The graffiti wraps the California Theatre in a ten-foot-tall necklace of yellow and black and silver, squished-together letters shaped like half-inflated airbags. The odd thing is whoever did it also surrounded it with a new chain-link fence. I suddenly realize: The fence is there not to protect the theater but to protect the graffiti…from…more graffiti.
We’re talking, after all, about the venerable California Theatre, grande dame of the 1920s, the “cathedral of the motion picture,” whose five-story-high auditorium, the largest in town, looks like a Spanish church inside. Over its 83 years it has hosted everything from silent movies to teen-scream event-openings like the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco.
The second thought is: Where’s mighty SOHO when you need it? This is precisely what San Diego’s own Save Our Heritage Organisation (that’s how they spell it) is for, isn’t it? Can anything be more “our heritage” than this? Where’s the human chain surrounding the place, shouting, “Hell no! We won’t go!”
SOHO stumbled into existence when an artist named Robert Miles Parker came across an old house — the 1887 Sherman-Gilbert house — about to be ripped down. On a whim he pasted up a small paper sign that said, “SAVE THIS HOUSE, 239-8324.” It was his phone number. He was inundated with calls. That was 1969. As a result of his and his fellow outraged citizens’ efforts, the house was saved and SOHO was born. Forty-one years on, thanks to SOHO, hundreds of houses have been preserved and dozens of public buildings saved. Ones you’d recognize, like the Hotel Del Coronado, and ones you mightn’t, like the Verna House, a beautiful little frou-frou French cottage transplanted to Old Town, set up next to the Whaley House to become SOHO’s retail shop.
But, 41 years on, maybe we also need to take a critical look, because it hasn’t all been glorious victories. Look at this theater, for instance. Look at the rubble across Broadway: famous architect Harrison Albright’s Hotel San Diego (he also designed the U.S. Grant hotel and the Coronado Library). Apart from its place in the architectural and social history of this town, in the years prior to its 2001 closure, it housed 11 percent of downtown’s homeless population. But, in April 2006, it went down in a cloud of dust. The U.S. government wanted the space for a federal courthouse annex (that’s just what’s needed to brighten up Broadway, right?), and neither SOHO nor the city could fight the feds, or so they said. One way or another, they let it slip away. Or how about that 35-year, still-unresolved drama of the two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Roost and Red Rest, where lawyers seemed to turn SOHO and other objectors into nominees for the lifetime sucker award. Or the collapsing adobe at Warner’s Ranch. Or the 1937 art deco streamline moderne Ford dealership at 1015 Park Boulevard, a building designed by renowned architect Frank Hope. Or, dare we mention, the still-kind-of-empty-feeling plaza of a once-vibrant Old Town, where SOHO invested its passion for historical accuracy — a more Anglo accuracy — that many say ripped the joyful heart out of the place?
And mention SOHO to certain go-go developer types and they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and rage on about how SOHO can be painfully anal retentive, Luddite almost, slowing progress just to be a pain in the you-know-what, objecting, holding up new building projects by reflex action. This kind of obstructionism, they’ll imply, is just plain un–San Diegan. We’re all here in America’s Finest for the future, right? To shuck off the past and then use that freedom to experiment, bulldoze, build, rebuild, start again. Unencumbered. Easy come, easy go. Ain’t that our pride and joy?
Add to this complaints that saving and refurbishing historic homes is a money-making tax-dodge for wealthy elitists, and you’ve reduced the likes of SOHO to enablers, helping the rich get richer with a clear conscience.
SOHO’s executive director Bruce Coons and his wife Alana, the organization’s events and education director, also have their critics, who say the couple plays hardball politics with colleagues who disagree with their priorities and can be too ready to cut deals with developers.
So, after 41 years, 10 under the Coonses’ tutelage, you have to wonder: Has SOHO gone soft? Does SOHO need saving — from itself?
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It’s lunchtime on a sunny, breezy Friday — July 16, 2010 — on the lawn beside the Whaley House. And that means: Happy 241st birthday, Jamestown! (That’s us, Saint James — San Diego.) SOHO’s been trying to revive a civic celebration of this anniversary. This is its third year, and maybe a hundred folks are in attendance today, most buzzing around the old California pepper tree on the lawn next to the Whaley House, now SOHO’s headquarters, the spot where some say the ghost of Anna Whaley — or is it Violet Whaley, who reputedly shot herself in the privy out back? — hangs around, dancing, perhaps. There’s a microphone and speakers and a portable lectern, and the place is alive with crinoline dresses and bowler hats, schoolkids in red T-shirts running around the pepper tree, docents in long wire-hooped gowns, dignitaries getting up to speak about the significance of the day, rows of chairs on the grass, and behind those, outside the New Orleans Creole Café, tables laid out with cake and soda. There’s even music, dancing, “and much camaraderie,” as the poster advertising the event confidently predicted.
Actually, it’s a double birthday with a nice symmetry about it. Because while the town’s turning 241, SOHO is exactly 200 years younger — 41 this year.
I nab Alana. She’s an attractive, vital woman who radiates enthusiasm and a sense of humor but also determination. I ask about the graffiti and why the California Theatre looks as if it’s on its last legs.
“Blame the Museum of Contemporary Art!” she says. “They sponsored that graffiti. Part of their big exhibition of street art. Public art. On buildings. That’s fine, but the first building they did is the California Theatre. They had permission from the owner — the owner, by the way, who wants nothing more than to demolish this building. I can hardly believe they did it. It is giant graffiti. Ugly, ugly giant graffiti, as if someone did major tags. I don’t care how many times they want to call it cool, contemporary, public art that only sophisticated people could possibly understand, it’s bullshit. It’s crap. Even if it were good art, to paint it right on the building, over the windows, over the wood on the building? It’s supposed to be temporary, it can be washed off, but everyone says, ‘How can it be temporary?’ And washed off? Where does that silver paint go? To feed the dolphins? We just hope that when people see the theater, and the disgusting thing they did to it, maybe they’ll wake up and realize you really do have to help us save these things. SOHO can’t do it all.”
But is SOHO doing anything?
“The California Theatre is on our Most Endangered list. Ownership recently transferred to an out-of-town investment firm after the previous owner, another investment company, went bankrupt. We’re trying to find someone to buy the building, to restore it as a performing-arts center…the Balboa is a big success. You would think that once people saw that they’d go, ‘Oh. All right.’”
She says the California is San Diego’s most ornate Spanish revival treasure. It leaves the beautifully restored Balboa, two blocks down at Fourth and E, in the dust. The California is more ornately decorated, and big (originally, there were 2200 seats). It could be the largest movie space in town, twice as interesting as the Balboa. And that’s saying something. For a moment I imagine it revived to its former glory, pilasters and sculptures and clamshell fountain niches….
“Bruce had the best idea,” Alana says. “He thinks the city should buy it and turn it into City Hall. It’s large enough, it’s a showpiece of San Diego culture, and it would send an outstanding preservation message across the country.”
We go looking for Bruce among the gathered families and the flowerbeds of giant hydrangeas, magnificent in shades of pink. He’s standing on the porch of a little old house behind the main brick Whaley structure. This one is part timber, part…adobe? “It’s a prefab,” Bruce says, “built in New England and brought around the Horn in 1850.” Stories fall from Bruce’s lips at the slightest prompting. “William Heath Davis and his partners, including Juan Bandini, bought a bunch of these to create the first part of New Town [down by the Bay]. Then the New Town venture collapsed in 1852, and it became a ghost town.” This house was moved up here to Old Town. “Then Bandini built the adobe section, which was the Chinese cooks’ house. Let me show you something.”
He hauls me over to where a portion of a door has been scraped to bare wood. Here they’ve found carved Chinese characters. “We just discovered this. It says something like ‘Chinese man does good work.’ But we’re getting an expert to translate.”
We sit down in Bruce’s office in the adobe part of the old cookhouse, built onto the back of the 160-year-old New England prefab. “It’s coolest here in summer,” he says. This is the nerve center for a big operation these days. According to the Reader’s Don Bauder, in a June 2004 piece about the Coonses’ leadership, the budget went from $4000 to $500,000 in the four years Bruce had been running the show, and membership quadrupled. Today, maybe a half-dozen interns and others are busying themselves at desks and computers. A drawing Robert Miles Parker did of the California Theatre in better times hangs on one wall; an old kerosene wall lamp with an electric bulb inside its glass chute dangles dangerously; piles of paperwork and people’s bags and sunglasses clutter the desks. A shallow, wide-brimmed straw Chinese peasant’s hat keeps dust off a printer.
Coons has blue eyes and a fresh, ruddy complexion that makes him look young. But there’s also something of the eagle in his face. You wouldn’t want to cross him — he’d slay you with a devastating barrage of facts.
There’s no doubt that SOHO has done incredible work since Robert Miles Parker’s “Save Me!” sign. We owe for the survival of icons now taken for granted, like the Santa Fe Depot, the Western Metal Supply building (which gives Petco Park such character), and Heritage Park near Old Town, where old houses have gone not to die but to become a living museum. Parker’s Sherman-Gilbert House is one of these. It belonged to John Sherman, cousin of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Arthur Rubinstein and Yehudi Menuhin have given recitals there. And it’s clear it has rarely been easy, taking on City Hall, or “big money.” Saving the Balboa Theatre took decades (and SOHO was by no means alone in that fight).
Not all fights are won. An attempt to save the T.M. Cobb building, home of the First and Last Chance Saloon, at the bottom of Fifth — across from the Spaghetti Factory — almost bankrupted SOHO, Coons says. They failed against a team of lawyers for the owners of the Empire State Building, who wanted the land. The Cobb building was demolished right under the arch that reads “Gaslamp Historic District.”
Then, in 1997 — and this seems unbelievable — the Hotel Del Coronado was about to disappear behind four-story additions on all sides that would have blocked it from everything, including the sea, and destroyed its 1888 ancillary buildings, including the old steam laundry with its iconic chimney stack. Bruce, Alana, and the whole SOHO gang pulled out all the stops, going door to door to warn unbelieving Coronadans, telling them what the new owner, Travelers Insurance, was about to do to “their” Del. Coons still considers that victory their greatest ever.
Perhaps more significant was how they managed to bend the Padres’ ownership and the city to their will on the warehouse district. Including a Victorian industrial building like Western Metal into the design of a brand-new ballpark, along with saving 11 of 12 historic warehouses in the area slated for demolition, sent shock waves through the planning and architectural and sports worlds. The discovery that incorporating the past enhances big developments provided a watershed moment for designers, especially coming from a “new” city like San Diego. It’s the Western Metal building that sets our ballpark apart, even more than the design by its world-famous architect, Antoine Predock.
But what to make of the setbacks? Has SOHO been too genteel in its protests? Too used to persuasion and the legal route, rather than direct action? The famed Green Dragon Colony of La Jolla was an important early loss. And those two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Rest and Red Roost, remain empty, still deteriorating structurally after 35 years of struggle. Lawyers for the owners are now offering them for sale for $10 million each. At least they’re still up. SOHO has managed to get its hands on civic pioneer George Marston’s house at the edge of Balboa Park, and that’s prospering, but the equally important Villa Montezuma languishes in a dangerous state of decay, just beyond their reach. In its early years, SOHO helped save this brilliantly colorful, weirdly wonderful 1887 Queen Anne mansion, while the City and the San Diego Historical Society juggled its management. (Recently a cash-strapped Historical Society passed it back to the cash-strapped City.) Bruce, who claims SOHO isn’t cash-strapped, would love to gain control of Villa Montezuma before it’s beyond saving. “I think we’ve shown with the Whaley House and the Marston House that we can handle this sort of thing,” he says. (In five years SOHO turned the Whaley House into the most successful house museum in the county, with seven thousand visitors during the period. It was granted management control of the Marston House after February 2009, when the Historical Society had to give it up due to financial difficulties. Yet SOHO still can’t get its hands on the equally important Villa Montezuma.)
It’s not just buildings. Smugglers’ Gulch at Border Field has been bulldozed by the Border Patrol. Who cares? Well, it was from exactly there that Gaspar de Portolá, the first governor of California, and Father Junípero Serra first saw San Diego Bay, on June 29, 1769, after scrambling overland up Baja for months.
San Diego used to have big celebrations, culminating in 1969, with its 200th birthday. “They used to have a Native American village” at the presidio, says Coons. “They had Native American dancers, they had cannons, they had mission bells, and a blessing and dancing…”
But since the 1970s, there’s been a collective embarrassment at celebrating what amounted to the cultural domination and demolition of the Native Americans of San Diego. “For better or worse,” says Coons, “it’s an extremely important date, the founding of the modern city. [Before 1769], they didn’t call this place San Diego. They didn’t call it California. Whatever you think about it,  is really when we started calling this the town of San Diego.”
Coons hopes that “as we get closer to the 250th birthday” in 2019, there’ll be more participation by local tribes. Although none showed up today, SOHO supports “the Kumeyaay, and the Luiseño, and the Kupa [Cupeño], the Cahuillas, the San Luis Rey band of Mission Indians. Historic preservation is not just about buildings and objects — trains, boats, and planes — but cultural landscapes. We’ve been active in a number of fights. One of them was over the 252 freeway, near San Onofre, which was going to impact — ironically — the village where the first two baptisms in California were performed. And we were very active in trying to preserve the [Kumeyaay] burial ground at the [UCSD] chancellor’s house in La Jolla. We’ve been successful so far.”
He’s also fighting to prevent Rancho Guejito from turning into an extension of Escondido. “Rancho Guejito is probably one of the most important undisturbed cultural landscapes in San Diego County,” Coons says. “We’re working with [county] supervisor [Bill] Horn, and a coalition of preservation groups, including the Endangered Habitats League, and we’re trying to convince the owners to sell it for a new state or national park. It’s probably the most important unprotected valley between here and Santa Barbara. It’s just spectacular. It has the largest stand of Engelmann oaks in the state, or in the world. They have the ruins of several adobe ranch houses, and there are numerous village sites, including an intact adobe ranch house. There’s only one new house on the entire property.”
Coons says Alta California’s Mexican governor gave Rancho Guejito’s nearly 13,300 acres to José María Orozco as a land grant in 1845. “Orozco was a lucky man. He was the guy who stood up on Presidio Hill and took a couple of potshots at the Americans raising the Stars and Stripes in the plaza in Old Town in 1846.”
Luckily for Albert Smith, the American sailor who shimmied up the pole, Orozco missed.
“Of the 800 ranchos recognized by the U.S. government, only Rancho Guejito’s boundaries are intact, with its hills and valleys just as they were when Orozco received his grant,” Coons says.
Yet with each of these battles, it feels a bit like “Suppose they had a war and nobody came?” Where, in other words, are the legions of outraged citizens lining up behind the SOHO banner, ready to march on City Hall (a building SOHO is not fighting to preserve) to save these landmarks?
“I don’t know,” says Coons. “It’s funny. Some people think it’s because there are so many immigrants here, and they just don’t know the history. They come in with this attitude that San Diego doesn’t have any history. You could say the same thing about L.A., but L.A. hasn’t forgotten. Of course, L.A. is younger than we are. We’re the oldest European settlement on the West Coast of what is now the United States. We were founded before the American Revolution. People need to know that. We have a past worth fighting for.”
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But is SOHO always on the right side? Of all their fights, the one for the soul of Old Town has generated the greatest emotional divide among San Diegans. Some in the preservation game call Bruce an Anglophile who has forgotten our Spanish roots, ruining Old Town with his insistence on orienting Old Town to the “transition period” of the mid-19th Century, when Anglo-American culture was asserting itself and starting to dominate.
There’s no denying that the character of the plaza in Old Town has changed. Or that there has long been a power struggle between stakeholders favoring the Anglo side of life in the plaza and those favoring the Hispanic. In 2000, the pro-Anglo side won the battle to build a replica of an 1860s house belonging to one Sheriff James McCoy on top of the remains of the adobe house belonging to the Silvas — this despite pleas from family members, who are descendants of one of Portolá’s Spanish Leatherjackets from the presidio.
When it came to upgrading the historical accuracy of the plaza, Bruce Coons seemed to have come down squarely on the Anglo side, or, as he might put it, historical accuracy as opposed to sentimental fantasy.
For that you can partly thank an alliance with the New York behemoth Delaware North, the concessionaire that wrested Old Town’s main plaza activities from the popular Diane Powers and her Bazaar del Mundo, an eclectic but only fuzzily accurate depiction of the plaza’s Mexican days. During the past decade, Delaware has de-emphasized the Mexican era and focused on the later “transition” period, when Anglo influence was starting to dominate. So one-time cantinas became the Jolly Boy Saloon and, above all, the iconic Casa de Bandini, family seat of Don Juan Bandini’s highly hospitable clan of the early 1800s, has been stripped of its Spanishness and replaced by a restoration of the wood-railed Cosmopolitan Hotel of the plaza’s mid- to late-19th-Century stagecoach days.
Trouble is, now Delaware has gone, and SOHO is left holding the baby they created together.
“I have a problem,” says Vonn Marie May, who runs a preservation consulting firm, Cultural Resource Planning and Research, “with the interpretive period, because the [authorities] and the Coonses are bent, absolutely bent, on choosing the American period of significance to interpret in Old Town. Whereas anyone who knows anything about Old Town knows that its DNA is Mexican village. They have changed Casa de Bandini into a shoot-’em-up cowboy [atmosphere]…. I mean, they’re turning it into a frontier town, okay?” May was also president of SOHO for two years, until, she says, she started having disagreements of policy and philosophy with the Coonses. “Look, after secularization, in the Spanish/Mexican-American period, all those [Spanish] military guys came down from the fort, the presidio, and they built those houses. Casa de Bandini, Casa de Pico, Casa López, Casa Estudillo, Casa Cota, on and on and on. So that’s the DNA of Old Town. And then, of course, there’s layering, and that’s to be understood. Casa de Bandini was important, not the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Juan Bandini was one of the most striking, significant figures in California history. Richard Henry Dana stayed at the Casa de Bandini. Bishop [William I.] Kip, the first Episcopal bishop to come around through the [Panamanian] isthmus, stayed at the Casa de Bandini [in 1853]. It’s hugely, hugely significant. And now it’s [been turned into] the Cosmopolitan Hotel that it was for 20 minutes in time?”
It all came to a head when she wrote an op-ed for the news site voiceofsandiego.org in November 2005 titled, “Old Town: Whose History Is It, Anyway?”
“…This sacred ground, and adjacent hill, spawned the first Presidio in Alta California, the first Spanish mission site and the first county in the state of California…. The big question is: In the interpretation of history, how and what should be brought to the fore in Old Town? What should be honored or celebrated?… America’s gold standard is methodology developed by the National Park Service…. Great deference is given to the first layer of an area’s history — that initial beginning.
“So why, one wonders, do Old Town’s new caretakers prefer to reflect the [later] American period? Delaware North’s historical consultants claim they are providing accurate history, but whose history?...Some charge there is a strident component of latent racism at work here or merely a naïve approach to a more profitable historical bias.
“One may ask why didn’t State Parks open this up to local discussion before awarding a contract to out-of-towners who are solely dependent on local hobbyist-level historians? Where were the Mexicano history advocates? Where were the noted resident professional historians? Where was our hometown newspaper?”
After the article was published, May was not re-upped to SOHO’s board.
She says she and others also felt that Bruce had crossed a line as an independent preservation advocate when he accepted a position with Delaware North as a consultant on their program of change for Old Town.
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How important is preservation in the scheme of things? Some architects, like South African–born Michael Witkin, think: not very. History here, he says, is overrated, and overregulated.
“I think it’s quite overrated. We’ve lost our perspective on the real issues here, which are, firstly, a roof over one’s head. We’ve become caught up in a sort of race. Of greed. And money. You have to give SOHO credit. But I do agree that they’ve lost perspective. The bottom line is a roof over one’s head and one’s family’s heads. Whatever it takes, in the most economical and humane way. And please, don’t talk to me about the ‘history’ of the house. I mean, San Diego is so pathetic. I came from South Africa. [Houses] there go back to the 1600s. I’m doing a remodel [here] right now and it’s quite pathetic. It’s a 1960-something [house]! [The paperwork] just came out of the building department, and they told me, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’ve got to resubmit it because it’s got to go through the Historical Resources Board. For God’s sake — 1960? I wouldn’t for one minute turn down the possibility of sheltering six families [because it might jeopardize] some so-called historic resource. I think the shelter of families is much more important.”
Of course, Witkin admits he’s a developer as well as an architect, which colors his view of SOHO.
“I think SOHO has far too much power. I think they need to be advisory. I’m a developer, and I like to get things done and move on. We have enough bureaucracy. I know the hell you have to go through sometimes. You’ve got to lobotomize yourself and go though the procedures. The dance, the nonsense in the name of history can drive you crazy.”
State Senator James Mills begs to differ. Mills gets credit for creating the Old Town State Historic Park, the San Diego Trolley, and the Mills Act, which encourages historic homeowners to keep, and invest in, their houses by giving them tax breaks. “The Mills Act has been very effective in preserving the character of neighborhoods,” says the retired senator. “It was the product of discussions among architects who were concerned about the destruction of whole buildings. Too many were being destroyed because of the property tax, which often would rise to a point where the old house or building on the property was not sufficient, did not produce enough income to pay the property tax. This was before Prop. 13, so it was worse then. But it’s still true, and [it still happens] that people can find themselves in a position where they own a 100-year-old bungalow in Coronado, or an old Craftsman house in Mission Hills or South Park, and [they] find that the property taxes can become so high that they [have to] sell the property. That’s very true in Coronado. These little houses in Coronado…they’re on a piece of property where you can tear the house down and put a Billy Box in place, and people, even if they want to save the old house, [discover that] it just isn’t practical. So the bill has worked as it was envisioned, for the most part.”
In fact, he says, it has been invoked more widely than he ever expected. “Now I find that houses are being improved for Mills Act coverage, houses that are a good deal younger than I am. I didn’t have that in mind.”
He says there are three criteria to qualify a house for the Mills Act. “One is if it’s a certain age. A second is if someone noteworthy lived in it. A third is if it is noteworthy as a piece of architecture or is the work of a noteworthy architect.”
So with his legislation working beyond expectations, does the senator think SOHO is even needed? Or has it become too powerful a tool for ordinary homeowners, who might not be interested in history?
Absolutely not, he says. “I think SOHO has been marvelous, and in terms of power, the power that SOHO has is not as much as I would like it to be. My feeling about San Diego is that local government at all levels is dominated by money. It is corrupted by money. I often say that most of the elected officials in San Diego County are either for rent or for sale. And the people who buy them or rent them are people with money, developers, people who want to do projects. And SOHO doesn’t have money. They’re fighting, but they’re definitely still the David [not the Goliath]. You get things like the mayor of San Diego saying a while back that ‘Oh, this [Mills Act] costs too much, the city can’t afford it, we should cut back on the Mills Act and cut back on future listings of houses under the Mills Act…’ You think, Where is this guy’s head? Because, for the most part, the approval of a Mills Act on a house results in an improvement of the neighborhood. The money that people save on the taxes on the Mills Act goes into improvements to the house, which improve the neighborhood, and actually improve values throughout the neighborhood.
“When you think about hundreds of millions of dollars for a football stadium that we don’t need and that money coming off the property tax, through the tax-increment financing, it seems just a little hypocritical for anybody to protest [the Mills Act], that they need to cut back on the Mills Act and its benefits because of a city’s financial problems. It’s stupid. Because it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s not going to make any difference to the city in the first place. And in the second place, it does increase property tax values, and the city gets that back when property is turned over. There’s a reassessment. The new assessment is on the basis of the sale’s value, so it all works out. I think the mayor was just casting about for anything he could think of, where he thought, Oh, here’s some money that we can save where it’s not going to bother the developers.”
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But is preservation just for the rich? If restoring your old house ups the values, that contributes to rising rents and taxes, right? It’s the dreaded G-word — gentrification — which may feel good in Kensington for couples hoping to make a profit when they move onwards and upwards, but not in stable, low-income areas like, say, Barrio Logan.
Wrong, insists Mills.
“The Mills Act is going to drive gentrification? If you’re thoroughly and completely paranoid, yeah, that’s a possibility. Begin with: it doesn’t involve that many houses. How many houses are there in the city of San Diego where the Mills Act applies? It’s below 300. Do you think that approval on 300 houses in the entire city of San Diego, including ones in Mission Hills, and in Kensington, and South Park, and La Jolla, and anywhere else, that they’re going to drive gentrification? That’s silly.”
But gentrification and Anglification is just what Rachel Ortiz, the venerable chief of Barrio Station in Barrio Logan, fears. When SOHO came visiting recently, they were told, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“When these houses are declared,” says Ortiz, “or designated [as historically significant], our people can’t afford it. It poses a threat of gentrification. And so I ask you to see it through our eyes, brown eyes. We’re not concerned about…we don’t look to that practice. It’s a threat to us. We’d like to leave it alone.”
SOHO made a presentation at a Barrio Logan community-plan update meeting about a year ago. Ortiz wasn’t impressed. “We let them know very clearly that we need to keep our families in our homes, keep the character of the community, and not gentrify it,” she says. “They haven’t designated [any houses in Barrio Logan]. I think they have in Sherman, and it got pretty gentrified over there. We can’t afford [that]. We have fought downtown encroachment, and we have fought waterfront encroachment, developer encroachment. We’ve done a pretty good job. There was one [development] called the Bohemian. They’re still having problems. They can’t sell them. They can’t rent them. So you’ve got to be careful if you do that to a community. In our neighborhood, it needs to come from within.”
Bruce Coons agrees that initiatives, like creating a historic district, can’t be imposed from outside. “A historic district in a place like Barrio Logan, or anywhere, the way San Diego is set up, it needs to be generated by the residents. They need to be in favor of it, and the way that they’ve put it together governs how the district is going to be. Now, one way to do it is you can limit the size of the additions or the kinds of units that can be built in there, say only low-income, and certain sizes. You limit additions to the buildings, and then that keeps it within the price range. Otherwise, the developers are going to come in, buy up the whole block, and it’s all going to be large buildings, and once they get it all done, they’re going to jack up the price just as high as they can get. Nothing can stop them. Next stop, if you’re Barrio Logan? Overflow from East Village. The Barrio’s on the bay. It’s got a good climate. They’re not stupid. Quite frankly, it’s about the only [low-income] neighborhood that isn’t looking to historical preservation to save their way of life. It’s not only their greatest but practically their only solution. They’re so worried about somebody else coming in and imposing this on them, they don’t realize that they can set it up to suit themselves.”
Because, in the end, Coons says, preservation isn’t about preserving things, houses, churches, trees, bridges, whatever. It’s about the culture. “People in communities of whatever income or culture have the ability to work out rules that enhance and preserve that culture within a historic district, which they don’t have otherwise. We went to a couple of the meetings [in Barrio Logan], and we answered questions on the Barrio Logan update, and we said, ‘We’re here if you want our help.’ We will of course be going after certain individual buildings that may be of historical importance also.”
And Old Town? How are they preserving the culture by changing it from Spanish to Anglo?
“You’re talking about Casa de Bandini? That house was a pastiche. It’s interesting that underneath about two inches of phony stucco and crud, we discovered the original building. It was all there. Upstairs, all except for two or three boards, one window, and one door, is original. It’s all original! We’re for preservation of the real building. Not some Hollywood fantasy. Have we gotten flak? Always. A building that important — and it is one of the most important historic structures in the state — it’s bound to happen. We were doing Old Town of the transition period. Diane Powers was doing Mexico of the 1990s, based on a present-day market outside of Mexico City. But we can do that anywhere. We can’t have the true history of San Diego anywhere but there, in the bones of what’s actually there in the plaza.”
I leave the Coonses and head back to the birthday party. There are so many kids around the tree I wonder for a moment if the young Whaley ghost-girl might be among them. I decide to get a piece of that birthday cake. I go looking for the slab of icing with the 241 candles.