“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.”