 07). Fans know the series, filmed by Stu Segall Productions, was produced here in San Diego and featured location shots from all over town. Normal Heights, though, was home to Bell’s character’s office, and the exterior sign for Mars Investigations frequently appeared onscreen.
Veronica Mars was set in the fictional town of Neptune, but the real-life site of Mars Investigations was the wrought-iron-gated, second-floor Cabrillo Academy of the Sword (3339 Adams Avenue). The iconic Lestat’s Coffee House is next door; the Normal Heights neighborhood sign is half a block away.
The excitement of being on TV has faded, but shop owners on the block still get the occasional query from fans. Diehard alert: Season One flashback scenes featuring Veronica Mars’ murdered best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), were shot across the street from the Cabrillo Academy at the Adams Avenue Car Wash.
ON A SCALE OF ONE TO DRUNK
Where to drink on a scale of relaxed (1) to raucous (8)
1. Burnside (3375 Adams Ave.)
2. Proprietors Reserve Wine Bar (4711 34th St.)
3. Blind Lady Ale House (3416 Adams Ave.)
4. The Rabbit Hole (3377 Adams Ave.)
5. Sycamore Den (3391 Adams Ave.)
6. Triple Crown Pub (3321 Adams Ave.)
7. The Ould Sod (3373 Adams Ave.)
8. Rose O’Grady’s (3402 Adams Ave.)
Illustrations by Carolyn Ramos
THE BOOK TREEHUGGERS
Visit The Book Tree (2216 Adams Ave.) and here’s who you’ll find hanging out...
The eater, prayer, lover