SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From 1918 to the occupation in 1972
By Maria Garcia
From the moment Joe Serrano tasted bread for the first time he loved it. Until he attended kindergarten at Neighborhood House in the 1920’s Joe had never eaten bread. He remembers their snack of milk and bread coming from Mike Amador’s store, right across the street. I have surmised that there was some type of an arrangement between the Neighborhood House and Mr. Amador.
After kindergarten at Neighborhood House, Joe attended Burbank Elementary. His principal was Miss Barbara. If students did not behave, Miss Barbara would put her hands on your shoulders and dig her rather long fingernails right into your skin. Even today, almost 80 years later, Joe remembers when a black woman came to enroll her son at Burbank and was told by Miss Barbara that her son would have to have to go to “their” school–Logan Elementary, which was a mere three blocks away.
Joe was in fourth grade and was very confused since this boy lived on the same block as he did. Even at that age he knew something was wrong with what was being done to his little neighbor. He went to school with a lot of Japanese children who would bring Japanese candy to share with him and which he loved. He said prior to W.W. II the Japanese families had the “good property.”
According to the Barrio Logan Historical Survey:
The abalone industry grew until 1918, at which time it was estimated that fifty percent of San Diego’s fishing crews were Japanese. Most of the crews were based out of Logan Heights. The fishermen would work during the season from March until November and would return to San Diego to live in the fishery warehouses or stay in Baja during the rest of the year. Housing for Japanese workers was located on present-day Cesar Chavez Boulevard and on the wharfs of the Lower California Fisheries Co. Tuna and the International Packing Corporation. (City of San Diego 2011)
Some of the Japanese fishermen families had houses on the pier. Joe remembers feeling very sad when they were moved to relocation camps in the 1940’s.
Joe had many memorable experiences at Neighborhood House. He fondly remembers going with other boys from Neighborhood House to Camp Dehesa. They were transported in a large truck and he remembers sleeping outside under a large tree at the camp. There was a large room which by the description sounds like a cafeteria where the cooking was done.
Surgery, including tonsillectomies, took place in the kitchen with the auditorium being used as the recovery room.
Settlement Houses in general and Neighborhood House in particular had a public health component. Neighborhood House received some city funding during the 1920’s to sponsor a nurse, a pre-natal and well baby clinic and Red Cross classes. Joe’s medical needs were taken care of by the nurses and doctors at Neighborhood House.
The doctors volunteered their time and performed exams as well as minor surgery. Surgery, including tonsillectomies, took place in the kitchen with the auditorium being used as the recovery room. There was a yearly medical exam which his mother made sure he had.
Once he and his uncle were rough-housing and his uncle tripped him. As a result of being tripped one leg was shorter than the other. He was not about to tell his mother about the rough-housing, however she decided that a trip to the clinic was merited. When the doctor saw his leg, he decided to give it a rather robust pull. That leg snapped back into place and nothing was said about how the accident had occurred.
Mr. Serrano played several sports, including baseball, through Neighborhood House. His baseball team was sponsored by Fenton Junior Construction Company. Another sport he enjoyed was basketball. Joe tells a story of the chocolate tennis shoe with a mischievous smile and swears it was “the other guy’s” idea. As he told the story I got the impression that it may not have been his idea but he enjoyed every minute of it.
The old tennis shoe remained in the chocolate until it was time to serve this special treat…
After a basketball tournament between the junior and the senior boys the coach would have a couple of the guys from the losing team take the responsibility for making the chocolate and putting the cookies out for the winning team. Over the course of this particular game the juniors had taken a great deal of harassment and teasing from the winning senior boys. The junior group was feeling angry, not only at losing the game, but for the excessive amount of teasing they had endured.
Joe and his buddy John Campos were given the assignment of making the chocolate. Near the stove sat an old and dirty tennis shoe. The boys decided to add some flavor to the chocolate by adding the tennis shoe! Joe swears it was John’s idea, but as I wrote before, I believe it was by mutual agreement. The old tennis shoe remained in the chocolate until it was time to serve this special treat, whereupon they threw the old shoe away. Joe still laughs when he recalls the seniors telling them it was the best chocolate they had ever had.
Board games were a regular part of the Neighborhood House activities, however Joe remembers that he also learned to play “spin the bottle” at Neighborhood House. You would take the young lady down the hall and into the janitor’s closet for your winning kiss. As a rule, girls did not “hang out” at Neighborhood House. If they went to Neighborhood House it was to take a class and return home. Thus the fact that there were girls available for this game is unusual.
Several of those I have interviewed remember a “fruit truck,” a free food distribution program. The truck would pull into the alley behind Neighborhood House or to an empty lot near the fire station. He remembers oranges and thinks they had been donated by the various warehouses. It reminded me of the deliveries currently being made by Feeding America.
Joe tasted his first slice of bread at Neighborhood House and as the years passed his family became very involved in the bread making process. His mother, Mrs. Jenny Serrano, taught the women at Neighborhood House how to make bread dough which was baked in the community oven.
The outdoor oven was fired up by his father, Joe Serrano senior. Joe remembers the smell of warm bread filling the air around Neighborhood House. The family was definitely a part of the Neighborhood House experience. Jenny taught crafts at Neighborhood House and one of the projects was making candles out of bread dough.
There was a special trust with Mrs. Brackett who worked as a nursing assistant at Neighborhood House and the Serrano family. One of Mrs. Brackett’s sons had some serious mental problems and had to be driven to Patton State Hospital. Joe’s brother was recruited to ride with Mrs. Brackett on the trip to the hospital. It was his responsibility to sit by the door to assure that the young man did not attempt to jump out the door. My reason for sharing this story is to show the level of trust that had developed between the two families — the Serrano family allowing their son to ride over one hundred miles to the hospital and Mrs. Brackett trusting them to help her and not spread gossip all over the neighborhood.
Joe says they never moved too far from Neighborhood House. At one point they lived on Julian across the street from Cramer’s Bakery, where Bread & Salt is located today. The room upstairs was rented out for parties, and dances took place on a regular basis. The family would place a bench in the front yard and listen to the music floating down from the party upstairs. At the end of the evening they would sit on the bench waiting for the fight that would usually follow. The evening entertainment was music followed by a fight in the middle of the street.
Joe graduated from San Diego High School in 1946 in what was called a midterm graduation. He knew he would be drafted, so along with two of his buddies, they enlisted. All three boys thought they would be assigned to the same base; they were ready to go. They boys had seen another neighborhood guy in what they felt was a “cool uniform” and were ready to join and be seen as cool. Joe took a test and ended up in the Army Air Corps.
There was a nurse, Mrs. Jenny Rodriguez, who had some “big position” with the county and came to the Neighborhood House on a regular basis. Mrs. Serrano mentioned to Mrs. Rodriguez that Joe was at Fort March. The question that followed was “Do you want him home?” Mrs. Serrano did not hesitate to say “yes.”
Joe is not sure what happened exactly but he does know that he was called in to his commanding officer’s office and asked “How soon do you want to go home?” His response was “Now” and within a few days he was packing his bags to return home to Logan Heights. To this day Joe does not know what the letter said but assumes it questioned his mental state.
Mr. Serrano was married in 1948 and his only further contact with Neighborhood House was attending union meetings that were held in the auditorium. He has very fond memories of Neighborhood House and talks about how safe he felt growing up in that neighborhood. Like many of the young men and women that were active at Neighborhood House, he went on to become a good citizen, to raise a family and to recognize that the lessons he learned at Neighborhood House helped to make him successful.