“Graffiti is a billboard for gangs,” Jose Lopez says while shielding his eyes from the morning sun. We are standing on the back porch of his City Heights bungalow looking out over the canyon below. Perched atop a hill, directly across from us, a graffiti-covered fence is discernible. Lopez shakes his head in disgust. He points a finger and says, “That [graffiti] means something. It’s up for commercial purposes. If it says ESD, that stands for East San Diego [a local gang.] The number stands for the territory. The message after that is what they can supply. It tells the people who can read it what they have available, whether it is drugs or prostitution.”
The tagging aggravates Lopez more than usual because two days earlier he and a crew of other volunteers spent the day painting over graffiti in the same area.
Lopez serves as president and founder of the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association, a sub-neighborhood within City Heights established in 1997. The association’s main goal is to keep their portion of City Heights crime-free. Getting rid of graffiti is a top priority. Lopez applied for and received a grant from the City of San Diego called “Paint the Blight-Out Program,” totaling $6500.The money was used to purchase buckets of paint, rollers, and brushes to eliminate the vandalism and to paint utility boxes in Fox Canyon.
Before the grant, and prior to Fox Canyon becoming a sub-community of City Heights, Lopez describes his neighborhood as a sketchy one.
“We had gang houses that ran prostitution and narcotic rings. Now, [the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association] makes it a point of knocking gang members’ houses down. We have deemed 42 neighborhood homes nuisances,” Lopez says with satisfaction.
I follow behind him as he walks the length of his porch and opens his back door. We step inside a powder-blue kitchen. Shutting the door behind us, Lopez locks multiple padlocks. To the right, a row of gold-flecked goblets hang neatly in a row above his sink. Underneath the crown moulding and above a door leading to the master bedroom, a plexiglas-enclosed shelf houses a boxy TV that serves as a surveillance unit.
Jose Lopez's 16-year quest for a peaceful City Heights neighborhood
Conversation with Jose Lopez, longtime City Heights resident, about the realities of his neighborhood.
“I installed that after being robbed,” he tells me.
Lopez has motion-detector floodlights equipped with cameras hung around the perimeter of his house. Directly across the street from his modest home, he had the city install a street light that he paid the monthly $21 fee to operate until recently when the city began picking up the tab.
Lopez walks into the living room and sits down on an antique wooden chair to strap on a pair of heavy black boots.
“A neighbor called me this morning about some graffiti on Euclid. I need to take photos and send them to Officer Roman,” the police officer that works with Jose’s Fox Canyon neighborhood on graffiti abatement. “I can give you a tour of the neighborhood,” Lopez offers.
In the driveway, Lopez unlocks the doors to a shiny black BMW and then walks a few more feet to unlock the chain-link fence that surrounds his property. He backs the car out of the driveway before getting out again to lock the gate behind us.
We drive up Lantana Drive, turn left on Dwight Street, and then right on Euclid. A few minutes later we pull over in front of a liquor store. Swatches of mismatched paint cover the exterior of the store. A spot on the wall next to a vending machine is tagged in black spray-paint. The vending machine has been decorated with spray-paint as well. Lopez gets out and photographs the vandalism. Minutes later he gets back in the car. Lopez pulls over on Winona Avenue. He parks his car in a dirt lot at the mouth of the canyon we viewed from his back porch.
A concrete wall borders Chollas Creek. It’s covered in graffiti.
“We come out here regularly to paint over this but they always paint over it again right after. It’s like we’re doing them a favor, like they find glory in it because they have a blank canvas to paint on,” Lopez says.
Lopez wants the city to put a two-lane, 24-hour, street light–illuminated road through the canyon.
“We believe that environment lends itself to crime. All sorts of illegal activity happens down here, but they won’t put a street in. They say [the canyon] is an environmental jewel. Look at this...this is an environmental jewel?”
Lopez motions to a spot of graffiti that has a bright red line through it, and adds, “What happens is, this here is East San Diego claiming the area. If someone comes over and writes a line through it and writes another graffiti, that’s a sign of a turf war. When there is a turf war, they don’t sit down like Mr. Barack Obama and the president of Syria. They aren’t going to talk diplomacy; no, they are going to do a drive-by shooting.”
Lopez explains that when he spots graffiti he can’t paint over it right away. He follows procedure, sending photos to Officer Roman, who then enters the artwork into the system. If a graffiti arrest is made, they can potentially track the vandal’s tag back to photos in the system and indict the tagger for other work found in the neighborhood.
In 2011, the City of San Diego’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee announced the implementation of the Graffiti Tracker Program, a web-based system that aids in identifying graffiti vandals.
Photographs of graffiti are entered into a database, enabling law enforcement to keep track of vandals. Signatures and other identifying features are repeated by taggers. Information is kept in a database that police and prosecutors can pull from to determine a tagger’s patterns or geographic areas.
In 2011, 82,482 incidents were entered into Graffiti Tracker by local jurisdictions. That year, the greatest number of incidents were entered by the City of San Diego (22,563), followed by Vista (15,124), Escondido (7863), Oceanside (5811), and National City (5025). Sheriff’s contract cities and the unincorporated areas entered a total of 28,035 other incidents.