Curtis Howard posed for a Reader cover photo in 2012
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“San Diego Police! Hey you, come here a minute!”

It was September of 2005 and I often recall that dreadful encounter in downtown San Diego where a one-minute request turned into a three-year prison sentence.

As an OG (older generation) member of the Neighborhood Crip Gang of Southeast San Diego, I had spent the majority of my life in and out of jails and prisons for crimes that increased from small to serious over time. In my latter criminal stages I became a high-security inmate, landing in chaotic maximum security prisons such as Pelican Bay, a war zone where my fellow San Diegan friend Doc was stabbed and killed by a Sacramento inmate over a small debt.

With a criminal history like mine, this arrest downtown was nothing new to me. But what made it stand out from the rest was that it happened in my retirement stages. When I had been crime-free for the longest period of time since my first arrest as a teen. I thought I had it together and was finally out of the life for good.

At the time, I was working with an air-spray artist taking photos. We used his artwork as backgrounds. I would then print and frame them. Occasionally, people would hire me out for other jobs and that’s how I ended up downtown that night. I was meeting with an up-and-coming hip-hop artist in the Gaslamp District. She wanted photos for her album-release party.

After our meeting, I walked her to a car parked at Horton Plaza to finalize our agreement regarding times, dates, and payments. I bid her farewell, and that’s when things turned all bad.

I had been forced to park in the upper blocks of downtown because traffic is so congested in the Gaslamp at night. These upper blocks were a melting pot for gangs, homeless people, and drug activity. No gang claims this area as their territory, so it was a mutual stomping ground for everyone who often came to hustle or drink and get high. They generally hung out around 13th and Park between Broadway and Market, or on 16th between Market Street and Imperial Avenue.

Passing through, I ran into a group of familiar faces hanging out on 12th Street. One of these guys was a crack dealer and one was a user. I stopped to chat with them.

I normally would not have stopped in an area like this, but leaving the street life and gangs requires a certain diplomacy. You don’t announce your retirement; you simply do it, but when you run across people still in the life, you should always be cordial and if possible give them a few minutes of your time. I did more.

On my way out, the user asked me to score some dope for him. He knew that I was well liked and would get more for the money, so he used me as a go-between. I did it.

Then I got busted by the police walking back to him with the drugs.

Like a bag of chips

A lot of people who know this story asked why did I take such a risk, but where I come from buying dope for someone is like picking them up a bag of chips while you’re at the store. But not anymore. I learned to put up some boundaries. No more stopping to chat in areas known for having heavy police presence (hot spots) and no assistance in anything involving criminal elements no matter how simple it seems. Transitioning from gangs and crime is not as easy as just stopping. There are factors involved in pulling out of the lifestyle that can make you or break you. You can’t shun people as if you’re too good for them now, but then you must have boundaries. It’s like on-the-job training: you pick up on it as you go with very little room for error.

I was released in 2008 after completing that sentence for possession. I checked myself into a residential savings program for parolees, and I stayed until I obtained employment and saved enough to get an apartment. This apartment was located on Texas Street, right outside of Mission Valley, and I shared it with a female that I became involved with during my stay in the savings program. However, when we separated a few years later, I was forced to move to an area with more affordable housing: City Heights.

D-Con and Killer Shark

I was familiar with City Heights from my days as a gang member. In the mid 1980s we referred to it as East Diego (pronounced day-go). It was home of the East Diego Mob. They were a Crip gang that was allied with my gang (the Neighborhood Crips). We would often go to their territories to visit with them. They hung out at Highland Park, but their main headquarters was on 44th Street between University and El Cajon Boulevard. Since that time many of them had been locked up or aged-out of the life, so things had become very low profile in the area.

Curtis (far left, beige shirt) with original Neighborhood Crips 1982

Incidentally, I had a friend who managed a four-bedroom house with rooms for rent in City Heights. It was on Landis Street. He told me that it cost $500 monthly, with cable, internet, and free laundry. I took the room as a temporary spot but immediately started searching for a place of my own. Living in that house was almost like jail to me, because I was still sharing close confines with strangers. I felt trapped, and I wondered how long I could tolerate this place and I was often traumatized at the thought of being trapped there.

Within a couple of months I met with a lady named Doris who managed a property right off Highland and Polk Street. It was a small property with two separate studios inside of a gate. The entrance was accessed through an alley cluttered with trash, stray animals, and homeless people pushing baskets. I would be sharing the property with others who would soon be moving into the back, I was told. Not an ideal setup for the average person, but under my circumstances it would be like a luxury condo.

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dwbat March 18, 2016 @ 11:59 a.m.

Thanks for your "de profundis" story, Curtis. Best of success to you. You've paid some heavy dues, and have elevated yourself. You show others that it can be done.


BellaItalia March 18, 2016 @ 12:16 p.m.

I just read this piece by Curtis Howard on my break at work. It reminded me of the kind of life my hispanic husband was born into, growing up in Logan Heights, with many of his friends and family members representing Southside, Logan etc. Reading this piece was inspirational to me because Curtis is a positive member of the community. Without his past lifestyle there would be no result of wisdom. Individuals who can relate to the struggle and temptations of young people living among gangs MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE when they share their stories and offer their mediation. My husband was positively influenced by people like this when he was trying to graduate high school but was tempted to drop out. His mentors who volunteered at the YMCA are still a part of his life today. I know for a fact- not a day goes by without someone asking my boyfriend to be involved in criminal activity. The struggle to make a future for yourself requires constant hard work, positive mindfulness and like Curtis Howard writes: BOUNDARIES.

Thank you for publishing this piece.


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