From Kensington With Love

It’s another beautiful summer afternoon in Kensington and Darlene Love is fighting off bronchitis. Yet she steps off the porch of her home with élan, accompanied by her dogs, Lou and Orson. Sick or no, Love will not be deterred from talking about and walking about her favorite neighborhood in San Diego.

“Whether a person lives here six minutes or six years, no matter how long, you feel as much a part of Kensington as anyone,” says Love with pride and… well… love. She was raised and spends her days in this little community at the southeast end of Mission Valley.

Darlene Love was born Darlene Baumann on an Autumn Wednesday in 1946, making her a founding member of the baby boomers. She was brought to her home on Adams Avenue in Kensington, a San Diego neighborhood that’s been in her blood since before that day she was born.

Her father, Thomas Baumann, was a navy man. He lived his college days with his wife, Ruth, during the Great Depression and, like so many others, they were quite poor in their early years. She made a living as a teacher while he attended USC to become a dentist. To avoid scandal, Ruth didn’t let on that she was married, as married teachers were frowned upon in that time.

In the early 1940s, the navy brought the Baumanns to Ocean Beach, where they lived for some time before discovering Kensington. This community, like countless others, would go through many changes over the course of many decades, yet never outgrow its charm.

“I love Kensington because it’s changed enough that it keeps people happy but it still has the same little village feeling,” beams Love, comparing it to the rather cosmopolitan metamorphosis of neighborhoods like Little Italy. “It’s a community that families enjoy.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Kensington having been much smaller. Thomas Baumann opened his dental business in the heart of Kensington on Adams Avenue in 1950.

“My mom used to stand out front and ask people to come in,” Love says, standing on that same sidewalk and looking in the window of the building where once was her father’s dental practice. Above the gallery remain the residences where her family lived.

From there she takes me down the street to the corner of Adams Avenue and Marlborough Drive, where the Ken Coffee Shop once stood and the Ken Café is today. She inherited the property from her father and owns it to this day. No sooner do we arrive than she is greeted by Ryan, one of the café’s employees, who carries a giant water pitcher in each hand. They exchange greetings before she takes me inside to point out some historical photos on the coffee shop walls.

“These are my pictures,” Love says and illustrates some of the differences between the past recorded there on the wall and the present directly outside the café windows. “We played everyday in the park,” she says, indicating a pool in the central park area where the public library now stands. “In all four corners were olive trees. We would sit in them and gather olives, then ride our bikes and throw them at each other.”

Outside we meet Love’s friend and local resident, Maggie, who is walking her dog, Libby. Dogs seem to be as much a part of the neighborhood as anything or anyone else. So much so that on the outside wall of the Ken Café are four plaques commemorating neighborhood pooches that have passed away. It’s a tradition that Love has been a part of, even having a memorial for each of the deceased canines.

The day is fading but Love has one more thing to show. We drive to Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, Love’s alma mater. A pair of hand engraved wooden doors rest in the side entrance of the school, highlighting Mr. Franklin’s achievements.

“I just think they’re dandy,” says Love of the artful entrance that has been there since the 1930s. Trouble is, no one seems to know how they got there.

So little seems to have changed in Kensington, yet there is one important element that is missing. The Kensington sign that spanned Adams Avenue for decades is noticeably absent. It’s a tender subject for Love.

“My windows were facing it so every night as a child I would go to sleep with that pink light coming in my window,” remembers Love of the sign that was once an icon of her community.

The loss she feels is more than nostalgia. Her father had the sign made. In the 1980s, when it had fallen into disrepair, he attempted to get it repaired. He even wrote a book for the community’s 75th anniversary, Kensington-Talmadge 1910-1985, to raise money for that very purpose. Love is attempting to get the book reprinted for the centennial next year. Yet the sign is still absent, victim to disagreements between local associations.

The sign is not Thomas Baumann’s only contribution to Kensington. The history of the community is almost a history of the man himself.

“He was president of the San Diego Dental Society for many years,” says Love. “He wrote a history of [it]. He was founder of the Old Mission Rotary Club. He wrote a history of Kensington, and he wrote history of Portofino and Tierrasanta.”

Tierrasanta is where the Baumann’s would move in 1972. They were one of the first families to live in that area. Though Love lived there for more than two decades, her heart still belonged to Kensington, and though it was no longer just a quick stroll down the block, she frequented the Ken Coffee Shop everyday.

Today she is back in the neighborhood of her youth, residing in what is known as the Talmadge Loop that circles the neighborhood south of Adams Avenue.

Love and a group of other local women have formed what they affectionately refer to as the Talmadge Sisters, a community group that gets together for both philanthropy and fun.

“We work with multiple sclerosis because we have neighbors that have it,” says Love. “We work with Dress for Success and with autism. Councilman Todd Gloria is coming to speak in September,” she adds of the many activities in which the Talmadge Sisters are involved.

Darlene Love continues to live in and love Kensington, preserving a family tradition that she has passed on to her children and, now, her grandchildren. “I want my kids right next door to me,” she says of her desire to keep the community in the family. “I’m a second generation Kensington resident. My parents were the first, me and my siblings were the second, my kids the third, and now my grandchildren the fourth.”

Written for North Park News.