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Some Couples Find There’s No Place Like Home--Downtown

Times Staff Writer

Martin and Cindy Blair didn’t feel they had to give up their meat ‘n’ potatoes Midwestern background when they moved to San Diego from Topeka, Kan.

More than fun in the sun, the Blairs yearned to invest in a house in an area where their neighbors shared a special commitment to the neighborhood’s future.

They wanted to be able to walk to their favorite restaurants, bars, shops and cultural activities, secure in the knowledge that they would always be surrounded by familiar faces. When they picked up a newspaper, they wanted news about their neighborhood displayed prominently and covered in depth. If every couple owned an average of three vehicles, they hoped two of them would be bicycles.

That special ambiance they were looking for was missing in Pacific Beach, where the young couple first took up residence. But the Blairs--and a growing cadre of self-proclaimed urban pioneers--discovered that such a spirit was thriving in what many might consider a most unlikely place--the streets of downtown San Diego behind the rather foreboding security walls at the Marina Park and Park Row condominium complexes.

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“It’s almost a throwback to the early 1900s,” said Cindy Blair, an architect who works downtown and who, with her husband, owns the Kansas City Barbeque, a down-to-earth Market Street eatery that is affectionately known as “the clubhouse” for many downtown residents.

“We know all of our neighbors and can call them our friends. In many cases, our businesses and our homes are integrated, right within a few blocks of each other. It’s not your typical Southern California living environment, but it’s what we prefer.”

Other downtown dwellers are not strangers to urban living.

“We came to San Diego from New York, and we originally moved to Scripps Ranch because it was closer to our work,” said Sherrie Wilfong, who raises funds for the Children’s Museum in La Jolla. Her husband, John, is an air traffic controller at Miramar Naval Air Station.

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But after trying the suburbs, the Wilfongs decided to move again into the city. “We sensed no feeling of community (in Scripps Ranch). We found that feeling downtown. And there’s always something for us to do, a new restaurant to try out, or whatever. I haven’t cooked in months,” she said with a laugh. “It’s more fun to go out exploring, and we never have to go far from home to do our partying or see our friends.”

Among these new downtown residents, at least, there is no trepidation about the area’s future, nor is there any doubt that downtown revitalization is on track. Virtually all of them scoff when asked if they are afraid to go out at night for fear of being mugged or exposed to unsavory elements. They express an amusement tinged with sympathy, not fear or disgust, when asked about downtown transients. They even have secret nicknames for the most notable characters.

“When we bought here, we heard a lot of talk about crime, street people, parking and traffic problems, office vacancies--generally all the negative stuff you hear about downtown, and we really didn’t intend to stay,” said Pat Rickon, who “ran away” to downtown with her husband, Fred, leaving their grown kids behind in the Point Loma home where the family had lived for 20 years.

Rickon, who works for the State Department’s International Visitor Program, said two years of living downtown and watching it grow have convinced her that she will never leave. “It’s so special that it’s addictive,” Rickon said. “To be so close to restaurants and most of the city’s culture can only be described as romantic. Last week, I was invited to openings of three art exhibits, all within walking distance of here.

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“We miss our friends from Point Loma, but we really have to laugh now when we hear somebody who doesn’t live downtown ask us how we possibly can stand living there.”

Another former Point Loma resident, Joel Stewart, who, along with his wife, Ruth, owns Cracker Factory Antiques on Market Street, summed up the gung-ho spirit of the pioneers: “Apologizing for living in downtown San Diego today would be like apologizing to someone about the San Diego climate.”

Residents of both complexes have pooled their social calendars, joining in spirited block parties and volleyball games. Already, an athletic tradition has taken hold--Park Row and Marina Place have a much-coveted trophy that will go to the winner of the June 29 volleyball game.

At the same time, however, the residents say the gamble they took in being among the first investors in newly-constructed downtown residential property binds them together. “These people here were the first to invest their venture capital in downtown--the first to really put it on the line and express confidence in the city’s future,” said Fred Norton, a partner in the investors who have refurbished the Senator Hotel. “That’s a strong bond.”

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May Johnson, a retiree who spends time caring for her handicapped son living downtown, hoots when asked if she ever considered her investment in a downtown condo a gamble. “What kind of a gamble is it to buy a piece of land in one of the most attractive, fastest growing cities in the world?” she asked. “It didn’t take a genius to figure out that downtown was heading in the right direction--and that we wouldn’t have to wait forever to enjoy the changes.”

Allan Rickmier and his wife, Sheila Sterling, both musicians with the San Diego Symphony, agreed that they feel much safer being out at night downtown than they did in La Mesa, where they had raised their family.

“The convenience for us is wonderful, and I’m not at all afraid to walk anywhere downtown at night,” Sheila Sterling said. “This area brings together the most important professional and recreational aspects of our life. And, the other night, when we walked to Balboa Park, was one of the romantic times we’ve spent together.”

“If anything, downtown is coming together even faster than we had any reason to hope,” Ruth Stewart said. “And when Horton Plaza opens, things really will be in place. We used to say that if Horton Plaza couldn’t succeed, then downtown wouldn’t. But now we have no doubts about it at all.”

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If there are drawbacks, it is the forbidding atmosphere cast by the security systems at the condo complexes, and the fact that downtown’s evolution does not yet include many children. “People who come here the first time are put off by the security; it gives the impression that this area is much more dangerous than it is.”

Len DePew said children eventually will be part of the San Diego urban life style. “We raised ours in La Mesa,” he said. “But having open fields to play in does not automatically make for the perfect childhood. It’s the people they meet, the experiences they are exposed to. And we have a slice of the world here that you couldn’t find anywhere else in San Diego.”


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