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A Return to the War Zone

Two years after a spike in violent crime, Students revisit a troubled neighborhood and find new voices of hope amid more of the same struggles.


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Barry Pollard of the Urban Collaborative with a mural he helped the community organize on a fence that was a target for graffiti.

On a recent November afternoon that felt like summer, 15 sophomores convened at a round table inside The Bishop’s School. Downtown La Jolla may seem an unlikely place to take the pulse of trouble in Southeastern San Diego, but that was the sole item on the agenda of the Building Peace Club. More a teenage think tank than a club, Building Peace was started after a class project brought the classmates across town to a place they’d only ever seen on the news. The class had gone to make a documentary video, but they came home with a mission: to spread the word about the war zone that is barely 15 miles south of the safe harbor of La Jolla.

The students were inspired in part by the situation described in  “It’s a War Zone Down Here,” a San Diego Magazine feature published in the spring of 2012 that compared murder rates in Southeastern San Diego with the otherwise low rates throughout the rest of the city. The year 2011 reflected higher homicide and violent crime rates throughout the city—particularly in the communities of Southeastern San Diego.

Today, the Crime Statistics Map maintained by the San Diego Police Department shows a reduction in the number of homicides in the area. In 2012, they counted 21. In 2013, there were 14 such killings, as of this writing. “The criminal aspect has diminished a little,” says David Tos of the SDPD Southeastern Division, “through a program called Off the Streets, and through the Diversion programs.”

“Putting a face to death took us to a place that news stories and magazine articles just cannot.”
—Andrew Castro, Building Peace Club co-founder
Andrew Castro

“Diversion is a game changer,” agrees Juvenile Services Team Detective James Dickinson of the five-week series of mandatory classes for teens who have been rounded up during police curfew sweeps—and their parents. He says police are picking up more and more curfew-violating teens from northern areas who travel southeast to party. “They come down here because they want to feel the edge,” Tos says.

He and Dickinson praise the community leaders and support groups that have grown in response to violence. “The only way to effectively reduce crime is for the police and the community to work together in a symbiotic relationship. And we’ve been able to do what we do because of the community involvement,” Tos adds.

The Jackie Robinson YMCA near Lincoln Park administers much of the community outreach, volunteer action, and support services in response to violence in the area and in coordination with SDPD.  It was ground zero for the original war zone story reporting in 2011, so it was also where the Building Peace project centered its coverage two years later. What the group found is that those most involved in the community and personally touched by murder and violence paint a  far less rosy picture today than the SDPD statistics.

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