The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1992, Volume 38, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Anne V. O’Connor-Ruth

Images from the Article

Commercial strips are as much a part of the American landscape as the cattle ranch and the skyscraper. Seemingly endless boulevards lined with fast food restaurants, gas stations, motels, shops and offices are familiar from Maine to California. Southern California in particular has an abundance of strips including the famous Sunset Strip. Two excellent examples of thriving commercial strips in San Diego are El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue (Figure 1). A study of their development over time not only reveals why the strips look the way they do, but also demonstrates how the strip reflects changing tastes and values in American society. The idea that architecture reflects social as well as aesthetic trends is not a new one. Paul Knox describes architecture as the “product of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age”; that an architectural form can capture the unique qualities of a particular period in time.1 The aspirations and achievements of an era are epitomized in the built environment. Others maintain that it is the ordinary, everyday landscape which holds the greatest revelations about the tastes and values of a society.2 Therefore, if “landscapes are formed by landscape tastes” the strip can be considered a mirror of the society and time in which it was created.3 Also, as each era of growth advances, new trends in design symbolize changes in the cultural attitudes of that period.

Over the past twenty years a negative image has been associated with the commercial strip. San Diego’s El Cajon Boulevard has been described as

that gaudy, linear six-mile strip of signs and undefined architecture…a thoroughfare of visual blight. Development proceeded piecemeal over the decades, resulting in a hodgepodge of store fronts, signs and shopping centers that create confusion for motorists…vacant storefronts attested to the street’s gloomy commercial appeal; signs were abominable; second-hand stereo and automobile dealerships were vying for attention next to new L-shaped shopping centers that were becoming more prolific; zoning seemed haphazard; street lighting was inconsistent.4

Many of the more positive and interesting elements of the strip have been overlooked and the less appealing aspects have been magnified. For example, the architecture is not necessarily “undefined”, there have been many fascinating and culturally significant design forms during the short history of the strip. Each era of growth has left its imprint on the landscape of the commercial strip.

table page 178

A misinterpretation of the strip such as the one quoted above concerns the perceived gloom of the strip. Actually, there have been very few vacant storefronts along either El Cajon Boulevard or University Avenue at any one time. Each year, the total number of businesses have increased, although in some years only minimally. There has always been a very high turnover rate but most “out-of-business” signs are soon replaced by “grand opening” announcements. It is important to keep in mind that although the rate of growth slowed during various periods, the number of businesses on either strip never decreased. A decline in growth (rather than in total numbers of businesses) in the seventies caused a negative impression of the strip to evolve during the late 1970s and early 1980s.5

Recently there has been a nostalgia craze for fifties and sixties music, clothing, and even building types. This has made many people take a second look at America’s commercial strips. The diners and drive-ins, and huge neon signs seem to indicate a kind of fascination with our recent history. Tom Wolfe’s description of the fifties strip reflects its whimsical nature:

Endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, tacos, drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up. The signs are great, too. They all stand free on poles outside. They have horrible slick doglegged shapes that I call boomerang modern.6

The strip of the fifties symbolized a part of American culture: a post-war prosperity and new hope for the future that was a part of the 1950s suburban America.

The love/hate relationship we have with the commercial strip reflects a conflict between preserving pieces of the past and planning for future development. It is important to understand the history of the commercial strip in order to make comprehensive planning decisions for the future.

This article brakes down the historical development of the commercial strip into two categories: the functional change of business types and changes in aesthetics such as design and architectural types. El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue (those portions from Park Avenue to 70th Street) are used as examples of two different types of strips. El Cajon Boulevard developed as an automobile strip while University Avenue was originally a trolley line. The changes occurring along the strips not only reflect the periods in which the buildings were constructed, but later periods of change. This layering of time adds to the sense of place, or overall impression, of each strip. I will conclude by discussing my interpretation of the present and future of these strips.

Changes in Business Types

This historical interpretation of El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue involved a three-step process. Firstly, businesses were counted (Table 1) and plotted on maps using San Diego street directories for every tenth year from 1900 to 1980, and 1988.7 Secondly, historical photographs of buildings no longer standing were used as examples of various periods of architecture on the strips, and compared to existing architectural literature on strip styles. Thirdly, personal observation and landscape interpretation methods were used to assess the present strip in terms of the relationship between changes in architectural styles and functions with changing tastes and values.

In 1900, a single dairy was the only business that existed on University Avenue east of Park Boulevard. The trolley line, laid down on University in 1907, had a tremendous impact on the development of the areas now known as North Park and East San Diego. Although some homes were built along the trolley line, most were constructed a block away in exclusively residential areas. This left space along University Avenue for commercial activity.

By 1910, a small cluster of businesses had been established two blocks east of Park Boulevard. These included a bakery, barber shop, blacksmith, mercantile, grocery and a harness and saddlery. These types of retail and service activities were typical of neighborhood related businesses that evolved along streetcar lines to serve the surrounding residential areas. Farther east on University Avenue around the 4000 and 4100 block, there were a number of grocers, a poultry yard, and farthest out from the city, a construction company and a real estate office. It was common to have construction and real estate offices at the end of current development, as this was where new development was bound to occur. As the strip grew and extended, these types of businesses continued to move farther east.

As the population of San Diego doubled from 1910 to 1920 (from 39,500 to 75,000) most of the new growth occurred in this area east of downtown. Housing was constructed in the neighborhoods surrounding University Avenue and another trolley line on Adams Avenue, a half mile north. The shops that had existed two blocks east of Park Boulevard had been demolished for the construction of the Georgia Street Bridge. The new construction along the strip more than made up for this. Clusters of businesses were constructed at two separate nodes along University Avenue. One grouping was along the two blocks on either side of 30th Street, as this was where another trolley line intersected (Figure 2). An office building housed a chiropractor, barber, music teacher, and a few real estate agents, while in the next block were a grocer and butcher. An even larger conglomeration of businesses were built farther east, at the 4100 block. A stagecoach company office reflects an intersection with another form of transportation, and a small, main street style of commercial activity developed there similar to the intersection of the two trolley lines. Many service related businesses opened here including attorneys, barbers, a dentist, insurance sales, a notary, a funeral parlor, a newspaper office, and, as always, real estate offices. Retail shops in this block included a hardware store, a grocery, a butcher shop, and a bakery. These two nodes of activity were even more pronounced by 1930 after larger buildings had been constructed on University near 30th Street and 42nd Street.

The development along the trolley line was still continuing even though, by the late twenties, a new type of commercial strip was emerging just four blocks north of University as a result of the increasing popularity of the automobile. During the late 1920s and into the 1930s automobile use began to rise. The freedom of movement offered by the car attracted many customers. Developers and bankers looking for promising investments found the land along trolley lines becoming expensive. Cheaper land could be bought along newly developing stretches of highway. The future appeared to be in automobile related businesses, so investment was redirected from the old streetcar strips to new automobile strips.

As the automobile became not only a means to get to work, but also for recreation, a new type of landscape developed.8 “Whether touring for pleasure or traveling on business, motorists required gasoline, lodging and food.”9 Gas stations were built as convenient intervals for travelers to fill up with gas and check the air in their tires. Innovative designs of gas stations appeared as different oil companies competed for business. Gas stations chose corner lots for size and visibility and used such outrageous designs ideas as “Chinese Pagodas, Mohameddan Mosques, Norman Castles and Flemish Towers.”10 Roadside stands offering food to the hungry traveller began to appear along the highways during this time, but it was not until the 1950s that fast food would come into prominence. Campgrounds, auto camps and tourist camps were common along the highways by the twenties, providing space to set up a tent, or offering small cabins for a more comfortable night’s sleep.11 A new type of commercial strip was developing with it’s own distinctive types of businesses, thus creating a new “look” in the suburban landscape.

El Cajon Boulevard is an excellent example of an automobile strip. Originally it was the only highway between San Diego and El Centro, over 120 miles to the east. As such, many auto camps, gas stations and restaurants were established on the Boulevard during the 1920s.

In 1910 there were only three businesses along El Cajon Boulevard, a building contractor and two grocers. Even by 1920 there were only a few more: two contractors, two grocers, a storage center, and two garages. The only indication that the automobile era had arrived was the opening of the two repair garages. Compared to the larger cities in the east, San Diego was a little behind the times, but it was soon to catch up, and even surpass its eastern counterparts.

Rapid transformation occurred along El Cajon Boulevard during the 1920s and by 1930, over 180 businesses lined the strip from Park Boulevard to 70th Street. During this period, a section of the boulevard, in North Park, was widened and lined with trees, an attempt to imitate the grand boulevards of Paris. The commercial boom included 25 gas stations, 5 tourist camps, 8 restaurants, 5 automobile sales and parts shops, and a number of neighborhood related service and retail establishments, such as those found on University Avenue.

All of the tourist camps were located six miles or more from the center of San Diego so as not to have to compete with the downtown hotels. Most of the tourist camps were located between 42nd Street and 53rd Street. Auto camps were much different than hotels in that they catered to the middle class tourist traveling to the city by car.12 These establishments had fewer amenities than hotels and were much cheaper. Although these camps used a great deal of space, the land was so cheap that the businesses were profitable.

The number of businesses along El Cajon Boulevard more than doubled between 1930 and 1940. Four hundred and fifteen businesses lined the street in 1940, including 49 gas stations and 13 auto camps. These businesses were spread out along the strip and intermingled with other assorted shops and services, but the greatest density of businesses were found between Utah and Euclid.

University Avenue also began to enter the automobile era during the thirties and forties. By 1940, University had 36 gas stations and 24 auto sales and parts stores, but only 2 hotels. University Avenue never had any auto camps or motels, since it was originally a trolley route while El Cajon Boulevard carried the highway traffic. Conversely, more grocery stores, meat markets, pharmacies, and clothing stores continued to locate on University Avenue rather than El Cajon Boulevard to cater to the, by then, well established neighborhoods surrounding the Avenue (Figure 3).

On the other hand, El Cajon had customers that drove through the area from other places needing gasoline, auto repairs, and a place to stay for the night; therefore, these types of establishments were numerous. This difference in customer orientation created a difference in atmosphere on each strip. El Cajon Boulevard was more fast-paced, more concerned with efficiency and getting customers through in a hurry. University Avenue was more relaxed and pedestrian activity was greater; therefore, customers were more familiar with their surroundings.

The period between 1920 and 1940 was a critical transition for American cities. It was an era of tremendous growth and change as suburbs and commercial strips became entrenched in the image of the city. Although growth in actual numbers of businesses during this period was small compared to the 1950s and 1960s, it had planted the concept of suburbanization in the minds of both the public and the developers.

In San Diego, unlike most other American cities, growth was high directly before and after World War II due to increased naval activity. Subsequently, during the nation- wide post-war building boom of the fifties and early sixties San Diego already had a head start. El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue hit an all time high in business development between 1945 and 1965.

The design of urban areas had changed by the end of World War II; space allowed for automobiles had increased and space for public transportation and pedestrians had decreased. The trolley line that ran along University Avenue was the last in the city to be discontinued and the track was removed in 1949. Businesses continued to expand along both University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, but on the latter, growth was much greater.

Increasing automobile ownership created a need for new types of businesses. Auto camps and tourist camps “modernized” and became motels. These were usually one or two-story buildings, offering much smaller rooms than city hotels or the auto camp cabins, but comfortable and reasonably priced. For investors, the motel created a high cash flow compared with other business ventures.13 Often a coffee shop offering cheap, quick, homestyle food, was built as an addition to the motel to accommodate the needs of the vacationer.

No other new building type was to have as great of an impact on the commercial strip as the fast food franchise. Restaurants such as White Castle, Howard Johnsons and McDonald’s all made major contributions to the future of franchising and fast food. These business innovators also made tremendous contributions to the look of the commercial strip in terms of fast food architecture.14 McDonald’s, with its classic golden arches, is the most famous and was a model for future chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s and the San Diego based Jack-in-the-Box. Drive-thru and drive-in restaurants in particular were a hit with the automobile obsessed public. People no longer had to get out of their car to eat, therefore they did not need to dress up to go out for dinner. This was particularly popular with families.15

The greatest number of drive-in restaurants were in California due to the excellent climate for year-round service and the widespread use of the automobile. Also, California was a place for experimentation with new ideas and forms of design because there were no longstanding traditions or precedents to uphold.16

Jack-in-the-Box was the first chain restaurant to make an appearance on El Cajon Boulevard, but, McDonald’s and others were soon to follow. A local landmark in the fifties was Oscar’s Drive-In Restaurant (Figure 4). It had a rounded front designed with a circus motif. It has since been demolished. Unfortunately not many of the early examples of any of these restaurants exist because new styles made for continual changes to both the exteriors and interiors of these establishments. Also, the idea of preserving automobile era architecture did not come to the foreground until the mid-1980s, by which time most of this architecture had been lost.

The growth along both commercial strips was dramatic during the late 1940s. The number of businesses along El Cajon increased from 415 in 1940 to over 700 by 1950. The growth on University was at a slower rate from 440 in 1940 to 540 in 1950. Many of the new businesses on both strips were automobile oriented. For example, 48 motels had been constructed on El Cajon Boulevard by 1950, and auto sales and repair businesses had more than quadrupled between 1940 and 1960. Signs using the words ‘drive-in’ had become prevalent. By 1950, El Cajon Boulevard had eight drive-in restaurants, a drive-in theater, and two drive-in liquor stores. At the height of the classic fifties strip El Cajon Boulevard was a lively, colorful place to be. Signs, colors, sounds, and shapes bombarded the senses.

By the early 1960s though, El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue had begun their decline. This was due to two chief factors: the construction of Interstate 8, and the opening of nearby shopping centers such as College Grove in 1960, and Mission Valley and Grossmont Center in 1961. The new freeway drew the traffic away from El Cajon Boulevard therefore decreasing the number of travelers passing the strips’ gas stations and motels. University Avenue was harder hit by the new shopping malls. They housed the same types of businesses as on University such as clothing stores and jewelry shops. Even though there was a decline in the traditional types of strip businesses, new businesses were to take their place in the 1970s and 1980s. As new immigrants such as Chinese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese have moved into the residential areas surrounding these strips, new neighborhood types of businesses have replaced the automobile oriented businesses. Asian restaurants and markets, doctors and dentists offices, and small family-run businesses have continued to make the strip a thriving area.

Architectural and Aesthetic Change

Changes in styles of architecture developed alongside changing business types. In the early decades of the strips, architectural styles varied greatly between the two strips. For example, auto camps which were found only on El Cajon Boulevard, were spacious with areas for tents and trailers under shady trees. An excellent representation is the Tea Garden Auto Camp (Figure 5) which was later replaced by the Tea Garden Motel (Figure 6). In contrast, buildings constructed in the thirties along University Avenue were often two stories tall and usually had an Art Deco motif. This type of design consisted of geometric shapes to symbolize the new technological age. One of the many existing buildings is the Bargain Barn (Figure 7). A similar form was the Streamline Moderne which smoothed out the sharper aspects of Art Deco. This can be seen today in the curved shapes of the Hoffman Foam Building (Figure 8).

A new ‘futuristic’ form of architecture called Exaggerated Modern became popular in the fifties and early sixties along both strips. It was typified by slanting rooflines, boomerang and trapezoidal signs, and huge arrows pointing towards their respective business.17 Some examples of the motels built during this period are the recently removed Desert Inn, and the Sea Air Motel and La Cuesta Motel both of which still are standing. The best example of a sign is the now demolished Honda sign (Figure 9), which was located just east of Highway 805 on El Cajon Boulevard.

During the late 1960s a new trend in design began to have a major impact on the look of the strip. The futurism of the fifties was replaced by the environmentalism of the seventies. People were concerned with the loss of forests and animal habitat. Problems such as noise, air pollution and discarded, neglected urban areas had all become too immense to ignore. In reaction to this many people tended to develop an anti-urban bias. Building design and decoration reflected this trend. Materials such as steel, glass, and plastic, popular in the futuristic era, were gradually replaced by wood and greenery. ‘Back to nature’ became a key theme and the strip, as it was, was out of place. New design elements such as wood shingles, tile, and stone, landscaping using small shrubbery and bark, and smaller, rustic-looking signs were a result of the environmental movement in architectural design along the strip. A new look for strip businesses was sought; one that was more compatible with the environment.18

In San Diego the environmental look has been extensively applied. Most fast food restaurants replaced the brightly-colored plastics of the past with wood, brick and both indoor and outdoor greenery. Mini-shopping centers began to use an abundance of wood shingles on the sides of buildings and trees and grass surrounding the parking lots. Signs have been greatly affected and have become smaller and less ostentatious. This has had an effect of creating a more homogeneous landscape both in terms of these two strips looking more like each other, and more similar to strips around the country.

A variety of other events during the seventies led to changes in the strip landscape. Among these was increased interest in historic preservation. One of the manifestations of this movement was the increased popularity of ‘brick look’ building facades which led to the extensive use of bricks and wood shingles on strip businesses. Also, many older architectural styles appeared as facades on strip businesses, such as a Cape Cod style mini-shopping center. Another change was the reduction of the number of gas stations due to the oil crisis of the early seventies, rising labor costs, and new car models needing less service than those in the past. Land values increased rapidly during the late seventies generally causing fewer new, small, space extensive developments in preference for more intensive uses such as mini-shopping centers. Also visible on the strip was the greater influence of planners, designers, and corporate chains leading to a general ‘toning down’ of strip architecture. All of these examples demonstrate how changes in society are mirrored by changes in the aesthetics of the commercial strip.

Back to the Future

Since the 1960s San Diego strips have had to come to terms with what I will call the “blight syndrome.” Because of a decline in growth while shopping malls and new freeways drew businesses and customers elsewhere, a negative image has been associated with strips. This negativity needs to be overcome in order to redefine the modern strip. The blight syndrome refers to a view of the strip (and many other urban developments) as unsightly, dirty and cluttered. This view is still common today.20 Unfortunately, much of the old architecture and signs are indiscriminately removed to make way for the new. The fifties style Honda sign on El Cajon Boulevard is a good example. It was a landmark for that particular stretch of the strip just east of the 805 Freeway (Figure 9). Today, that area has become indistinctive and disorienting without the sign as a reference point. As landmarks like these are removed the strip becomes more homogeneous. A sensitive design plan leaves some room for individual decision making that may override laws such as sign ordinances in special cases. A sensitive design plan incorporates the old with the new rather than total replacement.

It is important though to realize that change is a vital element of the commercial strip. The constant appearance of new businesses is part of the dynamics that makes the strip so fascinating: a frozen yogurt shop replaces an ice cream parlor, a do-it-yourself car wash replaces a gas station, and a flower stand becomes a taco shop. Driving down the strip is a new and exciting experience each time as new buildings, businesses and signs appear while others disappear. In planning and implementing these changes though, care has to be taken not to completely erase the past. In this way the strip reflects continual changes in tastes and whims of American society. By studying the changes between various periods of growth and the historical remnants that remain, much about different eras of modern American (and in this case San Diegan) history can be comprehended. The following is an example of a recent change occurring on both strips which reflects social changes.

The increasing influence of Indo-Chinese businesses reflects the importance of this community in San Diego (Figure 10). The strip has become a more thriving, dynamic place due to this new ethnic influx. The commercial strip, as a less expensive alternative to shopping mall space, is a place for immigrants to find a slice of the ‘American Dream’. It is also a boon to all San Diego residents in that it has added a new colorful vibrancy to both University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard (Figure 11). For University in particular, the new immigrants have helped to reestablish the strong neighborhood feeling of the old trolley strip. This new development is just one more layer to add to the colorful history of both of these dynamic strips.

The dynamics of the commercial strip are constantly shifting and changing. The changes reflect changes in both local and nationwide trends in tastes and attitudes. Therefore the historical relationships between each period of growth and the events of the period are important to an understanding of the strip, and the rest of the urban landscape today. This knowledge is crucial to the creation of well-balanced, effective planning policies to guide the future development of San Diego’s commercial strips.




1. Paul L. Knox, “The Social Production of the Built Environment,” Progress in Human Geography 11 (1988): 363.

2. For a more indepth discussion refer to J.B. Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press; 1984) and The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, edited by D.W. Meinig (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

3. David Lowenthal, “The American Scene,” Geographical Review 55 (1968): 61-88.

4 . Carol Olten, “Meeting the El Cajon Boulevard Challenge,” San Diego Union, 3 March 1985: 17(F), 18(F).

5. San Diego Street Directory. (Monterey Park, California: R.L. Polk and Company, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960); San Diego Street Directory, (Buena Park, California: Haines and Company,1970, 1980, 1988).

6. Thomas Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (4th ed.; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), 82.

7. San Diego Street Directories.

8. John Jakle, The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth-century North America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 120.

9. John Jakle, “Roadside Restaurants and Place-Product-Packaging,” Journal of Cultural Geography 3 (1982): 76-93.

10. Edward Relph, The Modern Urban Landscape (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 84.

11. John Jakle, “Motel by the Roadside: America’s Room for the Night,” Journal of Cultural Geography 1 (Fall/Winter): 34-49.

12. Ibid., 35.

13. Ibid., 43.

14. For a detailed description see Philip Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1986).

15. Chester Liebs, Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 214.

16. Jim Heimann and Rip Georges, California Crazy: Roadside Vernacular Architecture (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1980), 11.

17. Liebs, Main Street to Miracle Mile, 64.

18. Ibid., 66.

19. From Peter Blake’s reference to the blighted landscape of the commercial strip in his book, God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964), 16.

20. Olten, “Meeting the El Cajon Boulevard Challenge.”


Anne V. O’Connor-Ruth is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She completed both undergraduate and master’s degrees at San Diego State University in geography. The research interests of Ms. O’Connor-Ruth concern architectural forms in the urban landscape and the ways in which people perceive and relate to these forms. She is also interested in effects of gender differences on perceptions of the built environment.