New neighbors and long-timers mark 125th anniversary

In University Heights, people out for a run or a dog walk still say hello to passers-by. The homes are not all grand, but they’re well cared for. Cafes and restaurants on the main avenue are packed, but there are enough parking spots for those who know where to look. The local park has free concerts on summer nights.

A few neighborhoods are just like that — not too developed, not too dull, well-kept but down to earth. Blessed, you might say.

But if you think it came easy for University Heights, think again.

Saturday, the neighborhood celebrated 125 rich years of ups and downs that led the area to become the cozy place it is today.

J.D. Abercrombie moved there in 1979. In those days, she said, the area was very different. The homes weren’t manicured, and what’s now the business stretch was desolate. What’s now Old Trolley Barn Park was a warehouse, razed in 1980 — certainly not the kind of place you’d want to walk your dog or let your toddler run around.

“It was a little scary,” Abercrombie said.

When developers started planning more than 100 condominiums with no parking and some low-income housing units at the site of the old trolley barn, where streetcars once rested overnight, and later home to the San Diego Paper Box Co., a few residents, including Abercrombie, got together and pulled a David versus Goliath: They convinced the city to preserve the land for a park, and the developers moved to a different area, she said.

“It was an amazing grass-roots effort that galvanized around this park,” Abercrombie said. Old Trolley Barn Park was built in 1991.

The birthday party, held at the park, melded old and new. Dainty damsels and dapper menfolk in period costumes strolled around to set the mood, while vendors sold edgy Popsicles and key lime pie. Explorers had the option of joining a bike scavenger hunt, and old-fashioned lawn games kept the kids entertained while people of all ages marveled at a contortionist. Between sets of live music, an emcee quizzed people about the area’s history.

“Which animal was bred in University Heights at the turn of the century — and by that I mean the turn in the 1900s, not this last century — due to its value in the fashion history?” asked Will Turner, the emcee. “Choices are: A) alligators; B) sheep; C) Southern California jackalope; D) the ostrich.”

Turner lived in University Heights before moving to North Park. “I love it. I love University Heights,” he said during a break. “It’s one of my favorite neighborhoods.”

All afternoon, an old trolley took people around to the craftsman homes as a guide described architectural features and historical curiosities.

The year 1915 was a big one for San Diego because of the World’s Fair. The population of University Heights swelled. The Weerts Apartments, built that year, are now home to Twiggs Coffeehouse and Bakery. An ostrich farm (Answer: D) was a popular tourist attraction and helped put the neighborhood on the map.

Teresa Bunik moved to University Heights four years ago, and she’s become enchanted by its history. “I love the ostrich connection,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful we’re one of the oldest communities in San Diego, to celebrate 125 years and collect all the old photos, and just have an opportunity to get out and meet people. It’s really nice.”

But most of all, she loves the present: “I think the best part is the neighbors, who get out on the street and walk with their children or their dogs, and get to know each other and have good friendships.”

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