Mid-City Ramble: Euclid and Adams Avenues Drive Through City’s Spine

Euclid Avenue is one of the city’s oldest and longest thoroughfares, running from National City to the rim of Mission Valley. It twists and dips through some still open canyons and unique neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods contain some great history, revitalized business districts and unique places to eat.

Our San Diego day trip takes Euclid from Imperial Avenue, in the Valencia Park neighborhood, to near its end in Talmadge. Then we’ll twist around to Kensington and head over Adams Avenue, another of San Diego’s great boulevards, to University Heights.

A big city is made up of many small villages, and this drive will take you through some called Valencia Park, Webster, City Heights, Talmadge, Kensington, Normal Heights and University Heights. The sites aren’t always pretty, but it does provide a great slice of our big city.

And, if you’re looking for diversity, here’s where to find it, with neighborhoods full of African Americans, Latinos, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and just about every other ethnic group you can imagine.

Market Creek Plaza amphitheater
Amphitheater at Market Creek Plaza.

Our drives usually include a stop at a restaurant and on my trip, it was my first destination… the legendary Huffman’s Barbecue at 5039 Imperial Avenue. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2012, but here’s a little bit on the restaurant that I wrote when this story was published in 2005.

Family owned and operated since 1967, the menu includes barbecue favorites as well as soul food, including gumbo, gizzards and chitterlings. It’s open for lunch and dinner.

There are many other restaurants in this area serving soul food, as well as Mexican and Asian specialties, so be sure to bring your appetite. Mine was filled by Huffman’s hot link sandwich and a side of red beans and rice.

Imperial Avenue meets Euclid at the top of a hill, which gives drivers a great view north to mountains and south to the San Diego Bay on clear days.

This is the heart of San Diego’s African American community. The annual Heritage Day Parade runs along this portion of Euclid; it’s held annually.

There’s a lot happening around the intersection of Market Street and Euclid Avenue, the next big cross street on our route. As drivers head north on Euclid, they see the bustling Market Creek Plaza on the left. The $23.5 million development brought a Food4Less market, specialty shops and restaurants to an abandoned factory site.

A real treat is to visit the amphitheater and bridge over Chollas Creek, which provides a pastoral oasis in the middle of the city. A couple of the restaurants in the center offer creek-side dining.

After passing the tracks of the San Diego Trolley and Market Street, look east to the Malcolm X. Library and Performing Arts Center (5148 Market St., 619-527-3405). This architecturally unique facility opened in 1996 and has helped revitalize the area.

Heading up the hill to the interchange with state Route 94, drivers see the haphazard development pattern of this area, which was one of San Diego’s first suburbs. Tract homes, many built in the 1940s and 50s, sit on the hilltops, but there are still many open areas.

And while new urban developments talk about mixed use being small shops and cafes clustered with condos, this area still mixes in auto repair shops and other non-compatible businesses, as it was done in the “good old days.”

Another busy intersection is at Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue. It’s hard to imagine today, but before SR-94 opened in the late 1950s, this was the main highway from downtown to Lemon Grove and El Cajon.

When I was a kid, we’d shop in this area, which had a Fedco department store, as well as several markets, including a Safeway and DeFalco’s (there’s a name that only old-time San Diegans will remember). This area has also been revitalized, with much local effort through the Diamond Business Improvement District, local residents and the city of San Diego.

From here, stay on Euclid Avenue as as 54th Street veers to the right. Euclid then curves down into the Chollas Creek canyon. The city has planned hiking trails for this area and hopes to restore the watershed, which runs to San Diego Bay. If you’d like to take a look, detour at Chollas Drive to Quince Street, where there is creek access.

And, to give you an idea of how rural this area once was, until the early 1960s, a dairy was located just south of where Euclid crosses the creek.

Euclid dips and twists as it crosses the creek, heading past Ridge View Drive and Altadena Avenue before dropping down again and meeting up with Home Avenue. At the turn, look for City Farmers Nursery, 4832 Home Avenue, (619-284-6358).

Euclid next goes up the hill to the City Heights neighborhood and some urban archaeology where it meets University Avenue. Don’t miss the Egyptian Garage (Big City Liquor, since 1957) on the southeast corner. It was built in the 1920s, around the time that the opening of King Tut’s tomb started a craze for all-things Egyptian.

Just a bit east on University at Reno Drive is The Tower, a one-time soda fountain topped by a 110-foot art deco-style tower (www.thetowerbar.com). San Diego’s original streetcar line ended here.

Historic Normal Heights street sign.
Historic sign marks Normal Heights. Sign was originally installed by streetcar company.

The Tower was built in 1932, a 110-foot monument marking the east end of the University Avenue streetcar line. By 1999, the tower was as tipsy as some of its patrons and was lobotomized. A decade later, the City of San Diego found some money and replaced the hat, restoring the landmark to its original glory, although a bit more colorful this time.

On the northeast corner is the old Silverado Ballroom, where East San Diegans used to dance to big band tunes.

The buildings show a fascinating mix of cultures, with signs in English, Spanish and a variety of Asian languages and alphabets. Both University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard have many unique shops and places to eat; if you have time, take a detour.

North of El Cajon Boulevard is the Talmadge neighborhood, one of two developments dating to the 1920s on our route. Named for the Talmadge sisters, who were big in the silent movie days, this area and Kensington, just to the west, were built in the early days of the automobile.

We’ll dip down to Aldene Drive, through the canyon and under Fairmount Avenue, then up the hill to Van Dyke Street and the western portion of Adams Avenue.

Egyptian Garage
Egyptian Garage has been Big City Liquor for decades. This photo is from 2005; note the tower-less Tower bar across the street. The spire has since been replaced.

Kensington is one of San Diego’s favorite neighborhoods, with its old overhead sign (the original was built by the streetcar company), coffee houses, cafes and the Ken Theater. Cross Interstate 15 and you’re in Normal Heights; west of I-805 is University Heights.

There are spectacular views of Mission Valley and unique homes to check out on the streets north of Adams Avenue, so make a right turn at your convenience.

Don’t miss Trolley Barn Park in University Heights. On the site of the old San Diego Electric Railway streetcar facility, the park offers a great vista of Mission Valley from its north edge. Trolley-themed playground equipment, checkerboard tables and sidewalks in a grid pattern, replicating the area’s streets, compliment the expansive lawn.

Where Adams and Park Boulevard meet was once Mission Cliff Gardens, which is commemorated by all the ostrich symbols in the area. The gardens, according to the San Diego Historical Society, were developed by the streetcar company and operated from 1891 to 1942. They’re long gone except for the street name, Mission Cliff Drive, and the decorative posts at the north end of Park Boulevard.

Another revitalized neighborhood is University Heights, where at Mission Avenue and Park Boulevard are a charming collection of restaurants, coffee houses and even a massage-supply store. Stop under the big sign if you have time.

Where El Cajon Boulevard, Normal Street and Park Boulevard meet are some historic buildings and a hidden, private auto museum. At the east end of the intersection is the 1910-vintage Teacher Training Annex, a remnant from when this was the location of the San Diego State Normal School, predecessor to San Diego State University. The university moved to Montezuma Mesa in 1931.

The building is now part of the San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters complex. Its main building, just south, is one of the best examples in San Diego of mid-century modern architecture, largely untouched since it opened in 1952.

Across two streets, at 4233 Park Blvd., is the J.A. Cooley Auto Museum. It’s the private collection of Jim Cooley, who will probably be there, who says he has one of the largest collections of one-cylinder cars in the world. I’m not going to dispute him, as the cars are wonderful pieces of century-old history. There are about 18 cars on display, plus assorted photos of the neighborhood dating back decades, Army and Navy recruiting posters, antique toys and more. It’s well worth a visit.

From here, take Park Boulevard to Balboa Park, or cut over Normal Street and Washington Street to SR-163. Or head back up El Cajon Boulevard or University Avenue to explore more of San Diego’s Mid-City. You won’t believe what’s here. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 13 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy for those used to city traffic.

Directions

  • Interstate 805 to Imperial Avenue exit.
  • East on Imperial Avenue.
  • Left at Euclid Avenue. Follow Euclid north at 54th Street and Home Avenue.
  • Left at Monroe Avenue. Continue onto Aldene Drive and Van Dyke Avenue.
  • Right at Adams Avenue.
  • Left at Park Boulevard.
  • Right at Normal Street.
  • Right at Washington Street to SR-163.
  • From January 2005; updated July 2012

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