Home > Bonnie Dumanis, Books, Donald H. Harrison, Visual Arts > San Diego County historic places: La Mesa’s Walkway of the Stars

San Diego County historic places: La Mesa’s Walkway of the Stars

Entrance to La Mesa's Walkway of the STars

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

LA MESA, California—Between La Mesa Boulevard in the heart of this city’s business district and the Allison Avenue Municipal Parking Lot which serves as a venue for Farmers Markets held on Friday afternoons is an innovative walkway in which murals celebrate volunteerism and stars on the sidewalk honor local volunteers. This small urban mini-park is called The Walkway of the Stars.

To make the large parking lot more accessible to the front of the stores on La Mesa Boulevard, the City of La Mesa decided to purchase an old dry cleaning establishment, demolish everything in it except its steel roof beams, and turn it into a walkway. Murals were painted on the sides of the buildings adjoining the walkway, creating a bright, festive portal to the municipal spirit La Mesa’s leadership would like to inspire.

A wall with the calligraphy of V. Bendik explains: “This pedestrian walkway has been transformed into a landmark initiative known as the Walkway of the Stars. The vibrant urban park was conceived and promoted by Councilwoman Ruth Sterling and approved by the City Council in 2002.

“The concept of the part is to honor La Mesa volunteers who accumulated 10,000 hours or more of volunteer service. These unique people are recognized for their extraordinary achievement by having their names engraved on an individual decorative stone star and placed in the walkway. A corresponding plaque of achievement is permanently displayed at City Hall in appreciation of the accumulated hours of community service amassed by these dedicated volunteers who make La Mesa a better place to live.

“The walls of the park feature murals depicting people in action as community volunteers. The people helping people theme is carried out by the portrayal of some of La Mesa’s greatest volunteer efforts. Keeping with the theme of volunteerism, the artists have pictorially honored La Mesa’s tradition by generously contributing their time and talent to illustrate this spirit of community service. We hope you will enjoy La Mesa’s walkway of the stars.”

One of the murals shows teenage volunteers painting over graffiti – an activity that normally occurs in other parts of the city. But every so often, said Don Feist , a retiree who likes to sit on a bench and watch his neighbors go by, the murals themselves are subjected to graffiti and have to be painted over.

He said such activity seems to occur more often in the summer months.

Another mural shows “Canine Corners,” an area where owners may unleash their dogs within the 53-acre Harry Griffen Park at 9550 Milden Street. The models for the mural were actual La Mesans and their family dogs. Artists Katy Strzelecki and Jane LaValle had a little fun with this mural: There’s a cat stretched out languorously above a community bulletin board—obviously not intimidated in the least by all those dogs. Additionally within the mural there is a bit of trompe l’oeil {fool-the-eye}: a utility box with a dog painted on it is distinguishable from the “real dogs” in the mural, only by close examination.

LaValle and Strzelecki also painted a scene of La Mesa’s annual Flag Day Parade, with horses, clowns and a Scottish-style young-women’s honor guard juxtaposed against a large American flag. Look under the bench in the foreground; the painting was done in such a manner that it appears a youngster is crannying there.

Other murals depict municipal buildings, Little League coaching, volunteer swim teachers at La Mesa Municipal Pool, and the retired senior volunteer patrol in which senior citizens do some patrolling and non-confrontational police work in the city.

Alice Larson was the first volunteer to be acknowledged with a star. According to the 2010 City of La Mesa’s website, she had “contributed over 13,000 hours of volunteer service to the City. Her spirit of ‘giving back’ to her community signifies what this walkway is about. In fact, Alice is still giving to the City by working at City Council meetings.”

The second ceremony honored two volunteers who worked with the police, Anthony Guggenheimer, who logged over 10,000 hours in the RSVP program, and Timothy S. Tarbuk, with over 12,500 hours in the Police Reserves.

There have been surprises along the Walkway of the Stars, Feist said. He was sitting on one on the benches on January 23, 2004 when a man ran past him, followed somewhat later by two law enforcement officers. They turned the corner into the parking lot and then there were the sounds of shots. Later identified as Jesus Melendrez, 22, the man had been chased to La Mesa in a car from Spring Valley, then abandoned the car, and ran through the passageway to the parking lot where he tried to hijack another car from a woman with a baby. The rightful owner and child got out and when the law enforcement officials surrounded the car, Melendrez refused to get out, instead pointing a gun at them. Officers fired, killing the man, in what District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis later ruled was a justifiable homicide.

Feist said he hasn’t seen such excitement since.

The pensioner sadly pointed to a sign on the wall forbidding the feeding of pigeons that occasionally come to visit, saying “They put that up there because of me.” Feist said he likes to carry birdseed in his pocket, and noted that back in the years when it was still easy for him to get to downtown San Diego, he used to be something of a sightseeing attraction himself with all the birds he cared for near Seaport Village.

 O’Dunn Fine Art Gallery previously was next door to the walkway, but recently moved to larger quarters across the street. meaning that there is art on both sides of the wall that divides them – temporarily at least. Shannon O’Dunn, formerly dean of communications and fine arts at Grossmont Community College, says she plans to move the gallery across La Mesa Boulevard to a larger space.

The gallery specializes in the works of early California artists, among them Langdon Smith (1870-1959); Frederick Lester Sexton (1888-1975); Joseph Meniscucci (1862-1926); Joane Cromwell (1895-1969) and Charles Ward (1850-1937). There also are such contemporary artists as Calvin Liang. Subjects of these artists have included scenes of Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, when it was just a Joshua tree and sand; Mount San Jacinto, an unnamed San Diego County river, a desert view and the La Jolla Cove.

O’Dunn, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2008, said the walkway has its advantages and drawbacks. “It’s a nice idea, and I think it is a very needed pedestrian access that they keep up pretty well,” she said.

The “downside of it, as in any public gathering place, you get all kinds of gatherings,” O’Dunn added. Once she saw police pulling cash and prescription drugs out of the bushes, where apparently some illegal pill pusher had stashed them. Additionally, “I have seen marijuana busts out there – have seen people having a little smoke.”

If one turns west from the walkway onto La Mesa Boulevard and walks toward the San Diego Trolley line on Spring Street, one will pass a star in the sidewalk near the corner of Palm. As part of another city program, “The Walk of Fame,” this star honors professional basketball star Bill Walton, who went to school in La Mesa.

Across the street at 8285 La Mesa Boulevard, one encounters the Maxwell House of Books, owned by Craig Maxwell, an unsucessful candidate for mayor in 2006.  Maxwell  suggests he must have inherited the bibliophile gene from his grandfather who founded Wahrenbrock’s in downtown San Diego, which Maxwell said was San Diego’s “biggest, oldest and best bookstore.” The grandfather sold the store in the 1960s to Chuck Valverde, but had other bookstores up and down the state.

As a result, said Maxell, “books were always my great passion and as a kid I loved going to his stores around the state, although I never worked in any of them. I worked on Adams Avenue,” where there are numerous used book stores, before starting his own company.

What so appealed to him about bookstores was “they were places where imagination could just go loose, go crazy,” Maxwell said. He relished being able to “go into a book store and see these titles up on the shelves that addressed so many topics and so many historic figures. You can open up any of them and enter a totally different world. You can lose yourself in that world.”

There’s always something for him to do if business gets slow, in other words.

He and his wife Lynn chose to locate on La Mesa Boulevard because they live in La Mesa and also because “it seemed to need a good book store.”

“What is Southern California known for?” he asked rhetorically. “Sprawl, tract home developments and very little downtown communities in Southern California. We have a uniquely traditional old town district here (that) fosters a sense of community.” Used book stores thrive best, he said, “in places that are magnets for cultural activities. I thought this was ideal; our book store completed this place.”

Maxwell House of Books has a specialization in “academic and scholarly topics,” though it has branched out from there. Having taken a degree in philosophy at the University of San Diego, Maxwell leans toward books in that field as well as in theology, biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, general science, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, political science and literary criticism.

Although Internet booksellers offer his bookstore considerable competition, in the long run there’s something even more worrying facing him and fellow booksellers.

“Young people don’t read,” he said. “The Greatest Generation (that which fought in World War II) was the last generation of real readers. The Baby Boomers still read—they have a toehold in reading—but among their kids and kids of their kids it fell off awfully fast. They don’t read unless it is assigned — it is not a pasttime.”

Continue west along La Mesa Boulevard, and there still are two more eye-catching exhibits before one reaches Spring Street. At the AT&T building there are mural-sized photographs of early telephone workers. And at the opposite corner, there is a fine clock donated to the city by the Rotary Club.

One can’t help but wonder if it tells the hour of the day, or the historic era visitors have just stepped into?

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  An earlier version of this story appeared on examiner.com

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