Author’s note: This is the first post of my new weekly SDFP column City Heights Up Close & Personal. It is the distillation of my experiences and observations of the confounding, sometimes dazzling and always changing urban landscape that I call home.
“We are children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.” Lawrence Durrell, Justine
“We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.” Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
For the past twenty five years My Beloved and I have lived in a postage stamp size home that we own in City Heights. Our street is in constant motion with pedestrians and cars moving between the wide thoroughfares of University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. Two of the most common sounds are the trash trucks in the alley and moms calling out apúrate (hurry up!) to their kids lingering on the sidewalk. There is very little that is unified or uniform about the physical landscape or the people who live here. That is what I love about City Heights. That is what I also hate about City Heights.
My block is a mish mash of single detached homes that date back to the 1920’s interspersed with the godawful 1970’s era Huffman six-packs which callous and venal zoning laws encouraged throughout the mid-city communities. Renters, who tend to be young and have families, come and go. Those of us who own homes, the minority, are older and have stayed.
While the surrounding architecture can be described as charming, interesting or modest at its best, and unlovely, unmaintained and substandard at its worst, the people who live here deserve a much broader and more nuanced attention. My neighbors in the apartments next door are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. They speak seven languages among them. My neighbors in the house on the other side are Mexican. Their children are effortlessly bi-lingual.
Two African-American sisters own the well maintained and well managed apartment down the block as well as another one in the area. A lesbian couple has owned a home here for decades where they provide for an unending stream of abandoned cats. They do not fly a rainbow flag. Kip is in his 70’s and has filled his front yard with rose bushes. He spends time honing the lost art of sitting on the front porch when he is not out fishing or fixing things. He is one of the few Anglos on the block.
Hans, who is German, has his car repair business at the end of the block and gives us bags of tangerines from his garden in Alpine. Roger Hedgecock is often on the radio when I walk by. Over the course of a quarter century we have lived among Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans and Africans as well as Mexicans and African-Americans and white people from all over the country. Today we pretty much all get along with each other or simply ignore each other. It has not always been that way.
When we moved here in 1987 it hadn’t sunk into our consciousness that City Heights was considered an undesirable, crime ridden community filled with scary (non-white) poor people. During the day it was more gritty than scary here, but when the sun set the main streets cleared of pedestrians and the side streets were sunk in darkness. It was eerie driving through the alley behind our house, the car lights illuminating small groups huddled around dumpsters smoking crack. Used condoms were flung into the parkways and bushes. Once I found a syringe and learned never to garden without thick gloves.
We have been burgled and mugged and our car windshield was smashed numerous times. To my great anguish I found that this was not a kind or safe place for our cats. I learned the art of guerrilla warfare out of sheer necessity and fantasized how I could further refine it to better effect. Never underestimate the power of Tuvan throat singing played at the highest volume possible to disperse a threatening crowd outside your gate.
The economic bust in the 90’s had a devastating impact upon my already broken community. Home owners walked away from their underwater mortgages. And then there were boarded up abandoned apartments that were set on fire and stripped of copper. I had seen a great deal in my life, but I had never seen that kind of societal nihilism and economic annihilation.
It was a sheer fluke of fate that I walked into a nondescript building on University Avenue not far from the house. There was a sign in the window about how to get a street tree. This was the office of the newly formed City Heights Community Development Corporation. I ended up talking to Frank Gormlie, the CDC’s community organizer. Does the name Frank Gormlie sound familiar? Yes, Frank is indeed the Editordude of the OBRag and editor of the San Diego Free Press. And he is also why I am writing here.
At that point I hadn’t figured out much about City Heights. What was with this place? It was a tremendous relief for me to meet Frank. I finally had someone to talk to about this strange place and I was soon on my way to becoming a community activist. That required a crash course in the political and demographic history of City Heights as well as an in-depth look at how our city government operates. This was all fascinating, but more important, illuminating information.
To say that City Heights is an undesirable, crime ridden community filled with scary (non-white) poor people tells you everything except why. And because that statement does not address the why of it, it is untrue and only has value in diverting attention from the truth for dubious and contemptible reasons. The City of San Diego and its district wide elected representatives at the time turned their collective backs on City Heights because they could, and because they had much bigger and more important fish to fry north of Rte 8.
City Heights, along with the other mid-city communities of North Park, University Heights and Normal Heights were starved of capital improvement funds and public infrastructure investments. Zoning laws increased density without attendant increases in park spaces, libraries, recreation centers or transit opportunities. The Huffman hovels were not only dropped on properties that had been the site of single family homes, they wiped out mature trees and landscaping and covered everything in concrete. No onsite management was required for less than sixteen units. The uglification was complete.
At the same time, waves of Vietnamese refugees were being relocated to San Diego and many ended up living in City Heights. In the space of a few decades, City Heights residents became poorer, more culturally diverse as new waves of immigrants arrived from war torn corners of the globe, and transient. This is not the kind of electorate that keeps a close eye on the machinations of government, let alone influences it.
Community activism paid off to the degree that the I-15 construction through the heart of the community was mitigated with a block of cover and that the redevelopment effort at the Urban Village along University and Fairmount Avenue was also done at our behest and with our input. Two new schools were built, a police substation, a library with a performance annex, and a public park. These were critical steps to redress the neglect and inequity, but they still are not enough.
My small corner of City Heights did become safer and more stable over time. New first time home owners moved in and the abandoned apartments were sold and fixed up. I am no longer an urban guerrilla. The Great Recession has reached its cold bony fingers into my street and community and I am concerned about that. But as I said, we more or less all get along.