This is not a manana neighborhood. Its people are tillers of the soil, hard workers even unto the ripening of years. Grandpa Cruz worked in the fields unti he was well into his eighties, and only a broken leg, occasioned by a fall from a tree he was trimming, stopped him. He may have recovered had his physicians known how to prepare stone-ground tortillas and given him his six-pack a day. It was the sterile hospital environment that brought his years down upon him with a vengeance, and in a few months he was felled by a stroke.
His neighbor two doors down still works and is a couple decades past retirement age. Pleased to point out that he has all his own teeth, even though some are mostly gold, he tends grape vines in his garden and raises several choice bunches yearly. Late afternoons he may be found with a cane in one hand and a hoe in the other, stopping on his property or his neighbors’, shifting his weight to the cane, and digging up a recalcitrant weed.
Serafin Hurtado, son-in-law to the late Grandpa Cruz, is in his late sixties and still puts in six days a week in the fields. He would work indefinitely, but his wife Josephine has been coaxing him to retire. He will compromise and lay down his farm tools in a few more years, but he will do so reluctantly. He doesn’t want to become an old man. Only old men retire, and there are few old men here, no matter how many their years.
Life has been good along Second Avenue, though admittedly modest. Most of the men are agricultural workers, and their leathered hands evince a strength both of body and of spirit. These are proud people, but they suffer from no braggadocio. Their pride is the pride of a man who has done his job well, knows it, and is content to rest as the sun rests.
Do not call them chicanos; they dislike the word. They are Mexican-Americans: the first, because their roots lie to the south; the second, because their sons and fathers have lived and died here. Most of the families along Second Avenue have lived in Escondido for forty or fifty years, and residents of this enclave are the people who built North County and made its sweating lands flourish.
They want nothing more than to be left alone and to be allowed to do as they wish with their meager holdings. They know their neighborhood will change, more rapidly now than before, and it has been their wish that any changes would accrue to their children’s benefit. They had once planned on leaving their descendants the small properties along Second Avenue, but now they fear their land will be taken away from them by the city, and for the first time in half a century these people are flexing their political muscles. They shy at becoming involved in public controversies, but they realize the alternative is to see their old homes disappear into the maw of the bulldozer.
Their story is complex in its turnings, but simple in its outline, and its outcome will be a sign for other cities which plan to use police powers to renovate older sections of town. Escondido is no longer a sleepy little hamlet, and its problems are no longer the inconsequential problems of a fork in the road. What is decided here will affect people elsewhere, and the decision will come on November 8, when the voters of Escondido determine whether redevelopment through condemnation proceedings will come to their central city area, an area which contains, in its southeast quadrant, this Mexican-American enclave.
The city fathers want Escondido to be the site of a major regional shopping center, and most people in Escondido seem to welcome such a lucrative tax base. What may turn into North County’s largest dispute in years revolves around where the shopping center should be and how land for it should be obtained.
Three sites have been under consideration by the city council. One is an undeveloped seventy-acre portion of Kit Carson Park, at the southern end of town. The suggestion that this city-owned land become a haven for cars and crowds met with vigorous opposition from environmentalist groups and from those upper-income homeowners whose sundecks overlook the park. The Kit Carson proposal has been unceremoniously shelved.
Second on the list of possible locations is the El Norte Parkway area at the northern end of Escondido, where a large tract of vacant land is in the hands of private developers. Alap Skuba, who has political stars in his eyes, opposes the El Norte location, claiming a shopping center there would encourage a northward expansion of the city. Businessmen in the downtown core fear the El Norte complex may draw customers away from them; and the powerful auto dealers, who are looking for new sites for their dealerships, say the El Norte area has poor accessibility from the freeways. Further, some major department stores—May Co., Broadway, J.C. Penney, and Robinson's—have told the city council they have no interest in locating so far north.
The location with the greatest support— and potentially the greatest opposition—is what is known as the Centre City site. It lies between what used to be the downtown section of Interstate 15 (now called Centre City Parkway) and the new Interstate 15 bypass which swings around the western side of Escondido. Unlike the Kit Carson and El Norte sites, this area is already developed. Light industry occupies most of the acreage; there are two oil distributorships which serve farmers, a lumber mill, a granary, a newly constructed bakery, and other businesses. The southernmost part of the Centre City area, the land flanking Second Avenue, is residential. This is the Mexican-American enclave.
A shopping center can move into Centre City only if the present businesses and residents move out, and none of them are inclined to leave. The city council has decided to give them no choice and has set itself up as a redevelopment agency empowered to condemn the buildings and pay bottom dollar for the land within the affected area, which has officially become Escondido's redevelopment zone. The council came to this decision because it was made an offer it could not refuse. The offer came from Ernest Hahn.
Hahn's development company drew up plans for a regional shopping center, one designed to “revitalize” Escondido's drab central core, and laid the plans before the city council. Three of the five councilmen found in the plans the city’s and their own (political) salvation. Hahn’s plans are for more than just a shopping center, although his firm will be responsible only for the construction of the retail stores. The remaining acreage will be devoted to a city-county complex (home of the new city hall), a large auto park—something like National City’s “Mile of Cars”—and new residential housing, intended for low-income families who can afford high rent.
The Centre City proposal immediately received the blessing of the auto dealers, the Chamber of Commerce (which is generally regarded as an extension of the auto dealers), merchants whose stores are within a few blocks of the redevelopment zone, and even some environmentalists who, while not liking the prospect of 40,000 cars visiting Escondido on weekends, realize that a redeveloped Centre City will mean an untouched Kit Carson Park.
The businessmen who face the prospect of losing their livelihoods have banded together in what they think is appropriately called the Save Our Businesses (SOBs) organization. They have placed ads in the local press, have gone door to door, and have been instrumental in getting on the November 8 ballot a measure designed to quash the redevelopment scheme. Although the city’s leading lights are arrayed against them, they think they have a good chance of winning. After all, in only a couple of weeks they had their initiative petitions signed by fully a fifth of Escondido’s 23,000 registered voters, and the Centre City businessmen consider than a good sign.
Most press coverage, both in Escondido and in San Diego, has been of the wrangling within the city council chambers, reports on Ernest Hahn and his intentions, and commentaries about the plight of the Centre City business community. Virtually nothing has been written about what is perhaps the most poignant story of all, that of the Mexican-American residents who live along Second Avenue, the key artery through the redevelopment zone.
These couple dozen families have lived as an insular community for decades. Some have been in the same houses since the First World War. Many of the families are related by blood or marriage, and nearly all the working men are employed as agricultural workers.
One who is not is Jess Lopez, since 1954 the owner of the Lopez Market. His store is at the comer of Second and Centre City Parkway, and a large portion of his clientele consists of farm workers who live near the border or in Mexico and who work around Escondido. “This is the only store they can feel comfortable in,” explains Lopez. “When they go to a big shopping center, they feel embarrassed; they’re simple people. If my store is taken away from me, there’ll be no store at all for them.”
About 40 or 50 farm hands each spend an average of three or four dollars a day in the Lopez Market. Jess Lopez relies on their patronage, and they rely on him. A neighbor recounted a story that one time an old man came into the store and asked for a pouch of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. He requested that it be put on his tab, and Lopez wrote out a credit slip. But he didn’t spear the slip on the spindle. Instead, when the old man left, Lopez tore the slip and threw it away. “Why did you do that?” asked his neighbor. “That old man,” said Lopez, pointing to the bent figure ambling along the street, “is not actually a Mexican; he is an Indian and very poor. He could never afford to pay his bills, so…”
Lopez, for actions like this, is known as the local saint, an appellation he eschews, but one his friends all agree is accurate. He looks after the people around Second Avenue, and because of his work the area has become one of the centers of Latin culture in Escondido.
When Jess Lopez built his store he got a variance from the city’s zoning department. The original zoning was light industrial; it remains that today. He has long waited to expand the store and add a small parking lot. The city will allow him to tear down the two old houses he owns on the next lots, but he would have to put up something that fits the designation of industrial. A grocery store is not an industry, so Lopez can do little with his property.
He has been told his land is worth two dollars a square foot so long as it is zoned industrial. This is what the city would pay him under condemnation proceedings. A couple blocks away, under commercial zoning, is an undeveloped lot for which the owner is asking $300,000. True, the lot is several times as large as the 2,000 square-foot lot on which the Lopez Market stands, but most of the price disparity is the result of different zoning and, particularly, the fact that the Lopez land is within the redevelopment zone.
Julian Villalobos purchased property on Second Avenue in 1942. He still owns the land, though he lives in Poway now; he is one of the few “expatriates.” Forty-seven years old and retired from the Navy, he sees a lot of potential for his land, if the city doesn’t take it first.
On his property are three old houses he rents out. He would like to tear down one and put up a new rental unit, but he is prohibited from doing this because of the zoning restrictions (which were passed long after the present houses were constructed). For four months the city had a building moratorium on top of the zoning ordinances. Under the moratorium only $1,000 could be used to repair or keep up each parcel around Second Avenue. The improvements needed by Villalobos’s houses would cost considerably more than that, so he was forced to let the buildings deteriorate. The city now claims the area is blighted and needs to be redeveloped.
“What the city wants to do is subsidize a private developer to the detriment of the present owners, who want to improve their lot but are prohibited from doing so. To my knowledge, there is not one person living here who owes anything on his property,” says Villalobos. “If forced to move, these people will have to take on large mortgages at their new homes, and they just don’t have the money to handle that.
“When the land is appraised for redevelopment, that appraisal will end up being close to the present assessed value, which takes into account both the industrial zoning of this area and the condition of the property. It’s not going to be based on potential value, which is many times the assessed value.” Villalobos notes that this Mexican-American community occupies what is now perhaps the most valuable land in the city, land bordering Second Avenue, which is the main offramp from the new freeway bypass. “If we could develop this land on our own, we and our children could be secure.” Development through redevelopment, he contends, would only mean security for Mr. Hahn and for those city council members who want to ride redevelopment into higher offices.
Serafin and Josephine Hurtado moved to the area in 1928. “The longer we keep the land, the better future we will have,” he explains, eyeing his wife, who returns a wink. “We think we have a good opportunity to lease our land to some developer on our own.” What the Hurtados and the other residents of this enclave would like to do is agree among themselves to build a mercado-like plaza. It would straddle Second Avenue and would be architecturally and functionally a unit. The various families would first receive cash from the developer—enough cash to buy good housing elsewhere, with no mortgage. Then they would grant the developer a long-term lease, the income from which they could live on and then will to their children. But these plans are contingent upon the redevelopment scheme being repealed at the polls and on a change in the area's zoning from industrial to commercial.
While Serafin Hurtado talks about the possibilities of renovating the land on their own, his wife’s main concern is her mother’s health. Although she and her husband now live outside the redevelopment area, her mother still lives in the house on the corner of Second and Centre City Parkway, across the street from the Lopez Market. “She has lived most of her life here, in this house my dad left her. I would like her to come to my house, but she says no; she wants to be in her own house. It’s old, but it’s hers -at least for a while.”
When news of the redevelopment plan first arrived Mrs. Hurtado’s mother, who is known as Grandma Cruz, became ill. She is eighty-seven. “She now has great-grandchildren, and they and her children and grandchildren all live in the neighborhood. If we had to move they would all be scattered around. At first the redevelopment people told us we could stick together, but later they stopped saying that. Who could believe such a thing?"
Grandma Cruz’s property might end up being part of the proposed city-county complex. This building would have about 60.000 square feet of office space, most of it for the new city hall. With its surrounding landscaping and parking, it would take about seven acres. City Manager Kenneth Lounsbery was reported as saying that the acquisition costs for the acreage would be $500,000. That works out to $8.33 a square foot if he meant the land immediately under the complex; if he meant all seven acres, which is more probable, that would be $1.65 a square foot. This would be in payment for both the land and the improvements. Grandma Cruz gets $170 monthly from Social Security. “Do you think she can afford to buy a new house on that? Or even rent a small apartment?” asks Mrs. Hurtado. “If she loses her land, she’ll be condemned to a rest home.” Mrs. Hurtado fears what they would do to her mother.
Next to Grandma Cruz’s property is the vacant Micromanipulator building, which has three large doors and was at one time intended to be a garage. Fifteen years ago it was purchased by R.D. “Stan” Hancock, and in those days Second Avenue was not even paved. The only Anglo on the block, Hancock notes that only two people in the area are not bilingual. One woman, Sara Cruz, does not speak English, and Hancock does not speak Spanish.
“There are a number of things I can tell you about these people that they probably won’t tell you about themselves,” he confides. “The thing that impresses me most of all is the close family ties they have. Take the Cruzes next door—when I moved here there was Grandpa Cruz, Grandma Cruz, and a brother-in-law who, at that time, was well into his eighties. And then you take Anglos like ourselves; by the time we reach the age of the Cruzes we’re in rest homes and don't have but occasional visits from relatives. But the Cruzes have been bathed in a constant stream of children.
“They’re unique. They’ve got the only house in Escondido with both a gas stove and a wood stove. I talked to Grandma Cruz about the stoves a few years ago. She said the gas stove is fine if you’re going to make coffee or just boil water. But if you’re going to cook enchiladas, you need a wood stove.” At Christmas time, Hancock confesses, he is particularly nice to Grandma Cruz, for it is then that she makes turkey tamales. Hancock gets a dozen of them.
The tamales start with backyard cages holding live turkeys, which are slaughtered and thrust into scalding water. The feathers are plucked, and the birds are then cooked and sliced. Grandma Cruz’s backyard is noted for more than just the yearly turkey feast. The place contains choice mulberry trees and the city’s only outhouse, which has a flush toilet. Hancock says the women use the bathroom in the house, while the men make the trek to the outhouse. Perhaps that little walk has something to do with their longevity, he muses.
The backyard is often filled with the cooing of Grandma Cruz’s doves. Over the years she has kept several varieties, and Hancock thinks the present ones sound like soft woodwind instruments. At one time there was a dove that used to sing along with one of Hancock’s machines, and for quite a while Grandma Cruz had a parrot which would say “Kitty, kitty, kitty.” The parrot was so large no cat ever took up the offer.
Hancock says the city fathers would like to run bulldozers over the houses because they are old and not up to present building standards. But the city, he contends, fails to realize that these people are self-sufficient, that they’re earning their own livings, that they can redevelop the area themselves and maintain their own integrity and their children’s security. They’re particularly frugal, too, he points out. When Second Avenue was widened a few years ago. before it became the main offramp for the new freeway, each property owner was assessed about $1,000 for the improvements. Hancock let his assessment go to bond so he could pay it off over several years. More than three-fourths of the people on the street paid cash. “This is significant considering all these people were agricultural workers.” Hancock points with pride that there is no fence between his property and his neighbors’. He would sometimes forget to lock his building, but he never lost anything, not even the smallest tool, to one of the local children. In Los Angeles you wouldn't get caught after sundown in a neighborhood with this kind of appearance. But my wife would often work here alone until eleven at night.” He says there has simply never been any crime in the area, a fact seconded by Jess Lopez, who explains that he has never had any trouble at his market.
Most large trucks used to get through Escondido by using Grand Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare. But the merchants complained about the noise, which was admittedly bothersome. They petitioned the city council to reroute the trucks along Second Avenue, which is one-way eastward, and Valley Parkway, which is one-way westward. An environmental impact report was filed which said there would be no adverse effects from having the trucks go down Second, a residential street, even though these were the same trucks that caused too much noise on Grand.
Because of the redirection of the traffic, Hancock had to move his company elsewhere. The vibrations from the trucks and the sodium in the exhaust fumes prevented his people from building semiconductor devices. All the residents on Second were hurt when the curbs were later painted red, thus eliminating on-street parking, and the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street was removed. The area is no longer considered safe for children. Then came the building moratorium and the $1,000 ceiling on repairs.
The average lot here is 7,000 square feet. If given two dollars a square foot under condemnation proceedings, the owners would get $14,000. Even if they were then given the greatest relocation expenses allowed by law ($15,000). the $29,000 total would still not pay for a home anywhere else in town. No one expects the relocation expenses to be more than a few hundred dollars per family, and this means any new home, no matter how dilapidated, would carry with it a burdensome mortgage, the payments for which these people could not meet.
Hancock says if the area were rezoned commercial, the financial advisors he has spoken with estimate each 7.000 square-foot lot would be worth between $75,000 and $100,000. which means the mercado could be a real possibility. “These are the people who built this community and we owe them the profits of their work. They aren’t speculators from the outside; they’ve lived here for forty, fifty, or sixty years. And keeping their land is a small reward for their service to the community and to their country. Just because they’re old or speak Spanish they shouldn’t be kicked off and have their property handed over to Hahn. This is a moral battle.” he says, “which we’ll win because we have morality and truth on our side.”
Each Monday night the Second Avenue residents meet in Stan Hancock’s vacant Micromanipulator building, where they discuss how best to employ their meager resources to insure the success of the November 8 ballot measure. In this matter they are led by a young attorney, Gary Kreep. who has made their fight his own.
Hanging from the walls and ceiling of Hancock’s building are full-size reproductions of old American flags, and there is in their presence a certain irony in that the government these people and their fathers adopted now plans to take away what little they have. To the homeowners along Second Avenue that seems wrong. The land was watered with their sweat for more than half a century, and they feel the first fruits should be theirs.