By Mario Torero, Brent Beltrán, and Bill Adams / UrbDeZine
Barrio Logan is little known to most San Diegans – beyond being a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood near downtown. Yet it is one of San Diego’s most historically significant and culturally important neighborhoods.
In particular, it has national prominence for its role in the Chicano / Mexican-American civil rights movement. However, more than a Chicano historic asset, the neighborhood and it’s history stands as a monument to the resilience and survival of the nation’s minority and working class populations in the face of assaults and exploitation by the overwhelming power of the state and business interests.
In particular, many ethnic working-class urban neighborhoods across the country were destroyed or severely damaged by en masse relocation of their residents to build freeways and other neighborhood-destroying and suburb serving facilities. Barrio Logan repeatedly faced such assaults, and not only survived but like putting a bouquet of flowers in a tank cannon, sometimes made beauty and purpose out of injury. Nevertheless, once the second largest Mexican-American enclave in the U.S., it has shrunk to less than 5,000 people as a result of the loss of land to the freeways and industrial uses. It may not survive another such assault.
A threat of another assault on Barrio Logan has arrived at its doorstep.
If approved, it’s likely to be the final crushing blow to the neighborhood. A National Football League stadium combined with a convention facility, without parking, may be placed at the edge of Barrio Logan. The “Convadium” is being placed on the ballot as “Measure C” in order to avoid community and environmental review in favor of a city-wide election based on the populist message of “keep the Chargers in San Diego.”
The stadium will undoubtedly place huge pressures on the neighborhood to accommodate traffic and parking. This will likely translate into the demolition of existing residences and businesses for surface parking, widened freeways, roads, bridges, and ramps. The neighborhood, already burdened with the city’s highest asthma and respiratory illness rates due to air pollution from the adjacent I-5 freeway, Coronado bridge, and shipyard industries, will now be expected to accommodate traffic for football games, conventions, concerts, and other events attended by as many as attended by 70,000 thousand people.
Why should this matter to people outside of Barrio Logan?
Barrio Logan’s History of Adversity, Resistance, and Accomplishment
Barrio Logan is as significant to San Diego County as China Town is to the Bay Area. While not as well known and or visible as the Bay Area’s China Town, Barrio Logan is as important historically and culturally. Also like San Francisco’s China Town, it’s still a living and vibrant neighborhood, not simply a monument to the past.
Barrio Logan’s name relates back to 1881 when a street was named Logan Heights (now Logan Ave.) to honor Illinois Congressman John A. Logan who wrote legislation to fund a transcontinental railroad that would end in San Diego but ultimately never materialized. The name came to be applied to the neighborhood.
After 1910, the neighborhood experienced an influx of refugees from the Mexican Revolution. The southern portion of Logan Heights, which experienced most of this influx, came to be called Barrio Logan. The neighborhood became a vibrant and self-sufficient enclave, with homegrown businesses and even its own hard-fought community, health care, and social service centers.
An early assault on the neighborhood came in the form of large-scale ethnic cleansing. Between 1929 and 1941, up to two million Mexican-Americans were deported from the U.S. to Mexico – the majority of whom were U.S. Citizens. The massive deportations finally ended as a result of the demand for labor created by World War II, the Bracero Program to provide manual labor to U.S. farms, and the need for tuna cannery workers in San Diego.
However, WWII resulted in Barrio Logan losing its harbor access due to the expansion of the Naval Station and shipyard industries. After WWII, Barrio Logan residents served as longshoremen in the port facilities and workers in the cannery factories.
A subsequent assault on the neighborhood came in the 1950s – 1960s, when city government rezoned much of the neighborhood, which was predominantly residential, to allow industrial uses and junk yards (“yonkes”). These noxious businesses, mostly anglo-owned, were allowed to locate side by side with existing residences. They impacted the health of residents, particularly children, with poisons ranging from air pollution to toxic metals and chemicals.
In 1963, the construction of Interstate 5 led to the displacement of approximately 5,000 residents, as well homegrown businesses, and the evisceration of the neighborhood. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the spiritual center of the community, was flanked by the 40-foot high freeway retaining wall and eight lanes freeway. Like many ethnic working class urban neighborhoods across the country, Barrio Logan was selected for the routing of I-5 rather than wealthier or whiter neighborhoods, and freeways predominantly served the “white flight” to the suburbs.
As if the freeway wasn’t damaging enough to Barrio Logan, in 1967 the construction of Coronado Bridge displaced more residents and imposed another noxious high-traffic superstructure in the neighborhood. The neighborhood fought back by attempting to make the best of the disaster through the creation of a park underneath the bridge.
By 1969, the community wrested an agreement from the state and city to dedicate 1.8 acres under the bridge for a park and were awaiting state enabling legislation. In the wake of recent consciousness-raising about such urban disasters through widely read books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and activism by the neighborhood in the wake of the enormously disproportionate sacrifices expected of Barrio Logan, the unfairness and injury to the community was hard to ignore – even by the largely unsympathetic suburban power base.
The community had hopes to expand the planned park to adjacent parcels but after waiting for nearly half a year for park construction to begin, the state instead began to prepare an adjacent 3-acre parcel for a highway patrol station.
When the state’s bulldozers arrived at the site, a community member, Mario Solis, sounded the alarm by going to City College to let his fellow students know what was happening. They printed flyers and went door to door to alert the community. Their actions have been likened to Paul Revere sounding the alarm that the British were coming. Community members felt deceived since they had been negotiating with the city and state for all of the land under the bridge and ramps. Residents and Chicano Studies students formed a human chain to stop the work.
What followed was an occupation of the land, in which Barrio residents and their allies began planting and working the land for use as a park. Chicano students and activists from all over the state came to Barrio Logan to assist in the occupation and park work.
In an impassioned town hall meeting with state officials and residents, Salvador “Queso” Torres – the spokesman for an organized group of Chicano artists who were inspired by the murals of black artists in Chicago – spoke about their vision of painting the bridge pillars with murals reflecting Mexican-American culture and history. The group took on the name of Congresso de Artistas Chicanos en Aztlan (“CACA”).
Following a lengthy process and series of negotiations to find an alternate site for the CHP station, the land, including the planned CHP site, was officially approved as a park. After exhausting attempts to negotiate with the authorities about the means of painting on the pillars, the artists decided to proceed and without formal approval. In 1973, organized work on the artists’ vision of murals on the bridge pylons began.
Today, the murals are not only beautiful, but provide a chronicle of Mexican-American and Native American struggles and history. At once both stimulating, and – especially for Anglos in this era of coded slogans like “make America great again” – surprisingly subversive of standard U.S. historical dogma. Among other things, the murals contain depictions of police brutality and Latin-American historical figures, such as Che Guevara, who – as part of the U.S. Cold War mentality – have been long depicted as communist villains.
Each year, the Saturday closest to April 22 is celebrated as Chicano Park Day. In 1980, the San Diego Historical Site Board designated Chicano Park as a historic site and in 2013, the park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, a U.S. Congressional committee is considering the designation of Chicano Park as a National Historic Landmark, which is reserved for only about one out of thirty-four National Register sites.
During the late sixties and early seventies, Barrio Logan became a national epicenter of the Chicano civil rights and farmworker rights movement.
Occurring during roughly the same time period as the Chicano Park occupation, the occupation of Neighborhood House, was another incident of Barrio empowerment and self-determination. Long an important center of community life and a resource for everything from health care to child care to community dances, Neighborhood House had increasingly come under the control of the state government, eroding its role in the community, particularly in the area of health services.
On October 5, 1970, a group made up of residents, students, and other allies executed a carefully planned takeover and occupation of the facility. One member of the group, Laura Rodriguez, chained herself to the front door. She was chosen for the task because her “grandmotherly” appearance would, it was hoped, deter her forceful removal by the authorities and provide a more sympathetic appearance for the occupation.
The occupation lasted two months until finally, on December 6, 1970, the police broke down the back door and arrested those inside. Nevertheless, the occupation attained its primary goal of returning medical services to the neighborhood. Neighborhood House on National Avenue became the Chicano Free Clinic. It was later incorporated and renamed Family Health Centers of San Diego.
The Brown Berets, the Mexican-American allies of the Black Panthers, played an integral part in both the Chicano Park and Neighborhood House occupations. Like the Black Panthers, they were later infiltrated and sabotaged by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) under orders of President Nixon. COINTELPRO’s purpose was to disrupt and undermine civil rights groups by framing, arresting, and discrediting civil rights leaders in the Cold War belief that minority groups were susceptible to communist sympathies.
Barrio Logan’s history of resilience, self-reliance, and service to the greater San Diego Chicano community includes numerous other events, including the establishment of Barrio Station, a facility providing youth and community service programs; The founding of the Barrio Logan Maintenance Assessment District (MAD), employing the Urban Corps to provide “maintenance, sidewalk, and district identity improvements”; The establishment of Cesar E. Chávez Waterfront Park (known as Chicano Park at the Bay by those who struggled for it) in 199o restoring waterfront access to the community; The renaming of Crosby Street to Cesar Chavez Parkway in 2002; The completion of Mercado del Barrio in 2012, 20 years after its conception, providing the neighborhood with a supermarket, new housing, a restaurant and retail center, and educational and community meeting facilities; Community mobilization to preserve, restore, and expand the murals in Chicano Park, even in the face of the mid-1990s statewide bridge retrofit program in which the state and the citywide population initially viewed the murals as little more than graffiti; and the unveiling in 2016 of the concept for the Chicano Park Museum.
Chicano artists have always played a central role in Barrio Logan’s pride and independence. More recently the neighborhood has become recognized as one of the city’s foremost arts districts.
The Death Star Comes to Barrio Logan: The stadium
Nevertheless, citywide insensitivity to the community continues. In 2014, Barrio Logan’s Community Plan was repealed in a city-wide referendum promoted by the Mayor, Chamber of Commerce, and the shipbuilding industry. A planned expansion of port terminal facilities threatens to pour more pollution and traffic into the community.
The neighborhood is also being impacted by gentrification. Increases in land value and rents threaten to displace the neighborhood’s working class and Chicano families. Development catering to suburban transplants, tourists, and corporate chains are beginning to enter the neighborhood. Such gentrification happens incrementally and the neighborhood is devising strategies to combat it.
However, among all the threats to Barrio Logan’s continued existence as a living Chicano neighborhood the proposed downtown stadium and convention facility is by far the most serious. Due to its size – both the structure itself and in terms of its impact on the neighborhood – it packs a devastating wallop.
Ballot Measure C will be the second time in only two years that the neighborhood’s efforts at self-determination have been overridden in a citywide referendum. To add insult to injury, the stadium is for the benefit of a billionaire owner, Dean Spanos, who’s family fortune was (according to a recent news article) established exploiting Mexican farm workers, taking advantage of their lack of food access to sell nutritionally substandard meals at inflated prices.
The China Town comparison has further parallels. In contrast to San Francisco, San Diego’s own China Town, still with a resident Chinese population as recently as the early 1990s, is now nothing more than a small museum and a few building plaques. The Chinese residents are gone. The last nail in the coffin of San Diego’s China Town was the city’s redevelopment program and Convention Center construction. Perversely, and perhaps prophetically for Barrio Logan, the program which spelled doom for the neighborhood helped pay for the plaques and museum.
Similarly, Spanos is making promises of donations to various Barrio Logan entities in the hope of dividing neighborhood opposition to the Convadium. With recent examples close at hand, it is not hard to imagine the neighborhood devoid of it’s Chicano residents, supplanted by stadium and convention catering development and parking lots, with the hard-fought-for neighborhood assets nothing more than curiosities and decaying mementos for tourists and sports fans. One can even imagine a salutatory plaque memorializing some Spanos donation made to serve the public relations of the stadium.
Despite its incredible history of resilience, Barrio Logan is at a tipping point. The neighborhood has been constricted and segmented, and its residential population diluted by the combination of I-5, bridge infrastructure, industrial and commercial uses, and gentrification. An assault on the scale of the proposed Convadium would likely reduce its existing residential population below what is necessary for a sustainable and authentic neighborhood. Even in its present state, Barrio Logan will likely need to significantly increase its affordable housing stock to hold off displacement from gentrification.
A stadium with its gigantic mass – 12 solid blocks and up to 400 feet in high, its need for hundreds of acres of parking and traffic infrastructure upgrades, as well as its sea change in land use toward ancillary drinking and eating establishments and stadium service facilities, will overwhelm the remaining residential orientation of the neighborhood.
Barrio Logan is the cultural, historical, and political capitol of the city’s Chicano population. In a country with a history of always displacing its citizens of color from places of value, Barrio Logan is the Chicano community’s claim to San Diego’s quickly growing and soon to be major U.S. downtown.
Will Barrio Logan be ceded to gentrification and facilities serving those who abandoned the city’s urban neighborhoods in the 60s through 80s? Now that central urban property is again valuable, will Chicanos be forced off it and into the suburbs being abandoned by the new urbanists? What becomes of Chicano Park if there are no more Chicanos living in Barrio Logan? Racially motivated vandalism of the park murals have been perpetrated before and would likely increase without the watchful eyes of Chicano residents. Their lessons in history, culture, art, and pride are diluted if the park is geographically severed from Chicano residents.
The entire San Diego citizenry – but particularly the Latino community – must show solidarity with Barrio Logan and reject Spanos’s Trojan Horse Measure C to protect and preserve what is truly their own historic and cultural heritage.
For Further Reading:
The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights: The Occupation of Neighborhood House…, San Diego Free Press, July 4, 2015, Maria E. Garcia.
The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights: The Not-So-Great Depression and WW II Come to Logan Heights – Part I, San Diego Free Press, July 21, 2015, Maria E. Garcia
Brown Berets, COINTELPRO, Chicano Park, Barrio Logan, Bracero Program, Chicano, Wikipedia
History of Chicano Park, Project, Kathleen L. Robles, M.A., cultural anthropologist, San Diego State University
Richard Griswold del Castillo, Ph.D, historian, San Diego State University
The Battle of Chicano Park: A Brief History of the Takeover, www.chicano-park.com, Marco Anguiano, Chicano Park Steering Committee.
How the Spanos Family Built a Fortune Selling Bologna Sandwiches to Mexican Farmworkers, Voice of San Diego, Ry Rivard, September 29, 2016.
Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It’s Happened Before, NPR Mid-day Edition, Adrian Florido, September 8, 2015
Barrio Logan Arts District has officially arrived, San Diego CityBeat, Kinsee Morlan, Jan. 13, 2014
Barrio Station – Embracing the Community / Abrazando la Communidad