In the beginning, they planned to upgrade. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, stay here five years, then sell and move into a bigger home.’ But then, we were discussing it with our next-door neighbors — they were also part of the phase-one buyers. They said that when they bought into this community, that was it; this was their permanent home. They said they were very disappointed with the many neighbors who were thinking of flipping and moving. They wanted to build relationships.”
When the bubble started expanding, the Gallardos started hesitating. “We got reluctant. We thought it sounded too good to be true. I’d love to move to a bigger home, but I’d rather go for security. I love facts. If I’m going to move, I want it to be because I can afford it and pay it off.” Eventually, “I thought it was really crazy. There were people buying homes smaller than this one for $600,000. I was wondering, ‘Are they thinking it’s going to go up to a million? Why would they buy if they didn’t think it was going to go up?’ It was very sad to see.” A cheerful exception: “One of our good friends lived a couple houses up the street. He was also a phase-one buyer.” Later, “He rented out his house here and purchased a larger home, much more expensive. Eventually, he had to foreclose on that one, but because he had kept this one, he was able to come back here. He had something to fall back on.”
Now that they’ve dodged the foreclosure frenzy, “We figure, ‘Okay, we’ll be living here for quite a long time. We definitely want to get to know everyone.’” Their only regret is that the homeowner’s association can’t afford to staff the security cottage 24/7. “The security cottage was a big reason why a lot of us purchased in these communities. The plan was to have it 24/7 after all the homes had been built and sold. But because of the foreclosures, the homeowner’s association says they don’t have it in their budget. Now we have someone from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.”
The Block Party
A Mylar balloon shaped like the sun twitches in the warm late-afternoon breeze; it is fastened to one of the hazard markers blocking through traffic to the street. From here, the party can be seen off at the end of the cul-de-sac: people, tents, a fire truck. Between here and there, house after stucco house, three models varying slightly in footprint, shade of tan, and complexity of roofline. As you get closer, you can hear the children: scads of them, mostly under ten, riding tricycles, playing badminton, reflecting in their faces and skin the street’s ethnic mix of Filipino, Hispanic, white, Asian, and black. Guys man the four grills spread out along the curb; ladies staff the row of serving tables, dishing out a mix of Filipino fare and backyard American standards. You can fetch beer or soda for yourself out of the coolers.
Judy Gallardo floats from table to table, not quite a hostess, but definitely a facilitator. She invited the policeman, who is letting the kids blare the siren. She invited the firefighters, who are letting other kids hold a running fire hose. Later, she will gather the adults and get down to civics: “I just want everyone to know that these guys may not be here next year because of the tough economy — budget cuts and such. Many of us moved here because it’s such a great community: the schools, the fire department, the police department. If in the next few months you hear about fund-raising efforts for the fire department, it’s really important that you participate. And we can also help out by showing up to city council meetings.”
When I see Gallardo a few weeks after the fact, she is still enthusiastic about the event. “Everyone was so excited and happy to participate, which was amazing. I was very surprised to find that we have some high schoolers here on the street. And we’ve started seeing new neighbors coming outside with their kids, people who just kept to themselves before this. One of the new daddies came out with his 18-month-old son and started talking to us. We said, ‘As soon as your son starts running, he’ll be out here running with the rest of them.’ Before, he probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to just come out and say, ‘How’s it going?’ It’s very nice to be able to recognize more faces.”
The Child Culture
Of course, there already was some community going here, thanks in no small part to those children’s birthday parties and, before that, to children in general. The surrounding neighborhood is lousy with parks: Veteran’s Park to the east, Heritage Park, even a park just across Palomar. It’s one of the things that make the area so attractive. Even so, says Gallardo, “Usually, on Fridays, our kids will be outside in the cul-de-sac.” Because sometimes, lots of times, you don’t want to make the trek to the park; you just want the kids to go outside and play. Backyards here tend to be small (Gallardo’s lot, which is typical, is around 7000 square feet) and surrounded by high fences; if you want room to run with your buddies, you go out front. And because this is modern-day America and there are things like Megan’s Law websites, “A couple of us adults will go down there to monitor their playing. In the summer, they’re out there from around 6:00 until 8:00 or so. We have to drag them inside for dinner. The sun goes down and it starts to get cool pretty fast, but the kids don’t feel a thing.” While the kids play, the grown-ups get to talking. People get friendly, and when birthdays roll around, “We make sure we send out invites to everyone.”
Once upon a time, maybe, communities would gather to celebrate great communal events, like the harvest, or perhaps around events that united disparate parts of the community, like a wedding. Maybe there was a town square, with a church and a marketplace. Down here in Otay Ranch, the nearest thing to a town square is probably the yawning and opulent Otay Ranch Town Center Mall, four miles to the east of Gallardo’s home, just off the toll section of the 125. There are other, smaller squares on the way from there to here: earth-toned clusters of two-story stucco buildings containing, say, a dentist’s office, a pediatric clinic, a Calvary Chapel, and a bar-and-grill. But you wouldn’t want to throw a party there. Down here on McCain Valley Court, the community gathers in your backyard, for your child’s birthday party.