The History of Hillcrest

Located in the heart of San Diego, a few minutes north of downtown, minutes east of Point Loma, minutes south of Mission Valley, and a hop, skip, and a jump to the west of North Park, lies Hillcrest, a fulcrum of eclectic bars, international restaurants, trendy thrift-stores, cute coffee houses, and independent boutiques, pedestrian-friendly streets, and recognized around the world as the hub of San Diego’s LGBTQ community. Visit some of our favorite Hillcrest hotspots on a San Diego tour or keep reading to learn more about the history of this incredible San Diego neighborhood. 

The Early Days of Hillcrest

Photo Credit: San Diego Reader

Hillcrest was initially a chaparral-covered mesa, and was inhabited, like a lot of San Diego, by the Kumeyaay Indians. In 1870, Mary Kearney obtained a deed from the city for the land that eventually became known as Hillcrest. George Hill, a wealthy railroad tycoon purchased the land and began developing the area in 1910, and Hillcrest became one of many San Diego neighborhoods connected by the San Diego Class 1 streetcars and an extensive San Diego public transit system. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, Hillcrest was considered a suburban shopping area for downtown San Diego. In 1940, while the rest of the world was at war (the US did not enter World War II until 1941), the famous “HILLCREST” lighted sign was erected at the University and Fifth Avenue Intersection.

The Emergence of the LGBTQ Community

Photo Credit: KPBS

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hillcrest transformed from a postwar, near-wasteland of single family homes, to a safe haven for gay and lesbian San Diegans escaping hostility in other neighborhoods. Being “out of the way” of other popular San Diego neighborhoods, allowed for affordable rent-space, and very unique social scene. 

According to SOMEONE Michael Dillinger, there’s a surprisingly simple reason why gays and lesbians first colonized Hillcrest. “One of the main reasons for the scarcity of pedestrian and street traffic in Hillcrest as compared to downtown, was the fact that such a high percentage of the population was so elderly. This reduced street activity meant less opportunity for anti-gay confrontations. Avoiding physical clashes with those outside of the gay community was important to the fledgling gay movement.”

Since World War II, over 135 gay bars have opened and operated in San Diego, offering not only a place that has built lasting friendships and fostered activism, but a safe haven for LBGTQ people who have been on the receiving end of bigotry and hate, even in the historically-tolerant state of California.

The birth of the modern gay rights movement in 1969 resulted in a new era in Hillcrest history. During the 1970s, gays and lesbians began to establish residences, businesses, and organizations in this location. In 1974, 200 LGBTQ people and their allies marched through the streets of downtown for the first time to protest San Diego’s refusal of a parade permit, and in 1975, the first city-permitted Gay Pride Parade was held.

The 80s, which begat the HiV and AIDS epidemic, was a Renaissance for the city. The LGBT Community Center, generally known today as “the Center” moved its facility to Hillcrest, the Hillcrest Business Association was formed, the HBA hosted the first CityFest, and the Hillcrest lighted sign, as it stands today, was reconstructed.

Hillcrest Today

Photo Credit: TripSavvy

Business, Culture & Demographics

Today, Hillcrest is known for its tolerant, diverse, and locally-owned businesses, including two major hospitals, and many eclectic cafes, bars, spas, boutiques, largely gay and lesbian-owned. It has a high population density compared to many other neighborhoods in San Diego, and the housing options include older homes mixed with newer, upscale apartments and condominiums.

Food, Drink & Nightlife

The neighborhood has blossomed into a hip community, which includes its unique dining experience. Hillcrest is home to over 200 restaurants, and has something for everyone. You can get a hearty brunch at Snooze: An A.M Eatery,  feast on delicious mexican food from Baja Bettys, sip on craft beer and cocktails from Urban Mo’s, or indulge in decadent sweets from Chocolat Hillcrest.

The Hillcrest Nightlife is also alive and hoppin’, and has the reputation of having the most unique bars and clubs in San Diego. You can watch artists perform at the intimate, Martini’s Above Fourth, the Divas San Diego drag show at Rich’s Nightclub, watch a sports game at Flick’s Sport & Video Bar, or catch the best bands and DJs at The Merrow

Attractions & Events

Hillcrest loves to party, and the local events include the annual Hillcrest Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday, a huge block party called Hop in the ‘Hood, which includes the Flower Power Parade, Taste of Hillcrest, CityFest Street Fair and Music Festival, Nightmare on Normal, Hillcrest for the Holidays, and Taste ‘n’ Tinis— a journey through international dishes and libations, all while getting your holiday shopping done! 

The neighborhood also hosts the Hillcrest Classic Car Show every month, and the Hillcrest Farmers Market every week (Sundays from 9-2), both on Normal Street.

SD Pride Parade & Festival

The most famous Hillcrest event by far, is the San Diego Pride Parade and Festival. Attracting over 250,000 people to its location, this annual festival is the largest single-day civic event in the region, and is among the largest Pride Festivals in the United States. The fest includes a colorful 1.5 mile float parade that starts at the Hillcrest Pride Flag at University Avenue and Normal Street, and marches down University Avenue, 6th Avenue, and Balboa Drive, ending at Quince Street and Balboa Park.

The Future of Hillcrest

Photo Credit: San Diego Uptown News

According to Uptown News, Hillcrest will be changed dramatically over the next twenty years. During many years of debate, some residents advocated for taller buildings to be built, multiple modes of transportation, and a more modern-like city hub, while other residents would like to keep the status-quo to preserve their traditional culture, and protect the community from further gentrification. Whichever direction Hillcrest decides to go, there will be dramatic differences from the way it is today.

According to Uptown’s recently approved Community Plan Update (CPU):

  • By 2020 — Streetcar service is planned along Park Boulevard and University, Fourth and Fifth avenues, serving Balboa Park, Hillcrest, Park West and Bankers Hill, connecting Uptown to Downtown. 
  • By 2035 — San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is expected to have completed the construction of the Mid-City Trolley Extension from City College to San Diego State University, via Park and El Cajon boulevards.
  • By 2035 — San Diego’s Climate Action Plan vows to have eliminated half of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and the city will be generating all of its electricity by renewable sources.

According to San Diego Councilmember Chris Ward:

  • Hillcrest should expect vibrant corridors with better infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, transit, and public facilities to accommodate moderated growth and active streetscapes supporting local shopping, dining and recreating interests.
  • Hillcrest will have the opportunity to celebrate both it’s past and future by protecting historic structures that help make its communities so unique, and be a showcase of what careful density, combined with improved transit, green infrastructure, and strategically managed parking can do.
  • Diverse neighbors can mix together and support each other, and no person living on the Hillcrest streets would be left without shelter or the health and support services they need.

According to Park West resident, architect, and planner James Frost:

  • By 2037 — Low/medium-rise buildings, increased density and smart growth principles will result in a vibrant, focused, and viable civic and commercial center. The tree-lined Normal Street Promenade will be the heart of New Hillcrest.
  • A new regional transit center, next to Route 163, will link Hillcrest to Downtown and points beyond.
  • A concentrated development, with a range of housing options in the western portion of Hillcrest will provide the population necessary to support a 24/7 level of activity.
  • The outdated concepts of car-centric, random strip development, will have been replaced by a community that prioritizes people, walkable public places, and vibrant commercial activities, all linked to the Historic Hillcrest neighborhood character.

The future of Hillcrest, much like its past, will be vibrant and exciting for both the residents living there and any visitors that it attracts. The neighborhood has been a pioneer of much of San Diego’s culture for 60 years, and we, for one, are excited to see what will happen next! 

Book a tour today!