On a sweltering Tuesday morning in late August, a three-man crew begins day two of the demolition of Leo’s Auto Shop at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Dwight Street in City Heights. In heavy boots, face masks, and hard hats, the workers clean up debris from yesterday’s destruction of two small houses and a garage. Today’s job will entail the razing of the rest of the structures on the property: one more small house and an open garage.
A long-contested presence at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Dwight Street, the auto shop has been considered “blight” by neighbors for many years. Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association president José Lopez claims the problems began with a Christmas party in 2008; the association first heard complaints about the shop at their monthly meeting in January 2009. In an email he explains that issues included “toxic fumes and other pollutants showered onto all the residential housing,” blocked driveways, “junk cars” on the street, and “near misses” at the corner, due to the abundance of auto-shop customers and employees.
“We see the rubble as a victory pile for the residents and the successful and productive organizing from the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association,” Lopez writes.
Before further razing begins this morning, 50-year-old Mark Abina, who lives in the house directly behind property, asks the demo crew for one small favor: Would they be so kind as to help him save some baby birds?
For the past few weeks, Abina has seen pigeons flying in and out of the open garage, which backs up against his house. The past two mornings, he has heard the chirps of baby birds coming from the same area.
At his request, one of the workers gets up in the Bobcat with a box provided by Abina and removes the nest, which holds three baby pigeons and three eggs. Abina then drives the box over to Project Wildlife on Morena Boulevard.
A half-hour later, Abina and his 83-year-old mother stand on the front porch of their home discussing the changes they’ve seen on the adjacent property.
“I’ve lived here for 58 years,” says Socorro Abina over the crashing sounds of wood and metal debris landing in a dumpster. “I remember when it was a bus depot.”
“Yeah, I remember that as a kid,” Mark says. “The buses would all run their engines. All that diesel exhaust.”
“And then those paint fumes from the auto shop,” Mark continues. “I’m surprised we don’t have cancer from all that stuff we sucked in.”
Socorro reminds him that, in the house, at least, they’ve kept the windows sealed for years.
Nhung Lu Booth, who has owned the property for more than 20 years, refused to comment, except to say that she plans to put an apartment building where the auto shop once stood.
“I don’t like it,” Socorro says of the idea.
“Nobody ever wants to have an apartment complex next to their house,” Mark agrees. “But it will enhance the neighborhood if they do it right.”
He points across Dwight Street to the family clinic that was built in 2010 on a property that had previously held only a small, abandoned house and a lot filled with weeds. Today, a two-story, putty-colored stucco building stands at the corner. Parking spaces behind the building will keep visitors’ cars off the street. The landscaping in front includes a gazebo, foliage, and a small putting green.
“They’re an ideal neighbor,” Mark says of the clinic. “It’s a medical office in a nice building with quality construction. They have good parking and security fences. It’s a model.”
The model is a good one for the rest of the neighborhood, he says, pointing out empty buildings along Euclid that have stood unused for years.
If building owners around the area continue with improvements similar to the clinic, Mark says, “North Park could definitely blend with East San Diego.”
“It would help a lot if Euclid Street was cleaned up,” says his mother. “All this trash!”
Across the street from where Mark and Socorro chat on their porch, Tina Dickinson washes her car in the shade of a carport. Dickinson disagrees that the clinic is an ideal neighbor. While the first floor of the building is dedicated to the family clinic, the second has an independent-living facility for the elderly. At night, this causes issues for her.
“People are making noises in the middle of the night, groaning and stuff,” she says through the metal mesh of her chainlink fence. “It’s not normal.”
As for the auto shop, Dickinson says, “It was a pain,” especially when customers parked in front of her driveway, marked only by a dip in the curb (rather than by a proper, easily visible slab of concrete next to a small plot of grass). But when she approached the auto-shop owners, they addressed the situation.
“I liked the guys from the auto-body shop, but not the owner [of the property],” she says. “They have other properties on this street, and they rent to people who have problems with the law. They don’t care who they rent to, as long as they get their money. They don’t care about us.”
José Lopez has a positive outlook on the future of the neighborhood.
“Any new residential use or mix-use [retail] for this property is happily welcome, apartment buildings included,” he writes. “It will be a greater improvement to what was there before, and more sanitary to the environment and the residents’ health.”
Dickinson and the Abinas have apprehensions about whether current neighbor concerns will be taken into consideration when the building is erected.
“It will definitely add to the traffic and make it more congested,” Mark says.
Lopez is already in the process of making requests to Booth regarding the flow of traffic.
“We will be asking the property owner to include on her design of the new building the use of the driveway(s) entrance/exits to the new structures to be on the Euclid Avenue side completely, to unclog traffic from Dwight Street,” he writes.
Misgivings about tenants and traffic aside, Dickinson puts it simply: “The apartment building will be better than an auto-body shop.” ■