In the northernmost corner of Normal Heights, a cul-de-sac overlooks Mission Valley. While three luxury homes stand at the edge of the canyon, two fenced-off lots overgrown with weeds wait to get snapped up by developers.
The secluded stretch might not look like much, but in years past—back when there was no streetlight or “No Parking” signs and the nearest houses were several blocks away— it was a prime spot for late-night romance.
“The police went there quite often, so you had to be careful what you were doing,” said Ruth Hayward, 77, a retired engineer and professional sculptor who recalls visiting the overlook with her high-school sweetheart in the 1950s.
In San Diego, lovers’ lanes like this one have long been treasured destinations for couples looking for a little privacy. In recent years, though, many of the city’s most popular locales have lost their spark. Some have been built over by developers. Others have been burned by police patrols and cell-phone toting neighbors, police say. Still others have simply fallen out of popularity with the changing times.
And San Diego isn’t alone. While teens still smooch in cars, scholars and law-enforcement experts say that lovers’ lanes seem to have become a thing of the past.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard any police anywhere really talking about it,” said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a national organization funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
An icon depicted in countless Hollywood movies and TV shows, the lovers’ lane was once a central part of America’s car-centric culture, offering an escape from strict parents and social taboos.
“Cars played an incredibly important role in the sexual histories of all generations of Americans,” said Beth Bailey, a historian at Temple University who wrote the 1989 book From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. “Whether it was just teenagers making out or people actually having sexual intercourse, it was often the place that Americans had their first introduction to sex.”
Well-established lovers’ lanes were often tacitly accepted, Bailey said, with patrolling police letting kids get intimate but making sure they didn’t go too far. Still, more obscure locales would occasionally attract thieves and even serial killers. In San Diego, several so-called lovers’-lanes bandits have made headlines over the years. In 1927, San Diego Police Department detective Charles R. Harris was shot and killed while investigating a spate of robberies at a popular hookup spot in Balboa Park. The case was never solved.
But such shocking tales didn’t dissuade lovers who had nowhere else to go.
“You obviously weren’t going to neck at home—your parents were around,” explained “Alice,” 73, who grew up in Point Loma and didn’t want her real name revealed.
When asked by CityBeat, people both young and old ticked off popular makeout spots across the county, from Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach to Mt. Helix in La Mesa. When Alice was a high-school student in the 1950s, she remembers her boyfriend taking her to an overlook off of San Gorgonio Street in Point Loma. It offered a lovely view of the bay, but that’s not what they went for.
“Of course, virginity was huge,” she said, noting that contraception hadn’t been invented yet and condoms were hard to come by. “But that didn’t mean that sex wasn’t part of our lives.”
Times have changed, though, and the lovers’ lane isn’t as prominent as it used to be. In her 2008 book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, sociologist Kathleen Bogle argues that old-fashioned dating rituals have given way to a more lax “hookup culture,” in which many young people, especially on college campuses, prefer to keep their options open. Often, she said, they’ll hang out in large groups and only pair off later in the night.
“It is not clear in advance who is going to hook up with whom,” Bogle explained in an email, “so it would not be possible to travel as a pair to a location like [a] lovers lane.”
Perhaps more crucially, the car seems to be losing its grip on youth culture. While kids in the ’50s spent their dates eating at drive-thru restaurants and going to drive-in movies, and then maybe capping off the night with a little necking, recent data shows that many young people don’t seem as interested in owning cars or even getting driver’s licenses.
A new report by the Frontier Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that, between 2001 and 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States by people between the ages of 16 and 34 decreased by 23 percent. In that time, they increased their time walking, riding bikes and using public transportation. Though hard data was not available, the conclusions suggest a possible downward trend in the number of hours young people spent smooching in cars.
It’s still common to find youngsters who’ve used cars to scour for hook-up spots, but many of San Diego’s most picturesque spots aren’t what they used to be.
Sunset Cliffs is now well lit and patrolled by police. Mt. Helix is effectively off-limits, since the lookout point gets locked up at night. And the overlook that Alice used to visit has been built over with expensive homes, she said.
Balboa Park, one of the city’s most storied hook-up zones, seems to have fallen out of favor.
Young couples have flocked to various parts of Balboa Park since the early 1900s. And for many years, its southwest corner was a popular cruising spot for gay men, who sought out the winding trails and big bushes for discreet, often anonymous encounters. Fearful of being outed or attacked, many didn’t feel safe anywhere else.
“You wouldn’t dare try to pick up anybody in public because you would’ve gotten the shit beat out of you,” said Bill Martin, who remembers visiting the area, nicknamed the “Fruit Loop,” when he was in his 20s in the ’70s.
But with the increased acceptance of homosexuality—and the advent of online dating—those days are over. While lovebirds lounge on the grass during the day, the park is quiet at night. On an evening visit earlier this year, the only sign of life was at the chess club, where dozens of players were engrossed in a tournament.
Amid all these lovers’ lanes of yore, though, one is as idyllic as ever.
Around midnight on a recent Friday, more than half a dozen young couples stopped by Mount Soledad in La Jolla to take in the dazzling, panoramic view of the city. As bunnies hopped around on the lawn, cars streaked by on the highway below.
At one point, things started getting hot and heavy on one of the benches. In the hushed atmosphere, you could just make out the telltale clink of a belt coming unbuckled.