CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Gays Recruited to Save Neighborhood : Residents hand out flyers at San Diego's annual pride parade. 'The gays rescued Hillcrest, and we hope they can help do the same for Azalea Park,' one says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a lot of mid-city neighborhoods, the Azalea Park section of San Diego is not aging gracefully.

There are some nicely tended homes, but there are many others that show the sad symptoms of a neighborhood in decline: dead lawns, peeling paint, broken windows, broken cars and owners who are either absentee or absent-minded when it comes to maintenance.

Activist homeowners have banded together to form Project Clean to fight graffiti, clear away trash, slather some paint where it is needed and generally exert gentle peer pressure on their neighbors to show more tender loving care toward their property. It is a common approach in many neighborhoods.

But something less common also is happening in Azalea Park.

Residents of this working-class, racially diverse neighborhood are trying to interest gays and lesbians in buying or renting in Azalea Park, in hopes that they will refurbish the homes, adding to the overall appeal of the neighborhood and boosting property values.

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Project Clean leader Linda Pennington and her husband, Mark, moved to Azalea Park a decade ago from the Hillcrest neighborhood, the center of San Diego's gay community. The Penningtons had watched the gentrification that occurred in Hillcrest when gays and lesbians began buying homes.

"The gays rescued Hillcrest, and we hope they can help do the same for Azalea Park," said Mark Pennington, a computer program administrator for AT & T. "We know that gays are good neighbors, they take care of their property and they're community minded."

To spread the message of Azalea Park, Pennington and a dozen other residents marched a week ago in the city's annual Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade in Hillcrest under the banner, "Azalea Park. An Affordable Canyon Neighborhood."

There were smaller hand-held signs: "We Love Our Neighbors," "Canyon Homes Under $100,000" and "Gays Welcome."

"We think it would be fabulous if gays would take an interest in Azalea Park," said Linda Pennington, an artist and teacher.

At the Pride Festival that followed in Balboa Park, the Azalea Park contingent set up a booth and quickly distributed 500 copies of a neighborhood fact sheet. Under the headline, "Expose Yourself to Azalea Park," the sheet provided a map, information about home prices and phone numbers of Azalea Park residents.

The sheet also noted ("Bored on a Friday Night?") that Azalea Park is only a "two-step" away from Bee Jays, a country-Western bar and dance parlor popular among gays.

Response at the parade and festival was enthusiastic, and Azalea Park resident Vicki Davis, one of several gay people who live in Azalea Park, took down 100-plus names.

On Sunday, after making a dozen follow-up phone calls, Davis and Linda Pennington conducted a tour of Azalea Park properties and Snowdrop Canyon for 15 men and women, all gay, who had been attracted by the fact sheets. More phone calls and tours are planned.

"Figure it: a gay real estate caravan to look at homes," said John Hyde, a graphic designer who would like to buy a home with his roommate. "It's great."

Steve Sipes, a program analyst with the county Department of Health, said he was surprised that anything like the Azalea Park outreach would occur in socially conservative San Diego, a sentiment echoed by several others on the tour.

Patti Kline, a photo negative retoucher, said Azalea Park might be of particular interest to lesbian couples because women tend to make less money than men. "This could be a very good and affordable neighborhood for us," she said.

Michael Portantino, publisher of the San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times, said the Azalea Park effort is unprecedented. He said he has never heard of a predominantly straight neighborhood in San Diego or anywhere else making a pitch to the gay community, although he noted that real estate agents have realized that the gay market is strong even when the overall market is lousy.

"We run more ads from straight real estate agents than from gay real estate agents, who usually already have their contacts," Portantino said. "The straights have realized that gay couples usually have two good salaries and easily qualify" for home loans.

Hillcrest has become one of San Diego's priciest non-beach neighborhoods, where a small cottage on a busy street can cost $200,000. As a result, many gays and lesbians are looking to outlying neighborhoods for better buys, Portantino said.

"When the old ladies die off in North Park and older neighborhoods, gays are buying in," he said. "They immediately fluff up the homes and transform the neighborhood."

Azalea Park is not connected to either Hillcrest or North Park, but residents hope to capitalize with a pitch that offers a chance to buy a modest home on a quiet street with a canyon view for under $100,000. Downtown is seven minutes away by freeway.

With 1,000-plus single-family homes and apartments tucked in a corner of the troubled City Heights neighborhood, Azalea Park has several pluses, including two small parks, a community center, canyon view lots, a secluded feel in many back yards, and mostly cul-de-sac streets.

"Azalea Park would love it if gays would move in and the druggies would move out," said Davis, a banquet server who bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper for $88,000 a year ago with plans to renovate it and make a quick resale. Instead, she liked the neighborhood so much she's staying.

Jim Doolittle, an unemployed bill collector and nine-year resident, said: "Gays take care of their homes, there's no other way to put it. They keep up their yards and they tend to be community active. We don't care about their sexual orientation at all."

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