An art colony in Azalea Park

Artist Vicki Leon in her Poplar Street studio is confident Azalea Park will blossom into a thriving arts colony.

Artist Vicki Leon in her Poplar Street studio is confident Azalea Park will blossom into a thriving arts colony.

Take a stroll with Vicki Leon down Poplar Street through the heart of Azalea Park and you might notice her gaze isn’t distracted by the chain link fences and dirt lots, or even the occasional souped-up pickup roaring down the thoroughfare. Her sight is focused instead on the murals that brighten up alleys and corner markets, the handcrafted street signs that dot the landscape, and the trash cans and bus benches that could become a canvas for mosaics.

She sees the future of what is now a fledgling Azalea Park Arts District.

“I see this neighborhood becoming a vibrant arts community,” said Leon, a longtime area resident who moved her gallery, Vicki Leon Glass Design, from Golden Hill to a former wet-suit repair shop in Azalea Park almost three years ago.

“I think it has really good potential,” said Jason Feather, who moved his artist-run, apparel-design business – “aka” – from North Park to a studio next door to Vicki Leon Glass Design about the same time Leon opened up shop here.

Theirs is not a pipe dream. Azalea Park has long offered an oasis for artists in City Heights, and the San Diego Foundation recently awarded the community a $5,000 Great Neighborhood Challenge Grant aimed at involving residents in crafting numerous public mosaics, two landscaped parkways, a mural, and a pocket park.

The city, meanwhile, is funding an artistic Azalea Park welcome sign that will soon spring from the median across from Leon’s studio. And just a few blocks away, several hundred volunteers from throughout City Heights recently transformed what was little more than a neglected patch of dirt at the mouth of Manzanita Canyon into a neighborhood refuge awash in art and complete with a canopy held aloft by four mosaic columns.

“The reality is that the Azalea Park Arts District (APAD) is perfectly situated within the city of San Diego,” Ricardo Moran, president of the Azalea Park Neighborhood Association, wrote in a recent issue of the neighborhood newsletter, The Parkster. “It has easy access to the freeways. It is less than ten minutes to downtown and the beach. It has many natural resources unavailable in other neighborhoods, such as canyons in an area otherwise deficient of park space.”

Poplar Street, Moran wrote, is zoned for commercial and residential uses, making it a thoroughfare “that could be filled with galleries, artist spaces, dance studios, theatre groups, coffee shops, and restaurants. It could be a sister neighborhood to South Park just west of the 805 freeway.”

Moran envisions Poplar Street as City Heights’ version of 30th Street in Golden Hill a few miles to the west. Only better.

But of all the neighborhoods in all the communities in all the towns of San Diego County, why Azalea Park?

The answer goes back a generation, when Azalea Park was mostly known as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes and decorated with graffiti. Despite police efforts to combat crime, residents knew more had to be done. A handful decided to march in the Pride Parade with banners promoting Azalea Park as gay friendly and affordable. They saw how the gay community had transformed Hillcrest, and wanted the same to happen in their neighborhood. The effort attracted national attention, and today, members of the LGBT community occupy about 15 percent of Azalea Park homes.

A look at Moran’s home validates the strategy. He and his husband, landscape designer Jim Martin, have turned the corner house they bought more than three years ago into a showcase with an impressive yard dominated by drought-tolerant landscaping and accented with a rainbow flag.

Dennis Wood, who has been active in City Heights affairs since he and his husband moved to the area a decade ago, said he has seen a noticeable change in Azalea Park over the years.

“In the time that we’ve been here, we’ve definitely seen Azalea Park become more of a magnet for art and artists,” said Wood, who lives across Manzanita Canyon from the neighborhood.

Azalea Park, one of 16 neighborhoods that make up City Heights, has a number of factors working in its favor. “Azalea Park has a very high level of neighbor participation,” Leon said. And it has embarked on arts projects in the past. Most of its streets – named for trees and plants – are decorated with handcrafted signs that depict the street’s namesake.

Challenges remain. Feather, for example, is moving his apparel-design business back to North Park. But Leon, Moran and others are confident additional artists will move in and more than fill the void.

“San Diego has been looking for a new home for artists,” Feather said. “Why not here?”