By Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller
For those who know progressive politics in San Diego, Carlos and Linda LeGerrette are local legends. Starting with their roles in founding MEChA at Mesa College in the sixties and flowing through their deep involvement with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement to their local community activism and fine work with the Cesar Chavez Service Clubs in our schools, the Legrettes’ great hearts and regard for their neighbors is boundless.
No one has done more for their community than Carlos and Linda LeGerrette, and they are greatly loved and respected by all those who they have touched over the years. It was our absolute pleasure to interview them on their lives, work, and deep roots in a place they jokingly call “Golden Park Heights.”
Tell us a bit about your neighborhood, “Golden Park Heights?. How would you characterize it?
It’s a bit of heaven in paradise. Think of it this way: for 280 collective years (102,200 days), 10 families residing on the 1300 block of Grove Street have lived as neighbors. Divide the number of families into the collective years and on average, each family has lived 28 years in the same home.
Compare that to the average family in the U.S. who moves every 5-6 years. Of these, select ten Grove Street homes. On our part of Grove Street, there are two families still in homes where their grandparents lived over half-century ago. The neighborhood mix includes those working in the construction trades, educators, administrators, theatre people, food service and government workers, artists and musicians, stay-at-homers, and a couple of retirees. Throw into this mix the 71-year old longshoreman who reports daily to the union hiring hall before the sun shines its rays and you get our Golden Park Heights (Golden Hill/South Park/Brooklyn Heights) neighborhood.
Obviously, the “numbers” of these neighbors are “abnormal” when compared to the national average. We’re very happy living this abnormal life for the past 43 years since moving to paradise in 1970. We’ll only be leaving horizontally.
How did you end up on Grove Street? What is your family history in San Diego?
Before moving to Grove Street we lived in a small, two-bedroom cottage off of 45th and Market Street that had to have been “temporary” WWII housing. Then our family began to grow. First our daughter, Tonantzin, was born, and then we added a mother-in-law and her two sons we rescued at 2 a.m. from a Clairemont phone booth. After that, a favorite cousin, a Ranger in Vietnam, was discharged from the service (with high combat honors he would never discuss), and we had seven people under our roof with two dogs, Huelgista and MEChA. It was time to move!
Both our families have deep roots in San Diego. Linda’s family can be traced to the Old Town settlers, and Carlos’s came to San Diego prior to 1900. We would be considered mestizos, as Linda’s father was a Russian immigrant and Carlos’ grandfather, Filipino-Chinese. Our major bloodline is Mexican ancestry, though. Linda’s father retired from the Marines and her mother pretty much dedicated herself to raising seven kids. Carlos’s mother was a fish cleaner in the local canneries and would later do retail work at Walker-Scott’s at 5th and Broadway and at Marston’s at 7th and C Street. Carlos’s dad also worked at the fish canneries and at Convair, but he is best known as an accomplished musician. In 1955, Carlos’s family would open Ocean Beach’s first Mexican restaurant, El Trovador, now known as Nati’s.
Linda’s early childhood was in Shelltown; Carlos’s was in Logan Heights, now Barrio Logan. Clairemont is where Linda spent her teens. After three stints in federal housing “projects” (Linda Vista, Frontier, and Azure Vista), Carlos would finally land in Old Town.
How did you meet?
Linda: I had a picture of Carlos that I cut out of my sister’s annual, and I carried it around with me for a year before we met.
Carlos: The Clairemont rec dance floor is where I first saw Linda, which will forever be imprinted in my head. I had just graduated from Point Loma High and Linda was attending Clairemont High (she later graduated from Madison). About a year later we first began talking. The rest is history.
Tell us about your political history.
Our politics came to the forefront after we got married in 1966 when we were both attending Mesa College. We were in a student club called Club Amigos that did charity work, but lacked the political engagement we were seeking. So, one evening, we were at a Tijuana dinner with the Club Amigos from San Diego State and we huddled together and drew up a plan to start a political organization, MAYA (Mexican-American Youth Association) that would later become MEChA.
When we started the first club at Mesa, the organization needed a cause to rally around. The Delano grape strike headed by Cesar Chavez was the perfect calling. Once we adopted that cause, the club grew quickly and successfully. As things heated up the landlords of the duplex where we had been living as “model” tenants wanted us out because of our politics. So we moved to 45th and Market Street and became homeowners after borrowing the necessary $300 down payment for our new $7200 house. The mortgage was less than what we were previously paying for rent and our new neighbors loved our politics.
The 1966 to 1970 years brought huge political lessons for us, and opportunities in the civil rights, feminist, gay rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. We were also involved in the fight for workers’ rights, prison reform, the struggle for welfare rights, and the battle to expand equal education. During this period, we helped organize successful caravans to assist the striking Delano grape workers and befriended Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) leadership. Eventually we accepted Chavez’ s request to lead the local efforts of the UFW.
The core values of the UFW allowed us to develop many valuable relationships with the leadership of these diverse movements. Although we continued to lead the UFW effort, Carlos also accepted the administrative offer by San Diego State College (SDSC) to organize and expand the Chicano Education Opportunities Program (EOP). This was SDSC’s effort to recruit students from many unrepresented communities. And it was this job that provided me (Carlos) the necessary salary to move from our small, overcrowded house to a home with ample room to accommodate our whole extended family.
So that’s how you ended up on Grove Street?
Yes. We wanted to live close to downtown so we looked at two homes. The first, Scripps’s home on 28th and Ash, was too expensive at over $30,000 but the Grove Street abode was much more affordable at $5000 less. So we completed the paperwork and the move to paradise was done.
David Piker (may he rest in peace), a retired army sergeant, liberal Democrat, decorated WWII Prisoner of War, knocked on our door and welcomed us into the neighborhood minutes after we moved in. We gave David the moniker of “Mr. America.” He was the neighborhood caretaker in many ways. He checked in with the neighbors, protected the stray cats, put out and took in trashcans of the forgetful, swept the streets, etc. Mr. America was a one-man citizen’s watch committee. David also took care of his mother until her passing at 105 years of age. They just don’t get any better than David Piker. He represented what was best about our tiny slice of the ‘hood.
Did you keep up the political work once you moved into your new house on Grove Street?
Of course. The UFW’s successful grape boycott brought the growers to their knees in 1970 and the growers agreed to industry-wide contracts that covered thousands of workers. The reach of those Central Valley contracts extended to Grove Street when Cesar Chavez asked us to join him as assistants to help him administer the UFW business at the new farmworker retreat headquarters nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Tehachapi in the small town of Keene, CA.
This would lead to my (Carlos) resignation from SDSC and my handsome monthly salary – nice while it lasted—fell to the regular $5 per week plus room and board (the same as Chavez) of the farmworkers’ movement. So we left in 1971 but returned in 1976 due to a major health challenge of Linda’s, and we wanted to be close to family and friends. While our work with the UFW was very important, it was great to be back.
What did you do once you returned to Golden Hill?
I (Carlos) wanted to work close to home, so I walked into the 28th and B Street storefront of the Neighborhood Outreach Program (NOP) office of Executive Director, Jim Bliesner, and talked my way into a job as a community organizer. At my new position, I worked very hard and built and developed strong and diverse relationships throughout the community.
This eventually led to an elected position on the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee, along with cohorts Daniel Morales (ex-UFW), Tom Webb (Sup. Roger Hedgecock rep), and Michael Sterns (Comptroller, San Diego Trust and Savings Bank AND planning committee chair). Other members included the architect Bruce Dammann, Barbara McCarthy and others. Our politically diverse committee came together with common goals that we thought would bring positive change to the greater benefit of all the community.
We wanted to avoid the over-building we had witnessed in many parts of North Park, Normal Heights, and City Heights. The main goal was to “down” zone the almost 100% R-4 designation tattooed on the Greater Golden Hill community. That designation allowed four units to be built on a 5000 square foot lot. We also wanted to centralize the commercial areas and to establish a historic district.
In the end, after countless publicly noticed meetings, the committee was successful in meeting the three goals. The down-zoning created an outcry of residents who testified that they were unaware of the meetings and threatened court action. No legal action ever ensued though and, ironically, months later many of those outraged residents were singing praises of the committee for the down-zoning actions. Why? The reason was that their property values were now higher with a lower density designation (R1A) that restricted multiple units.
Later there wasn’t much of a whimper when it came to the new designation areas of the commercial and historic district areas. Probably 60-70% of the community was rezoned, if the mind hasn’t fuzzed too much over the past 35 years.
How did all this change the community?
Did these actions affect the future of the neighborhood? For sure South Park would not exist as we know it today if this had not happened. Instead of twelve single-family homes on one block, envision each block with twelve apartment buildings with an inventory of 48 total units. Parking? What parking? Sadly, much of the R4 designation had already taken place in many of the areas south of A Street, and therefore was much more zoning restrictive.
Some years after the successful down-zoning, there was an attempt by a later, and totally different Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee to allow apartments to be built in many areas of South Park. A handful of Grove Street residents went door-to-door during the Easter weekend and returned to a full San Diego City Council meeting with petitions signed by every household in the affected areas testifying that they were in total disagreement with the proposed changes.
Councilmember Bob Filner put forth the motion to accept the committee’s recommendations and allow the multiple density designations. During the discussion, I (Carlos) presented the signed petitions asking the council not to vote for a proposal that the entire neighborhood was against.
Mayor Maureen O’Conner took charge stating that the petitions definitely had to be considered. To make a long story short, our band of petitioners was successful in beating back the proposal. This was thanks to Mayor O’Conner and council members Wes Pratt, Ron Roberts. And Abbe Wolfsheimer too. Sometimes politics puts one at odds with their friends. But in the end it was political, not personal.
Over the years, your Grove Street home has become a political hub of sorts. What other kinds of activism has been cooked up in your dining room?
We are totally indebted to our neighbors for their patience and understanding for our political meetings and all of our community and family get-togethers. Organizations and issues such as the United Farm Workers, United Domestic Workers, San Diego Unity League, Educate for the Future, Cesar Chavez Service Clubs, Mother’s Embracing Nuclear Disarmament, district elections, Planned Parenthood, Middle Class Tax Payers Association, and countless local political campaigns and fundraisers have taken root over our dining room table.
Living in San Diego’s most liberal precinct also brings with it absolute bragging rights. All of us have worked hard and for many years to wear this badge of honor. It hasn’t been easy.
Over the years, many politicos and other VIP types have stepped on the sacred grounds of our community. Sure, we were fortunate to purchase a beautiful, two-story, Tudor style home that fits very well for these get-togethers. But the house is just the backdrop. We’ve always testified what really gives color to our home is the totally eclectic group that crosses through the door for so many different reasons.
How do you see gentrification affecting the community?
Gentrification definitely has hit the community. We believe that, because of the respect the planning committee had for the total community, that they would have gone “mano-a-mano” against the condo converters. The majority of the victims jettisoned because of the conversions will never return to the neighborhood. They can’t afford to. But, let’s bring it a little closer to home. How many of us living on our present means could afford to buy a home in Golden Hill, South Park or Brooklyn Heights? Kinda sobering, isn’t it?
Eight years ago, from 30th and A (and Fern) Street north to 30th and Juniper area, there were six establishments one could get a bite to eat at. Today that number has grown to nineteen, with Buona Forchetta (fantastica!) being the latest. The two black families who lived on our 1300 block of Grove Street were replaced by non-African Americans. This was the same fate for the Filipino and Vietnamese families who lived on the 1400 block of 31st Street. When was the last home purchase in your neighborhood by an ethnic person?
The old hardware store at 30th and Beech is now a yoga studio. Alchemy serves out of what was a burned out building. Vagabond serves its worldly food from the former location of a used appliance storefront. And who would have ever imagined a pizzeria the caliber of Buona Forchetta would open in a former wash house-turned-Santos Coffee House that lay dormant for years? That’s “progress” and gentrification, like it or not. There definitely have been some downsides. However, the upside is that we still have a very diverse community, and both of us feel we are still in the “honeymoon” stage.
Any final thoughts?
Our Grove Street home is now ancestral. After the two of us leave horizontally, our daughter Tonantzin will proudly accept her generational role. After all, she grew up here. And, our granddaughter, Natalie, and grandson, Joe-Carlos, although grown, have already voiced their intentions to take their Mom’s position–at the appropriate time, of course. They too have spent many a year with us. And, we can’t forget Grandma Lil (Linda’s mom) who lived with us for over thirty years until she gracefully died in the Grove Street home she loved.
Does it get any better? We don’t think so. The pathway to heaven travels through our Golden Park Heights neighborhood.