“Street trees,” noted the study, “are not an abundant feature.”
“A poor community takes what little it can get,” Maria Maya says, explaining why people continue to live in Barrio Logan. “Back then, we didn’t have all the scientific information, the data on hand that we have now. But when we found out the chemicals that were being dumped there, we all said, ‘We better watch out.’”
In the years following the 1978 report, manufacturing and housing continued to coexist side by side. “In fact, the pace of industrial siting in residential areas,” says Joy Williams, research director at the Environmental Health Coalition, “increased after 1978.” This fact of Barrio Logan life was compounded by the various welding shops, refinishers, chrome platers, auto dismantlers, and port-related industries that, over the decades, had been grandfathered into the fabric of the neighborhood.
But within that time frame, diesel truck, cargo ship, and factory emissions were reduced; low-income housing was constructed; and a couple of years ago, a chain supermarket, the Mercado Northgate — known to some as the Latino Whole Foods — opened for business. Gentrification gained a toehold as well, partially from the expansion of the East Village, and partially due to artists who were drawn to the barrio by cheap rents.
“With change comes discomfort,” says Matt Carr. “You get out of your zone.” Carr introduces himself as a ship-tank cleaner by trade. He is president of Cal Marine on Main Street in Barrio Logan; the U.S. Navy is their biggest customer. “I’ve never been involved in any sort of civic process before,” he says by phone of his stewardship of the Barrio Logan Smart Growth Coalition. “It’s going on five years that I’ve been involved. It’s been quite a process for us.” Carr, Jerry Gray of Sloan Electric, and Billie Bernard of R&H Properties started Smart Growth in 2008 to represent the neighborhood’s business interests.
Carr says that in spite of their best lobbying efforts, “From all indications of what we can see, alternative number one will be presented to the city council. The current administration made it clear that one of the objectives was to go back to neighborhoods.”
The larger bone of contention is that alternative one would force relocation of some of the existing barrio industry to a dedicated zone farther south. That’s been a nonstarter for Smart Growth all along.
“There’s a lot of business here that supports the maritime industry. It makes sense that they be close to the waterfront.” Carr says he fears the eventual erosion of San Diego’s industrial base. “It’s like old-growth forest. Once it’s gone, it doesn’t come back.”
“It’s a very interesting time down here.”
Luis Murillo is a development associate at the Barrio Logan College Institute, an afterschool, college-prep nonprofit. “We’ve been around for what, 17 years? People in the community either know a lot about us or they know nothing about us. But, now our work is being recognized.” Murillo says that every child who has participated in their program has gone on to college. “We have a 100 percent success rate.”
One can see interesting things from the front door of the institute. Industrial cranes and massive grain elevators crowd the skyline to the west behind an ugly blue-and-gray warehouse, vacant, weedy, and barb-wired. Main Street more or less ends at a steel fence with loops of prison-yard concertina wire along the top. In the immediate background are Petco Park and the downtown skyline, including the new library rotunda that shimmers in the afternoon sky.
“Our students come to us with the condition that they have to be the first in their family to go to college. They are first or second generation. We focus on academics and personal identity. Our students are people of color, and they are going through puberty. They’re living totally different lives than their parents.” Of 200 students enrolled, 150 are active in the Barrio Logan program, and 50, Murillo says, are presently away at college.
“We start in the third grade. Most of our students go to Perkins, then they come here after.” The Barrio Logan College Institute was launched, he says, as the result of a Harvard study that posited that school dropouts could be predicted by the third grade. Three such pilot programs were opened around the country in urban neighborhoods to test the theory. “We started in a borrowed classroom at Perkins, and the only one of the three that stayed open was us.” He says the school’s annual budget of $770,000 comes from private contributions and grants. “This year, we will be receiving funding from the City of San Diego and from the Department of Education, via their Promise Neighborhoods grant.”
Murillo has reservations about the possibility of rezoning and change coming to the barrio. “That’s actually one of the things that concerns us a bit. We’re trying to educate parents so that in case the rental fees go up, they will have the means to get by in the future.” He sees both good and bad in the current redevelopment scheme. “The Mercado is good, because now families don’t have to take a bus to go to the Walmart. But the mom-and-pop stores here are hurting or shutting down.”
But Murillo is sanguine about the immediate future. “Barrio Logan has a real good grassroots culture. The same people that fought for Chicano Park, they are still working to make sure that people who live here are protected.”
“People always ask, ‘What’s it like down here?’”
Matt Devine’s answer is, “It’s fun.” Devine, a sculptor, resembles a young Eric Clapton dressed like a welder. He recently completed a 25-foot-tall 5000-pound abstraction installed at the corner of Nimitz and Harbor Drive in Point Loma. “People are great down here,” he says. “Half of my tenants are females, and some of them work late without any problem.”
A few years ago, Devine and his wife leased an aging warehouse on Main Street where Devine could set up shop. To help turn the nut, the two subdivided the cavernous interior into enclosed spaces of various sizes that they in turn sublet to other artists.