By Michael E. Dillinger
Winner of the James S. Copley Library Award
San Diego History Center Institute of History 1999
During the last thirty years of American social history, the gay and lesbian community has evolved from an obscure group of isolated individuals to a strong minority. This minority has developed a unified sense of self-awareness and community. The evolution has often centered on a specific neighborhood, which is transformed into a place of refuge and secure dwelling. In the early 1970s, Hillcrest became such a refuge for the gays and lesbians of San Diego. In the 1970s Hillcrest began undergoing a radical transformation from a neighborhood in decline to San Diego’s premiere gay community.
Throughout the early 1970s a group of men and women in San Diego developed a cohesive and united front, dedicated to the advancement of pride in themselves, and changing the attitudes of a homophobic society. Hillcrest became an unwitting, albeit well-suited, base of operations for this leap forward in social progress. Hillcrest in the late 1960s provided a suitable atmosphere, for a group of people perceived to be as subversive and dangerous as the gay and lesbian community, to foster pride, self-awareness and a strong sense of belonging. The social and economic status of Hillcrest from the early 1960s through the early 1970s allowed for affordable rent-space, a social scene otherwise impossible in a more up scale community, and the background for Hillcrest’s dramatic rise from the ashes of economic stagnation. The investment of the gay community in itself has brought Hillcrest from isolated obscurity to its status as one of the premiere commercial and social scenes in San Diego.
This phenomenon is not limited to San Diego. This type of gay-motivated positive gentrification is taking place all over the United States. Metropolises such as Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Denver and Houston have all experienced this type of gay-powered rejuvenation that transforms neglected neighborhoods into vibrant and desirable areas in which to live.1 Today, Hillcrest is the focus of gay life in San Diego.
What made this community in the center of San Diego so ready to receive and foster the gay community that had been ostracized by society? When and how did this movement take place? Since the notion of using sexual orientation to classify a group of people is very recent, the answers do not come easily. Even within this paper’s narrow scope of a single county, evidence of a demographic shift in the gay community of San Diego does not exist as hard data. In the early 1970s, Hillcrest as a gay community was the subject of minor news articles, whispered rumors and was mentioned in passing conversation. In the 1970s, it remained primarily an infra-gay movement with those outside the community not fully recognizing the powerful movement gathering steam. To simply analyze the demographics of Hillcrest, during its transformation through the 1970s and 1980s, would lead to an answer devoid of humanity or vitality. However, the reconstruction of demographic evidence will provide the data necessary to analyze Hillcrest’s evolution.
It would be impossible to fully understand the facts, statistics and references concerning Hillcrest without a proper physical and geographical definition of the community of Hillcrest. The boundaries of Hillcrest are somewhat vague and tend to vary when different sources are consulted. Since much of the research completed for this paper focused on the United States Census, it would be logical to use the area located within Tracts 3, 4, 6 and 7 (Map A).2 Additionally, the San Diego Police Department identifies Hillcrest on its Divisional Precinct map as extending west to Dove Street, east to Park Boulevard, south to Upas Street and north to Interstate 8 on the western side of Highway 163 and north to Buchanan Avenue and Washington Street on the eastern side of Highway 163. This definition of the boundaries of Hillcrest is essentially identical to the area contained within the Census Tracts 3, 4, 6 and 7. That area will be defined as Hillcrest for the purposes of this paper.
In addition to understanding the physical characteristics of Hillcrest, we must also be aware of what manner of community was in place before the transformation occurred so that the subsequent changes can be clearly gauged. Hillcrest was established as a residential area in the early 1900s during an upswing in San Diego’s economy and a transportation boom. George Marston, a merchant who also founded the San Diego History Center, owned a considerable amount of land around the area of Seventh Avenue. He actively pursued a professional city plan to promote structured and efficient housing throughout the city of San Diego.3 In 1907, William Whitson, who founded Hillcrest through his Hillcrest Company, bought over 40 acres of land between First and Sixth Avenues, south of Mission Valley, and began to subdivide. Within a few years, hundreds of houses and Florence Elementary school were established, and by the 1920s and 1930s Hillcrest was thriving.4 During this period, an increasingly diverse population began to fill the highly affordable housing for which Hillcrest was known. Hillcrest contained housing aimed at families, but also developed a high percentage of single occupancy bungalow courts, cottages and smaller single unit family homes. This type of housing close to downtown and made for single residents and young couples in the middle income range, was not to be found anywhere else in San Diego.5
After World War II, many of the young couples and singles who had moved into the Hillcrest area in the 1920s and 1930s remained as residents and consequently by the 1960s, Hillcrest became a predominantly elderly community as well as one of the most densely populated areas in San Diego.6 Hillcrest also flourished as a commercial center and a social hot spot for sailors and students. With the establishment of the Mission Valley Shopping Center in the early 1960s, however, Hillcrest experienced a major economic downturn.7
For the rest of that decade, Hillcrest suffered through economic stagnation, social isolation and deteriorating housing conditions. It is here that the answer to the question of why Hillcrest became the haven for gay and lesbian activity in San Diego begins.
From the 1960s through the early 1970s, Hillcrest struggled to find its identity among the communities of San Diego. The community was unable to generate any spark of its own and was widely recognized as a community of elderly and low-income residents living in run-down housing. During this period, a study was done that identified Hillcrest as a prime example of an aged population living in dense and deteriorating housing conditions. That research created a picture of Hillcrest as it was in 1966. In Census Tracts 3 and 7, the author used sample blocks to show that over 16 percent of the housing units were in disrepair or completely dilapidated (See Appendices A1, A2). The author’s findings also showed that the elderly residents of Hillcrest were much older than the overall elderly population of San Diego city and county. In this research, the author charted the age distribution by sex and compared the figures for San Diego county and her sample population in Hillcrest. For the total population in San Diego county, only 34 percent of the elderly community (65 years and older) was over 75 years of age, while the sample population in Hillcrest had 48 percent of its elderly population over 75 years of age.8 This is indicative of a community about to undergo a major demographic change, considering the high percentage of its older residents.
The physical and historical aspects of Hillcrest can only set the foundation for the story of its transformation through the last quarter century. This story also involved a centralizing movement of a societal segment that cannot be measured by simply looking up census information to identify sexual preference. In order to accurately understand the Hillcrest-centered gay movement of the 1970s and 1980s, it is necessary to examine the changing racial, age and gender makeup, as well as marital status, that typifies the gay community as a whole. The statistically noticeable changes in these demographic categories, between 1970 and today, clearly show the emergence of a new community in Hillcrest.
The two most important aspects of the gay community that require defining are age and race. One of the most influential and driving forces in the San Diego gay community in the early seventies, Jess Jessop, recognized their importance and envisioned the gay movement as one for all people. He understood, however, that the gay movement was indeed a “white middle class movement, with white male privilege….”9 Those involved in the gay movement of the 1970s also realized that this was true to such an extent that they needed to take active steps to rectify the situation. Bernie Michels, one of the co-founders of the Gay Center, related that during this period, the leaders of the gay movement “worked hard to bring in women and minorities…through personal contact.”10
In 1992, a national exit poll during the presidential election conducted by Voter Research and Surveys showed that 3 percent of the sample identified themselves as gay or bisexual. Eighty-six percent of the gay males and 81 percent of the lesbians were white. Comparatively, African-American and Hispanic lesbians accounted for 13 and 3 percent, respectively, of the poll total. Similarly in the minority, gay African-American and Hispanic males accounted for only 7 and 5 percent, respectively, of the poll total. In addition, 71 percent of the gay males and 69 percent of the lesbians were under the age of 45. This is significant when compared to the entire sample collected in the exit poll, where only 56 percent of all men and 58 percent of all women were under the age of 45.11 When the statistics for the gay sample are combined, the resultant figure of 77 percent of the sample is representative of those lesbians and gays who are white and under the age of 45. This exit poll, coupled with the statements of two of San Diego’s gay rights pioneers, supports the conclusion that the gay population of San Diego, as well as that of the nation, was predominantly white and under the age of 45.12
In recent years, from the mid 1980s through the late 1990s, there has been no doubt that Hillcrest has become the center of gay life in San Diego. Using this knowledge concerning the age and racial composition of San Diego’s gay community, it is then possible to follow their movement into the Hillcrest area, beginning in the 1970s. Consequently, the age bracket of 25 to 44 years of age will be used to gauge the presence of the gay community. This age bracket combines two of the age categories used by the United States Census Bureau: 25 to 34 years and 35 to 44 years. This combination is consistent with the findings of the Voter Research and Surveys group and the first-hand accounts of Bernie Michels and Jess Jessop. With the proper tools, the demographic shifts can be clearly detailed.
The demographic data concerning the age of the population of Hillcrest most significantly demonstrates the changes that began around 1970 when 48 percent of the population of Hillcrest was over the age of 45–a predominantly older population. Between 1970 and 1990, however, the number of males and females between the ages of 25 and 44 living in Hillcrest increased 120 percent, while the population over 45 years of age declined by 27 percent. This is not a movement of the 15 to 24 year age brackets moving up into the gay age bracket, because these groups accounted for only 8 percent of the population in 1970. This is clearly a population shift due to a massive influx of residents in the gay age bracket. The gay age bracket demonstrates the movement of the gay and lesbian community, making it possible to view that movement into Hillcrest. In 1970, 22 percent of the population of Hillcrest was between the ages of 25 to 44. This trend changed dramatically in the next twenty years as illustrated in the chart below.13
|Percentage of Population in Hillcrest by Age
In 1990, 35 percent of Hillcrest’s population was over the age of 45 (a group that spans over 40+ years), while the age bracket of 25 to 44 years (a group that spans 19 years) accounted for 48 percent of the population. When viewed graphically, the decrease in the elderly population is noticeable as is the increase in the number of men and women between the ages of 25 and 44. This is a positive indicator of the increase in the gay and lesbian population in Hillcrest.
It might be considered that perhaps the general population of San Diego underwent the same transformation due to immigration, expanded housing or new business opportunities. This was not the case. From 1970 to 1990, San Diego grew steadily in population at a rate of about 23 percent per decade while Hillcrest averaged only 9 percent growth per decade. In 1970, the percentage of San Diego’s total male population that was single (Ages 25-44) totaled 24 percent, while the percentage of single men (Ages 25-44) living in Hillcrest was about the same at 26 percent. This changed significantly over the next twenty years and is detailed in the chart below.14
|Percentage of Single Male Population (Ages 25-44)
In 1990, the statistics had changed somewhat with San Diego’s single male population (Ages 25-44) as 39 percent of its total male population. In Hillcrest, however, 58 percent of its male population was single males (Ages 25-44). This also meant that the total population of Hillcrest in 1990 was almost 30 percent males between the ages of 25 and 44. This is dramatically different than the status quo and indicative of a strong gay presence. It is important to remember that during the period 1970-1990, Hillcrest experienced only 40 percent of the growth that the City of San Diego was undergoing. This demonstrates a demographic shift not based on population growth, but on the centralization of the gay community in Hillcrest.
|Percentage of Population in Hillcrest by Marital Status
Another significant area of Hillcrest life that is worth examining is the statistics on the marital status of the Hillcrest population. In 1970, census data showed that 51 percent of Hillcrest’s population were married and 22 percent of men and women in Hillcrest were single (never married). From 1970 to 1990, a significant change in marital status occurred in Hillcrest.15
By 1990, married couples accounted for 25 percent of the population while single men and women tallied a significant 45 percent of Hillcrest’s population. Viewed graphically in Graph B, the increase in the single population of Hillcrest reveals the gay transformation of Hillcrest.
The change in Hillcrest was characteristically male from the early 1970s through 1980. Lesbians, however, began a surge of their own into the area and have consequently changed the composition of Hillcrest in later years. In 1970, single women (Ages 25-44) in San Diego accounted for 24 percent of the female population while only 18 percent of all women (Ages 25-44) in Hillcrest were single. This trend continued somewhat through the 1980s as the percentage of single women in comparison to the total female population (Ages 25-44) in both Hillcrest and San Diego were both approximately 29 percent. The percentage of single women in Hillcrest increased noticeably in 1990 to 40 percent of the total female population (Ages 25-44) whereas only 32 percent of the female population (Ages 25-44) of San Diego was single.
It is clear that there is a stark contrast between the demographic composition of Hillcrest in 1970 and that of the 1990s. Age, race, gender and marital status explain the relative differences between the Hillcrest of three decades ago and the Hillcrest of today. These differences are accounted for by the influx of a gay and lesbian community into Hillcrest. Why did Hillcrest became the physical setting for this centralization? The answer lies in several aspects of Hillcrest’s tangible and intangible characteristics. The demographic, social, geographic, and economic attributes of Hillcrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s provide the answer to the question of Hillcrest’s appeal to the gay community.
The elderly nature of Hillcrest’s community in the 1960s made it a neighborhood primed for change. In addition to providing Hillcrest with the necessary demographics for a major population shift, the elderly community also contributed indirectly to the appeal of Hillcrest to the gay community as a safe area. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, downtown San Diego, south of Broadway, was perceived as unsafe by the gay and lesbian community. Bernie Michels stated that this area had become increasingly “skid-rowish” and that the “middle class lesbians and gays felt more comfortable in Hillcrest rather than downtown.”16 One of the main reasons for the scarcity of pedestrian and street traffic in Hillcrest as compared to downtown was the fact that such a high percentage of the population of Hillcrest was so elderly. This reduced street activity and meant less opportunity for anti-gay confrontations. Avoiding physical clashes with those outside of the gay community was important to the fledgling gay movement. Before the establishment of the Gay Center and the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church, calling outside attention to gay-focused events was ill-advised because of the lack of a support base within the city of San Diego’s gay community in the late 1960s.17 Vice squad activity and bigotry subjected the gay community to near-constant harassment.18 During the 1960s and 1970s, many arrests of gay men and women for lewd conduct, public displays of affection and solicitation were made in San Diego.19 Hillcrest provided relative anonymity and safety for the multitude of gays and lesbians congregating within an elderly and isolated community. It provided a welcome beacon to those who tried as best they could to avoid the hatred that so many inflicted on the gay community. The changes that Hillcrest was destined to undergo began with the gay community’s feeling of safety and familiarity within the haven of an elderly Hillcrest in the early 1970s.
Safety alone did not draw the gay community of San Diego to Hillcrest. This neighborhood also provided a sense of social interaction which was a direct result of the bar and club scene. The importance of the bar and club scene within the gay community cannot be overemphasized. Serving double duty as a social scene and the only central institutions of the gay community until the early 1970s, the bars provided shelter and relative solace to gay men and women able to express themselves freely only amongst their peers.20 It was only here that gay people could meet with each other and experience some kind of shelter in which they could express their gayness openly.21 The bars also allowed gays and lesbians a forum where ideas and thoughts could be expressed and exchanged to help build a sense of community in San Diego. Certain aspects of these bars did not make them the most desirable type of atmosphere for the activities for which the gay community so hungered. The bars of the early 1970s were located in the run-down and lower class neighborhoods of San Diego. Compared to the bars and clubs today, those of the 1970s were “dirtier and grimier, but a necessity to see friends.”22 It was through these havens of social interaction, however, that a strong movement to bring about change began. Although there were gay bars in other sections of San Diego, Hillcrest had a location advantage that made this neighborhood a solid match with the gay-oriented bars and clubs.
This advantage was Hillcrest’s adjacency to a popular social venue of the gay community in San Diego: the northern end of Balboa Park. The park, just south of Hillcrest, (See Map A) provided a meeting area primarily for gay men in the 1960s and 1970s. Bernie Michels stated that Balboa Park was a “…popular area for gay men to cruise each other.”23 Many gay bars were started in this area because Hillcrest was conveniently located within walking distance of northern Balboa Park. The familiarity of the park, coupled with the social interaction that the bars provided, added to the popularity of Hillcrest as a center for gay activity in San Diego.
In addition to providing a social forum, the bars encouraged business and economic recovery in Hillcrest. Before the 1970s, Hillcrest was still enduring a decade of economic anemia due to the opening of the Mission Valley Shopping Center.24 Businesses and property values in Hillcrest dropped rapidly as the once thriving commercial center declined.25 The state of disrepair in which the housing was maintained was indicative of the ever-increasing trend in Hillcrest towards neighborhood decay.
Bars like The Brass Rail and The Club were established in Hillcrest because the location was simply more affordable.26 The bars in Hillcrest became the life blood that pumped a new vitality into this aged and dilapidated community. Because of the high volume of gay traffic that began filtering through Hillcrest in the early 1970s, members of the homosexual and heterosexual community realized the growing strength of this potential market. Gay-owned businesses such as bookstores and coffee shops began popping up all over Hillcrest, taking advantage of the low demand for the area’s property and the relatively cheap overhead.27 The number of bars, clubs, restaurants and coffee houses that advertised in gay business directories increased dramatically.28 As the gay community began to invest in itself, solidarity and gay pride quickly followed. Property values increased and the community began to redevelop from the inside out.29 The bars in Hillcrest, coupled with the growing business community, had a synergistic effect on gay life in Hillcrest and helped form a more solid and visible community.
In addition to its location advantages and highly active social scene, Hillcrest appealed to the gay community in another way. Its affordable single-occupancy apartments and bungalows were tailor-made for San Diego’s gay community in the early 1970s. Originally intended to provide housing close to downtown San Diego for young couples and up-and-coming business persons in the 1930s, Hillcrest appealed to a different generation in the 1950s and 1960s as the low-rent, single-occupancy housing attracted San Diego County’s elderly population. Widows were an abnormally high percentage of Hillcrest’s population through the early 1970s. In 1970, the number of widows outnumbered both the number of single men and single women (See Graph B). While a large number of men and women in the community of Hillcrest were still married and maintained families, the low number of children relative to the size of the married population in 1970 demonstrates that a high percentage of that married population were indeed elderly (See Graph A). However, as the 1970s continued, Hillcrest began appealing to an entirely different section of San Diego County’s population: the gay and lesbian community. For the same reasons that the elderly community flocked to Hillcrest, the gay community found the transition to Hillcrest very affordable and aimed at lower occupancy couples and singles. Hillcrest was a perfect fit for the singles and couples in the gay community because such a high percentage of its housing was low occupancy and available for relatively low rates.30
The social, economic, housing and location characteristics of Hillcrest from the late 1960s through the 1970s provided a major stimulus towards the development of a gay-oriented neighborhood. These factors brought about a strong sense of community among the gays and lesbians of San Diego and gave them a tangible place to call home. This sense of community has become evident in many ways. Gay publications such as the San Diego Son were started to help the community learn about gay-oriented events and opportunities. The Imperial Court, Dignity of San Diego, the Metropolitan Community Church and The Gay Center were all established in the early 1970s to help foster this sense of community. Since then, the Gay Parade, San Diego Pride, the Gay Men’s Choir, Lesbian and Gay History Month and the Gay and Lesbian Times have helped to establish the sense of community that has evolved since the 1970s.
In addition to these, the Lesbian and Gay Historical Society of San Diego has become the very essence of this community. This organization maintains an archive of journals, books, ephemera and other gay-centered materials to document and preserve a sense of San Diego’s gay history and develop its future. Founded in 1987, this archive is located only blocks from the center of Hillcrest. One of the co-founders of the Gay Center, Bernie Michels, stated that Hillcrest was the location that was originally considered for the establishment of the Gay Center, because it was “…the center of gay life in San Diego.”31 A sense of community was born in this area of San Diego and has since become more than an idea. It has been transformed into the community that so many had desired and worked for throughout their lives.
Today, Hillcrest stands as a community to be shared by all people, old and young, any race, singles, families and couples, gay or straight. This is not based on population size or economic strength alone, but based on safety, diversity, pedestrian orientation and communal self-improvement. The gay community has revitalized this area in central San Diego and this vitality is now spreading to the surrounding areas such as University Heights, Mission Hills, Normal Heights, and North Park, all of whom are beginning to take community awareness to new levels. Forged from fire, the gay and lesbian community of San Diego has emerged ever-strong. Despite persecution by hate-mongers, local law enforcement, the epidemic of AIDS and religious opposition, the gay and lesbian community has rallied and united. To the betterment of all San Diego, a once down trodden and isolated group of people has found symbiosis with a once economically dormant and isolated neighborhood to develop a working relationship towards pride in the community and pride in oneself.
The author would like to thank the following people and organizations for their invaluable assistance and support in this unique undertaking: Andrew Wiese for his direction and advice through the first draft, Frank Nobiletti for his encouragement and guidance, Raymond Starr for helping refine and focus this paper, Bernie Michels, George Murphy and the late Jess Jessop for their anecdotal information and first-person perspectives, the San Diego Historical Society’s Gregg Hennessey for his dedication to this publication and the Lesbian and Gay Historical Society of San Diego, which is devoted to documenting and preserving the history of San Diego’s gay community.
1. Karen De Witt, “Gay Presence Leads Revival of Declining Neighborhoods,” New York Times, 6 September, 1994, sec. A14.
2. While this puts the boundary of western Hillcrest at Dove Street, instead of the more widely accepted Front Street, Dove Street is in such close proximity that it is justified to include the additional areas as part of the Hillcrest community
3. Susan Pamela Mains, “There’s No Place Like Home: Social Diversity and the Evolution of Housing in Hillcrest, San Diego” (Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University, 1990), 115.
4. Frank Nobiletti, “Searching for Hillcrest,” Searching for San Diego, II: A Journey Through Four San Diego Neighborhoods. Edited by Alden Mudge and Ralph Lewin. The California Council for the Humanities, 1995, 7.
5. Mains, 116.
6. James R. Curtis and Larry Ford, “Bungalow Courts in San Diego: Monitoring a Sense of Place,” Journal of San Diego History, no. 34 (Spring 1988): 79.
7. Nobiletti, “Searching for Hillcrest,” 8.
8. Barbara Bright, “A Descriptive Study of Persons 65 Years of Age and Over, Living in a Residential Section of San Diego, California” (Master’s Study, San Diego State College, 1966), 78.
9. Jess Jessop, interview by Frank Nobiletti, San Diego, CA, 1990.
10. Bernie Michels, telephone interview by Michael Dillinger, 16 November, 1998.
11. Anne Cronin, “Two Viewfinders, Two Pictures of Gay America,” New York Times, 27 June, 1993, sec. 4, pg. E16.
13. United States Census Bureau, Housing and Population. San Diego, CA. 1970-1990.
16. Michels interview.
17. George Murphy, interview by Michael Dillinger, 13 December, 1998.
18. Bernard E. Michels, “Social Scenes of the Male Gay Community of San Diego.” (Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University, 1974), 8-9.
19. Ibid, 219.
20. Murphy interview.
23. Michels interview.
24. Nobiletti, “Searching for Hillcrest”, 7.
25. United States Census Maps: 1970-1990. Income and Property Values. San Diego, CA.
26. Murphy interview.
28. Directory (Greater San Diego Business Association) Gay-Owned Business Enterprises. Hillcrest, CA: 1973-1998.
29. United States Census Maps: 1970-1990.
30. Murphy interview.
31. Michels interview.
Mike Dillinger is a graduate student at San Diego State University. He currently resides in Escondido and has lived in San Diego County for 21 years. He may be contacted at the following e-mail address: [email protected]