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GOIN' UPTOWN SAN DIEGO DISTRICT HAS OFFBEAT SHOPS, GREAT EATS, VESTIGES OF HISTORY.

Byline: Story and photos by Eric Noland Travel Editor

SAN DIEGO - The fedoras and straw boaters certainly caught my eye, but it was the snappy bowler that gave me pause. Meanwhile, my wife was tempted by the vintage formal wear, notably a poofy dress that was a steal at $42.

The store, Wear It Again Sam, is just one of dozens in Uptown San Diego, a funky enclave of shops, cafes and quaint neighborhoods.

Visitors who have already mined San Diego's traditional tourist offerings - the zoo, SeaWorld, the waterfront, the Gaslamp Quarter - might delight in detouring here next time. It's just off the northwest corner of Balboa Park, encompassing the communities of Hillcrest and Mission Hills.

This is the anti-mall, where independent shop owners don't have to conform to mass-appeal directives from corporate headquarters. Over three days in November, we poked through establishments that offered the reassuringly musty smell of antiquarian books, the rich fabrics and vivid pottery of the Provencal countryside, fragrant scents of custom-made candles and lotions, and the sartorial indulgences of a South Seas cocktail party in the '50s.

A visitor here can also delve into the genesis of San Diego's development as a city. The former home of horticulturist Kate O. Sessions, who planted Balboa Park at the turn of the 20th century, perches on a canyon rim on a remote street. Tombstones from early 1800s settlers line up at the edge of a hilltop park. Nostalgic pedestrian bridges - including a wooden trestle and a gently swaying suspension contraption - span deep ravines.

The dining is sensational, too: hearty platters at breakfast, succulent fish tacos at lunch, dinners reflecting the freshest of farmers market produce.

It's all a wonder of urban revitalization. Hillcrest, in particular, was a depressed neighborhood in the early 1980s when the renaissance began. ``It was largely owed to the gay community,'' said Patrick Johnston, co-owner of a kitschy, pop-culture store called Babette Schwartz. ``For many years, that was the driving force. It became known as a bohemian, eclectic, raffish neighborhood.''

Uptown today remains in transition - quirky shops mixed in with nondescript or rundown businesses, and hip patrons jostling on the sidewalks with unkempt street people. But the energy and creative spirit are undeniable.

``Hillcrest has always been a special place,'' said Kristine Anderson, owner of Wear It Again Sam. ``It's always been a mix of people - young, old, gay, straight, people of color, people of different economic groups.''

She lamented the rising rents that naturally occur whenever a seedy area of a city begins to gentrify, forcing out some of the mom-and-pop shops. But, Anderson noted with evident pride, no one will ever mistake this business district for Seaport Village. ``It isn't created for tourists; it evolved naturally,'' she said.

Visitors can readily roam these communities, prospecting for nuggets that can be found in any block.

Shopping, dropping

Hillcrest is considered a target-rich environment for shoppers numbed by the homogeneity of the chains, but our favorite discoveries lay slightly west, at the edge of Mission Hills.

Here we found California Fleurish (4011 Goldfinch St.), which operates its own local fragrance company for the small-scale production of its candles, soaps, lotions, colognes and other body-and-bath products. It is a store that is a delight to enter if only for the exotic scents.

A couple of blocks away, we encountered Pascal Giai, a French expatriate from Saint Roman de Malegarde whose bungalow is stocked with authentic goods from his homeland. Maison en Provence? Yes, that's an appropriate name for this shop (at 820 Fort Stockton Drive), which carries colorful pottery glazed in the distinctive colors of mustard yellow, cobalt blue and forest green; fabrics from the French countryside - tablecloths, napkins, curtains, tea towels; plus straw hand bags, lavender soap and Laguiole cutlery.

Another personal favorite in this area was Venissimo Cheese (754 W. Washington St.). This is the place to stop on your way out of town, perhaps to pick up a wedge of drunken goat from Spain or a black cheddar from Canada.

In the knot of shops in Hillcrest, meanwhile, you might be amused to walk into Off the Record (3849 Fifth Ave.) and discover that a 1974 vinyl album of country singer Dottie West is displayed directly across from a bin that holds Ugly Casanova CDs.

Flashbacks (3847 Fifth Ave.) might be the only store in the city that has a rack holding perhaps 30 feather boas, in all colors of the rainbow, while entering Wear It Again Sam (3823 Fifth Ave.) is like stepping into a closet that was sealed up in 1955 - cocktail party shirts, leopard-skin pillbox hats, spectator shoes and the aforementioned stylish bowlers.

Second-hand book stores are profligate here, too, but though we found them to be as comfortable as old slippers - with slightly sagging shelves and scuffed wooden floors - none had the dusty, overstocked, neglected feel of so many such establishments. Bibliophiles will be in danger of whiling away the entire afternoon at either Bluestocking Books (3817 Fifth Ave.) or Bountiful Books (3834 Fifth Ave.).

Babette Schwartz - ``that's my drag name,'' Johnston said by way of explanation - is a celebration of pop culture past and present (421 University Ave.), with greeting cards that playfully strain the bounds of good taste; a political correctness disclaimer has to be written on a chalkboard above their display.

Another fun stop is the Hillcrest Farmers Market, held Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot of a Department of Motor Vehicles office (corner of Normal Street and Lincoln Avenue). The array of cut flowers is astonishing, displayed alongside the requisite overpriced produce. If you skipped breakfast and arrive hungry, there is plenty of fare: crepes, pastries, tamales and espresso sold from an elaborate coffee bar built into the back of a van.

Windows on the past

It might be difficult to get a sense of Uptown's unique topography while speeding by on Interstate 5, but it's clearly evident once you're on foot in the neighborhood. This is an area of steeply rising mesas, interlaced with a half-dozen deep canyons.

When it began to emerge as one of San Diego's first suburbs, Sessions, the horticulturist, persuaded builders to maintain the natural contours of the land rather than grading to create a precise grid.

As a result, it's pleasant to walk the neighborhoods of Mission Hills and Hillcrest, following roads that curve and dip along the canyon rims and stop abruptly at ravines. Sessions' 1912 home, at Montecito Way and Lark Street in Mission Hills, perches above a quiet canyon studded with towering eucalyptus trees.

Her former neighborhood is meticulously well-kept today, with charming bungalows and Spanish Revival cottages lying on tiny lots along tree- shaded lanes.

Before leaving this area, be sure to swing through Mission Hills Pioneer Park (Washington Place at Randolph Street). It sits atop a ridge that affords an excellent view of San Diego Bay, North Island, Point Loma and the Pacific beyond, with jets landing at Lindbergh Field in the foreground.

This was once the Cavalry Cemetery, but the headstones were subsequently moved to the edge of the park so that residents could play with their dogs here (the graves remain). To read the headstone inscriptions is to trace the early history of San Diego: names like Machado, Castillo, Arguello and Chacon, before the United States wrested California from Mexico. It's recorded that one longtime resident was born on a sailing ship in 1850, en route to this port.

More recent history is contained in a row of homes at the edge of Balboa Park, along a short stub of Seventh Avenue. Among them is the 1905 Marston House, which represents a foray into the arts-and-crafts movement by legendary San Diego architect Irving Gill (in collaboration with William Hebbard). It has been gradually restored and furnished with period furniture, and is open to the public on weekends.

Other remnants of San Diego's past string across the canyons themselves. In order to give residents access to the streetcars that used to climb these hills from downtown, several pedestrian bridges were built across the canyons in the early 1900s. Some fell into disrepair and were torn down, but a couple of real gems - restored and saved from the wrecking ball - remain.

The Quince Street Bridge, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is a white wooden trestle that crosses Maple Canyon just west of Fourth Avenue. The design was popular in railroad construction in 1905, although the original builders, who spent $805 to put it up, would probably be aghast to hear that a renovation in 1990 cost $250,000.

The Spruce Street Footbridge, strung in 1912 across what is now called Kate Sessions Canyon, employs suspension construction. The result is a spongy, slightly swaying passage across its 375-foot length - making it a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. You'll find it just west of Front Street.

In the middle of the expanse, we ran into a neighborhood resident who'd brought her sister here for a giggling walk along the unsteady footing. ``She's lived in San Diego her whole life and she didn't know about this,'' the resident said.

Evidently, visitors aren't the only ones who are getting wise to the diverse charms of Uptown San Diego.

Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681

eric.noland(at)dailynews.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Uptown San Diego is just northwest of Balboa Park, in a crook formed by Interstate 8 and the 163 Freeway. Parking, particularly in the Hillcrest neighborhood, is a nightmare, because of the number of multiresidence buildings in the area. A newer mall in the neighborhood, Village Hillcrest, doesn't have much to recommend it beyond its art-house movie complex, but it does have a lot of subterranean parking. To save yourself an endless search for a parking place on a side street, you might want to leave your car in this strategically located garage for $6.50 for the day. It's at Fifth Avenue and University Avenue.

RETAIL: Babette Schwartz, 421 University Ave., (619) 220-7048, www.babette.com; Bluestocking Books, 3817 Fifth Ave., (619) 296-1424; Bountiful Books, 3834 Fifth Ave., (619) 491-0664, www.bountifulbooks.com; California Fleurish, 4011 Goldfinch St., (619) 291-4755, www.californiafleurish.com; Flashbacks, 3847 Fifth Ave., (619) 291-4200; Maison en Provence, 820 Fort Stockton Drive, (619) 298-5318; Off the Record, 3849 Fifth Ave., (619) 298-4755; Wear It Again Sam, 3823 Fifth Ave., (619) 299-0185, www.wearitagainsamvintage.com.

DINING: Crest Cafe, 425 Robinson Ave., (619) 295-2510, www.crestcafe.net; Crush, 530 University Ave., (619) 291-1717, www.crushsd.com; El Cuervo, 110 W. Washington St., (619) 295-9713, www.elcuervo.com; Hash House a Go Go, 3628 Fifth Ave., (619) 298-4646, www.hashhouseagogo.com; Region, 3671, Fifth Ave., (619) 299-6499.

ATTRACTIONS: Hillcrest Farmers Market, held Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the DMV parking lot at Normal Street and Lincoln Avenue, (619) 237-1632; Marston House, 3525 Seventh Ave. (near the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Balboa Drive), open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., (619) 298-3142, www.balboapark.org/museums.html; Mission Hills Pioneer Park, Washington Place and Randolph Street; Quince Street Bridge, between Third and Fourth avenues; Spruce Street Footbridge, between Front and Brant streets.

INFORMATION: San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau: (619) 236-1212, www.sandiego.org. A handy guidebook for exploring Uptown is ``Access: San Diego'' (HarperResource, $19.95). While in the neighborhood, also keep an eye out for a free booklet, ``Hillquest Urban Guide.''

CAPTION(S):

9 photos, box, map

Photo:

(1 -- 5 -- color) Impressions of San Diego's Uptown include such Hillcrest shops as Bluestocking Books, above left, Wear It Again Sam, left, and Flashbacks, below, as well as a quaint neighborhood street in Mission Hills, above.

(6 -- 9) The wide sidewalks along Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, top left, make for a leisurely day of window shopping; the exhaustively restored Quince Street Bridge, top right, turns 100 this year; headstones in Mission Hills Pioneer Park, above, track the history of San Diego; and the Hillcrest Farmers Market, left, is renowned for its variety of cut flowers.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)

Map:

UPTOWN SAN DIEGO

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2005
Words:2032
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