“It’s working out fine,” he says of his Glashaus, which he calls an artist collective studio, gallery, and event venue. “There are no problems at all with working down here.” He says that the Glashaus is a symptom of the slow turn taking place in the barrio: Devine considers it part of the neighborhood’s gentrification. “When we first moved in four-and-a-half years ago, I don’t think there was anybody else down here. The Bakery had just opened, and there was the Woodbury architecture school, but that was about all.”
Devine is certain that the arts have brought new tenants to Barrio Logan, if for no other reason than the economy. “Ten years ago, it was the same thing in Little Italy. You could get space cheap there. Now, rents are too high. Some artists are still in Little Italy, but most got pushed out. Artists aren’t the richest people. We’re always looking for inexpensive space.”
Devine estimates that there are more than 100 artists presently working in Barrio Logan. “I have 30 tenants of my own,” he says. Similar warehouse conversions likewise house 30 or more artists each. Along with the aforementioned Bakery at 16th and National, “there’s the Union on Main Street, and he’s got almost double the space I have.” Some artists actually live in the barrio, Devine says, as well as upstream in surrounding Sherman Heights and Golden Hill.
“Some of the people in the arts down here are pushing to make Barrio Logan the next arts destination,” he says. “I’m not a member of any boards or any committees, but we’ll see if that happens.”
“Chicken soup. That’s what we call it, the barrio community swimming pool.”
Image by Howie Rosen
“This is my place,” says Karina Spilker. “I don’t wanna leave. I wanna clean it up.”
Born and raised in Barrio Logan, Karina Spilker manages the MAAC Project STEP (Striving Towards Economic Prosperity) center, which is located inside the security-gated Barrio Mercado apartment complex. She assures a visitor that her comment is not an indictment of the pool’s water quality.
“No, that’s just what we call it.” She laughs. “Chicken soup. People say, hey, we’re going to chicken soup. It is only open during the summer. There’s always a big line outside waiting to get in.” She offers a walking tour of the complex. A majority of the residents here are undocumented, she explains, but all have children that were born in the U.S. “And they have to have an ITIN [individual taxpayer identification number] from the Internal Revenue Service. They are taxpayers. As long as they have an ITIN number, we can rent to them.”
From all outward appearances, the Barrio Mercado appears to be something it is not: a middle-class oasis, a pricy condo development. It is, in truth, affordable housing and intended solely for the barrio’s low-income wage-earners and their families. The sprawling complex was built under the auspices of the MAAC Project 17 years ago, in the shadow of the Coronado bridge, on what was once San Diego Gas & Electric property. The westward view is not pretty: an astonishing array of power lines and towers and high-voltage grids of a kind not generally seen in the suburbs.
A low industrial hum fills the air. Is that always present? Yes. Spilker points to some unmarked gunmetal Quonset sheds across the street as the source. She then points out a nondescript gray warehouse that is closed to the public and that otherwise has no signage. “What are they doing in there?” she asks. (A later directory search will show that the tenant is S&M Enterprises, a wholesale marine industrial-supply company.)
A Caltrans truck yard occupies the land next to the Mercado. As such, it is adjacent to a supervised day-care area operated by Head Start for children of the residents. She says that exhaust from idling Caltrans trucks sometimes inundates the play area. “And we get a lot of smog from the bridge on some days.” Spilker agrees that asthma and allergies are fairly common among the residents. There have been days when, because of the fumes, the MAAC Project staff has been sent home.
Chat with Karina Spilker about Barrio Logan
“When Northgate [Mercado, the grocery store] was being built, we thought it [the mysterious toxins] was coming from the trucks. But there are places around here doing things we don’t know about — dumping chemicals, mixing paint. We blame it on the trucks. We blame it on NASSCO. But we really don’t know what the hell a lot of these other companies are doing.”
Whatever it is, she says, the toxic aftereffects have hit close to home. “My own kids dealt with asthma growing up.” Did Spilker ever once consider leaving the barrio? She says no. “This is my place. I don’t wanna leave. I wanna clean it up.”
“My parents were married at that church, the one where Father Brown is.”
In May, former Chula Vista councilman Steve Castaneda ran for State Assembly in the 80th Assembly District, a broad region that includes Chula Vista, National City, San Ysidro, and Barrio Logan. He lost to San Diego and Imperial Counties’ Labor Council CEO Lorena Gonzalez.
Castaneda searches his memory for the name of the church, then comes up with this: “Our Lady of Guadalupe. My mother grew up on Kearney [Avenue] in Logan Heights, before they built the freeway. We’re talking about the 1930s and the ’40s. And there was a lot of industry there back then. In those days, you lived right on the property where your garage or your wrecking company was.”
The area called Logan Heights was originally developed as a lower-middle-class working neighborhood, and eventually became a factory town for the fish, lumber, and shipbuilding industries that dotted the bay. Had it not been for a market collapse in the late 1800s, the barrio might be even more industrialized than it is now. Plans were scrapped to make Logan Heights the western terminus of a cross-country rail system. Instead, that all went north to Los Angeles. Logan Avenue became a small commercial center, and during the 1930s, there was even a public beach and a community pier with amusements. The expansion of the naval base between world wars ended all that.