Comedian George Lopez jokes that every Mexican family has a haunted room somewhere on the premises — “the cucuy room.” It’s the one you sprint past on your way to the commode in the middle of the night. It’s a place in the middle of your house that’s as inscrutable as the Bermuda Triangle. But come into the cucuy room during the day, and it might not seem that remarkable — a dusty bureau in the corner here, some old boxes there. But it might also contain treasures and stories untold. Maybe there’s a bouquet of dried flowers that used to mean something, or an envelope full of rusty nails.
Linda Vista is San Diego’s cucuy room. People drive past it on the way to somewhere. Sometimes they go there for a specific place like Skate World but don’t venture anywhere else. But look more closely and walk into the side streets off the main drag and you’ll see things you’ll bookmark for future reflection when you’re lying in bed, and you’ll think, What the hell was that about?
An upscale gray Mercedes zips by with what looks like a bright orange flame ripping out of the driver’s side door. You squint and realize it’s a Buddhist monk’s robe caught in the door jamb. The back seat is loaded to the roof with Costco stuff, and homeboy monk is all Zen.
A homeless man walks into a pho restaurant with a package of ramen. An employee takes it and brings him back a bowl with extra fixings. It looks like some sort of ongoing deal.
A friendly pit bull owns the street on your way home. He lies on his back directly on the center divider, tongue lolling about as cars cautiously creak by. It looks like some weird doggie funeral procession.
Drive up Genesee or Ulric and you’ll see a sign that advertises Linda Vista as “The Heart of San Diego.” I’ve seen both signs vandalized in the past. It’s transgressive to have something that is self-referential here. I laughed out loud when I saw a banner on one of the streetlights proclaiming Linda Vista as Torero Town, referring to the University of San Diego, which sits at the southern tip of the area. I’ve never seen anyone from USD come here on the regular, well, ever.
Linda Vista lacks the artistic neediness, the puckered yuppiedom, the suburban basicness of other places. There is no meta in Linda Vista. The people here just do and just are. The stories you see sometimes elude you. Others, they revisit you in unexpected ways.
A place with no lack
A few months back, I played pickup basketball with some guys at Linda Vista Rec Center. Everyone had a cordial time and the ball was well distributed. On the opposing team was a guy who seemed like a real leader — knew how to fight for position in the post, took advantage of mismatches. A few weeks after that I went to the park to work on my (still mediocre) jumpshot. I saw the same guy leading a church group at the park. As far as ministries go, it was pretty bare-bones. But there was an interesting rawness to its intimacy.
One of my cousins remarked to me once that in her hometown in the Midwest, on every street corner was a church or a mortgage-lending office. This was right before the housing bust of the late aughts. The implication then was that both institutions attracted people by addressing their current state of lack and connected them to a future defined by something better than what they had in the present. But this ministry seemed different when I first saw it. There was an intense urgency despite its tadpole state. Its closeness to the people of Linda Vista seemed like it could offer an important picture of this community.
I tracked down New Life Church’s pastor, Jordan Valverde, one day after one of his services at the park. His uniform is an unassuming one, a button-down flannel shirt and jeans. His build is notably that of a former athlete: above-average height, sturdy build, crew cut. He wore a workman’s uniform and conducted his service in a workmanlike way.
Valverde is 28, and his conversion story began ten years ago. Conversion stories follow similar arcs, like comic-book origin stories. There’s the wayward life, a moment of intense vision, a breakdown of the individual will, the final submission to a divine mission. In his speech, too, you can detect remnants of the time he spent in the fraternal company of athletic men who play team sports: the occasional sports metaphor, the use of “bro” as a salutation and punctuation mark. Valverde told me his story in a meditative murmur; each telling of the story reaffirmed its realness and its purpose.
Valverde grew up in what he described as a broken home with five brothers in South Poway. At 18, he moved out into a party house with his friends and former teammates. There they’d drink, hook up, and get jacked on steroids. He knew about Jesus in the way everyone knows about Jesus, but Jesus for him was a killjoy. One night, his mother asked him to have a relationship with Christ and he obliged out of formality. When asked if she could pray for him, he said thanks but no thanks, and left.
Valverde had his conversion moment back at his party house. A powerful vision overtook him, and he had a panoramic view of his life, all the times he stiff-armed God, all the times he sinned. So he knelt down and asked for forgiveness. From then, he said, it was as if the outfit he had been wearing all his life, rank and mouldering, had been cleaned by Christ. He eventually signed up for a seminary program that took him to Hawaii, to Scotland. For a time he lived with a group of homeless people in Oahu to bring himself closer to the needy.
During our outing together, Valverde was flanked by his brother Jonathan, a baby-faced 24-year-old with a slight Bieber sweep. Jonathan smiled naturally and seemed like a guy who wanted to make others happy. They had different fathers, and Jonathan said that their relationship had gotten better since Valverde’s conversion. Jonathan told me that there was a realness in this community that was hard to fake. For Valverde, the mission in Linda Vista is to bring it to its full potential. Imagine, he said, what the community would be like if it could be as God’s will is on Earth as it is in heaven: a place with no lack, no abuse, no brokenness, no evil.
Brokenness is a recurring motif in Valverde’s contemplations, and it frames his worldview in many aspects.
“Brokenness is not the absence of purpose — it’s the challenge of the world we live in,” he said. Linda Vista’s brokenness, according to Valverde, isn’t specific; it’s a reflection of the universal.
“In Linda Vista, brokenness is a lot more visible. In a nice place like Coronado and other privileged places, they’re covered up by resources, by accomplishments. But inside the lack is still there.”
It is not the community’s brokenness that attracts Valverde, but its open brokenness. “You can’t be in Linda Vista if you’re afraid of sitting next to sick people,” Valverde said.
Valverde hails from a diverse family, a mix of Anglo, Mexican, and Filipino,and it is Linda Vista’s diversity that attracted him. To say that this community is diverse is like saying Johnny Manziel has character issues — it’s a furtive stab at the truth, but it doesn’t capture the entire picture.
One Friday afternoon at the park, this diversity was on display as Valverde and his church organized a food distribution for the poor. In the tennis courts, a white kid was taking lessons from his coach. Inside the rec center on the basketball courts, a group of Asian kids from Kearny High School were playing a game of pickup while a few Latino guys watched. Outside, two Middle-Eastern men wrestled with an uncooperative plastic sheet they were trying to use for a prayer mat. Once they weighed it down, both took off their sandals and faced Mecca, which coincidentally faced the tennis courts.
Valverde and his church had two plastic tables out, and the truck bringing the food was late. Today he wore a hoodie, some dad jeans over black Vans, and a boonie hat. About 20 people already waited in line. The pastor, once again, was at work.
A fellow parishioner named Tuan, wearing a green cast scribbled with Bible verses, told someone next to him, “Man, this reminds of the time I was in the Philippines in a refugee camp. We’d be lining up for food just like these guys. The food was all smashed and broken and we still wanted it.”
Tuan wore wraparound shades and a tracksuit. He recounted a story about a guy in prison who used to sell drugs three blocks away from a church. “Every day people would walk by him and looked at him like he was trash,” without considering that he might be another person or soul who needed saving, Tuan recalled.
Valverde knows he faces stiff competition for people’s souls here. There are about a dozen churches in Linda Vista, but he’s not interested in attracting church shoppers. His goal, like many tech startups, is to hit up the untapped market — people, cultures, ethnicities whose personal and national histories haven’t had exposure to Jesus.
But Valverde is young, and his ministry’s grassroots focus may be a product of his youth. I asked him about the direction of his church. Could he see himself at the helm of something like, say, a megachurch, with high production values and possibly squishier theology?
“I have to be honest,” he said, “there is a good amount of talk in pastoral circles about joining the dark side.” But for now, he is content to build, and to remain rugged. He has worked to reach out to Bayside, the local community center. Valverde also makes no bones about his agenda, which is a Christian one, which he admits has its complications. “Absolute truths make people uncomfortable,” he said.
In many ways, Bayside Community Center’s community advocate Tamy Nguyen is the perfect ambassador for her community. Her almond eyes are often smiling, her handshakes hearty and eager. In her texts, she prefers to sign off with a thumbs-up followed by a blushing smiley face.
So, when I met her boss Corey Pahanish, Bayside’s executive director, a USD grad student wearing a “One Linda Vista” T-shirt and a black fist tattoo on his left forearm and a multicolored heart on his right, I was initially expecting the same openness. But my tension colored meeting with Pahanish at first. I didn’t help things by pitching my routine about writing a story that tells the story of Linda Vista and its people. Pahanish responded with a guardedness I didn’t expect. But we loosened up as we talked and I came to understand the reason he seemed so guarded.
“We serve a vulnerable community here,” Pahanish said. And a community that has been exploited before. What I read as Pahanish’s stonewalling was actually him being protective of the community he served. Linda Vista is one of six most distressed areas in the city, he said, even though people tend to think of City Heights or other more obviously distressed places.
Turf and space are precious commodities to Bayside. A few years back, a developer offered to buy the land on which the community center stood to build affordable housing units. For Pahanish, this was a Trojan horse. Affordable housing sounds good, he said, but they benefit developers through tax credits and other financial breaks.
Bayside was also attempting to buy a plot of land owned by San Diego Unified School District directly behind its community garden. He intended to expand the garden, but the district so far was not interested. Instead, the district kept its contract with Burtech, a construction company. When Pahanish took me to see the plot of land, there was nothing but a shipping container, some rusty pipes, and broken-up pavement overlooking the canyon.
Like Valverde, he described the community as a food desert, defined by its residents’ lack of access to fresh produce and culturally recognizable food. The former point is true; while I was getting a haircut, my hairdresser sympathized with a woman who was disparaging the local supermarket’s produce. She said she had to drive to a Korean market in Clairemont for anything good. For the many residents here who don’t have cars, this is a challenge. So many people here use the shopping carts to convey their groceries home that Thuan Phat market has its own cart wrangler who drives around the neighborhood picking up loose carts. I did notice he got a new pickup recently, so his job seems pretty secure.
Bayside, which offers Zumba classes, leadership workshops, and food distributions, was on the verge of closing its doors two years ago. One of the noticeable things about this community is that there are so many different bubbles within it, separated by age group, rent vs. own, class, race, culture, and language.
Rising rent ranks high among Linda Vista’s challenge. It’s often exacted by absentee landlords who see a revolving door for residents. Nguyen pointed out that many Vietnamese, especially the senior citizens, avoid speaking out or seeking help when it comes to tenant laws.
Bayside’s Resident Leadership Academy is one of the ways the organization attempts to empower Linda Vista’s people. I met with the youth cohort of this program one day. The group comprised five high schoolers: Maria, Maya, Elias, Michelle, and Irix. The former three live in Linda outside Linda Vista but attend school in the area. Michelle and Irix live in Linda Vista.
An apparent leader was Elias, who wore a sharp navy dress shirt and tan moccasins. A #NeverTrump bracelet dangled from his wrist. He spoke with the elocutionary precision of a politico, tomahawking his palm and gently pounding on an imaginary podium when he made his points.
The kids described a day when they all brought their school lunches to highlight the disparity between the two ends of Linda Vista. Elias went to Francis Parker; everyone else went to Kearny High School. Maya described the Kearny lunch as a “cheeseburger with plastic-looking cheese that still looked the same after a few hours” and the Parker lunch as if it were from some resort — fresh fruits and greens, plus salmon. Elias looked a little sheepish. “It was on a good day. A really, really good day,” he offered.
The kids from Kearny described the responses from people when they talk about where they go to school. Maria was asked why she wanted to go to Kearny, with its perceived ghettoness and Asians who competed hard academically. Michelle pointed out that the unfair perceptions of Kearny were mostly from 2005, before the school turned around and tightened up its culture and discipline policies. For Maya, a junior who skipped a grade and wants to be a civil rights attorney, Kearny is an upgrade to the schools in her area.
Bayside’s bringing together of the kids from Parker and Kearny feels like a a good start, but the kids haven’t had as much interaction with one another’s schools as they would like. Maria, though, is amped about Resident Leadership Academy and is grooming her little sister to partake in its process in the future.
Eating dogs and swinging dead cats
Would this place be the same without its poor people? Of course, no one wants to be poor, and the notion that there’s something ennobling about poverty is probably more fictional than people want to admit. The concept of the Noble Poor — often promoted by people who have the resources to fantasize about “having the essentials in life” — is as tropey as the Noble Savage: it romanticizes and dehumanizes at the same time.
Perceptions and anecdotes can only do so much. What does the data tell us about Linda Vista? The Washington Post did an aggregate of the nation’s zip codes that ranked them from 0–99 based on household income and college education. Affluent communities Del Mar and Coronado had ratings of 99 and 93, respectively; Clairemont, by comparison, was a 72; Barrio Logan’s was a 3, with a median income of $28,437 or roughly the tuition for a senior at Francis Parker; Linda Vista’s was 63, with a median income of $56,641, below the city’s median income in San Diego of $63,400. But considering the national median income as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau was $51,939, the numbers could have been worse. This data, though, may be skewed because it’s based on the 92111 zip code, which also covers parts of Clairemont East and Kearny Mesa.
Wendy Smith, who teaches at Mesa College, has been living here with her husband Don Cheney for 20 years. Smith’s is one of the households that boost the Washington Post zip-code rating for this place in terms of educational attainment. With her graduate degree, her pixie hairdo, and tastefully decorated house, she’s someone who stereotypes would place in North Park or Kensington. Before she moved here, Smith lived in mostly white neighborhoods around San Diego. But Linda Vista’s diversity attracted her the same way it attracted Valverde.
Cheney’s way of expressing his favorite thing about this place: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a person of color here.”
While we sipped margaritas in her backyard under a fig tree and her 25-year-old turtle sunned himself by the loquat tree, Smith recalled the advice friends gave her back in 1996 when she moved to Linda Vista. “Watch out for your dog,” they would say, alluding to the fact that Vietnamese people eat dogs. (Fact: we do, but not where it’s illegal.) There were also concerns from friends that Cambodian gangs would take her dog to perform some elaborate gang ritual.
Over the years, they had affectionate nicknames for the people on their block. Pee Boy, who is probably now in his late 20s, was a kid they saw peeing on his tricycle. Recycling Guy isn’t around so much anymore, but last Smith heard, someone made him a custom grocery cart with a Mexican flag on it.
We talked about the local haunted house, the Paul E. Kidd church. For the residents here, it’s the cucuy room of the cucuy room. For years, it stood uninhabited and there were all kinds of stories involving murder and blood. Essentially, it’s the Radley house of Linda Vista. A quick Google search would point you to a couple paranormal forums discussing this place. Lately, though, it’s been turned into and promoted as a luxury apartment complex with fresh stucco and gated parking.
The Kidd house is one of the few examples of the changes Linda Vista has seen over the years. Eddie of Eddie’s Liquors is no longer the proprietor, for example. Some of the apartments on Fulton have gotten nicer façades, and just the other day I noticed a whole block of apartments being fumigated. But the changes to this community have been small and cosmetic. The essence of the place, the heart of Linda Vista has not changed much.
Bill Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance speech that the heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. And in many ways, what makes the heart of San Diego worth writing about is its apparent conflict with itself. Linda Vista’s ends signify the entire spectrum of class and priorities. Down the hill, USD and Francis Parker; up the hill, Kearny High and Mesa College. Within three minutes of driving you can find a million-dollar property atop Mission Heights to run-down duplexes on Westinghouse. You’d see cricket being played in the morning and soccer in the afternoon. Does Linda Vista contradict itself? Very well, it contradicts itself (it is large, it contains multitudes).
The conflict only looks like a conflict to an outsider. Anyone with a family knows that what looks like conflict to an outsider is actually communication, living, negotiating. If you’re a non-Cantonese speaker, Hong Kong sounds like a cacophony of angry mobs. To native speakers, it’s the sound of home.
The word “tolerance” evokes for me the packaged optimism of an elementary-school education from the ’90s. There’s something corny about it in a way. But “tolerance” might be what makes Linda Vista click: everyone who lives here tolerates each other. Not in the kumbaya-let’s-hold-hands sort of way, but in the you-do-you-I-do-me sort of way.
That’s the magic of Linda Vista: people put up with each other here. People from different backgrounds might cross paths and will cross-pollinate from time to time during mediated community events, but there’s no pressure to present a singular image. And isn’t that what a family is about? People who share the same space and whose priorities don’t always line up, but people who just put up with one another?
Linda Vista’s past as a bastion of defense-industry workers during World War II may inform its present and possibly its future. In the 1940s as many as 3000 housing units were built within a year to accommodate workers, and with such a rapid buildup, quality was probably secondary to convenience. What’s more, once the defense jobs petered out or people made enough to buy a home, they picked up and moved elsewhere. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Southeast Asians moved here for the affordable housing.
In some ways, this neighborhood is like a Parisian banlieue: it was built rapidly to accommodate industrial workers, whose numbers waxed and waned with the jobs. It then became occupied by immigrants whose nations had been part of empire-building ventures. It suffers, as one document from the city published in 2011 put it, from “poor name identification.” But because San Diego is not Paris and America is not France, there are more opportunities for growth and inclusiveness. There aren’t large groups of disaffected young men feeling besieged by their society. If anything, more people here still believe in the American Dream than in Sarah Palin’s disaffected “real America.”
Where does Linda Vista go from here? As Tuan, one of Valverde’s parishioners, said, “Linda Vista is the heart of the city, but it needs to be revitalized, man.”