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Revitalization Starts for 7-Mile Strip : El Cajon Boulevard Signs In With Nod to Past

Times Staff Writer

El Cajon Boulevard had a date with the past Saturday when a 60-foot-wide art deco sign proclaiming “The Boulevard” was dedicated amid the pomp and glory of fireworks, free popcorn and a fleet of antique cars.

It was nostalgic, too, for Point Loma resident Tom Howarth, 52, who used to “cruise” the boulevard in the 1950s in a gleaming black and chrome ’49 Ford. Howarth and his car--still intact and complete with fuzzy dice--were on hand Saturday along with his wife, Jan, a car hop in the days when drive-ins, not restaurants, crowded the strip.

“I was born and raised here, and the boulevard, to all us older guys, it means a lot,” Howarth said. “As I recall we could get an order of fries and a Coke for 37 cents. . . . Now when we do the Boulevard, it isn’t the same as it used to be.”

Balloon-Strewn Hoopla

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Which was exactly the point of Saturday’s balloon-strewn hoopla, a bash thrown by the El Cajon Boulevard Gateway Business Improvement Assn. to celebrate the start of a revitalization of the 7-mile strip that cuts through Mid-City.

“People are excited. The new sign has given to them a shot of enthusiasm. It shows them that the city is taking an interest in redevelopment here,” said Ralph Olivier, president of the improvement association.

The $170,000 sign was set up at El Cajon Boulevard and Georgia Street on Monday and officially unveiled Saturday. Beneath the huge, pink letters, it reads: “El Cajon Boulevard--Gateway To Mid-City.”

Three live bands and Ronald McDonald took turns entertaining people of all ages. Hundreds of passers-by strolled down three blocks of the boulevard closed to traffic but open to two dozen automobile clubs showing off Corvettes, Mercurys, Studebakers and a 1909 Rolls-Royce. Other people lay about in lawn chairs to wait for the sign to be lit up ceremoniously at sundown.

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‘It’s Beautiful’

“It’s beautiful,” said Ollie Edwards, 54, visiting her daughter in East San Diego from Dallas.

“It’s something new and clean,” said Doris Cooper, a board member of the business improvement association and co-owner of A San Diegos Own Florist which is one block away from the sign.

“This is positive evidence that the community is really trying to make the boulevard prosperous, and we really need it,” Cooper said.

For the last 10 years, many people have associated El Cajon Boulevard with prostitutes, who sometimes walk dogs or carry empty bags of “groceries” in an effort to confuse police. Once the primary route in and out of the city, the advent of shopping centers, freeways and 1960s suburbanization turned it into a notorious strip from which people and businesses fled.

Now the city has pledged to improve the area to attract more businesses and turn it into a thriving community-based neighborhood. In June, the city will begin landscaping the center median with trees and shrubbery, said City Councilwoman Gloria McColl, who helped in 1985 to secure Community Development Block Grant funds for the sign.

New Image

Designed by Graphic Solutions of San Diego and hand built by Arrow Sign Co. of Oakland at a rate of about one letter every three weeks, the aluminum sign is meant to bring to the boulevard a new image, a stronger identity and a return to its theme in the 1950s as the “main drag.”

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“It’s sort of like saying ‘The City’ and everyone knows you mean San Francisco,” Olivier said.

The 6-foot coral letters are outlined in neon and supported 40 feet in the air by a giant turquoise pillar. The art deco design reminds many locals of a time when the boulevard was the classic American strip, boasting drive-in diners, drive-in liquor stores and even drive-in dry cleaners. Organizers of Saturday’s event called it the biggest community sign in the state.

Erecting the sign took only a week. But the process of getting it there was not easy. According to Janet Wood of the city’s Economic Development Corp., it took four years of planning and meetings.

Funding was approved in 1985, a consultant sketched drawings in 1986 and plans were given the go-ahead in 1987. Initially, response from sign companies was poor and the bidding process had to be repeated because of the difficulty of finding a company that could take on such a large project, Wood said.

Working With City

San Diego landscape architect Andrew Spurlock was one of several consultants hired by the city five years ago to study the boulevard and recommend improvements. Although he did not design the sign, he says he is working with the city on other plans to beautify Mid-City.

Spurlock says the boulevard has changed, but for the better. When El Cajon Boulevard was the major east-west highway into the city, businesses along it were oriented toward “regional automobile traffic.”

“When the regional automobile traffic went to Interstate 8, the businesses moved and made room for new types of businesses that are directed toward serving the community and the neighborhoods,” Spurlock said.

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Spurlock also defended the $170,000 price tag of the boulevard’s new addition. “I think that it’s a very small amount of money for anything that’s done in the city today, and I think that amount of money should be spent (if) the community thinks that’s where they want to spend it.”

When Car Was King

For Tom Howarth, the cost is not what’s important. “I’m just glad to see it there,” he said. To him, the sign and the name “The Boulevard” represents an era when the car was king.

“Today the kids cruise a 4- to 6-block area. They create confusion and traffic. Back then, we cruised a 15-mile area, starting in Point Loma, going through downtown, up Park Boulevard. Then we did the boulevard all the way to La Mesa. Then we’d roar back to the beach area, and it took about an hour and a half,” he said.

“We didn’t cause any trouble, but we knew where the action was.”


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