North Park History

In January 1893, San Diego merchant Joseph Nash sold 40 acres of land northeast of Balboa Park to James Monroe Hartley who wished to develop a lemon grove. The Hartley family began the arduous process of clearing the land to prepare for the grove, and quickly learned that providing the fledgling trees with proper irrigation would be quite an ordeal. Barrels of water had to be hauled from the reservoir on the dirt country road called El Cajon Avenue (now Boulevard), which held water pumped from wells in Mission Valley.

From the beginning, Hartley called his grove “Hartley’s North Park.” The land was part of the Park Villas subdivision that had been originally mapped in 1870, and was bordered by University Avenue to the north, Ray Street to the west, 32nd Street to the east, and Dwight Street to the south. After a devastating drought and the death of James Hartley in 1904, the family gave up the orchard business and let the land go fallow. Hartley’s eldest son Jack and his brother-in-law William Jay Stevens established the Stevens & Hartley Realty Company in 1905. Within a few years, residential and commercial growth in the area began in earnest, and the empty land of Hartley’s North Park became the heart of the commercial district.

The initial growth spurt in North Park was stimulated by a new streetcar system which linked North Park to downtown San Diego, Hillcrest, Golden Hills, Normal Heights and East San Diego. The streetcar that became the #7 entered North Park from the west along University Avenue in 1907, when an opening in the ridge of Georgia Street was cut and spanned by a redwood bridge (replaced in 1914 by vertical walls and the concrete arch bridge we see today). Streetcar #2, which spanned Switzer Canyon from downtown in 1908, was extended along 30th Street from Upas Street in 1911. The intersection of the University Avenue and 30th Street trolley lines essentially abutted the corner of the Hartley acreage and became known as the “Busy Corner.” In 1911, Jack and William cleared the lemon grove for residential and commercial development. The business partners proceeded to build North Park’s first commercial building, a mixed-use “high rise” known as the Stevens & Hartley Building, located on the northwest corner of 30th Street and University Avenue. Completed in early 1913, the building housed a drug store, barbershop, and offices for doctors, dentists, and nurses. For many years, a special counter at the drug store was U.S. Post Office #8 for the North Park community. Commercial development on the remaining 3 corners of the intersection soon followed and included “Hartley’s Row,” a one-story line of commercial buildings on the southeast corner initially filled by grocers, butchers, and the first bakery in North Park. The intersection of the trolley lines at 30th Street and University Avenue, site of the groundbreaking Stevens & Hartley building, is still identified as North Park’s commercial center.

Beginning in the 1920s, North Park witnessed a second commercial and residential boom supported by the streetcars and the growing popularity of the automobile – both of which brought visitors in from all parts of San Diego. The streets and sidewalks of North Park were spilling over with people both day and night as they came to play a game of pool at the North Park billiard hall, dine at local restaurants, and see a picture show at the Ramona Theater, which opened in 1922. In 1926, ten thousand people celebrated the opening of North Park’s “Great White Way” – the lighting of University Ave. – with floats, dancing, music and comical performances. By January 1929, when the elaborate West Coast North Park Theatre opened for live performances and the new “talkies” (movies), North Park’s commercial district was second only to downtown San Diego.

In the late 1920s a new type of commercial development was also emerging just four blocks north of University Avenue as a result of the growing popularity of the automobile. Land along the trolley lines became increasingly expensive. The future appeared to be in the automobile and investors redirected their resources from the streetcar strips to the new automobile strips – including El Cajon Boulevard. Originally the only highway between San Diego and El Centro over 120 miles to the east, El Cajon Boulevard began to see gas stations, restaurants, auto sales and repairs and other retail establishments catering to the automobile take hold. A section of the boulevard in North Park was widened and lined with trees, in imitation of the grand boulevards of Paris. Businesses along El Cajon more than doubled between 1930 and 1940.

University Avenue continued to exemplify the pre-automobile strip and maintained a focus on pedestrian activity with a more relaxed atmosphere. Following the Depression and through the late 1930s and ‘40s, North Park’s commercial core thrived as retailers catered to locals living in the bungalows congregating along the University and 30th Street trolley car corridors. In 1942, North Park welcomed a J.C. Penney’s Department Store to its burgeoning regional shopping district, one of only two Penney’s stores opened during WW II.

Starting in 1960, North Park’s fortune began to change. The streetcar system had been dismantled. New suburban malls were constructed including one in nearby Mission Valley. The economic vitality of North Park’s downtown core began to wane as vehicle ownership soared, retailers migrated to new freeway-oriented locations, and shoppers began driving their new cars to these new regional malls. Residential properties fell into disrepair mirroring the commercial decline. Historic bungalows were allowed to deteriorate, and zoning changes during the 1970s encouraged high volume, dense apartment development.

North Park’s commercial revival began in the late 1990s. Today,the North Park community, and in particular the 30th Street and University Avenue downtown hub, is experiencing a shimmering renaissance of activity, with the community gaining widespread recognition as a center for the arts, dining, and entertainment. North Park’s downtown core, anchored by the 30th Street and University Avenue intersection, contains a treasure trove of eclectic and historic architecture. Notable architectural styles include Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival, Spanish Renaissance, Spanish Revival, Art Deco and Beaux-arts. The community is home to many important historic landmarks, including the Georgia Street Bridge and newly restored North Park Theatre.

North Park residential neighborhoods also feature rich and diverse architectural styles, including Craftsman, California Bungalow, Spanish and Mission Revival, Prairie, and Mediterranean. The Burlingame tract and the street Shirley Ann Place are designated Historic Districts, with the “Dryden” neighborhood along 28th Street and Pershing Avenue from Upas to Landis streets in the application stages.   As one of the oldest communities in the City of San Diego, the neighborhood’s history is gaining increasing attention. Helping to foster this interest and awareness is the North Park Historical Society, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of North Park’s cultural and architectural history. The group has published an award-winning coffee table book detailing the first 50 years of North Park’s development, and conducts walking tours of various neighborhoods in North Park, including the commercial district, in coordination with North Park Main Street.

For further information about the North Park Historical Society, visit their website at: