When burning the midnight oil at the City Heights Community Development Corporation's office at the corner of 43rd Street and El Cajon Boulevard, at least Victor Payan knows he doesn't have to rely on Denny's or the Taco Bell drive-thru for a late night bite.
"The other day I found a great Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant just two blocks from the office," he says. "It's open until midnight."
Payan, the event coordinator for City Heights 11th Annual International Village Celebration (IVC), cites this as an example that has earned the community the unofficial nickname of "The Ellis Island of San Diego."
As home to 90,000-plus citizens, City Heights is a veritable city within a city where people from more than 100 countries and cultures-speaking 32 different languages-live and work.
The IVC, a free festival on Saturday, June 7, aims to highlight this diversity with four stages of live entertainment, international food and merchandise vendors (many of whom are based in the area), a job and health fair and more.
"The main purpose of the festival is to serve as a celebration of the community's diversity and tradition of community involvement," Payan says, noting that City Heights has historically been known for both.
"It's largely an immigrant population, and there's always a new wave of first-generation immigrants coming in," he says. "Additionally, you have second- and third-generation immigrants who have lived here their whole lives and are homeowners."
Many say the age-old dilemma of assimilation versus retaining cultural identity is not an issue in City Heights, where residents experience the best of both worlds.
"People tend to retain their culture and important aspects of their heritage, but also weave these into the existing community," Payan explains. "We have a long history of people working together."
Payan says a perfect example of this was the City Heights Community Garden, one of the neighborhood's landmarks-along with the Tower at 4757 University Avenue and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church on Marlborough and Orange Avenues.
"Unfortunately, it was torn down several years ago to make way for the Interstate 15," Payan says. "The spirit that made it such a wonderful thing definitely lives on, though."
The destruction of the garden seems to be part of another long-standing tradition of the area-hardship and bad luck.
City Heights was formed in the late 1880s when businessmen such as Abraham Clauber and Alanzo Horton extended water lines into the area. For years, it was a booming community served by a train system that ran from downtown to University Heights and, beginning in 1912, a trolley line. The train and trolley eventually left.
City Heights suffered another blow in the 1960s when the construction of Interstate 8 shifted focus to Mission Valley as a commercial center. As was the case in North Park, Hillcrest and some other areas, businesses were forced to close and the area became known for cheap housing.
As with the aforementioned communities, City Heights has experienced a resurgence in recent years, and it is a stated goal of the City Heights CDC to help this along. With the IVC, community leaders hope to open the eyes of people who might think culture in City Heights is limited to adult movie theaters, massage parlors and the ladies who make the mention of El Cajon Boulevard snicker-worthy throughout the rest of San Diego.
"We certainly would like it to be a draw to people from outside the community to come check things out, and hopefully come back," Payan says. "Too often people let their assumptions or misgivings about something get in the way of experiencing something first hand.
"Anyone who may not be familiar with the area should just come try it out. I'm sure they'll change their minds. There are good schools, wonderful restaurants and markets-basically all the indicators of a thriving and healthy community.
"I ask anyone who thinks otherwise of City Heights to just try to find a parking space near University and Fairmount at 2 in the afternoon on any given day."
About 40,000 people attended the festival last year, and Payan says his organization is hoping for 50,000 this year.
Among those performing at the festival are Orquesta Binacional de Mambo, LaTanya Lockett, Len Rainey and the Midnight Players, Libbie Schrader, Los Alacranes, Billy Midnight, Los Principes del Merengue and Acteal. Homegrown acts like the Fairmount Baptist Youth Choir and the City Heights Ballet Folklorico will also be featured.