Barrio Logan?” says Dave. “I tell you, soon there won’t be a Barrio Logan. It’ll be swallowed up by downtown.”
Dave and Tennessee and I stand in the dark on National Avenue, by 16th Street, right where the barrio begins. The rosy clouds that were hanging over the trolley clock tower and Petco Park have been swallowed up by the night. All you see of the homeless people across the road are silhouettes moving around inside bivouacs, flashlights turned orange and blue by the tent fabrics. The laughs and rebel calls and arguments of dusk have subsided.
The three of us met five minutes ago. I had decided to walk a couple of blocks up from the trolley station at 12th and Imperial, to check out the murals I’d spotted on two brand-new apartment complexes that have been going up over these past months.
I’m about to cross 16th Street, when here comes this red-faced guy, with a full head of curly silver hair, rolling toward me in his wheelchair, heading west. We get to talking after the wheelchair sticks at the curb. I give him a roll up, noticing how his left leg’s cut off halfway down his calf. His name is Tennessee — that’s where he’s from — and he wants to catch the ballgame from the other side of the park, where they have a giant screen. “You can see it better there than if you’re inside, in the seats,” he says. “The balls come flying right at you, and it’s free.”
I ask if he lives hereabouts.
“In the tall grass up there, near the freeway,” he says, pointing over the roofs to where the I–5 barges through the barrio.
The barrio: Like me, most outsiders only give the place a moment’s thought — that “whew” moment, when you’ve shaken off the snake pit of center-city streets and freeways and can start heading south to National City or west to the Coronado Bridge. But in a flash, it’s gone. The entire neighborhood’s only three miles long and six blocks wide. Shaped like a miniature California. “I’m here because it’s quiet,” says Tennessee. “People know me. And Jesse at the liquor store cashes my check and holds my mail.”
He shifts a book wedged between his thigh and the side canvas of his chair. Mission M.I.A., by J.C. Pollock. “It’s about a rescue mission, had me tearing up,” he says. “I was there, Vietnam. Stepped on a punji stick in ’68. Leg got infected. Gangrene.” But he doesn’t sleep with the homeless across the road. “I’m homeless because I like to drink,” he says. “I’ve been living around here awhile, and these people are pretty new.”
A man comes up to us. “You seen a guy with a carton of cigarettes?” he asks. “He was supposed to bring them back from TJ. I gave him $20.”
“Here, have one of these,” says Tennessee. He brings out a crumpled box of Marlboros from the pocket of his shorts.
This is happening outside a gloomy yard filled with a hodgepodge of taxis and RVs, a few long-settled cars, and a low building and a car-repair barn. “You okay out there?” says a voice from behind the battened chain-link fence. I see the silhouette of a big man backlit by the yard’s security lights. He’s heading toward us. Guess he’s looking out for Tennessee, what with two strangers standing over him in his wheelchair.
“Yeah, we’re cool,” says Tennessee.
The guy behind the fence turns out to be Dispatch Dave, the night dispatcher of Red Top and American Cab Service. Soon we’re all talking away, with Dave holding forth through the fence, mainly about the homeless colony across the road. “Look at them,” he says. “They were kicked out of East Village. It was very convenient [for the City] to have the barrio right here. The homeless are the first, the advance guard. Then, behind them, come the developers. East Village is starting to burst at the seams. Barrio Logan used to be little family houses, and now it’s becoming multifamily development. Doesn’t have the same warm feeling. There’s a downturn now, but give it time.”
By “it,” of course, he means development, yuppification, a tsunami of the cool crowd coming in and smothering this old neighborhood with their World Culture and their money until, oops, rents are up and suddenly the old Barrio Logan families can’t afford their own neighborhood anymore. It’s hard to argue with that, from here, anyway. Right across 16th Street, the onetime Rescue Mission, an old brick building built in 1910, has been sandblasted and spray-cleaned to a blushing pink, turned into the Blokhaus, with workspaces for architects, coffee-bean wholesalers, sushi-party specialists, retail-design developers, a funky hair salon, and, as local rumors have it, even a space where some young engineers are building a secret, green supercar. The hip and the adventurous venture down here “into the barrio” for the buzz it gives them. And the (for the moment) low rents.
The architect-owners, Graham Downes Architecture and Blokhaus Development, specialize in tapping the hip crowd, with a strategy of turning old factories into live/work spaces. They make a tidy profit along the way. “Blokhaus is here to make a lifestyle difference,” the company website says. “[…]Current endeavors focus on mixed-use projects on the fringes of downtown areas of San Diego and Las Vegas, which are prime for redevelopment. Economic advantage stems from value add capitalization on the increased land values as these new metropolitan precincts emerge.”
So what’s the big deal? Most communities would love to see money pour in, old wrecks of buildings given a new lease on life, and the streets peopled by a prosperous gentry who will pay big property taxes and spend money in local stores. Even if it means pricing out some of the existing population.
But Barrio Logan isn’t most communities. It’s not just about money, but culture, language, history, outlook. You could say Barrio Logan suffers from Mexico’s problem, as one Mexican president, Porfirio Díaz, famously exclaimed: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!” Though Barrio Logan has always been a God-fearing, churchgoing community, it does suffer from nearness: the 550 acres that make up the barrio sit as close to downtown San Diego as you can get. Yet it has a culture and an outlook — and a long-settled population — that make it a stubborn, proud outpost of the Mexican way of life. Not Old Town’s “museum” Mexico, but alive, messy, and especially for the last three decades, passionate in defense of La Raza.
“Varrio Sí. Yonkes No!”
I’d always thought the sign in Chicano Park, painted on one of the legs of the Coronado Bridge, meant “Barrio, yes. Yankees, no!” A nod to the fight in the 1970s to save the land under the bridge for a park. The state reneged on its promise to dedicate it as parkland and was about to hand it over to the CHP to build a patrol station on. I figured the slogan was painted in a time of anger.
I was right, but for the wrong reason. It turns out “Yonkes” — in Chicano Spanish — means “junkyard.” Victor Ochoa and four other artists painted the sign, and the mural below it, in 1977, to protest the 48 junkyards that had invaded the residential neighborhood.
After 25 years in this city, I should be ashamed at knowing next to nothing about the barrio and for missing out on all its life. Two days after meeting Tennessee — and finally inspecting those wonderful two-story-high, Mexican-themed murals on the new apartment buildings along and near National — I’m on my way to meet Georgette Gómez.
We get together at Ryan Bros., the coffee-roasting establishment on Main. It’s in another rejuvenated brick building, this one the former home of Chuey’s famous bar and restaurant. Ryan Bros. may be recent non-Hispanic intruders, but they’ve turned this spacious two-level brick interior into one of the social and business gathering spots of the barrio, well accepted by the community. We sit in a sunny, sunken corner area, drinking coffee. We even spot Nick Inzunza, the onetime city councilmember, working two tables away on some plans with a group of ladies.
“ ‘Varrio Sí. Yonkes No!’ was a protest against all of the junkyards and dumping the city allowed to fill up the barrio,” says Gómez.
Gómez is a director of the Environmental Health Coalition’s Toxic Free Neighborhoods campaign. She says that for years the City has treated Barrio Logan as its most convenient dumping ground. The car junkyard scandal was typical. “Without consulting the people of the barrio, the city switched zoning for the area to mixed-use, which meant junkyards, small factories emitting often toxic fumes, and auto-wreckers could move right in amongst the residents’ homes. That’s what that sign is about.”
She mentions other insults, like the fact that the neighborhood was first sliced by the 5 freeway, then diced by the approaches to the Coronado Bridge, which ripped through the heart of the community. The pollution continues, she says, quoting EHC figures, with over five tons (11,000 pounds) per year of toxic-air contaminants currently emitted near Barrio Logan homes and school. This includes more than 100 pounds of heavy metals. The fumes from one factory, Master Plating, set amongst houses with families and kids, expelled hexavalent chromium — a lethal carcinogen — until it closed in 2002. The neighborhood’s “respiratory hazard index” is 100–200 times above health standards, according to the EPA. Child asthma rates are more than twice the national average. The barrio also suffers over 600 pounds of solids raining onto the community from the diesel emissions of hundreds of trucks hauling cargo from the port and from the 300,000 cars that pass through each day. Not to mention diesel exhaust drifting in 24/7 from the funnels of cargo and cruise ships docked directly upwind.
Over its 100-year history, Barrio Logan hasn’t had the economic clout, or, perhaps, the confidence and experience in dealing with bureaucracies to fight back effectively. This is a town of 4000 souls, mostly (84 percent) Hispanic, earning a median household income of around $24,000, half the San Diego median of $49,000, according to SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments), quoting 2006 census figures. Gómez says that, since the protests that erupted 40 years ago, forcing the city and state to cede the land for Chicano Park, Barrio Loganites have developed a more robust resistance to the city’s whims. The Chicano Federation, Barrio Station, which concentrates on improving barrio children’s lives, and Gómez’s Environmental Health Coalition, are now demanding equal treatment. “We have the oldest un-updated community plan in San Diego,” she says. “The barrio hasn’t had an updated plan since 1972.”
It was the Master Plating issue that galvanized parents and civic groups. “The day we closed that factory, we celebrated,” Gómez says. “The whole community celebrated. It was almost like Chicano Park.” It was as joyful as when, in 1997, they stopped the Port of San Diego from spray-fumigating visiting ships’ cargos with deadly methyl bromide.
The city told civic activists it had no money for a planning update. Instead, in January 2007, they persuaded Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) to ante up $1.5 million to create a blueprint for an update, with input from residents as well as stakeholder groups. “It all depends, this time, on the voice of the people,” Gómez says. “Industry is certainly pushing because Barrio Logan is in a unique place, near the port and downtown. We are going to have to be strong.” EHC’s idea is to relocate industry to the southern end of the barrio, downwind, and make the northern end completely residential.
It doesn’t stop there. Gómez and other leaders — such as María Martínez, a barrio resident and activist who’s also with us at Ryan Bros. this morning — say they know the fight is going to get harder, that developers are champing at the bit.
“Other [developer] folks talk about housing,” says Gómez, “but they feel [the barrio] has enough affordable housing, so they want now to build market-[rate] housing, expand East Village for higher-income [residents]. And that’s when the displacement starts occurring.”
They’ll face pushback, says Martínez. “We want to make sure that the housing coming in is for the residents, that it’s affordable for people earning less than $40,000 a year. We’re ready to fight this battle. Since the ’70s, we have been a strong, fighting community. This is just another chapter in the movement that started with Chicano Park. Now we’re looking more holistically, not just issue by issue.”
“We have a map,” says Gómez, “a proposed map. Seventy-plus percent reflects the community’s voice.” The remaining 30 percent, she says, is developer, industry, and city input. “The incompatible land uses have been addressed. We’re not talking about zoning but land use. So we don’t have homes near factories. Mixed use is specified. Retail community-serving operations, and not heavy industry. And we identified an area almost at the northern end of National City [for industrial zoning]. It’s already industrial.”
Gómez says the process will probably take two or more years. “Even then, this plan is just a piece of paper, a wish list. But there is so much interest in addressing incompatible land uses, it comes down to us, the community pushing for that to occur.”
Of course, here we are, sitting in an Anglo “intruder,” Ryan Bros. They’re still considered newcomers even though they’ve been here for five years. The Ryans were part of an earlier push of middle-class “outside” entrepreneurs. Others haven’t made it in the barrio. An art gallery half a block up, Expressions of Mexico, tried to champion barrio and Mexican artists but closed in 2007 after a couple of years. The Guild, a sophisticated postindustrial-looking restaurant one block north, with very fancy dishes, has also closed after a short run.
“Ryan Bros.’ coming is good, and bad,” Gómez says. “The good is that they’re not a polluting industry. What’s maybe not so good is they bring in other Americans who are not interested in Barrio Logan and its culture, everything that is the barrio, and just want to make it theirs, another North Park. This is not North Park. This has history. Its own history.”
That history began in the 1850s, when California became U.S. territory. Over the next 20 years, city boosters fought to get Barrio Logan, then known as “Pueblo Lots 1158, 1159, 1162, and 1163,” chosen as the railhead for the transcontinental railroad. Congressman John A. Logan worked on the bill in 1871 and was later rewarded by having a street — and then the area surrounding it — named after him: Logan Heights. Meanwhile, the stock market crash of 1873 ended dreams of a railhead, which went instead to L.A.
In the new century, many Mexican-American families migrated north between 1910 and 1930, fleeing the horrors of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. A surprising number of their offspring still live in the barrio. Their presence expanded steadily throughout the 1940s and ’50s, when this barrio was a burgeoning community of 20,000 or more. Then came the mixed-use zoning laws, the yonkes, and evisceration by freeway. That year, 1963, when the construction of I–5 split the Logan Heights community, became the ironic birth date of Barrio Logan. Since all the battering, including the construction of the Coronado Bay Bridge, when many homes and businesses were demolished without notification, the barrio’s population has dwindled to 4000 residents.
But, I wonder as I come down the steps of Ryan Bros., doesn’t it often happen that you destroy a community in order to save it? Isn’t it inevitable that yuppies will come in and force lower-income, long-term residents out, through a sheer willingness and ability to pay more? The new people can then — unconsciously, perhaps — turn Barrio Logan into a Soho on the Anglo model. Already some “settlers,” such as artist Alana Sills, have given the area their own Anglo name, “Soco” — South of Commercial Street.
The Ice Cream Indicator
Creeping takeover? “Life Is Too Short To Be Bitter,” says the sign above Ryan Bros.’ entrance. Across the road, in a maroon cinderblock building, I spot three sparkling new little Gem all-electric vehicles, white, with red-and-white-striped hooped canopies behind their cabs. I have to find out what’s going on. It turns out three guys from New Jersey relocated to Barrio Logan to sell San Diego their Italian ices. “I couldn’t believe it because the whole East Coast is saturated, but you don’t have them,” says Rob, who, with his dad Robert and his dad’s old schoolmate Kenny, set up this enterprise. “My dad always wanted to come here. And it’s so good for this business. Back in Jersey, you might get three, four good-weather months a year. Here, we have a new product, and the whole year to sell it in.”
Why Barrio Logan? “We pay $2500 a month to rent the space,” says Rob. “It would cost way more downtown. We’ll be operating mainly downtown, but here we’re close enough, without the prices. Of course, each of these wagons costs about $12,000, and the ice storage [equipment] on the back costs more. But, hey, people can’t resist.”
We go over to one of the Gems. Rob clicks a remote, and the trumpets of the Rocky theme blast out. “Sure beats a bell,” he says.
Down the road, near Perkins Elementary, I hear one of those little hand-flicked bells dinging. It’s Anthony, and his heladería, his traditional, Mexican-style ice cream cart, waiting for school to get out. He charges $1 for an ice on a stick, while Rob’s Italian ices cost $3. It’s almost too perfect a symbol: Anthony’s ices are just as cold, but suddenly, nowhere near as cool.
People Can Smell the Money Coming
Signs of the assault on the old-style barrio are everywhere. Down the road, at 1678 National, right next to an apartment complex under construction, Antonio Villalpando comes warily out onto the veranda of his rented house, wondering who the stranger at the gate is. The house is old, with vertical clapboard walls painted a tired white, with sea-green highlights. The veranda’s roof leans like a sleepy eye. But the place is still solid, built of old-growth redwood. Nothing creaks as Mr. Villalpando clumps down the steps. “I’ve been in the area 33 years, and prices are going up,” he says. “I pay $500 a month for this house. It has two bedrooms, and it’s 108 years old. But the owner says he’ll sell the land if the price is right, so I’ll probably have to leave. Then they’ll tear down the house. That’s happening everywhere. People can smell the money coming.”
Change in the Air
“We need justice for Bobby!” says the hand-painted banner outside an old wooden house a couple of blocks away, on Logan, just below the I–5. Jovida Marques sits on her porch, threading a needle. For 84, her eyes are in great shape. She chats happily away in Spanish with her visitor, Pete Villa. But below her front garden of lawn and geraniums and hydrangeas, and up against a second, identical house that shares the compound, rows of glasses with candles in them have been laid alongside handwritten signs. “We’ll never forget you, Bobby.” “God be with you…Your homegirl.” “I love you Uncle Chato, always.” “There are not enough words to explain how great you were, Mr. Flirt…Cynthia” “The Lord is my shepherd.…”
“Bobby was Jovida’s grandson,” says Villa. “He was murdered across the street.” Villa’s calling on Jovida, as he says he often does, just to see how she’s doing, even though they’re not related. “Bobby’s mom Irma lives next door,” he says. “It happened a year ago, but Irma is still hurting bad.”
I look across Logan to the white-and-blue-tiled Quality Refrigeration building, where Bobby must have died. It sits under a grassy embankment that slopes up to the freeway. For a moment no one speaks. “I was brought up here,” says Villa, finally. “And I love it, even though bad things can sometimes happen. It’s always been a Hispanic part of town. It has a lot of culture and heritage. We have a sentimental attachment to it. This is home.”
Jovida looks up. She’s licking the end of the thread, to sharpen it so she can thread it again. “I am 84 years old,” she says. “I have lived on this block for 55 years. I have my roots here.”
Villa says he can feel the change in the air. “The economic downturn has slowed it, but I knew lots of people who had buyers coming right up to their front door, wanting to buy their houses then and there. There was even one developer who wanted to change the name from Barrio Logan to Soco, South of Commercial. But there are a lot of people here who have fought for Barrio Logan. We take pride in that name. To change the name of it, to make it sound more appealing to yuppies, it’s insulting to people who have a long history here.”
Villa wasn’t born in Barrio Logan. His family moved in when he was 14. “But I made friends quickly. I got to love this community more than any I have lived in. It’s the people, and the things you share, like a love of family, which extends to a love of your neighbors, which extends to a love of community. You have that sense of belonging. Then you have the food, Cuatro Milpas, the bakeries. You didn’t have to leave the neighborhood for much.”
The fact that the neighborhood’s Hispanic roots are alive and well also creates a friendly landing pad for new arrivals from south of the border. “You have long-settled people, and also immigrants,” says Villa. “Some family members might just have arrived, but there’s no problem of assimilation, because the culture is so intact here. We have this influx of immigrants coming in from Mexico. They provide new blood and keep the culture alive.”
Yet the “Anglo” push from the north is a drumbeat that won’t stop. “I think what’s happening here is happening everywhere. It’s a global thing. What happens depends on the economy and how strongly the community leaders defend our community. This has been a thing for a long time. There was a time when the [Anglos] wanted to keep us Mexican-Americans in one part of town. Now they want this one part of town too, part of what we’ve built up. It’s disheartening. Because this place means a lot to me and to everyone I know. Even if you move out, you always come back to the neighborhood. This is where your heart’s at.”
This is when Irma, Bobby’s mother and Jovida’s daughter, comes in the gate. She’s young — 30s, maybe — but her face is closed. She says nothing and passes us like a wraith. “She’s not ready,” says Jovida. “She can’t talk about it.”
I ask Villa how present the gangs are. “They are there, but much less than before. And even when I was a kid, it felt okay. You had to be ready to defend yourself, but I have good memories of my childhood. Bobby’s killing? It was a tragedy.”
The Freeway Killed Us
I’m walking up Logan. Here’s San Diego Post 7420, VFW. I amble in. It’s dark, with tall red leatherette stools by the bar and two guys sitting on them: Wolf, the bar manager, and Felipe Nieto, who looks and sounds like Zorba the Greek. Vietnam was their foreign war. Felipe had friends from the barrio who didn’t come back. “I always think of Dano Warren. I can’t forget him. We used to play in the same alley. Every day. We grew up together. I used to play spin the bottle with his sisters. Yes! We were both 12. I lived on the National Avenue side of the alley, he lived on the Newton Avenue side. Those were such good times. I came from Guadalajara when I was 8 years old, and I still live across the street. I got married and moved away, but I came back. I always come back.
“When I was eight, it was great here in the barrio. We didn’t have the freeway. You could sleep with the doors and the windows open. Even the police, they’d catch you drunk, they’d pick you up and take you home. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, she knew maybe ten of the police officers who used to bring me home, drunk. ‘Aquí le traigo a su hijo — I’ll bring your son here.’ Now they take you to jail.
“We used to have bars all over. Because we had the canneries, we had the Navy, it was always hopping. The Two Rosas. That bar was here forever. But now it’s closed. The Logan Inn’s still open. Then Pete’s Place, gone. Then on 26th, Jack’s Island, the Hi Ho, the Moulin Rouge, Juanita’s…The barrio was full of bars. Now, they want to close them all. They want to make it safe for tourists. Fridays, Saturdays, this street was hopping — and you could go anyplace. It was safe by day, safe by night. Nobody bothered you. But it was the freeway. The freeway killed us. It just tore the whole neighborhood up. People moved, the fishing fleet disappeared, the canneries closed…it was never the same.”
What about the gangs?
“Gangs? I’m 65, and in my day we used to call them clubs. And we never carried guns or knives. We’d just use fists. You had a problem, we’d just have it out. But I went tuna fishing, and then I went to Vietnam, and when I came back, a lot of my friends were in jail because of drugs, or they killed somebody, or something. Drugs brought the knives and guns. Today, it’s still the same. People here don’t like the people from National City, they don’t like our guys back. But it has cooled off right here, pretty much. Chicano Park used to be a mess. Right now, we have a police station on 25th, so they’re always checking the park. I had a lot of friends killed there, knifed or shot. It’s better now than the ’80s. But no way better than the ’50s! Right now, it gets dark, people can’t grab their girlfriend and take a walk. Because you may get jumped, robbed. There’s a lot of homeless. I’m an old-timer. I don’t want my neighborhood to change.”
“We’re pretty empty at nights,” says Wolf, “because even our tough older members are afraid to walk the streets.”
“But there are still the old families living where they’ve always lived,” says Felipe. “Rents may go up, but a lot of the old people own their houses. Me, too, until my wife took it from me. Now I pay $650 for a one-bedroom. So prices haven’t gone crazy yet, ballpark or no ballpark.”
Tats Lead the Way
Two blocks up, in the space the Two Rosas’ fabled bar once occupied, the changes Felipe was talking about are already here. It’s now the Two Roses, a dark-red-painted tattoo parlor/barbershop. You can buy a coffee and sit and watch someone being tattooed right in front of you. The place, owned by Randy Janson and partners, is über cool and definitely Anglo. The very Mexican Two Rosas bar was in this building for 50 years, so there’s been a lot of clearing out to do. The new owners restored much of the original magnificence: gold-plated ceilings, checkered tile floors, wood, marble. “The neighborhood has welcomed us,” says Mike Anderson.
The tattoo guns at work sound like a swarm of bees. Right now, Randy Janson’s creating a Hopi Kachina sun god on the left arm of a regular customer, Lisa, who’s followed him into the barrio because he is her favorite artist. She looks surprisingly relaxed as he dips the tattoo gun needle into a pad of ink. Janson fills in the color as he talks. “For me, coming here was: four blocks from the ocean, nice breeze, close to downtown, centrally located for my customers from the south, north, and east. I wouldn’t have done this anywhere else in town, that’s for sure.”
But isn’t he part of the change that’s hit the barrio? “I don’t know that we’re part of the change,” he says. “We’re just here doing business in an area that maybe a lot of people overlooked. I like the culture of this neighborhood. Just look at the art in the park and the murals on buildings. It’s not like every other part of San Diego, stucco strip-malls and 7-Elevens. It has a real identity — feeling, I guess you could say.”
I wonder aloud if these guys are not the vanguard of the East Village scene, bringing high prices and a culture that could rob the barrio of the very things Janson loves about it. “Well, I’m really not looking forward to that kind of thing,” he says. “I hope it’s not going to turn out that way. I guess the difference between here and East Village is that there weren’t many people living down there. It was a more warehousey district, and old furniture stores. So maybe people didn’t care about it as much. They just came in and tore buildings down. In a lot of ways, all they managed to do was displace a bunch of homeless people and shove them into this neighborhood.”
Janson doesn’t like my suggestion that he’s in any way part of the potential problem Barrio Logan faces. “Saying that just because we’re here, as a business, [that we’re] going to destroy the entire neighborhood and all these families, there’s no way in the world I came down here with that intention.”
Heads Move In
“At first it was scary,” says another Lisa — Lisa Telepman. “No one was working with me. I built this from zero. It was hard getting people to work for me here in the beginning. But the rent was better than Hillcrest. And we’ve never had problems in this neighborhood. Of course the rent goes up every year.”
We’re talking in Lisa’s “Say Lula” hair salon, part of the pioneering Blokhaus development at 16th Street. She has a funky, interesting, many-roomed brick-and-concrete space filled with scatterings of orange-topped salon chairs, photo exhibits, art, indoor plants, and the odd rubber tree.
“First time I came down here,” says Julie, who’s having her hair done by Lisa, “I said, ‘Oh my.’ It seemed more industrial. I was worried, although the parking was certainly easier. But now it’s becoming more developed, with all the building going on. This is kind of the bridge area between East Village and Barrio Logan. Now I’d live here — if I could bring my horse. I live in Ramona.”
“I used to live in the barrio,” says Antonette Villa, who’s cutting April’s hair. “I grew up here. Heard a lot more gunshots and helicopters back then. I came back five years ago, looking to buy a home, but families weren’t giving up their homes. Now they’re being forced out by all the development.”
April drove down from Talmadge to get her hair done, because she’ll go wherever Antonette goes. “Honestly,” says Antonette, “when I was a kid, I always felt this tremendous feeling of protection once I got off the trolley, coming home. That’s what the barrio was. I knew everybody. It was the same when I came back. The moment I walked into this place, Lula’s, here in the barrio again, I felt so comfortable.”
She knows changes are coming. “But I think they are going to be for the best. I think this is going to become something similar to Golden Hill. The neighborhood has roots strong enough to keep it the way it always was. They fought a long time ago to keep Chicano Park. They’ll fight for [their identity] again.”
Around the corner, another stylist, Margo Anderson, is working on her banker client, Melinda. “I’m not sure if we do business loans to Barrio Logan yet,” says Melinda. “But I love the environment. It’s fun.”
Yet out in the barrio, signs of the times are evident, if you look. “Dear customers,” says a card in the window of El Porvenir (“The Future”), which has been making the wickedest lard-laden burritos since 1918. “Due to the Health Department having too much work, the inspection for us is going to be delayed till June 11th, 2009. So please don’t worry. We will be back in business soon. Thank you for your support.”
Well past June 11, El Porvenir is still closed. The land next door to this shoebox of a building is being cleared for development. I think of all the carnitas burritos I’ve downed, and of the ancient equipment inside, stilled, like the 60-year-old tortilla-maker, and I think of the ladies who worked with such a sure slowness, under the supervision of Rudi García, who manned the cash register. And I worry.
“We’re going to Russia,” says Fernando Hernandez. He means he’s determined to take 11 of his students from Perkins Elementary School to the city where he himself studied, in Rostov, on the River Don. An ambitious plan for one of the poorest schools in the district, and the only school actually located in Barrio Logan.
Hernandez is young, energetic, and the school’s principal. I’ve come across him on the veranda of the staff building at Perkins, and soon we’re talking about The Trip. How does he do it? It’s the kind of treat you might expect from Point Loma or La Jolla schools, where parents and school foundations can raise thousands of dollars without too much stress. But this little barrio school, where they don’t even have a baseball field to play on? Indeed, Hernandez spells out how tough it is to raise money in a poor community. “I have a colleague at Grant Elementary in Mission Hills,” he says. “Their parents had a rummage sale, and they collected $55,000. I had a rummage sale, and I couldn’t get more than $30.”
That doesn’t stop him. “If I want to do some fundraising, we have to work. One year, we took about 60 students to Washington, D.C. I charged each of them $150, and we had to raise the other $700 per student. We did a car wash, and KUSI came and covered it. And ‘lucha libre’ wrestlers came and did a series of shows, which our community loves, free of charge. One of our teachers actually tried wrestling. And the wrestlers brought their own sewing machine. They do their own costumes. We were able to raise $50,000.”
Hernandez has learned the art of bending rules, which is what you have to do when you’re a school in a poor area. “The district only allows us to hold three fundraisers a year. Some schools can hold three and raise $80,000. I’ll hold three and get $200. So I sold nachos all year long and called it one fundraiser. We’ve taken our pupils to Washington, D.C., for four years in a row. It motivates them. This [fifth grade] is where we end up losing them. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics in California end up dropping out. So I’ve got to do whatever it takes to keep them in school. Especially the girls. Eight of the 11 going to Russia are girls. There are many factors in choosing them, but right now only four percent of my girls are going to graduate from college, if I just go on as normal. That’s the sad statistic. Expectations for them are low. That’s why I have to provide extra incentives.”
Hernandez acknowledges he has his critics. “There are some from within the Spanish culture who view our [school’s] program, which is 100 percent in English, as Anglification. Some are so pro ‘Viva la Raza,’ they’ve called me ‘whitewashed.’ When I was learning Russian at UCLA, they got angry. One said, ‘How dare you? You should be learning about your own culture.’ But my students need to interact [with the majority culture], I believe, to be successful. They need to have positive interactions. And here, for our kids, English is the language of success.”
And yet, Perkins is an underperforming school. “Yes, but that is because our teachers get students who don’t speak a word of English at the beginning of the year. These teachers are like ER doctors, dealing with students who are three years behind. My teachers do a magnificent job. Eighty-three percent of our pupils are English learners, and they have to get them up to speed in one year.”
Hernandez has been teaching here since 1995. “I’ve seen the community change a lot. In the early ’90s, this was a dangerous area. You would see drive-by shootings, a lot of gang-related activity. But especially since Petco Park went up, from 1995 onwards, it’s really changed the community. Prices climbed, and some of the families ended up moving out because owners decided to cash in and sell their properties. But we have many new developments of low-income housing. La Esplanada just came online, and La Entrada, and another at 16th. Perkins has been hit by vandalism only twice in the past ten years. None of our computers has been stolen, and we don’t get graffiti. I think there’s a lot of respect in the community for what we do. The only negative is the homeless. This morning, the custodian and I went around the school. I took my shovel and was scooping up feces from all four corners of the school. Human feces. There’s an encampment at Newton and Sigsby. On the weekends, homeless people come to camp in the school grounds. Needles, trash. We filled four bins.”
Hernandez has a secret weapon, right across the road. A public/private organization known as the Barrio Logan College Institute has set up on Main Street in a swamp-green warehouse where, after school, kids who have shown aptitude are trained to think of college as a concrete possibility. “It’s [getting past] the mental block that’s the most important,” says Hernandez. “Seeing college as something attainable is totally new for many of our kids. BLCI’s mission is to create the first college graduates in families that don’t have any. So far, they’ve got 43 of our students accepted into college, which is stunning.”
Meanwhile, his Russian trip’s planned for May 2010. That’s a lot of nachos.
Dusk in the Barrio
The magic time in the barrio, the time when you suddenly get it, the love for this place and its ways, is dusk. There’s plenty of sky out here because what should be the center of the community is still open fields. After decades, the city and community haven’t been able to make the grand mixed-use Mercado development happen, so, like the Milagro beanfields, the barrio’s heartland remains undeveloped, open grassland.
As the sun sinks, I head under the bridge. Some guys are videoing a skateboarder trying to jump and slide along a concrete picnic table. Turns out he’s one of the most famous skateboarders in the world, Rodrigo Petersen, from Argentina, and this area under the bridge is known (via internet video) to skateboarders around the globe as one of the more exotic locales — for its runs, its murals, and the fact that the cops pretty much let you alone.
At the moment, no one is taking notice of Rodrigo here. In fact, most of the couples and groups out for a postprandial walk — and there are a lot of them — are being drawn to something else: the sound of distant drums, in Chicano Park, east of National. Those compelling beats and bird yells make this feel like another country. You finally see, up ahead in a kiosk, one man beating a drum like there’s no tomorrow, and in front of him, in a circle around a dish of incense, two dozen dancers with shells wrapped around their ankles that rattle as they thump and pound with their feet. I stand there, rapt. The dancers lunge forward, backward, pound those cowry shells in a frenzy of rattling. They must be dancing to the sun, or perhaps the wind or rain or cosmos. Something elemental. Whatever, what a workout. After a while, in the gathering gloom, a kind of mesmeric effect spreads among the more accomplished and energetic of the dancers. Their energy seems to increase, not decrease. You envy them.
Meanwhile, at a table on the grass, Aida Flores, the wife of Juan Flores, the drummer, is selling hot tamales to raise money for a little girl from the barrio who’s been chosen to visit the White House and President Obama.
“This is Danza Azteca,” says Flores. “Juan and I started it. It’s really spiritual. We’re here every Monday and Wednesday, practicing at dusk. You ought to try it.”
The only awkward moment comes when I sit down with a group of guys watching a handball game at the courts under the bridge. I’ve always wanted to play. It’s like squash with no racket, a descendant of Aztec and Mayan games, using the rubber ball they invented. It’s eerie to see it played here, where Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs in “Northern Mexico,” is supposed to have been centered, in the very spot Chicanos call el ombligo, the navel, the center of the world. But the guys filling the three small benches don’t look exactly welcoming. They say nothing, to me at least. I figure they’re probably concentrating on the game. Then, after three games, just as I get up to go, the guy next to me says, “Listen, the reason we held back with you was that we get plainclothes cops coming and gathering information. We have to be careful.”
“I understand,” I say. “Believe me, I’m not a cop.” Then I have to ask: “Can anyone play?”
“Oh, yes, if you’re not plainclothes.”
“What do you need?”
“Tough hands,” he says. “Or a good glove.”
I head toward César Chávez Parkway and a bus back to the World. One hauls off as I arrive at the stop…a good thing because, beyond, I see another crowd, this time in front of the Light of the World, a classical Greek white-columned church on Logan Avenue. People are emerging from a service, spreading around a sidewalk lit with lanterns. They unfold tables. Bring out food. Some people sell tamales. Others sit, wander around, talk. “We do this every night,” says one of the parishioners, Joel. “It’s a social thing, and you pay what you can. But it helps. I have six children. I’ve been living in the barrio 15 years. In that time, my rent has gone up from $390 to $1150. Mostly in the past two years. I think it’s because the Americans want to come and live here.”
An older man with bloodhound wrinkles has been listening. “Sometimes, in the barrio, we feel like polar bears in global warming. Our ice floe is getting smaller and smaller.”
A few days later, at 12th and Imperial, I notice a ruckus where the buses pull in. It’s a demonstration. “¡El pueblo, unido, jamás sera vencido!” (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”) Then one woman introduces another. “This woman! The migra arrested her son on the trolley and took him down and dumped him in Mexico. He has never been to Mexico, and this woman has lost her son!”
The group is silent for a moment, then someone starts slowly chanting. “No estás sola. ¡No estás sola!” Soon the whole crowd is chanting to the mother in tears. “You are not alone!”