By Avital Aboody
Last weekend, hundreds of San Diego residents picked up shovels and paint brushes to successfully beautify and activate four alleyways in North Park and Logan Heights. The Media Arts Center on El Cajon Boulevard started the “Take Back the Alley” initiative three years ago by converting their parking lot into a beautiful outdoor events area. But this is the first time that the initiative has actually expanded into the alley (spanning the two blocks between Kansas and Ohio Street), as well as three parallel projects in Logan Heights! For more about how this project got started, read my previous article: Take Back the Alley!
As the Project Coordinator of the Greater Logan Heights Community Partnership, I managed two of the alleyway projects in Logan Heights: one between Imperial Avenue and Commercial Street (between 28th Street and 29th Street) and the other between Clay and Franklin (between 30th and 31st). The third was behind Bread & Salt, an artist work space/ gallery on Julian Avenue, where they planted fruit trees in the alley and unveiled a new mural by Gloria Muriel.
Starting in February, I facilitated biweekly meetings with residents, property owners, business owners, local artists, and other excited community members to discuss current alley conditions and develop our vision for taking back the alley. As I knocked on doors and passed out flyers, I met and befriended the many children that live in the immediate vicinity of the alleys. Sometimes they would excitedly escort me through the alley, pointing out all the new bizarre trash items and telling me what they wanted to see or do in the alley to make it more safe and fun.
So when it came time to hone in on our mural designs, the residents that lived around the alley decided that we should depict all the different types of activities that kids are already doing in the alley, and throughout the neighborhood: biking, playing soccer, hitting a piñata, etc. Our lead artist in the Imperial/Commercial alley, Jorge Mendoza AKA Sinners Brand, sketched some scenes that reflected all these activities as well as images of some of the local businesses along Imperial Avenue and Commercial Street. At our last meeting before the event, the community approved the designs and Jorge got started tracing the outlines on the wall so that the community could paint it in on the big day: May 17, 2014.
But before we could get in there and make art, there were some less sexy improvements to be made. We talked to property owners about trimming overgrown trees, painting over tagging, and fixing faulty fences. Some stepped up and did their part and some just gave us the green light to do it ourselves. The week before the event, I gathered some construction savvy volunteers to reinforce/rebuild a fence that had been an eye sore and a hazard in the alley for who knows how long. The more we were seen doing our part to take care of the alley, the more the community responded by starting to tidy up their own spaces. The ripple effect was working.
After weeks of preparation, driving around collecting the long list of tools/supplies, soliciting donations from individuals, foundations, and businesses, recruiting volunteers, and coordinating all logistics, we were finally ready to get our hands dirty and make a difference.
Our eclectic group of volunteers came from all walks of life, representing all ages and all cultures. In the Clay-Franklin alley, a group of 20 missionaries picked up shovels, weed trimmers, and wheel barrows and cleared all the overgrowth and trash along the edges of the alley. Meanwhile, the neighborhood kids splatter painted on tires, put their hand-prints on the light pole, and made hanging succulent planters out of plastic bottles. Neighbors helped remove a mess of plants from a planter bed and replace it with a beautiful cactus garden. College students helped the younger kids paint a stencil on the ground and repaint a fence in an array of brilliant colors.
In the Imperial-Commercial alley, volunteers also worked hard to fill (actually over-fill) the two dumpsters we had for the event. Then they eagerly put paint to wall, filling in the mural and adding their own flare. The newly reinforced fence was painted in the colors of the Mexican flag. Tires were painted, filled with plants and then stacked up in front of walls. The stencil, designed to mimic permeable paving, was laid down on the ground and painted in green. Some USCD students even repurposed some broken chairs and wood 4x4s to make a creative bench. DJ Ceez kept the beats flowing all day long and at mid-day we had a special guest performance by Mariachi Imperial and Lupita Medrano (La Flor de Zacatecas).
Councilmember David Alvarez made an appearance and Radio Pulso del Barrio, the new grassroots community radio station, came with microphones and a recorder to collect stories from all the participants. Each site had at least ten different projects/activities happening at any given moment, too many things to list in this article. The community was truly alive, and these public spaces were reclaimed. It was a miraculous site.
It remains to be seen whether or not all our hard work will be respected by those who see the Logan Heights alleys as their private dumping grounds. I can’t yet prove that this will lead to sustainable change in the conditions of the alleys, but one thing I know for sure is that the spark has been lit. In the week since the event, I have been back to the alley many times and seen residents happily riding their bikes through the alley and admiring the art, neighbors planting and watering new trees, and artists touching up the murals. I will continue to meet with all partners to establish a plan for upkeep and we will revisit these sites year after year, even as we take on new alley projects.
We set out to take back our alleys and that is exactly what we did.
All photos by Carlos Solorio, unless otherwise noted. More pictures by Carlos Solorio, available here: