By Ernie McCray
If a community could be labeled a hero then City Heights would be mine. I’ve loved the community for a long time. I used to live there back in 68 or 69 – when I was trying to get my life back in line after it had been weakened by more drama than one would find in a telenovela storyline. So, to my delight, I rediscovered the light in City Heights. That bonded us.
The word around town in those days was that there were streets in the neighborhoods that were “kind of rough” and there was some truth to that but I’ve kept the love.
Over time, though, “rough” became a pretty apt description of the area. Gang banging and drug handling came more and more on the scene. Abodes were crumbling. Citizens had nowhere to go to ask questions as there were no “public services” to speak of. Some definition of “disenfranchised” has to be included in that picture somewhere.
And along came a couple of people who held economic and political power in spades and cared about what was happening in the community enough to put their money and their resources where their hearts and souls were. They set in motion, in the middle of the 90’s, a form of revitalization that epitomizes what it takes to make a community vibrant and sound and proud. Hey, I know how to pick a hero.
So much goes on in City Heights, now, that my generation couldn’t have ever imagined: ethnic restaurants spread about, languages spoken and attire worn from a range of cultures, cultural celebrations in the streets. Nice.
I remember thinking once after performing on the stage at the City Heights Weingart Branch Library and Performance Annex: “Who would have ever thought that City Heights would have a theater scene?” And an art scene as art work was on display. And on several occasions I’ve sat in the beautiful complex’s meeting rooms and discussed politicians and elections and so on and the questions of the day. Every community should be so alive.
Recently I read a book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. She draws our attention to our inner cities, to what’s happening in these neighborhoods, to so many of our youth, our black youth, in particular. She exposes how they are being incarcerated in a form of social dominance that is as powerful or more powerful than the controls Jim Crow Laws imposed on a people not too many years ago.
It’s a case of one caste system being replaced with another, operating under the guise of a “War on Drugs,” where black boys and young men struggling to survive, by any means necessary, in what to them is a hopeless world, are snatched up in a moment in time, perhaps, selling a little crack cocaine to people, like them, who have given up on life. And bam they’re in the slam. Forget rehabilitation. That’s not in the guidebook.
Opportunities in life, in such situations, plummet off a list of possibilities like a lead weight falling from a great height in a world burdened with gravity. What a slick redesign: the formation of a generation of young people, now former inmates, “who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.”
You can’t help but wonder what kind of community is ready to do the work to combat such evil with private prisons spreading like weeds throughout our country, with judges taking payments under the table to convict them and send them off to a Twilight Zone kind of existence where there is no future. No hope. No justice.
But City Heights, my hero, I think, is a community that can rise to such a challenge. Like any community it has much to do but from the beginning of its renaissance it’s gone about its mission in holistic ways, looking at social problems, as a whole, covering business concerns, housing, healthcare, education, social services, public safety and job needs and other quality of life issues. By design. That’s got to be a good sign.
It has so many positive forces, in play, City Heights. It’s energy is in the school superintendent’s office, as Cindy Marten, made her mark at Central Elementary, acting out of her love and respect for children, rising as a master child-oriented facilitator of dynamic learning experiences for young people and their families who loved her back. Our city’s children, including those who live on rough streets, are in the best hands there could be under the leadership of a woman who honed her craft, her art, her approach to working amicably with a community on the 4000 block of Polk Avenue.
City Heights has so many alliances in the broader community. Along these lines it is one of two homes to San Diego State University’s revolutionary humanistic longtime CBB (Community-Based Block) Multi-Cultural Counseling program where students earn masters degrees. Classes and spaces used for working with local clients are located at the Center for Community Counseling. The other site is in an inner city community also.
In this program counselors of all kinds are being developed and nurtured and given guidance in attaining the kind of critical thinking skills and counseling skills and personal growth experiences they will need to work in communities like where they are: City Heights. CBB is an asset to a community that involves itself in any form of change, especially the kinds of societal changes that will be required to address the national disgrace that “The New Jim Crow” highlights so eloquently on each page. It’s a must read.
And, I’m assuming that City Heights will play a role, down the line, in alleviating this crisis that stands in the way of a people’s ongoing search for peace and dignity. Like heroes do. Somebody needs to.