The trouble with her breathing began a few months after Estella Lopez moved to Barrio Logan. Lopez is certain she knows why: “At five or six in the morning, you start hearing heavy noise. Like machinery working together. Like heavy metal banging.” Lopez lives on Main Street in an affordable-housing complex. She is 37 but looks older. She speaks very little English and answers questions with the help of an interpreter.
“One of the things is, I can never open the windows in the apartment, because my children are constantly sick. The little one, if we don’t take care of her, she is going to develop asthma.” Lopez’s six-year-old daughter shows signs of being in the disease’s early stages. “The doctor gave us a breathing machine for her. That’s why the windows are shut, so she can breathe clean air.”
Lopez has a square jaw and fine black hair pulled tight on her head. She earns $8.25 an hour as a line cook at a Burger King in Coronado. She smiles only once during our conversation — a shy, furtive grin, really — when she explains how it is that she and the man she lives with, the father of their two girls, do not share the same last name: “We are not married.”
Lopez and her 13-year-old daughter take pills as a part of barrio living. She roots through her handbag and produces a small bottle filled with tablets. “Loratadine,” it says on the label, a drug which (according to drugs.com) is commonly used to treat allergies.
“The 13-year-old is allergic to the dust in the air,” she says. “And I am allergic to things like smoke in the air. The smoke that comes from the trucks and the contamination they are creating.”
Estella Lopez, with her mother and kids, says, “I can never open the windows in the apartment because my children are constantly sick.”
Image by Howie Rosen
Lopez pays $550 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in the barrio. She says they used to pay closer to $1000 for a one-bedroom apartment up on Ocean View Boulevard in Southeast. Does she consider the nearly 50 percent cut in rent a decent trade for the reduced quality of life she describes?
“No. It’s definitely not a good trade-off. We are not a high-income family.” Together, she and her live-in boyfriend bring home less than $20 per hour before taxes. “Our financial situation,” she says, “made us do what we had to do.”
Breathing the air, it turns out, is a problem for a lot of people in Barrio Logan. The neighborhood is bordered by Interstate 5, Commercial Street, National City, and the second largest naval base in the continental U.S. It is a neighborhood like no other in San Diego, in that it has been zoned for both industrial and residential use, which exist side-by-side.
Within the barrio are rail yards, an oil-tanker facility, the NASSCO shipbuilding yard, diesel-powered cargo ships at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, and diesel-truck traffic. When one factors in 200,000 cars per day on the freeway and another 70,000 daily commuters on the Coronado bridge, it’s no surprise to learn that the barrio is awash in greenhouse gases. Hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic air pollution settle each year on Barrio Logan.
The bad air seems hardest on the youth here. The numbers of children with asthma is triple that of the national average, according to data compiled by the State of California and the Environmental Health Coalition, a San Diego nonprofit dedicated to achieving environmental and social justice. The respiratory disorder affects shift workers and laborers, as well, a moveable population that outnumbers Barrio Logan residents by more than two to one.
“Asthma is the most common disease of participants that we address with the disease-management program,” International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569 political director Jen Badgley recently told a joint meeting of port commissioners and city-council members. “Our members don’t just work in the city. We live in neighborhoods like Barrio Logan.”
“My husband worked at NASSCO for 35 years,” says Maria Maya. She works for the Environmental Health Coalition as a community organizer. “The people that retire from there? They don’t live very long past their retirement. They are the first line of the impact of the pollution. We have worked with NASSCO about doing more eco-friendly ways of welding, for example, but everything we do is a struggle because of the workers. That job is their bread and butter. They don’t care [about their health] until they get sick.”
At present, there is a new Barrio Logan Community Plan Update on the table that could change the face, and potentially the health, of the neighborhood — or not. Two basic redevelopment footprints are up for grabs. One, known as “alternative one” is residential; the other, “alternative two,” favors industry. The city council is expected to vote on these in July, after which their recommendation will go to the coastal commission for final ratification, a decision not expected for another two years at the earliest.
The deficits within Barrio Logan, and the needs of its somewhat transient population of predominately low-income Latinos, first appeared on the public radar back in 1968 as part of the City of San Diego Model Cities program. As a result, the neighborhood got a clinic and youth services and some green belt in the form of a small public park located directly under the Coronado bridge ramps. This would become Chicano Park.
In 1974, the San Diego City Council sanctioned a community planning association composed of landowners, renters, and members of industry. They set out to build an even better barrio. Three years later, the council accepted the 239-page Barrio Logan Harbor 101 Community Improvement study. It is a singular read. For example, the authors described the fallout from allowing industry to dwarf the cultural, historic, and residential aspects of Barrio Logan in less than glowing terms: “The visual conflicts resulting from this land use pattern are an affront to normally accepted aesthetic standards.”
The report went on to catalog a landscape poisoned by ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons, a place that was (and still is) utterly devoid of native plants and wildlife due to heavy urbanization. Barrio Logan, in other words, is a dead zone.
“Street trees,” noted the study, “are not an abundant feature.”
“A poor community takes what little it can get,” Maria Maya says, explaining why people continue to live in Barrio Logan. “Back then, we didn’t have all the scientific information, the data on hand that we have now. But when we found out the chemicals that were being dumped there, we all said, ‘We better watch out.’”
In the years following the 1978 report, manufacturing and housing continued to coexist side by side. “In fact, the pace of industrial siting in residential areas,” says Joy Williams, research director at the Environmental Health Coalition, “increased after 1978.” This fact of Barrio Logan life was compounded by the various welding shops, refinishers, chrome platers, auto dismantlers, and port-related industries that, over the decades, had been grandfathered into the fabric of the neighborhood.
But within that time frame, diesel truck, cargo ship, and factory emissions were reduced; low-income housing was constructed; and a couple of years ago, a chain supermarket, the Mercado Northgate — known to some as the Latino Whole Foods — opened for business. Gentrification gained a toehold as well, partially from the expansion of the East Village, and partially due to artists who were drawn to the barrio by cheap rents.
“With change comes discomfort,” says Matt Carr. “You get out of your zone.” Carr introduces himself as a ship-tank cleaner by trade. He is president of Cal Marine on Main Street in Barrio Logan; the U.S. Navy is their biggest customer. “I’ve never been involved in any sort of civic process before,” he says by phone of his stewardship of the Barrio Logan Smart Growth Coalition. “It’s going on five years that I’ve been involved. It’s been quite a process for us.” Carr, Jerry Gray of Sloan Electric, and Billie Bernard of R&H Properties started Smart Growth in 2008 to represent the neighborhood’s business interests.
Carr says that in spite of their best lobbying efforts, “From all indications of what we can see, alternative number one will be presented to the city council. The current administration made it clear that one of the objectives was to go back to neighborhoods.”
The larger bone of contention is that alternative one would force relocation of some of the existing barrio industry to a dedicated zone farther south. That’s been a nonstarter for Smart Growth all along.
“There’s a lot of business here that supports the maritime industry. It makes sense that they be close to the waterfront.” Carr says he fears the eventual erosion of San Diego’s industrial base. “It’s like old-growth forest. Once it’s gone, it doesn’t come back.”
“It’s a very interesting time down here.”
Luis Murillo is a development associate at the Barrio Logan College Institute, an afterschool, college-prep nonprofit. “We’ve been around for what, 17 years? People in the community either know a lot about us or they know nothing about us. But, now our work is being recognized.” Murillo says that every child who has participated in their program has gone on to college. “We have a 100 percent success rate.”
Luis Murillo (left) of the Barrio Logan College Institute says that every child who has participated in their program has gone on to college.
Image by Howie Rosen
One can see interesting things from the front door of the institute. Industrial cranes and massive grain elevators crowd the skyline to the west behind an ugly blue-and-gray warehouse, vacant, weedy, and barb-wired. Main Street more or less ends at a steel fence with loops of prison-yard concertina wire along the top. In the immediate background are Petco Park and the downtown skyline, including the new library rotunda that shimmers in the afternoon sky.
“Our students come to us with the condition that they have to be the first in their family to go to college. They are first or second generation. We focus on academics and personal identity. Our students are people of color, and they are going through puberty. They’re living totally different lives than their parents.” Of 200 students enrolled, 150 are active in the Barrio Logan program, and 50, Murillo says, are presently away at college.
“We start in the third grade. Most of our students go to Perkins, then they come here after.” The Barrio Logan College Institute was launched, he says, as the result of a Harvard study that posited that school dropouts could be predicted by the third grade. Three such pilot programs were opened around the country in urban neighborhoods to test the theory. “We started in a borrowed classroom at Perkins, and the only one of the three that stayed open was us.” He says the school’s annual budget of $770,000 comes from private contributions and grants. “This year, we will be receiving funding from the City of San Diego and from the Department of Education, via their Promise Neighborhoods grant.”
Murillo has reservations about the possibility of rezoning and change coming to the barrio. “That’s actually one of the things that concerns us a bit. We’re trying to educate parents so that in case the rental fees go up, they will have the means to get by in the future.” He sees both good and bad in the current redevelopment scheme. “The Mercado is good, because now families don’t have to take a bus to go to the Walmart. But the mom-and-pop stores here are hurting or shutting down.”
But Murillo is sanguine about the immediate future. “Barrio Logan has a real good grassroots culture. The same people that fought for Chicano Park, they are still working to make sure that people who live here are protected.”
“People always ask, ‘What’s it like down here?’”
Matt Devine’s answer is, “It’s fun.” Devine, a sculptor, resembles a young Eric Clapton dressed like a welder. He recently completed a 25-foot-tall 5000-pound abstraction installed at the corner of Nimitz and Harbor Drive in Point Loma. “People are great down here,” he says. “Half of my tenants are females, and some of them work late without any problem.”
A few years ago, Devine and his wife leased an aging warehouse on Main Street where Devine could set up shop. To help turn the nut, the two subdivided the cavernous interior into enclosed spaces of various sizes that they in turn sublet to other artists.
“It’s working out fine,” he says of his Glashaus, which he calls an artist collective studio, gallery, and event venue. “There are no problems at all with working down here.” He says that the Glashaus is a symptom of the slow turn taking place in the barrio: Devine considers it part of the neighborhood’s gentrification. “When we first moved in four-and-a-half years ago, I don’t think there was anybody else down here. The Bakery had just opened, and there was the Woodbury architecture school, but that was about all.”
Devine is certain that the arts have brought new tenants to Barrio Logan, if for no other reason than the economy. “Ten years ago, it was the same thing in Little Italy. You could get space cheap there. Now, rents are too high. Some artists are still in Little Italy, but most got pushed out. Artists aren’t the richest people. We’re always looking for inexpensive space.”
Devine estimates that there are more than 100 artists presently working in Barrio Logan. “I have 30 tenants of my own,” he says. Similar warehouse conversions likewise house 30 or more artists each. Along with the aforementioned Bakery at 16th and National, “there’s the Union on Main Street, and he’s got almost double the space I have.” Some artists actually live in the barrio, Devine says, as well as upstream in surrounding Sherman Heights and Golden Hill.
“Some of the people in the arts down here are pushing to make Barrio Logan the next arts destination,” he says. “I’m not a member of any boards or any committees, but we’ll see if that happens.”
“Chicken soup. That’s what we call it, the barrio community swimming pool.”
“This is my place,” says Karina Spilker. “I don’t wanna leave. I wanna clean it up.”
Image by Howie Rosen
Born and raised in Barrio Logan, Karina Spilker manages the MAAC Project STEP (Striving Towards Economic Prosperity) center, which is located inside the security-gated Barrio Mercado apartment complex. She assures a visitor that her comment is not an indictment of the pool’s water quality.
“No, that’s just what we call it.” She laughs. “Chicken soup. People say, hey, we’re going to chicken soup. It is only open during the summer. There’s always a big line outside waiting to get in.” She offers a walking tour of the complex. A majority of the residents here are undocumented, she explains, but all have children that were born in the U.S. “And they have to have an ITIN [individual taxpayer identification number] from the Internal Revenue Service. They are taxpayers. As long as they have an ITIN number, we can rent to them.”
From all outward appearances, the Barrio Mercado appears to be something it is not: a middle-class oasis, a pricy condo development. It is, in truth, affordable housing and intended solely for the barrio’s low-income wage-earners and their families. The sprawling complex was built under the auspices of the MAAC Project 17 years ago, in the shadow of the Coronado bridge, on what was once San Diego Gas & Electric property. The westward view is not pretty: an astonishing array of power lines and towers and high-voltage grids of a kind not generally seen in the suburbs.
A low industrial hum fills the air. Is that always present? Yes. Spilker points to some unmarked gunmetal Quonset sheds across the street as the source. She then points out a nondescript gray warehouse that is closed to the public and that otherwise has no signage. “What are they doing in there?” she asks. (A later directory search will show that the tenant is S&M Enterprises, a wholesale marine industrial-supply company.)
A Caltrans truck yard occupies the land next to the Mercado. As such, it is adjacent to a supervised day-care area operated by Head Start for children of the residents. She says that exhaust from idling Caltrans trucks sometimes inundates the play area. “And we get a lot of smog from the bridge on some days.” Spilker agrees that asthma and allergies are fairly common among the residents. There have been days when, because of the fumes, the MAAC Project staff has been sent home.
Chat with Karina Spilker about Barrio Logan
“When Northgate [Mercado, the grocery store] was being built, we thought it [the mysterious toxins] was coming from the trucks. But there are places around here doing things we don’t know about — dumping chemicals, mixing paint. We blame it on the trucks. We blame it on NASSCO. But we really don’t know what the hell a lot of these other companies are doing.”
Whatever it is, she says, the toxic aftereffects have hit close to home. “My own kids dealt with asthma growing up.” Did Spilker ever once consider leaving the barrio? She says no. “This is my place. I don’t wanna leave. I wanna clean it up.”
“My parents were married at that church, the one where Father Brown is.”
In May, former Chula Vista councilman Steve Castaneda ran for State Assembly in the 80th Assembly District, a broad region that includes Chula Vista, National City, San Ysidro, and Barrio Logan. He lost to San Diego and Imperial Counties’ Labor Council CEO Lorena Gonzalez.
Castaneda searches his memory for the name of the church, then comes up with this: “Our Lady of Guadalupe. My mother grew up on Kearney [Avenue] in Logan Heights, before they built the freeway. We’re talking about the 1930s and the ’40s. And there was a lot of industry there back then. In those days, you lived right on the property where your garage or your wrecking company was.”
The area called Logan Heights was originally developed as a lower-middle-class working neighborhood, and eventually became a factory town for the fish, lumber, and shipbuilding industries that dotted the bay. Had it not been for a market collapse in the late 1800s, the barrio might be even more industrialized than it is now. Plans were scrapped to make Logan Heights the western terminus of a cross-country rail system. Instead, that all went north to Los Angeles. Logan Avenue became a small commercial center, and during the 1930s, there was even a public beach and a community pier with amusements. The expansion of the naval base between world wars ended all that.
In the 1950s, construction of the I-5 freeway split Logan Heights from Barrio Logan, and in the 1960s, the Coronado bridge finished the job by dividing the barrio into parcels north and south. There were also zoning changes made during the 1950s that allowed for the proliferation of commercial industry.
“My father said he used to swim in the bay off of A Street, and back then there were sewers that dumped right into the bay.” Castaneda stops to think about that. “We didn’t know as much back then,” he says, “but we know a lot more now.”
The former Chula Vista councilman worked for Ron Roberts in the ’80s, “right around the time the Barrio Mercado was built. The real problem is that you have a transient population that lives here. There’s not a lot of them, and they are renters, and they tend to come and go.” Still, he points out some of the pressures this transient group has brought to bear on situations, resulting in permanent change.
“They fought over the Walmart, they got a new grocery store, they had small victories over a plating company [Master Plating agreed to close up shop in 2002] and Dole [the food company and its trucks were forced to move to National City], but there are lots of difficulties in making major changes here.”
Castaneda makes an example of the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. About 185 million bananas are imported into San Diego each month, according to the Port of San Diego, along with barges full of sand and gravel and cement for building. It turns out that San Diego Bay is one of only 20 deep-water ports in the U.S., and as such is the fourth largest port in California. It handles 3.3 million metric tons of cargo, more than 600,000 containers, and more than half a million vehicles annually.
“It’s a vortex of truck traffic and pollution and incompatible land uses that have always been an issue.” Castaneda cites the freeways as being major pollution factories as well. “And the I-5 and the Coronado bridge? They aren’t going away anytime soon. The issues kind of stay the same. It’s a difficult neighborhood.”
What outcome would he care to predict as concerns the new community plan?
“I think there will be some change this time. But there’s a lot of studies and plans, and they sit on shelves until interested parties and investors with money come along to make them happen.” Worse, he says, is that the State of California abolished all redevelopment areas in 2012, an action that cut funding to the Barrio Logan Community Planning Area.
“When the redevelopment area was here, and the CCDC [the Centre City Development Corporation, now called Civic San Diego] was granting money for low- and moderate-income housing, the barrio seemed to be the recipient of that.” He recalls then–Padres owner John Moores coming up with what he thinks was $500,000 in redevelopment seed money for the area. “But now, all that money is gone, and you’re right to ask, ‘How do we get this done?’ The state has to respond to that, because they are the ones that took the funding away. Without investment capital, it’s nice to talk about, but nothing’s going to happen.”
Inside Orient Engines on Main Street, the manager, a man who introduces himself only as Ramón, says he’s too busy to talk. The air in the warehouse smells of gasoline and oil, presumably from the hundred or so automobile engines that are resting on clean tarps on the shop floor. “This is the busy time of year,” Ramón says when pressed for just five minutes of his time. But other than a pair of jumpsuited workers chatting in the shop, there is no observable work going on. “I have to go to an appointment,” he says. “And I gotta look at my computer before I leave.”
Danny Parga manages the National Petroleum shipping and receiving warehouse next door. Neat stacks of orange 50-gallon drums are visible from the street. A propane-powered forklift moves sealed plastic vats filled with a dark fluid into the back of a waiting delivery truck. Parga explains that the company is essentially a way station for motor oil and lubricants that are then trucked out of Barrio Logan to gasoline stations and repair shops throughout the county.
“We’re real comfortable here,” he says. “We don’t have any issues at all with the neighbors.” He makes reference to the Dole truck station that once occupied the warehouse next door and remarks about the near-continuous flow of diesel trucks and traffic congestion and noise and exhaust fumes that were once a bone of contention for residents of the Barrio Mercado. Now, a company called EQ Culture rents studio space to bands and video producers in that same warehouse.
National Petroleum’s owner, David Golokow, is not in the shop that day, but Parga says that Golokow would like to relocate (of his own accord) somewhere else in the barrio and possibly buy some land. He confirms that National Petroleum was in fact doing business at their present location long before the Barrio Mercado complex was built.
One block west of the Glashaus and up the street toward Perkins Elementary School, a middle-aged Hispanic woman introduces herself: Norma. She stands out in the sun and waits for a bus. Her black pantsuit is business-office neat. She says she lives on Logan Avenue and that she is going in to her office today. She searches her somewhat limited English vocabulary for the right word and comes up with meeting, which she amends as soon as she says it. “A pot luck.” There is an office party today because the place where she works, H&R Block, is closing for the year. Norma is a tax preparer. “April 15 was the last day.”
The bus stop has no bench, no protection from the elements, no streetlight, and no trash can. Like all the other bus stops in Barrio Logan — with one exception — it is simply a metal pole with a schedule affixed to it. When it rains or is blazing hot, where does Norma wait for the bus? With a shy smile, she nods at a nearby tree.
Last year, Estella Lopez says her car was stolen from out front of the Mercado. Her daughters’ bicycles, too. She thinks maybe the bikes got picked by the near-endless stream of transient recyclers who comb through the trash containers daily in search of cans and bottles; these they can cash in a few blocks away at the IMS recyclers, where the going rate of $1.90 per pound for aluminum cans is posted out front in black-and-yellow block letters. Lopez admits she made the move without knowing much about barrio life.
“I walk my kids to school every day. Even though the older one can walk herself, I say ‘no.’ I walk behind a couple of feet. If I didn’t walk them to school, I would wonder if they got there or not.” But when asked if she wants her own girls to likewise settle down in the barrio and raise their families here, the answer comes without hesitation.