Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“Radiating Vibrance,” graces the long southside wall of La Palapa market. The design features wavy green bands, to denote the neighborhood’s hills; a bright sun, enclosed by yellow and red mosaic tiles; and teardrops of sunshine, diffusing outward.
Guy Preuss is an affable, tanned, retired Navy Master Chief, a Vietnam vet. As the 30-year self-described “temporary” president of the local village council and the chair of the planning committee, he does what most people these days don’t do: stay put, stay committed, stay the course for his sake and that of his long-loved, iconic suburb, Paradise Hills. He’s lounging with me on the screened-in porch of his doodad-crammed bungalow, which he bought in 1977; I can see out back to an over-chlorinated pool that’s darkened by towering jungle growth. After I loudly repeat my initial question, he says he’ll be glad to tell me the town’s creation myth, but he’s got to run and get his hearing aids.
It sometimes happens that a handful of a neighborhood’s residents, feeling isolated in their home lives, frustrated by the town’s untapped potential, tired of expecting others to step up, one day finally does awaken, and that handful of residents begins building a cohesive community, block-by-block, inside the fragmented one.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
In 1835 a Scottish sea captain anchored in San Diego Bay, hoping to save his life and that of his very thirsty crew. He and same disembarked, rowed ashore, and traipsed inland. They found a creek with cool, clear “sweet water,” and the refreshed captain christened it Paradise Creek. The source of the creek had to be the hills above, which they climbed and from which they espied their boat, anchored in the bay, the great ocean beyond. They planted a metaphorical flag: this rise was “Paradise Hills.” These days, Paradise Creek flows, Preuss says, “underground until you get to National City, which lies just to the west, and comes aboveground there in Kimball Park.” The creek still runs to the sea, its banks lined with “dumped tires and other refuse,” South Bay’s detritus.
“See there? Sidewalk, then no sidewalk . . . sidewalk, then no sidewalk.” The reason: Paradise Hills was once part of the county, which did not require concrete paths, unlike the city proper.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Local legends and division streets make companionable neighbors. Paradise Hills, composed almost entirely of single-family homes, was built and settled between the late 1930s and its saturation in 1959. It’s all of 1.9 square miles, neatly blocked in by Route 54, the Filipino-American highway, on the south; I-805 on the west; Alta View Drive and Potomac Street on the east; and Paradise Valley Road — which extends to an arbitrary property line and runs back to I-805 —on the north.
The ethnic pie of Paradise Hills slices 39 percent Hispanic, 33 percent Asian, 13 percent non-Hispanic white, 11 percent African-American, and the rest, ancestrally fluid. ’Twas not always thus. Preuss says that in the mid-1970s when he was shopping for a home in “The Hills,” a realtor told him, sotto voce, “This community is in transition.” That,” Preuss notes, “was apparently code language for the town ‘going black.’”
The idea, expressed then by a realtor advising a white man, suggested permanently falling home prices, i.e., not a good investment. Preuss bought anyway, and he’s glad he did.
The irony is, today, most of San Diego’s so-called minorities live anywhere and everywhere; aside from the continual packing of immigrants into ethnic enclaves, most locals have the legal right (money is another issue) to live where they want to. Among the original settlers, Preuss says there’s always been a substantive brotherhood of Navy officers who prefer “affordable” Paradise Hills to the admiralty in Coronado.
The block of businesses on Reo Drive comprise the Paradise Hills commercial district.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
One phrase that caught my ear when I first rambled through the neighborhood was, “Paradise Hills is easily overlooked.” By whom? By its constituents? By the city of San Diego, and its trash-recycle-fire-cop-street-sewer brigades? Besides three elementary schools, there are only two public services: a ‘50s-era, plain-Jane United States Post Office, zip code 92139, and a branch library — a near-Day-Glo orange cinder block box, a cramped hub, mainly for kids’ books and movie renters. No police station, no mayor, no county admin buildings. Paradise Hills, population 17,000, is, like many pockets of San Diego, umbrellaed by council districts — here, District Four, Monica Montgomery in charge. Even the planning committee is shared with Skyline to the north.
In short, “P.H.” is not overlooked by its populace. Its homes are mostly owner-occupied; there’s a bit of refined Navy housing and few apartments. This South Bay sentinel is hardly a destination except for whatever community orgs and benevolent societies muster up along the long lazy dip of Reo Drive, with its ample free parking, its un-stop-lighted mélange of salon, Mexican Restaurant, grocery and convenience store, VFW hall, House of Boxing, Baby Cakes, barber shop, medical clinic, coffeehouse, which is about it.
One of the two public services in Paradise Hills, the library is a near Day-Glo orange cinder block box, a cramped hub, mainly for kids’ books and movie renters.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
A few paradisiacal objects (nothing the English poet John Milton would have recognized): dust-covered parked cars inside or beside chain-link fences bent-leaning and torn-open around empty lots (why torn open if empty?); no big box stores or congregant spaces other than churches, humming as much on weeknights as on Sunday, and their spacious parking lots, one as large as Home Depot’s; brown-eyed girls (Do you remember when . . . we used to sing) idling at stop signs in white Hondas and checking the mirror for the look and lay of palm-frond-sized, glued-on eyelashes; alleys behind restaurants smelling of fried chicken and refried beans; rare flat stretches of street, frequent up-down, slow-go grades (cars everywhere, even at 10 am); driving uphill, crossing a cross-street and seeing the Pacific in hazy dreamscape, close but far, blue-gray gunmetal, otherworldly; homes built for such panoramic views, call them perched or terraced, some that block the views their neighbors used to enjoy. Is “paradise” a home in the hills above all with its bird’s-eye view of the sea or is “paradise” the terrain somewhere beyond the sea, toward which those thirsty shipmates wished they could sail?
The summer of 2019 was a violent one. These murders stirred a latent mayhem in outside or homegrown troublemakers: graffiti, smashed windows, and break-ins once again, recalling the late 1980s, grew more common.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
With Preuss as my passenger guide, I bend my head to observe a neighborhood bereft, for multiple stretches, of sidewalks. “See there? Sidewalk, then no sidewalk . . . sidewalk, then no sidewalk.” The reason: Paradise Hills was once part of the county, which did not require concrete paths, unlike the city proper. Thus, the hodge-podge, from one street to another, the sidewalk starts and stops, before one house, unlain before the next. Dog walkers must venture into the street, past a parked car or two, to perambulate round “P.H.” It’s even dicier given the scarcity of streetlights, another urban necessity.
Thorn-in-the-side Preuss has advocated for years, he says, to get sidewalks in. In 1992, he and a buddy began measuring the lengths of every street in Paradise Hills which were missing “all-weather walkways.” They counted 50 missing sections. Preuss has been barking at the city on this one issue, at planning committees and at city council meetings, begging someone to lay down these 50 sections.
Five families formed the Project Reo Collective. The gang’s hub is a coffee shop on Reo Drive.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
In one report, he spelled out the point with a marketing kicker at the end. Sidewalks support transit users and pedestrians “by allowing a safe way to the grocery store, the beauty parlor, the barber shop, the water store, the post office, the library and the three elementary schools…enhancing community character and supporting the desirability of the housing stock by making the village more walkable.”
Then there’s the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires sidewalks and ramped curbs at cross streets. Preuss says the wheelchair people are infuriated that they have to motor or push themselves into the street, often a life-and-death wager after 5 pm in winter.
To date, Preuss (and Paradise Hills) is one for 50. “We’ve never got anything. ‘It’s a citywide problem,’” he’s been told umpteen times by downtown officials. “‘You’re never going to get all those sidewalks in, just ask for one — one at a time.’” OK, so that one time, he asked for one, and he got one. He asked again, and he got none.
All members of Project Reo are volunteer joiners. All are parents and homeowners. All have day jobs. All love where they live.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
It’s duly noted that San Diego ponied up funds in 2003 to redo the sidewalks on Reo Drive’s single, packed commercial block. (Preuss says it had a lot to do with the political ambitions of then-congressman, Bob Filner.) The city coughed up eight trees, three crosswalks, and four sidewalk pop-outs, which makes pedestrians more noticeable to drivers as walkers move out into the street.
Still irked by city hall neglect, Preuss says that if “you want mass transit”—bikes and scooters and lighted bus stops, call it “green transport”—then “you better put in the damn sidewalks.” Reo Drive’s “nice, wide sidewalks” support businesses, not neighborhood street-walking. “You keep hammering, you keep hammering, and maybe, eventually,” he says, “you get something done.”
Last November 20, San Diego’s police chief David Nisleit came to the Paradise Hills Village Council to help comfort the residents after the gun deaths of a mother, Sabrina Rosario, and three of her four boys, Zeth, 11, Zuriel, 5, and Enzi, 3, four days earlier. Ezekiel, 9, died a week after he was shot. The gunman was their father and Rosario’s estranged husband, who killed himself at the scene. In a hushed and hurried voice, Nisleit said, “We’ve been staying in touch with the family. As you could imagine, they’re going through — I don’t think anybody could ever imagine what they’re going through. It’s impossible to understand what they’re going through. We stay with them through the process of the investigation — that’s one thing homicide does.”
Nisleit said the city was offering “psychological services” to the family of the deceased, neighbors, and their own investigators. Following the discovery of the carnage on Flintridge Drive, in which a neighbor reported hearing the sounds of a “nail gun,” “homicide, crime lab technicians, dispatchers, and patrol officers have all gone through critical debriefs. Two of the responding officers had newborns at home.” He paused, then continued. “Most are back at work,” one week after the shootings.
The chief took questions. But it seemed the two dozen who turned out for the session were too stunned to know what to ask; the feelings were palpable, ranging from speechless to hopeless there in the Lutheran Church community room.
One person stated that it’s inexplicable why nothing was done by authorities to protect the woman and her children. Apparently, the chief said, the husband/killer had a registered firearm, despite the mother having secured a restraining order against him just the day before. (A family spokesperson said no one knew the father had a gun.) How could it be that no one knew the man’s volatility? The chief said he and the department were just as flummoxed as everyone else by the question. He closed with the all-too-pat advice: “There are a lot of resources to assist the community with — crisis interventionists — so if you hear of anyone who needs help, we’ll make certain those assets are available to you.”
The murder of a mother and her children is a crime few communities ever experience. (That it took place “in” Paradise Hills will cast some shade, unfortunately.) Most everyone at the village council meeting seemed racked by disbelief and by feelings of betrayal; finding fault, claiming that someone should have interceded before it happened, is one way to cope. Still, how does anyone suspect a father to be capable of killing his children, his wife, and himself unless he or she knows? Perhaps someone did; perhaps someone is haunted by that.
The summer of 2019 was a violent one. Two men, Tyshawn Powell, 20, and Dustin Bridwell, 37, were gunned down on neighborhood streets. Powell’s two suspected killers have been charged and await trial; police still seek a suspect in Bridwell’s death. These murders stirred a latent mayhem in outside or homegrown troublemakers: graffiti, smashed windows, and break-ins once again, recalling the late 1980s, grew more common.
“This summer, while I’m away in Chicago,” one 17-year resident says during the meeting, “I’m texting my neighbor, ‘Go check my windows. If they’re broken, call the cops. It’s on the news.’” She hectors parents for letting their kids run wild out of school, and the city that could but won’t hire “our youth” to do roadside cleanups.
When the meeting adjourns, several stay after, turning up the volume, I sense, in my presence. They first underscore less egregious beefs (though just as irately voiced): why everyone should avoid shopping at one (unnamed) store because it’s “nasty inside,” and which street had more than its usual pile of trash, and how come the city cleaned up one homeless camp only to let it reappear the very next day.
And then a lifelong “P.H.” denizen, a woman, says that she lives cattycorner to the United Church of Christ, which rents out its facilities once a week to an evangelical group, “Las Iglesias,” who play and sing electrified “praise music” so loud she’s called “the cops on them more times than you can imagine. The drumming, the craziness!” The police, she continues, “come out and tell them to stop and then, after they leave, the music starts right back up again.”
And another, getting into the ethnic weeds, says, “Paradise Hills has become a splintered community.” (Many within earshot second that.) “We have Filipinos and Latinos and a few blacks and some whites, here and there,” who live and look out for their own, “and that’s why nothing gets done.” She says the Filipinos have their own senior center. “But we didn’t know anything about it. We’ve been the most neglected of all,” that is, the pioneer set from the 1950s. But it’s not racial for her. Why? Because “the last councilperson who cared about us was George Stevens [1991-2002]. His guy, Luis Natividad, cut right through everything, and he got things done.”
To which, yet another youngish old-timer, 57, adds, “This is the problem with our neighborhood. We grow up here, when the kids bicycle everywhere, and then they grow up, they move away, the parents get old, they die, the kids sell the house — and then shit moves in.”
And so on, until the emotions are, in part, purged. Violence so close to home, whether next door or one street over, makes people crazy. Guy Preuss walks me to the door. He says council meetings allow neighbors “to vent.” (Later, someone affectionately labels the monthly meetings “bitch sessions.”)
Project Reo (1)
It sometimes happens that a handful of a neighborhood’s residents, feeling isolated in their home lives, frustrated by the town’s untapped potential, and tired of expecting others to step up, one day finally does awaken, and that handful of residents begins building a cohesive community, block-by-block, inside the fragmented one.
Credit this approach to staying put and staying committed (à la Guy Preuss), because that day came three years ago when five families formed the Project Reo Collective. The gang’s hub is a coffee shop on Reo Drive whose block of businesses comprises the commercial district. One recent night, seven members of the collective, all of whom own and work at the coffee shop, show up to guide me through the live theater of Paradise Hills revitalization.
They go back first to what it was like in the crime-ridden days of the 1980s and the 1990s when urban communities lost control to the crack epidemic, drive-by shootings, and the drug war on the border. Rough times back then. Empty storefronts, walls gang-tagged, the Reo Drive liquor store robbed like clockwork once a month, siren-amped police stops, homeless camps, absent streetlights, missing sidewalks. Not the Trump-dumped tweet of a “rat and rodent infested mess.” But still the canard held sway: whatever’s wrong is someone else’s problem.
Fabian Gil and Gina Moreno grew up in Paradise Hills when the town was self-sufficient — local restaurants, fresh food markets, a gas station. Traveling elsewhere was infrequent. Highway 54 was still a dirt road. Parents worked close by; kids played sports at parks and summered on their bikes. Holidays meant local carnivals. Fabian, who scissors his shoulders back and forth when he talks, like a boxer feinting, says, “This downtown was our little strip. Nobody came from elsewhere.” As kids, “We had a sense of ownership.”
One couldn’t walk down the street and, “Just be,” as Tommy Walker, a local real estate agent, tells me. Fabian recalls “a couch” just sitting on Reo Drive, abandoned, wet, filthy. He told a friend, over a brewski one day, that “We’re never going to see that couch out there again. Everybody was itching for something, everyone was waiting.” Indicating the five families around the table, he notes, “We finally said, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we act?’”
To revive Fabian’s sense of “being owed” — a hometown which caretakes its people — Paradise Hills needed a catalyst. It came in the form of the mural project, initiated by Enrique Lugo, an art teacher in Chula Vista and now, dean of students at High Tech High International. His 12th-grade class (the emphasis was on project-based learning, which also enlisted local volunteers) painted three murals on the sides of buildings. One, “Radiating Vibrance,” graces the long southside wall of La Palapa market. The design features wavy green bands, to denote the neighborhood’s hills; a bright sun, enclosed by yellow and red mosaic tiles; and teardrops of sunshine, diffusing outward.
The murals stirred much pride but little action, says Selina Lugo, Enrique’s wife. She and others wanted other sustaining projects, so they organized a movie night, a Saturday cleanup, and, eventually, a hangout where people could network and stage events and nurture more community cohesion. The coffee shop idea sprouted as though its seeds were there, under the asphalt of Reo Drive, waiting to be watered.
Project Reo (2)
All members of Project Reo are volunteer joiners. All are parents and homeowners. All have day jobs. All love where they live. All are proud that local houses can cost less than $400,000, though that doesn’t mean “The Hills” are broadly affordable. Rentals are scarce. The homes are, for the most part, multi-generational. When a house comes up for sale, it’s far more likely to go than linger.
Daneyel Walker and her husband Tommy tell me that Project Reo has “created a third space,” adding to the “home life and the work life, a community life.” And, as another coffee shop owner, Susan Corrales, notes, in Paradise Hills not only are there “no gated communities or apartment complexes, you have a backyard.”
A time-honored tradition in American cities is to silo people, via religion, ethnicity, language, or recent immigrant status. Many people were often wary of mixing, and desired less integration, perhaps, because they didn’t know any better. I hear these sentiments from more than a few locals, a longing for a past when pockets of “P.H.” were white or Hispanic.
Contrarily, Diana Cornejo-Sanchez, an educator at High Tech High, trumpets diversity as the main reason for the Project’s success. She says it begins with multiple ways in which Americans are separated or separate themselves: “religion, socio-economic status, recent immigrants, those born and raised here, military, retired people, blue-collar workers, new families, grandparents.”
Such disconnection does not mean one group of people wants nothing to do with another group. Groups have no way of coming together unless there are organizations that both celebrate diversity and acknowledge its paradox. “We want to be around people who are like us and people who are not like us.”
All those groups and statuses Cornejo-Sanchez mentions tend to separate until, according to Project Reo members, neighbors attend events and express not only relief that someone’s making space to congregate but also emphasizing a common humanity, which is too often overshadowed in America by difference.
“When you go to events now,” Gina Moreno says, “you won’t see one type of person.” New events piggy-back on traditional ones, much of it driven by a Paradise Hills Facebook page where, Gina says, “opinions are as diverse as the community.” (Everyone, familiar with the “keystroke warriors” and the bullying trolls, laughs.) One example of the Reo mixtape is the block party with classic car parade and live music, called ReoFest. Another is the mini-extravaganza at Christmas, Holiday in the Hills. All Reo Drive businesses contribute — for instance, the ugliest Christmas sweater contest or an afternoon of cookie decorating for families.
One collective idea the group fosters is a kind of leaderless momentum where, as Fabian notes, “activities run themselves.” The low-rider club, the pumpkin fest, Halloween’s car-parked “Trunk or Treat,” law enforcement’s Coffee-with-a-Cop, all continue because volunteers contact one another, not because Project Reo “runs it.”
“We’ve created a blueprint,” Fabian goes on. “We’re asked by other communities, ‘How did you do this? Show us.’ We can’t tell others what to do because we don’t live there. But we can show them.”
Asserting their political muscle, Project Reo members and others attend the annual city council budget meetings, wearing matching T-shirts and advocating for sidewalks, streetlights, and weed abatement. “If we don’t ask for stuff,” Fabian says, “we won’t get it.” They don’t endorse candidates, though they get solicited by same, their clout arising from new and growing voter registrations.
Tommy says that of the 17,000 locals, only 3000 participate. “We have a lot of work to do.”
After November 16
In the wake of the murders, a candlelight vigil was held. Hundreds came out to support the extended family of Sabrina Rosario. It was too bad, the Project Reo folks say, because it was “national news,” and the media descended for lead-and-bleed coverage, and then withdrew, “never showing the good things that we’re doing,” Gina quickly adds.
Fabian pushes it further. “That vigil was needed before those deaths happened.”
Others in the group expand the feeling, arguing that last summer’s murders of Powell and Bridwell were like an inaudible car alarm. Just because tagging incidents had dried up, post-mural-painting, didn’t meant that all was rosy in Paradise Hills. “We should have had that vigil then,” Daneyel says.
She speaks movingly about November 16. Her soft tone, steady throughout, grows anguished, vexed. She calls it a crime of a “troubled man” that, though hidden, “we very much need to talk to our children about. When someone doesn’t want you because she has a boyfriend, or there’s a husband involved, how do you deal with these emotions, these feelings, how do you separate yourself when you can’t have what you want? And then, when the law’s involved — how do we protect our women?”
The restraining order Sabrina Rosario got was too little, too late. “When we get a court order, am I supposed to show you this piece of paper, and that’s going to stop you from attacking me? Will it keep me and my children safe? What happens then?”
Such tragedies hit the surviving kids the hardest. The boys who died “went to school with our children in Paradise Hills. They played sports with them,” several in the group say. I register in each a note of angry despair.
The November 16 murders will darken the children’s memory, who, down the road, may place this darkness as central to their lives in the twenty-teens. They may never forget because their parents chose not to sweep such horror under the rug; because their parents intervened with solemn vigils and yoga classes, movie nights and live jazz, art therapy and town forums; and because their parents established both a place and a principle, sharing grievances and differences, solidarity and joy, and, consciously, shaping the next legacy of Paradise Hills.