Fabulous Hillcrest

Posted: August 4th, 2017 | Back Out With Benny, Columns, Featured | 1 Comment

By Ben Cartwright | Back Out With Benny

The day after San Diego Pride, dozens of volunteers took to the streets of Hillcrest to assist the Hillcrest Town Council in its annual Post-Pride Neighborhood Cleanup.

While several of the volunteers were physically Hillcrest residents, a great many of them did not live in the neighborhood. So why would so many people come out to lend a hand in a neighborhood they don’t live in?

CityFest celebrates the Hillcrest sign (Courtesy Hillcrest Business Association)

Because Hillcrest is special.

Hillcrest, historically considered San Diego’s “gayborhood,” is a place that many consider to be their neighborhood, even if they don’t live there. It is a special place that is, in general, welcoming to everyone. Sure, it’s not perfect. Sure, there are some marginalized members of our community that we could do better in providing a more safe environment for, but in general, Hillcrest is for everyone. 

I’ve only lived in the physical boundaries of the neighborhood for just one year of my life (I live in University Heights, just across the pedestrian bridge), but have considered it “my neighborhood” for over 20 years now, and have had a connection to the place since the day I was born 37-years ago. I’m of those lucky “rare” San Diego natives, born at what is now called the UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest (in 1980, it was referred to as “University Hospital”). 

From about the time I was 8 years old, my single mother had an office in Hillcrest on Fourth Avenue, and because there was no one to watch me after school, I would ride the city bus from the Allied Gardens neighborhood (just east of Mission Valley) to Hillcrest and spend the afternoons at my mom’s office until she was off work. Her office mates would often send me on snack runs, and they particularly enjoyed getting afternoon bagels from what was then called “Baltimore Bagel” (now Einstein Brothers). In those years, I had no idea that decades later, I’d be regularly hanging out at many of the places that I was passing by. 

When I was 15, and came to the realization that I was gay, I decided to ride my bike the seven miles to Hillcrest so I could just be there around others like me. Hillcrest is that place for so many who are just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity where they can come and feel like they’re not “the only one.” Even San Diego, outside of the progressive confines of the central core, many LGBTQ people still struggle with finding acceptance. Hillcrest is that place people know they can turn to and see others like themselves and find resources and friends. 

I got my driver’s license on my 16th birthday and the very first place I drove on my own was … well … Carl’s Jr. because I was really hungry after being at the DMV for three hours. But then, I drove straight to Hillcrest and circled the main University Avenue strip for hours. I had no idea where many of the places, bars, coffee shops and stores were, but just being in the car, looking around and seeing all these seemingly happy gay people was incredible. I was no longer alone, and I was no longer “the only one.” 

The San Diego LGBT Community Center (then called “The Lesbian and Gay Men’s Community Center”) was located a block from its current location back then, on Normal Street, and I found out through an ad in the former Gay & Lesbian Times that a youth group called the Gay Youth Alliance met every Friday at 7:30 p.m. at The Center. While 16-year-old me was super shy and would never have set foot in a support group meeting because of that reason, it was such a comfort to be able to drive by around 7:15 p.m. every Friday to see all of the youth pour into the building for the meeting. 

I knew I definitely wasn’t alone because not only would I see all of the adult LGBTQ people roaming the streets of Hillcrest, I could see other teenagers, like me, being out and open. I’d circle around Hillcrest for another hour and a half knowing that the meeting ended at 9 p.m., and would loop back by The Center around that time to see the youth come out.  

Social as I am today, thinking of that experience as “exciting” sounds crazy, but at the time and space I was in, it was thrilling. I’m sure there are thousands of other people who have similar Hillcrest stories, since this place has been a refuge for members of the LGBTQ community for decades. 

“Gayborhoods” across the country are going through a change. I read articles all the time about places like The Castro in San Francisco or West Hollywood in Los Angeles that report about how more straight people are moving into the gayborhoods, leading to higher rents and driving out the LGBTQ people and establishments. While I’m sure this is true to a degree in many places and has happened somewhat in Hillcrest, I am proud that we as a community have held on dearly to our beloved neighborhood. In 2012, the Hillcrest Business Association even erected a 65-foot flag pole that proudly flies the rainbow flag most days of the year (it’s changed out to the U.S. flag on national holidays, and occasionally flies the transgender or leather flags to celebrate those communities).  

Like any urban neighborhood, Hillcrest has its problems. Changing demographics and interests have made some of the neighborhood’s longtime retail establishments disappear. There are several storefront vacancies. As the city of San Diego experiences one of the worst homelessness crises in the country, Hillcrest has been highly impacted. The roads are a mess, the neighborhood lacks a single park, pool, senior center or other public amenity, and rents for both housing and commercial space are outrageous. But the neighborhood carries on because of that special place it holds in the hearts of so many people. 

I get frustrated when I hear people say “Hillcrest is dead” (and usually reference other urban neighborhoods that have seen a more recent resurgence such as North Park or Little Italy). Go out in Hillcrest any night of the week and many of our bars, cafes and restaurants are thriving. They may not be as “hip” and “cool” as the latest trendy craft beer and hipster doughnut joint in North Park, but no other neighborhood could be home to such fabulously fun places like we have in Hillcrest such as Urban MO’s, Babycakes, Rich’s and so many more. 

Our LGBT Center, located in Hillcrest, is the third largest in the nation and is also thriving. The neighborhood plays host to countless special events including the weekly Sunday Farmers Market, dozens of marathons and walks, and the annual San Diego LGBT Pride Parade — the region’s largest single-day civic event. 

Hillcrest is full of passionate, giving people who regularly come together to support each other and those in need and I can’t think of many other places with a such a special group of people. So whether or not you physically live in Hillcrest, this neighborhood is yours if you want it to be. Everyone is welcome here! 

Take a moment to reflect on why Hillcrest is so special to you. Heck, feel free to post it in the comments section below — I’d love to read your thoughts.

Getting Out With Benny 

Speaking of Hillcrest, if you love the neighborhood, or want to get involved, the next meeting of the Hillcrest Town Council is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 8 from 6:30–8 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center in The HUB shopping center. This month’s topic is “Beautifying Hillcrest” so if you have ideas to make the neighborhood prettier, come ready to share them! More info is here 

Hillcrest’s biggest “Sunday Funday” of the year — CityFest — is fast approaching on Sunday, Aug. 13 from noon–11 p.m. The daylong street festival includes over 200 vendors, beer gardens, entertainment and dancing all night long under the iconic Hillcrest sign. Over 150,000 people attend this celebration of Hillcrest each year. There is no fee to attend. Visit

Benny Cartwright (Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

The third annual Casino Night is a fun-filled evening of mock gaming with food, drink (including a bourbon bar!), music, and amazing prizes. This event, held at a gorgeous private home in Rancho Santa Fe, has become a “must” on the social calendar of many. All proceeds benefit the programs of The San Diego LGBT Community Center. More info and tickets can be found online at 

—Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or Note: Byline photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography.

One Comments

  1. brian casey says:

    Well said! BTW, the Hillcrest Farmer’s market is the largest one in San Diego!

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