On July15th, 1991, we moved into this house. After the last of the boxes had been delivered, we went to sleep with the windows open to let some air in on what had been one of the hottest summers. At about midnight, we were woken up by the sound of a chainsaw coming from a few doors down. It turned out a crazed man sawed off the hand of a man he had caught his wife having an affair with (at least that’s the story the cops gave us).
That was the first memory I had as an 11-year-old child and a new resident of City Heights or what I call “Shitty Heights.”
Back in the early ’90s there still was a significant amount of “white” people living here. Around the mid-’90s, they left. What remained were the old ladies who had lived in the area for decades and us, who naively believed this neighborhood would improve in the next few years. But who were we kidding?
As the old ladies died one after the other, their houses were inherited by banks who rented the properties to the most despicable swine imaginable: drug dealers, molesters, abusers, prostitutes, cockfighting rooster- and pit-bull breeders, and overexcessive beer-drinking college students, just to give you an idea. For several years, the few home owners on my block had to hold meetings along with police officers to try to keep peace and order around here. It was beyond tedious and the retaliation was horrendous. Our property and cars were constantly vandalized by graffiti, pissed on, and littered on. We couldn’t even own or leave pets outside for a day, for fear of poisoning or theft; two of our neighbors had had their Pomeranians stolen within the same month, while another neighbor found that her Labrador had ingested poisoned food that must have been thrown into her yard by a passerby.
The day someone broke into our house and stole our belongings, including our laundry detergent, we bought a security system for the house, and ultimately, ended up putting bars on all windows for extra security. To me, window bars are the trademark of the “ghetto.” I refused to accept it then, but had to acknowledge that our neighborhood had begun to turn more and more unpleasant by the year. I may have only been a young kid, but felt as though I was living in a prison; a perilous prison where even stepping out into the sidewalk was a risk.
When I was in middle school, as I was walking to the bus stop, I was assaulted by three Asian wannabe gang members around my age. They wanted money. All I had was bus fare. They kicked, scratched, and punched me over the fucking bus fare! That is the day I remember as the time I got beat up for a measly dollar and some cents. I was too ashamed to tell anyone; I never told my parents or the police, because in this environment, if you hadn’t been stabbed or shot, then any other crime was thought to be meaningless. After that day, I refused to ride a bus, refused to go drop a letter in the mailbox or return library books to the branch that was a few blocks away, and more devastatingly, refused to leave my house other than to go to school. I only left home when I knew someone would give me a ride to and from school. Having no ride meant I was going to be absent. I was absent a lot.
My parents worked so much in their lousy jobs and were hardly ever around to notice the daytime plague of the community. Being the eldest, I had to take care of my younger brother in the afternoons before they got home. My brother and I had bikes that we rarely rode. Only when there were lots of other kids playing in the streets did we feel it was safe to go outside. However, the phrase “there is safety in numbers” does not apply when you live in hell. My brother’s bike was stolen right out of his hands and mine was later stolen out of our gated back yard. As the crimes escalated, so did my hatred of this community. I pleaded for us to move again, anywhere! But my father had bought the house and we couldn’t afford to move. Besides, it would be hard to sell because nobody wanted to reside in hell!
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I managed to survive high school while still living here, then went off to college, got my degrees and became a teacher. A couple years ago, just as I was moving forward, yearning to get a home of my own on a street that ends in Place, Lane, or Court, I had to move back. My father was diagnosed with cancer and needed someone to support him, so I returned to help.
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I left once, I’m back again, and things haven’t changed. The occasional gunshot, car chase, siren, and helicopter racket still remind me of where I am. I look at my house and at those houses around it. It’s quite a disappointing sight; downright depressing. It leads me to believe that all the effort my father invested and ruined his health for was all a waste. Why are there so few people who care about this community? When did it become acceptable to have ten people sharing a two-bedroom house, or worse, a one-bedroom apartment? But my favorite question (as honestly portrayed in the film Crash): Who told all those people it was all right to park their cars on the lawn? Many say it’s the difference between owners and renters, or the educated vs. the uneducated.
You have no idea how it feels to live this long in a place where the streets have no name, but rather numbers: negative numbers. When you mention any street between 40th and 54th, you’ll get a reaction. Just ask anyone in San Diego and they’ll agree. City Heights doesn’t live up to its name. It’s a pity. It’s dangerous. It’s my neighborhood, but it’s NOT me.