By Anna Daniels
It is hard to make generalizations about a community with over 75,000 residents. It is even harder to make generalizations about a community in which 41% of the residents are foreign born and those residents were born in over thirty different countries. City Heights must be understood in bits and shape shifting pieces.
To understand City Heights, it must be rolled across the tongue and savored in the local markets and restaurants. It must be heard in the cacophony of buses, street vendors, garbage trucks, music from quinceañeras and children’s voices. It must be felt on an early morning canyon walk.
The San Diego Free Press focus on City Heights will be delivered up over the next month as a fragmented incomplete narrative. Twenty-one percent of the residents here speak no or little English. It is a daunting challenge to provide a way for myriad disparate voices to be heard. In the upcoming weeks we’ll be covering a variety of topics and people. The narrative that we will present is shaped by these inescapable factors:
City Heights past The Chollas Creek watershed, which includes City Heights, was a significant settlement for Native Americans. In the 1880’s Abraham Klauber and Samuel Steiner purchased over 200 unincorporated acres in the hopes of developing it, and named it City Heights. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 spurred that development. City Heights became the incorporated city of East San Diego in 1912. In 1923, East San Diego was annexed to the City of San Diego.
The big game changer was the Mid-City Plan, adopted by the San Diego City Council in 1965. The plan proposed to densify City Heights and other mid-city communities as a means of increasing business and commerce. If you want to understand City Heights, you must look at City Heights today in the context of that conscious policy decision close to four decades ago. There are 15,000 people per square mile in City Heights, compared to the city-wide average of 4,000 people per square mile.
After the fall of Saigon, City Heights becomes the Ellis Island of San Diego Our national policy on immigration has changed greatly throughout our country’s history. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, political refugees have become a significant portion of the immigrants here.
These refugees have escaped political upheaval and civil wars in Vietnam, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Laos and most recently, Burma. Immigrants come to City Heights to learn English at the Adult Education Center and acquire basic skills to obtain employment. A variety of non-profit organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and African Alliance provide support and assistance.
City Heights is home to Little Saigon and Little Mogadishu. City Heights is also home to residents without legal documents from Mexico, many of whom who were brought here as children. The latter are now beginning to receive legal residency through a slow, costly process. While many of the immigrants in City Heights have legal status, they aren’t necessarily citizens. That means that they are unable to vote in local or national elections.
The new City Council District 9, which includes City Heights, was drawn as a majority minority district after the 2010 census. This redistricting is an attempt to addresses the thorny issue of who speaks for City Heights.
That question embodies the tension that exists between the few– older, for the most part white property owners– and the many– younger, ethnically and racially diverse renters. It remains to be seen how that tension plays out in terms of actual political power and for whom in District 9.
A young community with engaged young people While it is noteworthy that the average median age in City Heights is younger than the city-wide age, and there are more children per household than city-wide, youth here are organizing and engaging in public policy decisions that affect them, their families and their community. This youth involvement should not be over-looked.
The City Heights Planning Area Committee (CHPAC) has allocated two voting seats to young people. Youth led the advocacy efforts for skate parks and free mid-city bus passes for high school students. They are concerned about juvenile incarceration rates in City Heights and what those rates say about race and equal justice. They are exploring alternatives to our juvenile justice system in the form of restorative justice. Mid-City Can has played a seminal role in mentoring youth leaders and identifying issues.
City Heights residents struggle to make ends meet Almost a third of City Heights residents live below the poverty level. The median household income here is $38,000/yr compared to $61,000/yr city-wide. Affordable housing is critical. Public transportation is critical. Libraries and Park and Recreation facilities and services are not simply amenities–they are vital core services. Educational opportunities are also critical.
A number of non-profits and religious institutions in City Heights have sought to address or mitigate the lack of adequate public policies necessary to address the endemic poverty. There are food distribution programs, community health clinics, small scale economic efforts, and affordable housing partnerships.
Much less visible but undeniably influential are the presence of Price Charities and the California Endowment. Price Charities has a longer history in the community and is best known for their role in the redevelopment that occurred in the 1990’s. The California Endowment has focused on health issues. Both of these entities have provided a significant infusion of money into City Heights and a vision for City Height’s future.
The life lived in City Heights is much more complex and vibrant than the factors that shape it. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll write about community resistance, bursts of creative energy, the progressive presence, Egyptian Revival architecture and explore the mysteries of jackfruit.
We need your help and participation! If you have any pictures of City Heights that you would like to share, or would like to submit something about City Heights, please send your pictures as a jpg and submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org In the subject line simply type “City Heights.”