But along with gangs and absent board-and-care moguls, there are those who seek to better the community rather than take advantage of it. Heavy improvements are planned for Paradise Hills, the biggest of which is the ongoing Reo Drive Revitalization Project, which has been more than ten years in the making and aims to spruce up Paradise Hills' one-block commercial hub. The situation outside the rows of shops on Reo Drive is atrocious. Cars park in small lots of uneven and potholed blacktop that extends all the way to the curb. Sidewalks are almost nonexistent. At either end of the block sit two empty, weed-filled lots, one formerly a gas station and the other a failed recycling center. A third empty lot mid-block is screened by a fence. It was Guy Preuss who, after spending a morning in South Park to grab breakfast, realized that there were alternatives to the current layout of Reo Drive. In South Park he saw a narrowed street, a widened sidewalk, and trees on Grape Street in front of the Big Kitchen. "There was a sign on the corner that said this was done with federal transportation money at $750,000," Preuss says, "and I looked at that and said, 'How can this happen here and we have crap in Paradise Hills?'"
Preuss went to work. Along with various other community activists, he spoke to the dean of the NewSchool of Architecture, former planning department head Michael Stepner, and Stepner organized a two-semester course that gave students, divided into two teams, the task of designing a revamped Reo Drive. "What happened is the students came up with models, and they came up with a little booklet," Preuss describes. "We had community meetings. On the corner we have a 99-cent store now, but at the time we had a storefront church in there, and the church let us use that for community meetings, and we had a merchant association and everybody bought into the project. We sort of combined the best features of the two teams for the street design."
The next step was finding funds. The project was awarded some park and rec money from the state--about $300,000--and the City commenced engineering studies. Congressman Bob Filner came to visit the site. "He got us some transportation money," says Preuss, a $300,000 grant, which required a 20 percent match from the City.
The students' work was both comprehensive and thorough. Phase one of their design included the 14-foot-wide sidewalks, the narrowed street, diagonal parking, and a landscaped median. But after the initial funds were raised, the project stalled. By 2003 enough money remained to plant eight small trees, build three crosswalks of tan concrete stamped in a river-rock pattern, and construct four sidewalk popouts at either end of the block, to reduce the distance for pedestrians crossing the street. A memorial plaque for one of the integral members of the project team, Danny Delgadillo, was installed mid-block.
There is a long, long way to go. Congressman Filner acquired another grant for the project, for $250,000, which also requires a match from the City. "We were up to $900,000 --somewhere around there--which you would think would finish the project," says Preuss. He pauses for emphasis. "They're still doing the engineering studies."
No matter the setbacks, the project marches on. "We convinced Filner and Tony Young that if they finished this project, it uplifts the neighborhood," says Preuss, "and it's true. This is the only commercial center in Paradise Hills. You get the 14-foot-wide sidewalks, you get the opportunity for little places like this to do sidewalk dining. Fourteen-foot-wide sidewalks make this commercially viable, and we start putting in sales-tax revenue back in the City."
Another project in the planning stage: a new library. Located two blocks south of the business district, the branch library, built in 1964, is showing signs of wear. Pat Fickling, who has been head librarian since 1994, points out stains on the particleboard ceiling where rainwater has threatened to spill down onto shelves and ruin the books. "This is years and years and years' worth of leaks," she says, pointing to a buckling brown patch, "and that's just one of the places. There's a leak that's right over one of the Internet computers, and one morning we came in and the computers were just sitting in puddles of water." The library is scheduled to be replaced in 2010. "There's no site chosen, and there's no money, so I don't know exactly how they're going to do it, but it would be nice to go out on that note," says Fickling, speaking of her retirement, which is slated for the same year.
Fickling, who does not live in Paradise Hills but is a community champion nonetheless, watches over the library with a careful eye and has an acute understanding of the community's movements. "There used to be a wonderful Mexican restaurant across the street," she says, pointing out the front window, "but they got priced out of business. I guess they kept raising the rent and raising the rent. And that was really a community gathering space too." Fickling makes a point of being a fixture in the area and attends many community events and meetings. "At one time, there was really a spirit of activism in this neighborhood," she says, shaking her head, pointing at an archived flyer for the library's "buy a brick, build a library program," which allowed residents to purchase a symbolic brick to help raise money for the present building. That was close to 40 years ago.
Despite what might seem like a lag in community activism--the PTA at one of the local schools, Fickling says, totals three parents--several groups watch over Paradise Hills, the biggest of which is the Skyline–Paradise Hills Planning Committee. A mix of residents from both communities, the group's responsibilities include considering conditional-use permits--off-sale beer and wine licenses, housing-extension plans made by residents who wish to expand their homes, and cell-phone towers, which not only provide additional phone service but can be a lucrative opportunity for homeowners. Many cellular companies construct what they call stealth antennas, which disguise the towers as light poles, chimneys, or trees. Homeowners can get up to 15 grand a year by allowing one of these to be installed on their property. The trees are strange structures, too tall and bright to be real trees, pouring forth a harvest of green boxes. There was recent grappling over one stealth antenna, which some considered an eyesore, but the resident finally won out; at 15 grand a pop, it's hard to argue against.