Meet Beryl Forman — Ms. Boulevard
The marketing director of the El Cajon Boulevard Improvement Association is an unabashed promoter of the famous street’s retailers
By Ruby Cougler
A creative dresser, with a head full of asymmetrical curls and a confident laugh, Beryl Forman just seems like the person to call when you want to find out if anything cool is happening over weekend. The 28-year-old marketing manager for The El Cajon Boulevard Improvement Association is a member of a book club and a community garden. She enjoys riding her bike to work, making crusty, homemade olive bread and teaching the world how to properly eat a mango. She explains, embarrassed, “My friends know me as Ms. Mango. I did a video on You Tube on how to slice a ‘mangolicious’ mango.”
Forman has a relaxed attitude and tends to be in the right place at the right time. She grew up in New Jersey, lived in New York, studied marketing in Indiana and did an internship in Hawaii. In the islands she fell in love with the giant, rubber clogs called Crocs. When she got back to New Jersey and realized no one had heard of the shoes yet, she asked the company to let her sell them. She did such a good job that they offered her a permanent marketing position and sent her to Southern California.
Given her freewheeling attitude regarding location, it is notable that Forman chose to settle in San Diego. She says she was inspired by the city’s vibrancy and growth. She thought, “If I stay here, I’m going to see so much change right in front of my eyes.” San Diego’s continuous development piqued her interest enough for her to pursue a certificate in urban planning from UCSD. “I wanted to be part of the revitalization and connect it to people’s needs.”
The Boulevard Business Improvement Association oversees the business district located one block north and one block south of El Cajon Boulevard between Park and 54th Street. The organization was the first of San Diego’s 18 Business Improvement Districts and made its first major statement with the erection of the neon Boulevard sign. Unlike most business improvement districts, The Boulevard spans six distinct neighborhoods: North Park, University Heights, City Heights, Normal Heights, Kensington and Talmadge. Forman explains, “Because we run through six different communities, it is part of our job to brand The Boulevard and give it cohesion”
The main goals of the organization are to work in partnership with the city to revitalize and promote area businesses, which Forman admits can be a challenge given some people’s perception of the area. “It’s a shame that when El Cajon Boulevard is mentioned in the media it’s about prostitution, gangs or a car accident. That’s just the media speaking. The fact that 15 new businesses have opened in the three years I’ve worked here means the area is progressing.”
There is no executive director at The Boulevard and, although Forman is the only full-time employee, she shares the work with three other people: Business Manager Roni Kleinhen, Information Manager Steve Aldana and Land Use Adviser Gary Weber. “We don’t really go by titles, but rather the work that needs to be done,” she explains. As marketing manager, she has a direct relationship with many of the 800 businesses they support, although she admits it is impossible to know every single one of them.
In addition to working on the installation of banners, consistent signage, landscaping and recycling containers, which help to delineate the district, Forman writes “spotlights” about area businesses for The Boulevard newsletter. She then tries to get them published in other realms to “bring the uniqueness of El Cajon Boulevard to the rest of San Diego.” Forman says the spotlights are one of the most enriching parts of her job — writing about O’Connor’s Church Goods provided her with unexpected insight into Catholic holidays and she learned that the chef at Dao Son taught himself how to cook in a Cambodian refugee camp.
Thanks to these interviews, Forman can riff extemporaneously on area history, which in turn has made her a bit of a preservationist. She says El Cajon Boulevard was initially farmland and orchard, and then during “the mid-century, big neon and eye-captivating architecture defined it.” She acknowledges that a lot of the history of El Cajon Boulevard has unfortunately been demolished. That is why she wants to “focus on places that give the district character as well as emerging businesses.”
Forman includes Beatrice V. Nelson of Wonder Weavers, Wholesale Joe the Vacuum King and Jim Cooley of Frank the Train Man and the Cooley Automotive Museum on her list of classic Boulevard retailers. Some of the new businesses she is excited about are Pizzeria Luigi, Eclipse Chocolates, Petrushka Eastern European Cuisine and Cali Baguettes drive-through Vietnamese Sandwiches.
Forman says the best parts of her job include getting to eat excellent food often and taking the occasional swim in the Lafayette Hotel pool. She also enjoys the cultural diversity of an area that many immigrant and refugee communities call home — over 40 languages are spoken in City Heights alone. Another thing Forman adds to the plus column of her job at The Boulevard is “the opportunity to partner with all the nonprofits that exist in City Heights. It’s a great collaboration.” She feels her work indirectly benefits the residents by beautifying storefronts and helping the community be successful.
However, there are downsides as well. Forman is frustrated by the constant struggle to get things done within a slow-moving bureaucracy and during a budget crisis. For example, her community has been waiting for bike racks over a year and the city canceled the I-15 Pilot Village after over five years of planning. She says it is also difficult when she meets with apathy on the part of some business owners. “Businesses are often overlooked because they don’t embrace the Storefront Improvement Program, which offers a free architect to render designs and some reimbursement for upgrades.” Her organization also hosts business improvement seminars and offers various assistance programs. “I think when people take care of their business and have a pretty storefront the community responds to that, and when a building looks decrepit people want to make it worse.”
Part of the beautification process has included working with established San Diego muralist Mario Torero to turn The Boulevard into an arts district. Forman explains, “I noticed other districts had painted utility boxes and I thought, ‘why aren’t we doing that?’ Now, we have over 60.” Although she says an arts district is more than painted utility boxes, “It’s engagement with the community through public art and events that celebrate arts and culture.”
In addition to her focus on bringing art to El Cajon Boulevard, Forman is working on a video business directory and helping the Little Saigon Foundation formally designate the area between Highland Avenue and Euclid as Little Saigon.
Forman finds it gratifying to have such a large impact on the city in which she has chosen to live. She says, “You know my three favorite places in San Diego are Torrey Pines, Balboa Park and the Boulevard sign—it makes me smile every time I see it.”