Where Oh Where Have My Neighbors Gone? Redevelopment, Gentrification and Displacement in City Heights

city heights up closePerhaps what we call “diverse” communities are those that haven’t reached equilibrium, but are in the process of changing… Is there a stable equilibrium of genuine integration in this country? 
hris Hayes (Up With Chris Hayes June 17, 2012)

Before the housing bubble finally burst in 2008, taking the economy with it, the conversion of often aging rental housing stock to condominiums had been proceeding full bore.  City Heights, ripe territory for sub-prime mortgages, attracted its share of condominium investments. To first time home buyers of limited income, these City Heights condo conversions offered a last chance for “affordable” home ownership, with  units advertised in the mid to high $200,000 range.

One such condo conversion occurred across the street from me.  The original 16 unit apartments, consisting of  two long buildings of eight units each, were set back from the street with curb cut parking in the front and minimal landscaping in the Huffman architectural style.   The owner spent little if anything on the external upkeep of the building.  Like many parts of City Heights, the apartments looked like not much thought was given to them beyond their utility in providing the most basic level of habitability.

These same apartments had a secret life, easy to overlook. The apartments were home to Mexican families with young children.  They were part of the large group that comprises City Heights working poor, yet they provided an astounding economic boost to the neighborhood and a lively social and distinct cultural presence.  Those families provided significant demand for the community’s overlooked and often maligned small business people- our street vendors.

” La fruta, la tortilla, las verduras, se van.”  The green grocer would pull up behind the complex in his truck and sing out in his rich baritone voice  “The fruit, the tortillas and vegetables are going away.”  Then a young boy’s voice was added one year, I assume his son, equally musical in his delivery.  Over the course of the day, other pregoneros would call out their specialties- the egg man, the woman advertising tamales, elotes, champurrado.  The apartments were the hub of this economic activity, which would then extend to other residences in the area.

Large multi-generational parties were frequently held to celebrate birthdays, quinceañeras, and baptisms.  The sure sign of a party was the early morning sound of a brincolín (bouncing house for kids) being inflated in a long steady hiss in the empty parking spaces.  Then there would be the sound of tables and chairs being set up in the courtyard.  By early evening the youngest kids were having the time of their lives in the brincolín and the musical entertainment– generally one singer who provided the vocals to recorded  popular songs, would be testing the sound system.

The parties occasionally went too long into the night, and party goers would sometime feel compelled to grab the microphone and belt out an old favorite in an off-key voice, to great hoots of laughter.  Sometimes I would stand on the porch, in the dark, and dance and sing along, wishing I had been invited. They were having a wonderful time and I also discovered that ear plugs were the next best thing to being invited to the parties.

I had no idea the buildings had been sold.  The dispersion of the tenants was quiet and invisible to me.  I realized one day that I hadn’t heard the green grocer’s song illuminating the early morning.  “Se van” indeed.  The condos clearly were not “affordable home ownership opportunities” for my neighbors who struggled to stay afloat on less than the $33,000 median household income here.

The gutting and remodeling of the buildings began.  The condos weren’t ready until the economy was already in the tank.  The price of the condos kept dropping until they were in the high $100,000 range.  And still there were no buyers.  Then the for rent signs went up.  One set of perfectly good neighbors who rented those apartments was replaced by a new set of neighbors paying substantially higher rents.  The apartments and landscaping were improved considerably but the gentrification came at a high cost to the community.

Where did my neighbors go?  I’ve run into some of them in the intervening years.  A number of them moved into other apartments in City Heights.  I was told that others moved to El Cajon where they had found more affordable rents.

Where did the small entrepreneurs–the street vendors go?  Only the paleteros who sell frozen fruit bars and candy ply the sidewalks now.  When a woman selling tamales came by recently, one of the tenants in the condos opened his door and screamed at her that she was interrupting his television viewing and reminded her that THIS IS AMERICA!

Part of the modernization of our cities has been the emphasis upon centralized, deeper urbanization.  Amenities, public services and access to transit are viewed as essential to densification of the urban core.  The redevelopment projects that occurred fifteen years ago in City Heights provided a great deal of the necessary anchor infrastructure- the Urban Village with a large chain grocery store, the City Heights Weingart Library, a police substation, adult education center, two new schools and a recreation center.

While these amenities and public investments were designed to serve our low income and long ignored community, those same investments have also resulted in a broader social and economic mix of residents.  People choose to live here because of those amenities.  While that makes City Heights even more diverse  in terms of household income at this point, it has also resulted in higher rental costs.  Those higher rental costs cannot be sustained by the significant number of poor, and minority poor, who live among us.

Is it OK for the poor to be pushed out to the extreme margins of the urbanized areas, where the distance between them and their low paying jobs has been increased and public transit becomes less frequent and more time consuming?  If this push continues to occur, will City Heights remain a truly diverse community?  The wealth and income gap between Latinos and African-Americans in comparison to whites is indisputable and since the recession has been growing.  This is a serious issue and it is a City Heights issue.

In a country which is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, City Heights is the quintessential American community that reflects that future.  The question is–for how long?


Anna Daniels

I left a moribund Western Pennsylvania mill town the year that Richard M. Nixon was not impeached for crimes against the American people, and set off in search of truth, beauty, justice and a beat I could dance to. Here I am.


  1. avatarGoatskull says

    Like I posted in another article you did about CH, it’s kind of at the beginning stages of what North Park started about 8 years ago. A younger demographic is moving in because the area is more affordable than others but at the same time these new people have more money to spend than the people who are already there. New bars, restaurants and shops are springing up that are economically out of reach for the original residents. At the same time they (the new businesses) are culturally something the original residents are unfamiliar with and feel out of place to frequent even if they could afford. And life you said, because of this new demographic, the rents are springing up and forcing many out. Not sure if there’s a right or wrong way to deal with it.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Goatskull- you summed up the situation extremely well. But it is a mistake to assume that there are no underlying policy decisions that have an effect on the situation- either exacerbating or minimizing that effect.
      How will a community utilize redevelopment funds? Wang’s Restaurant in North Park received a half million dollar forgivable loan from the San Diego Redevelopment Agency. That is a very different policy determination than providing redevelopment funds in City Heights for the Urban Village with the Albertson’s grocery store. The difference is pretty obvious. (Of course redevelopment $$$ have dried up and the agencies are being re-defined)
      The other piece is an investment of public dollars in affordable quality housing. That is also a policy decision. For every condo conversion the Housing Commission should also be investing in affordable housing.
      I guess what I am saying is that the changes we are experiencing are not like the vagaries of weather. There are underlying assumptions, political dynamics and policy decisions being made that shape the changes.

  2. avatarAnna Daniels says

    KeninSD- you linked to an in-depth, well written article that lays out the underlying issues. We have seen the same kind of bundling of foreclosed properties here during past recessions. What that means is that non-profits have a snowball’s chance in hell of maintaining local control over these properties. It is also extremely hard if not impossible for residents to resolve ongoing issues with bad tenants and physical neglect of these properties.
    City Heights has had the third highest number of foreclosures in the city. These foreclosed properties have been snapped up by investors with cash during short sales. Friends of mine who had hoped to buy a home in the mid-city could not compete with the cash only requirement. They have purchased homes instead in Rolando and Allied Gardens. In short, the whole reckless real estate speculation has never lost a beat and City Heights has assuredly received a beating.

    • avatarGoatskull says

      Everything you just said is pretty much why my wife and I resigned ourselves to the idea that home ownership is just not in the cards and simply not meant to be. We have no interest in living in the areas where we CAN afford (I made that mistake before and never again) and the areas we do like will never be on our reach. Renters we shall remain.

    • avatarKeninSD says

      Anna, it is ongoing in all areas of San Diego. But, perhaps, these circumstances will spark the much needed reply of revitalizing the areas of our city before the investors can by creating thriving communities where we buy locally, first.

      By supporting local businesses for more than convenience items, by buying at the local cafe, not Starbucks, by eating at the local restaurant, not a chain, by buying our groceries at a local store or farmers market (or creating a community garden), not Ralph’s or Von’s, and certainly not ever at Walmart!

      If we each did these things, we would have the communities we want and more of us would be able to live comfortably and securely. It’s attainable once we realize that more is not better and democracy isn’t about voting on American Idol.

      • avatarGoatskull says

        “By supporting local businesses for more than convenience items, by buying at the local cafe, not Starbucks, by eating at the local restaurant, not a chain,”

        I certainly do that and so do most people I know, and it’s easy because there are plenty of locally owned restaurants that are of high quality and much better value than the chains. Same with coffee houses. Notice in on Adams Ave you’ll see more people at Lestat’s than at the Starbucks right across the street.
        “by buying our groceries at a local store or farmers market (or creating a community garden), not Ralph’s or Von’s, and certainly not ever at Walmart!”

        That can be a little harder for some people and maybe even impossible. I buy selected items at farmer’s markets but the bulk will come from the grocery chains or Trader Joes or Baron’s. Often I buy at the Navy Commissary’s. For many of less fortunate, it’s Walmart or nothing and that’s regardless of the long term consequences.

        • avatarKeninSD says

          We all do what we can, but more people need to recognize and understand the power of their purse, perhaps they will as more people become ensnared in high debt and lower income.

          I disagree with “Walmart or nothing” as most of the prices in their stores and grocery sections are perceived as lower because of their incessant advertising, not from actual pricing. But, you’re observation is otherwise correct, grocery purchases are difficult to restrict to local businesses. But, that can also change as more people demand better choices in their community.

          • avatarGoatskull says

            “I disagree with “Walmart or nothing””

            Well keep in mind that what I meant by that is that’s the attitude a lot of people have, not that they don’t actually have other choices. I wasn’t very clear on that.

    • avatar says

      Oh man, competing with cash investors is certainly a nightmare…I tend to work a lot with first-time buyers, particularly those of modest means. Last month a young pregnant couple who I’d been working with for months finally got into a Mountain View property after writing 26 offers (I counted) everywhere from City Heights to Encanto to Chollas View to Lincoln Park…they were well-qualified and often offered more than asking price on the houses they were interested in, but sellers frequently took lower offers from cash investors just because they were scared of working with people who actually wanted the house to live in. Sad, but a fact of life, especially in the sub-$200K market today.

      As far as some of the other comments, there are opportunities to spend local without breaking the bank, though not always. I’ve got to admit that I visit a Mal-Wart once a year in the post-Thanksgiving crush to take advantage of their “doorbusters” – the only way I justify it is that it allows me to stretch the holiday budget for my daughter’s gifts a little farther and I stick to only purchasing the items I know they’re selling at a loss in order to tempt people to buy more profitable plastic crap.

      I do a lot of my shopping at big chain grocers, though since they’re mostly union I don’t feel bad about that. Oddly, I do feel bad shopping at Boney’s (now called Sprouts, used to be Henry’s, but it was Boney’s when I was a kid and as such it remains in my mind, just as Costco is still the Price Club). I know they’re non-union, but I’ve got to say that their produce is both much fresher and much cheaper than the Midway Vons or Sports Arena Ralphs, and their employees are nearly without fail ten times friendlier and happier about their jobs, even if they’re getting paid far less than at their UFCW counterparts. Maybe there are secret cameras watching their every move and they’re putting on the chipper act under fear of a dozen lashes.

      I’m off-topic and rambling…maybe someday I’ll be rich again and I’ll be able to afford to buy People’s produce…and all the rental units in OB, which I’ll diligently maintain and offer up at affordable rates.

    • avatarKeninSD says

      Judi, not helpless, not hopeless. Unless you prefer that to doing what you can, everyday, to changing how our city works.

  3. avatar says

    Keep in mind Starbucks is the only cafe/coffee place in City heights except the French/Vietnames place where one can smoke an play dominoes in the same visit..City Heights is a place for real estate people to make easy money. Its a commodity, low hanging fruit. If its not Caltrans tearing down 1500 homes its Price charities doing it. The mostly staple housing is section eight cause they pay so much and landlords don’t want tog e rid of it. Immigrants come and go. Real estate changes hand frequently. Don’t forget it is 75 % rental. Rental property is speculative property. That’s what happens in a rental market. Move the tenants around from one to the other and kick the rent up a bit in the process.
    Wanna stop it? Do things like get the Housing Commission to stop wasting their federal multi million dollar reinvestment score from HUD on staff salaries instead of enabling home ownership. Encourage Price Charities to pay back some of their redevelopment largess it is profiting from and put into home ownership loans or new construction.
    Get the new redevelopment dealers to allocate funds currently allocated to City Heights for home ownership. Get HUD to wake up from their ten year nap and investigate how the Mayors office has been siphoning off CDBG funds for its administrative costs instead of spending it in low and moderate income neighborhoods as the law requires. Or maybe something minor like have all social service agencies receiving funds to assist the poor in City Heights be required to live here or buy locally.
    Do those few things and see what happens to neighborhood stability. Pump it up is my guess.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Those are precisely the kinds of things that are possible because they are policy and political decisions. Your statement that CH is 75% rental rate hit me right between the eyeballs. The does explain the level of speculation we see here.
      And we are bleeding the home ownership we did have because of the foreclosures which have decimated Hispanic residents in particular here. The city has done nothing to hold banks’ (particularly BofA) feet to the fire on writing down mortgages and recalculating interest rates that can keep people in their homes. CH keeps losing ground on the slow progress it makes.

    • avatarKeninSD says

      Smoking is not high on my personal list of concerns, and I’d like to know where your 75% rental number is coming from.

      • avatarAnna Daniels says

        KeninSD- one thing I have learned here is that my personal concerns don’t necessarily square with my neighbor’s. When the Denny’s went into the Urban Village, I was discouraged and disappointed. None of our great local restaurants were included in the Village mix. And besides, Denny’s joined all those other generic chains there.
        What I found out from listening to conversations on the bus and talking to neighbors was that they were very happy about the Denny’s. It showed that we “arrived” at some desirable place.
        I have learned not to make many of my personal concerns regarding aesthetics and personal preferences an issue. But I do hold on like a bull dog to big issues.

        • avatarKeninSD says

          Smoking is an issue that affects us all and should not be permitted in public or shared space, it is a big issue on so many levels. As for asking for some facts about rental rates, I’m curious but also skeptical, as that seems like a too high number to be taken at face value.

        • avatarGoatskull says

          Maybe that’s a key thing there. They (the neighbors you are referring to) need to “want” better and not think of Denny’s as being a step up. I don’t know. No one can force people how to think but the sad fact is (IMO) is that if the original residents who live there think of a place like Denny’s as being an arrival to a better and higher level tier than they were before then CH has a long long way to go.

          • avatarAnna Daniels says

            Goatskull- as long as City Heights remains a place where I can walk to restaurants and eat good home cooking from Mexico and Vietnam and Ethiopia, etc the Denny’s becomes a non-issue for me. As I noted previously, I have learned over time to pick my battles. Many of us if not most of us shop from the local markets, the carnicerías and panaderías. It is important that those places are not displaced and replaced with the generic.

            • avatarGoatskull says

              I agree with you Anna. I didn’t so much mean the residents should want higher end cuisine than Denny’s but rather not want a generic corporate chain like Denny’s and perhaps not care about “arriving”.

  4. avatarGoatskull says

    Well one thing I can say about CH, it has one of my favorite dives to see some of the best live music in San Diego. The Tower Bar. I haven’t been there in awhile and oh how I miss you. Off topic I know.

    • avatarrak says

      No, not off topic at all. The Tower Bar is a great example of local and unique diversity. The tower itself and its artwork are singular and iconic. Nowhere else but City Heights.

  5. avatar says

    I see there are questions on the rental level. I rechecked and I was not accurate. According to the 2010 census it is 78% and not 75%. And going up by the way. there are pockets where home ownership is higher and they tend to be the location where new buyers are arriving. But in the population corridor along University and El Cajon Blvd, high turnover is the norm. want more? 8% of City Heights residents use public transportation compared to Citywide of 3.6%. 80% of those are low income. 47% of CH businesses have between 2 and 4 employees. There are 2000 businesses in the neighborhood. Lots of diversity and mom and pop stuff However they cannot access credit from banks. Only 300 of them could get a loan to expand near term while other neighborhoods tend to have more accessible cash. While the 300 borrowed from banks their average loan was $8,000 whereas the average loan citywide for small business was $14,875.
    So if you want more local boutique shops so business can expand you need access to credit and not have to rely on credit cards and 18-20% interest.
    Anything else?

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      Jim- thanks for your response. The statistics you cited are what you find when the veneer of superficial public judgements about City Heights are pulled back.