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.