Barrio Yes, Junkyard No!
By Ron Donoho
A lawyer—white button-down, blue Armani tie, permanent scowl—sits at the bar in Chuey’s Café on Main Street in Barrio Logan. Over the sound system, Carlos Santana’s “Oye Como Va” rattles rafter-hung piñatas. It’s a weekday afternoon. The post-lunch crowd is sparse. The bartender, doubling as waitress, serves a voluminous plate of Mexican food to the somber-faced, slightly overweight lawyer. He points to the refried beans and turns to his companion, who is babbling into a cell phone.
“What’s this stuff?” The lawyer frowns.
His buddy shrugs and keeps talking. The lawyer sighs and digs in.
“Hey, this is good,” he allows, not waiting to swallow.
It could be argued that Barrio Logan itself is like a plate of regional cuisine. It may not look appetizing at first glance. There certainly are unsavory sections. But portions of the area—perception be damned—are delicious.
Chicano Park, for instance. Pocketed in the most unlikely of settings—beneath noisy Interstate 5 and the San Diego–Coronado Bay Bridge —are museum-worthy murals painted on the concrete sleeves of the supports for the freeway. The birth of this park—fought for by activists willing to spill blood for the cause —was a defining moment in the history of the community. More on the park later.
Barrio Logan is hidden in the southeastern corner of central San Diego. It’s bordered by San Diego Bay and abuts the city’s Marina District. Commercial Street is its northern border (Centre City East—proposed site of a new Padres ballpark —falls just on the other side of Commerce). I-5 splits the barrio from Logan Heights, according to San Diego Police Department neighborhood maps.
But as far as the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is concerned, Barrio Logan and Logan Heights are considered one “community planning area.” And though police department districts agree with Thomas Brothers maps, no entity takes history into consideration: The adjacent areas of Logan Heights, Sherman Heights, Grant Hill, Golden Hill and Stockton used to be known as one neighborhood. (A SANDAG map now labels most of this area “Greater Golden Hill.”)
SANDAG’s 1997 demographic reports indicate Barrio Logan/Logan Heights is 63 percent Hispanic, 23 percent Caucasian, 12 percent African-American and 2 percent Asian. (Estimates place the percentage of Hispanics living in Barrio Logan between 75 and 90.) The median household income is $17,775. Nearby Golden Hill residents enjoy a higher household income ($25,192), but the racial breakdown is nearly the same—59 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, 11 percent black and 5 percent Asian.
But numbers like these—however difficult to assimilate—are simply data. They don’t tell the true story of the neighborhood.
“I fell in love with this area,” says Fran Butler-Cohen, executive director of the Logan Heights Family Health Center since 1986. “This is one of the richest neighborhoods in terms of diversity and history. While San Diego as a whole is sometimes criticized for not really having neighborhoods, it’s not the case here. There is a real ... gestalt to this place.”
Butler-Cohen’s word choice represents an endearingly biased optimism. Gestalt, according to the dictionary, describes “a unified whole; a configuration, pattern or organized field having specific properties that cannot be derived from the summation of its component parts.” She means to indicate that the sense of a distinct community is apparent. But if Butler-Cohen’s assessment is accurate, then a unified whole exists despite decades of divisive forces at work.
City Councilman Juan Vargas doesn’t use the word gestalt. But over lunch at Las Cuatro Milpas on Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan—part of his Eighth District—Vargas is explaining how the whole area’s perceived image is not a depiction based on reality.
“Take a look around this restaurant,” he directs. “It’s down-home cooking for a good price, and it’s just a great attraction. It’s magnificent.”
“Magnificent” seems hyperbolic. The eatery is plain, with red-and-white picnic tablecloths. Food is ordered buffet style and carried from the cash register on plastic trays. The chicken burritos are hearty and are best spiced up by near-atomic jalapeño sauce. Something here must be magnificent, though: The line of customers snakes out the door and continues down the sidewalk for half a block.
“Unfortunately, tourists and locals are warned not to come to this area,” says Vargas. “I don’t think Barrio Logan and Logan Heights get an accurate public description. Look around this restaurant again. Look at the people at the tables. Right here, these people are white. And over there. Here you have children who are white and from the suburbs. Do they look threatened in any way? No. I’m sure they come here because the food is great and it’s fairly safe.”
Then comes the disclaimer. “Like any large city, I think you have to be very cautious when you’re walking at night,” Vargas adds. “That’s certainly true here. But it’s like that anywhere in the world, really.”
Crime statistics obtained from the SDPD’s Internet home page bear out Vargas’ claim that Barrio Logan/Logan Heights is no worse than many other San Diego neighborhoods. In November 1997 (the most recent stats available at press time), there were 76 crimes reported in Barrio Logan and 28 in Logan Heights, including 11 crimes classified as “violent.” During the same period, 254 crimes were reported in La Jolla and 450 police reports were filed in Pacific Beach, including 25 violent acts.
In a racially diverse community lacking in affluence, it’s tough to change perception or cultivate citywide respect, says Vargas. Case in point: Perkins Elementary School. The pastel-colored school on Main Street is surrounded by commercial-use warehouses.
“Basically, Chilean grapes and other products were being fumigated with methyl bromide near the school,” says Vargas. Students complained of bad smells and feelings of nausea. Some went home sick; others didn’t want to go outside for recess because of the odors.
“I don’t think that would be accepted in any city,” says Vargas. “We didn’t accept it. We waged a ragtag fight, and ultimately we won. They’re not using methyl bromide anymore. But it’s interesting that the turning point in the fight came when dangerous levels were registered across the bay in Coronado. Once Coronado was involved, the situation changed. And let me tell you, if methyl bromide had been released in La Jolla, there would have been an incredible outcry.”
Vargas asserts that such disrespect for the community he champions is more economically motivated than racial. “The people who live here in the barrio, for the most part, are not affluent. They have some resources to fight issues—but not a lot,” he says. “I don’t know that I’d tag it a racial issue. I certainly tag it as economic. Those in the lower economic strata have little influence.”
More than a century ago, the neighborhood was a predominantly upper-class community known as the East End. It was annexed to San Diego in the late 1880s, and the name was changed to Logan Heights in 1905. Barrio Logan quickly took on a separate community flavor. It came to represent a major center for Chicano culture and social activities.
The population of Barrio Logan grew from the 1900s through the 1920s because of revolution and turmoil in Mexico. The area provided low-cost housing for workers employed in fisheries and in lumber, shipbuilding and railroad industries. It was a bayfront community; a popular beach existed at the present site of the Coronado Bridge bayfront.
A wave of deportations to Mexico during the ’40s helped reduce the area’s population. During World War II, the U.S. Navy and other defense industries built extensively in the community. It was a trade-off: The facilities needed labor, and residents needed work. But the plants cut off access to the bay.
In the early 1960s, the construction of I-5 further intruded on the community and severed Barrio Logan from Logan Heights. By 1969, the newly built Coronado Bridge additionally bisected the barrio. An estimated 1,500 families were displaced by the bridge and by industrial rezoning.
Vargas finds it interesting that the maintenance facility for the bridge is sited in the barrio instead of on the Coronado side. “I think it’s a lesson in haves and have-nots,” he says. “There are nice parks and a golf course on the Coronado side. The side in San Diego has very little that is beautiful other than that which was fought for underneath the bridge.”
That would be Chicano Park.
When bridge construction began in 1967, Barrio Logan residents believed they would receive land for a park. But on April 22, 1970, bulldozers were under the bridge in preparation of groundbreaking for a California Highway Patrol station. The community decided enough was enough. Led by activist José Gomez, residents disrupted the grading work.
“What I still remember are the women and children who made human chains around the bulldozers,” says artist and activist Victor Ochoa. Many people expressed a willingness to die for the tract of land.
“Some of us decided that it was time to put a stop to the destruction and begin to make this place more livable,” Gomez declared. The community was tired of the junkyards, the factories and especially the bridge. So for 12 days, hundreds of people defied police. They began planting shrubs and flowers during the standoff. In the end, they won.
“This park is our pearl, and the community is our oyster,” according to artist Raul Jaques. “A pearl is not born in a comfortable zone. An oyster creates a pearl through great irritation. That’s how our pearl was born.”
In 1973, the starting point for muralists was a concrete ramp on Logan Street. A horizontal project, this mural depicts a band of weapon-wielding skeletons rushing through flames. One crazed-looking skeleton wears an SDPD helmet. The same mural contains a row of portraits—19 in all—of historical figures like Juan Diego, Picasso, Corky Gonzales, even Fidel Castro. They are role models and heroes, says Ochoa, who was the park’s first mural coordinator.
Other murals are vertical—painted from foundation to crown on the giant T-shape sleeves that stanchion the bridge. Some pay homage to Mexican religion, a hybrid of Christianity and spirituality. A few take on the topic of death. And prominent among the colorful works of art are editorials and slogans. “¡Varrio Si, Yonkes No!” (Barrio Yes, Junkyards No!) declares one. Another asks: “Why Us?” Near the corner of Dewey Street and National Avenue is a bridge support inscribed “Hasta la Bahia” (All the Way to the Bay)—a plea for regaining access to the pre-bridge beach area.
Ochoa, who painted several of the murals in Chicano Park, has participated in more than 100 other such projects around the world. In a show of solidarity, last year he did a project in a ravaged section of Ireland’s West Belfast. The mural—a tribute to South African activist Steven Biko —was done in tandem with Irish artists and under the blessing of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Ochoa says that this April those Irish artists will come to Chicano Park and work side by side with local artists on a new mural, this one inspired by Celtic imagery.
April will be a busy month under the bridge. The 28th Chicano Park Day will be celebrated this year on the 25th. Past celebrations have drawn up to 10,000 people to hear bands and speakers, chow down at food booths and view arts, crafts and a low-rider car show.
Fran Butler-Cohen wishes everyone could visit the neighborhood she fell in love with 25 years ago. If not for Chicano Park Day, then for the Spirit of the Barrio lunches held every other month at the Logan Heights Family Health Center. Speakers have included local business, political and sports figures (Padres owner John Moores headlined in January).
“I wish more San Diegans knew about people like Laura Rodriquez,” says Butler-Cohen. During the social unrest of 1970, 60-year-old Rodriquez, in a protest over the direction and management of a Neighborhood House, chained herself to the door of the building. She won; the building became a health center and developed into the Logan Heights Family Health Center of today.
Rodriquez died three years ago. During her lifetime, her selfless acts, hard work and activism led to the creation of a Laura Rodriquez Pediatric Clinic. It had always been her goal, she said, to “improve the health of my neighbors in this community... After all, Barrio Logan is my neighborhood. I will give it the best I’ve got.”
Councilman Vargas wishes more people knew about the city’s efforts to rezone several blocks of Crosby Street that lead right down to the bay. He hopes a plan for a “Fisherman’s Wharf–like” project at the foot of Crosby can become a reality. Vargas says a funding plan for land in the area is three-quarters of the way to its goal.
Some wish the word would get out about the livability and aesthetic beauty of the Mercado Apartments, small but pristine rent-subsidized units under the bridge near the bay. And they wish that positive publicity would be derived from efforts like the home-rehabilitation project Christmas in April. As part of this year’s Super Bowl festivities, the charity organization arranged for two houses on Franklin Avenue in Logan Heights to get new roofs, bathrooms, flooring and several coats of paint, with help from visiting dignitaries like NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp.
But like the collection of murals in Chicano Park, Barrio Logan/Logan Heights remains an ongoing project. The works of art and the surrounding neighborhood both require quite a bit of maintenance. Experts say the murals only survive about 10 years without touch-up jobs. No one can say for sure how long a community can last without brushstrokes of attention and care.