Newport Heights is one of the older neighborhoods among the communities of Newport Beach. "Be prepared for some pretty funky beach stuff," said Gail Demmer, president of the Newport Heights Homeowners Assn. These older buildings are "what make this area so unique and so much fun. . . . (But) what once were beach shanties are now rapidly changing." Those former beach shanties along La Jolla Drive are now, for the most part, year-round residences.
It is an old residential section, with the commercial areas limited to West Coast Highway to the south and 17th Street (which is actually Costa Mesa) to the north. Senior citizens live in their older homes side by side with a number of young people now coming into the area.
The neighborhood's transition is marked by the wooden skeletons of residences at varying stages of construction in place of torn-down old houses. "These were not heritage houses," Demmer assures, and thus historical-preservation is not a chief worry for the Homeowners Assn. Its main concern is "maintaining the beauty and integrity of their parks, preserving harbor and ocean views of residents on the cliffs. (Residents) hope that tomorrow they will be able to see the parks and the ocean."
The very top of the cliffs that give Newport Heights its name is marked in two places by community parks. The land for Cliff Drive Park was donated to the city of Newport Beach in 1960 and was redeveloped two years ago; now palm trees grace the sloping stretches of grass along with picnic benches. The community keeps the park beautifully cultivated.
At Ensign Park, another cliff-side recreation area, a building with vestiges of its former role as a church now houses the Newport Theater Arts Center. This popular local troupe draws audiences not simply from Newport Beach but from the far reaches of Orange County. (Its next production, Rogers and Hart's musical "Babes in Arms," opened last Friday.)
Architect Brion Jeannette and his wife, Bonnie, have lived in Newport Heights for 15 years. "It's a neat area, I love it," Jeannette said. His specialty is the "custom residential field," and in the Heights he has remodeled as many as 50 residences and designed nearly 30 new houses. Eight years ago he built from adobe the handsome two-story terra cotta house that is his current home at 400 Santa Ana Ave.
Newport Heights' "old houses were built in the mid- to late-'30s as (summer) cottages at the time," Jeannette said. Some of the old homes were torn down, but "others had a lot of character you want to hang on to. . . . It's a neat neighborhood, really nice lots that people can afford." Across Coast Highway, a buyer gets "half the size of the property for twice the price."
Newport Heights is a real neighborhood, with genuine community spirit. Jeannette talked of getting a basketball court built, and Demmer said: "As you can see, there are very few sidewalks, big old trees, not too many lampposts. We (residents) do everything we can to preserve this area. A city ordinance was passed that a single-family lot, big to begin with, cannot be subdivided. (And) no way will we allow a builder or developer to tear down those trees. All streets run north-south, and at the end of each of the streets you could see the ocean. Young people bring vitality to the area, but they're struggling hard to live here" in Newport Heights.
Demmer recounts a telling story of the death of an older man, a recluse, when his house burned down on San Bernardino Avenue at Cliff Drive. "The neighbors held a memorial service for him in the park along Cliff Drive: More than 100 people attended the service for a man they did not know."
The Newport Harbor High School, at the corner of Irvine Avenue and 15th Street, may be one of the oldest buildings in the community and is now a county monument. Its tower stood tall above the cliff and was said to be a marker for sailors.
Irvine Avenue designates the edge of Newport Heights to the north and the more recently developed neighborhood of Cliff Haven to the south. Across from the high school, the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church stands next to an apartment complex. In Cliff Haven, the streets are wider and there is a sense of a broader plan in the way the houses are set back from the streets. The condominium complexes share the area with single-family homes.
Giles Brown, author and lecturer in international affairs at Orange Coast College and at Leisure World, has lived in Newport Heights along with his wife for more than 30 years. It's "a delightful area, we are unique in that," Brown said. He and his wife had just returned from a trip around the world, doing research for his lecture series. When one gets out "to see where other people live you appreciate where you live." The neighborhood is entirely accessible by foot; he and his wife try to walk everywhere.