Cruising The Boulevard: Finding U.S. 80 on San Diego’s Eastern Gateway

After celebrating the end of World War II 60 years ago, perhaps by jumping in the Horton Plaza fountain on V.J. Day, drivers who spent the duration in San Diego were finally heading back to perhaps Texas or Louisiana in that worn-out Hudson.

At the time, they didn’t look for the red, white and blue shield of Interstate 8. The signpost up ahead was for U.S. 80, and in San Diego, that meant El Cajon Boulevard.

US 80 shieldThe original El Cajon Avenue dates to the horse and buggy days… it was used as a wagon road before the advent of the automobile. Drivers were heading to El Cajon and points east.

Over the years, the road was improved, culminating in the 1937-vintage artery we see today, its opening celebrated in that Depression year with a parade of 80 floats and speeches by dignitaries including Gov. Frank Merriman. The events are recounted from Donald Covington’s book, “Once Upon a Time in North Park” on the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District’s web site.

The district, which runs from Park Boulevard to 54th Street, has posted a 2003 historic survey, which includes a map, photos and details of the buildings you’ll see along the way. The Web site also includes passages from Casey Cooper’s online history, where he says the thoroughfare was the Bob Seger’s inspiration for his song, “Main Street.” And while I wasn’t feeling lonely and beat, I did decide to take a cruise on the Mid-City’s main street. It brings back a lot of personal memories, as we used to live in the area and El Cajon Boulevard was one of our “main drags.”

West end of the boulevard.

Unique neighborhoods surround the major intersections… North Park at 30th Street, City Heights at Fairmount, College Area at College Avenue, the La Mesa line at 70th Street, and downtown La Mesa at La Mesa Boulevard.

The report notes that the boulevard includes some excellent examples of 20th century architecture, including Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, Art Deco and Streamline Modern. The driving experience goes back more than a half-century… cruising through life at 35 miles per hour, with plenty of stop lights.

It’s only eight miles from Park Boulevard to Baltimore Drive, but during that time you’ll see a lot of San Diego’s past, plus the diversity of its present and future. If you’re headed somewhere east for the day, or just want a leisurely trip, El Cajon Boulevard is the route to take.

Classic Rudford’s Diner near 30th Street.

For example, try breakfast at Rudfords, a classic American diner near 30th Street. Then, cruise on up to the San Diego Collection past 70th Street to check out the classic car collection. Lunch can be at the nearby Leonardo’s for Italian food (now closed), or double back to the collection of Asian restaurants around Euclid Avenue, or back down to the Chicken Pie Shop at Idaho Street.

Your drive starts off with two classic buildings at the corner of Park and El Cajon boulevards. A Piggly Wiggly store was once was anchor tenant on the southeast corner, “A-rated” by the 2003 survey. I just wish the Piggly Wiggly was still there. Next door is Jim Cooley’s museum, one of the best car collections open to the public.

The Tower Chrysler-Plymouth dealership was on the northeast corner. Still a car lot today (Lusti Motors), it was the first of many of San Diego’s finest dealers that once were along the boulevard. Note the Chrysler blue trim that remains on the building.

Lafayette Hotel has old Hollywood ties.

Between here and Interstate 805 are a number of old, if not historic, bits of San Diego’s past. Here are just a few noted in the 2003 survey.

  • Imig Manor/Lafayette Hotel, 2223 El Cajon Blvd. Looking like something out of the ante-bellum South, the hotel was built by developer Larry Imig and promoted as a resort. It was the site of the first NAACP meeting in San Diego. Today, it’s been redeveloped, although much of the original building remains, including the Red Fox Inn.
  • Water tower at Idaho Street: A neighborhood landmark. On one side is the Chicken Pie Shop (grab one to go if you can’t dine in). On the east side, where Wendy’s is now located, was Hine Pontiac until it moved to Mission Valley in the 1960s. My folks shopped there in 1963, but ended up buying the Catalina at Kasey Pontiac, 16th and Broadway downtown. Across the street, where the Coco’s Restaurant and fast food outlets are today, were once the home of College Rambler, Padre Dodge and other dealerships.
  • 2900 block. The San Diego classic diner, Rudfords, is on the north side of the street. It’s sign used to say, “Always Open, Always Good,” and it still is. The block around it, which once included Gustafson’s Furniture and the Aztec Bowl, is being redeveloped into a mixed-used development. The facade of Gustafson’s will be recreated as part of the project. The Gustafson family lives on — one of the decedents runs a carpet cleaning business. Across the street are several Art Deco buildings with many original features.

At 40th Street and Interstate 15 are some symbols of the City Heights revitalization. On the bridge over I-15 is the still-under-construction transit center, with its large metal sculpture arcing over the boulevard. Just past is Pearson Ford’s (now closed) annex and fuel stop, which not only has gasoline but several kinds of diesel and other alternative fuels.

Motels were the way to stay back in the day.

A couple of blocks east was Guarantee Chevrolet, where I bought my first car in 1978 (a used 1974 Opel Manta). The lighted marquee was visible from all over, with the letters “CHEVROLET” spelled out; it’s now a shoe warehouse store. Look for the second-floor display window; did they actually put a car up there or was it just a big photo?

The remnants of the old auto row blend into what was once one of the city’s premier furniture shopping districts just before you reach Pearson Ford’s main location at 43rd Street. Lloyd’s Furniture occupied two large buildings between Van Dyke Street and Fairmont Avenue, both remain, one as SDSU’s Dede Alpert Center for Community Engagement.

Pearson is the last of what were perhaps a dozen new-car dealers along the boulevard… it does, as the jingle says, “stand alone.” (Update: Pearson is gone.)

Passing Hoover High, you’ll enter an area now dominated by residents of Southeast Asian descent; some are Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodians who came to San Diego following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Restaurants, groceries, shops and other businesses are centered around the Asia Business Center, at 47th Street.

El Cajon Boulevard then heads up the hill towards the College Heights area and College Avenue. This area was dominated by small shops and motels in the U.S. 80 days; a few remain today with worn out neon signs and peeling paint.

The end of this stretch of El Cajon Boulevard comes at its replacement, Interstate 8. If you’re headed east, keep on going as the boulevard just goes straight. If you’re headed west on Interstate 8, make a left at Baltimore Drive.

Of the many San Diego highways with parts frozen in time, El Cajon Boulevard is one of the best. From the Piggly-Wiggly to Rudfords to the Auto Collection, visiting this artery is a great way to spend a San Diego day trip.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 8 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy.

Directions

  • SR-163 to Washington Street East
  • Continue north to Normal Street
  • Right at El Cajon Boulevard.
  • At Baltimore Drive, turn left to take Interstate 8 west, continue to take Interstate 8 east.

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