In one of the hundreds of drawers that line the walls of Ben Smith’s workspace, you’ll find a collection of Lego Minifigure binoculars that he says are great for microscale pipes. Nearby is a drawer full of light gray Lego robot arms that he’ll use to build street lights. Open another, and all of his purple bricks fill the tub. Since he doesn’t use purple too often, the color takes up only three drawers total (one for bricks, one for plates, and one for miscellaneous parts). But white, on the other hand, takes up nearly 100, each containing pieces of a single type, like 1 x 1 tiles or 1 x 2 jumpers. From a distance, it’s a painstakingly organized, sprawling, rainbow-colored wall. Up close, it’s a collection of the pieces, both foundational and obscure, that will re-create North Park’s most beloved buildings.
Smith’s passion project, North Park Lego, has been up and running since spring of last year, when he posted his first model, Tribute Pizza, on Instagram. It was an instant hit, garnering attention from locals, out-of-towners, former San Diegans, and even the owner of Tribute Pizza himself, who’s working with Smith to plan a North Park Lego exhibit—which was postponed from its planned December debut but sold out after just a few days.
This massive collection, and his newfound hobby, started as just something fun to do with his kids. He began buying sets they could all work on together as an easy way to pass the time during the early days of the pandemic. They’d build them—Go Brick Me sets, Hagrid’s Hut from Harry Potter—complete them, and then Smith would ultimately break them down and sort out the pieces. As they began to add up, and his kids’ interest waned, Smith started thinking up famous buildings or pop culture references he could make in Lego.
“I thought, ‘My kids love Harry Potter; wouldn’t it be great to re-create Hogwarts?’ I had no idea there was a whole community doing this exact same thing on a much grander scale. Anything I thought of had already been done about 20 times, and way better than anything I could do,” he says, laughing.
So instead, Smith looked for inspiration closer to home, and found it just outside his front door.
“I knew I wanted to do something a bit more personal, and building my family’s favorite places around North Park, the places we missed most during the shutdown, seemed like just the thing,” he says.
Tribute Pizza was the first—his family’s favorite Friday night go-to. Then came Pigment, St. Patrick’s church (where his daughter was baptized), and 17 other beloved institutions in and around North Park, South Park, and Golden Hill. Most are close to him, but others have come about from suggestions by friends and Instagram followers. Every project is made entirely out of official Lego parts, aside from the business logos, which he prints out onto stickers. It’s a mix of bricks Smith already has on hand and what he buys in bulk (in the thousands) off BrickLink, the eBay for Lego enthusiasts. As a data analyst by trade, he says his background in numbers is the skill set that helps him most when building: “Lego is very logical and structured—there are precise dimensions and a lot of geometry involved. I enjoy it from that engineering, mathematic perspective.”
The process usually takes a couple of weeks to complete. He uses photos off Google Maps as a reference, but mostly works out the logistics in his head before he puts the first piece down.
“Some aspects of a building might take me a bit longer, usually one little feature, like the hexagonal door at Starlite,” he says. “I’ll set it aside and come back with a new idea of how to do it. Once I get it, the rest really just falls into place.”
Aside from the sheer thrill of seeing some of San Diego’s most popular storefronts on a small scale (the largest model is only about eight inches wide), what’s so cool about Smith’s creations is their meticulous detail—look through the pinky-size windows of Fall Brewing and you can see the brewing tanks inside; black cotton string (an official Lego product) holds up the lanterns on the patio of Fortunate Son; his rendition of The Casbah even has the steep descent down the sidewalk on West Laurel Street—dumpster included.
To Smith, these details are a nod to those who’ve come to know San Diego the way he has—embracing both the cool and the quirky that make up his neighborhood. “I get lots of messages from people sharing the memories they have at the places I re-create,” he says. “It’s made me realize that people are really connecting with this; it’s jogging a memory for them of where they went, who they spent time with there, and how they lived.”