I went in search of Southeast San Diego. I don’t know if I found it. Everybody I talked to there had a different notion of Southeast, its boundaries, its living conditions, its prospects for the future. Southeast in in ferment, and whether it will ripen into wine or vinegar is an open question. What it is now depends upon the angle you view it from.
Most of what I knew about Southeast came from the newspapers. The picture was murky, a jumble of crime, drug addicts, graffiti, youth gangs, and the usual underprivileged-helping-themselves sagas. I knew that this picture was at least incomplete, but the diversity and divergence of views I found firsthand in Southeast still came as a surprise. Southeast is as isolated a borough as there is in San Diego, encompassing expensive new homes, horses grazing in semirural neighborhoods, and a sizable West Coast version of a ghetto. It contains some of the oldest, as well as the newest, neighborhoods in town. It has an extremely high unemployment rate, the highest murder rate, but some of the best housing deals, finest views, and most unpretentious restaurant victuals in San Diego. I believe now that few people, if any, really understand Southeast. Too much is ricocheting around the community, too many voices are vying to be heard, too much dope is being consumed, too many lives are being wasted, too many promises have come and gone for anyone to grasp completely Southeast’s conundrum.
So I set out to write a white man’s guide to Southeast San Diego. I just wanted to listen to the place, maybe make some sense out of the cacophony. The racial segregation of Southern California, far more pronounced than in many cities in the South, has made an ethnic island out of Southeast. Unlike they do in other minority islands in Eastern cities, few nonresident whites have to pass through Southeast on surface streets to get to the shopping mall, the ball game, or the movie theater. Four freeways —Interstates 5, 805, and 15, and Highway 94 — slice it up. Three cemeteries — Mt. Hope, Greenwood, and Holy Cross — block logical traffic flow. If you don’t live there, you enter it as a stranger, wandering outside the borders of your beach town. So you need guides. I found a cop, a landlord, and realtor, and some young political activitists who agreed to show me Southeast.
Warren Nielsen lives in Logan Heights, the oldest and most westerly part of southeast. Logan Heights is generally considered to be bounded by Commercial Street on the north, I-15 on the east, the Thirty-second Street naval station on the south, and Harbor Drive on the west. Nielsen owns forty-four rental units throughout Southeast San Diego, where he has lived since 1970. He moved there just at the height of the white exodus from Southeast. Most of the area east of Logan Heights was predominantly white until about 1966, when whites began moving to new suburbs, such as Poway, Clairemont, and San Carlos. Blacks eventually dominated the area, and now Mexican-Americans are starting to overtake the blacks. Most of the whites left in Southeast are, like Nielsen, long-time residents.
You may know him as a gadfly, a failed candidate for city council in the recent elections, and the man who led the abortive effort to force the navy to build its new hospital on Helix Heights, and the junction of I-15 and Highway 94 in Southeast, rather than in Balboa Park’s Florida Canyon. Nielsen is a Roman candle of ideas. He still thinks his idea for building a floating park beneath the three Coronado Bridge columns on the Logan Heights side of the bay could work, and he doesn’t mind taking credit for first tendering the idea of building a park instead of a California Highway Patrol parking lot at the site now occupied by Chicano Park. But he’s probably most well known for suggesting Helix Heights as a new naval hospital site. Despite a public vote favoring Helix Heights, the navy still grabbed Florida Canyon in 1979 and contributed mightily to Balboa Parks’ continuing decline. “No matter what you do, “ he says now, “once the higher-ups make a decision, there’s no way you can turn it around.”
Helix Heights is now the location of Gateway Center East, a group of industrial buildings and a Price Club-style retail store, the first shopping center to open in Southeast in decades. The Price family donated $3.5 million to get the center going on land acquired by the city through the Southeast San Diego Development Corporation (SEDC). These days former City Councilman William Jones and County Supervisor Leon Williams are accepting much of the credit for the center, which also contains a “college of retailing” that will train minority students in retail merchandising. But when Nielsen looks at Helix Heights now, he doesn’t see an economic triumph. He sees a big mistake.
“Southeast San Diego has been sold down the river by its own leaders,” Nielsen says as we approach the center in his car on Market Street. “Look at those slab sided buildings!” he ghasts. “This is the onion of all onions. What a horrible way to develop a view site!” The view is remarkable, encompassing Mexico, the Coronado Islands, downtown San Diego, and Mt. Helix. Nielsen insists that economic revitalization won’t occur in the area unless affordable housing in built close to where people work and shop. After the navy refused to build its new regional medical center on Helix Heights, Nielsen argued that housing should be built there.
He points across Highway 94 and gestures toward the stark-looking apartments that have been built onto the eastern slope of Helix Heights, facing the freeway. Ghetto housing in the making.
Nielsen has made himself a good living in the Southeast housing market because he was lucky enough to buy there before the area was down-zoned in the mid-1970s. He still criticizes that move because it severely limited the number of housing units that could be placed on an average lot. The city was responding to community complaints that Southeast was being transformed into a ghetto because the availability of cheap land, combined with high-density zoning, brought forth cheap apartments and no city services. Now, while other San Diego neighborhoods are being “in-filled” to death with apartment projects, Southeast’s empty lots collect trash and weeds.
Nielsen drives back onto Market Street and heads up toward Forty-fifth. The street is a ratty mix of old houses, vacant lots, and failing businesses. Most structures have bars on their windows. “My argument is, this area will fall into greater neglect if you make Helix Heights industrial,” he says. “The people who live there aren’t the ones who will get jobs there. Look at the blindness of those slab-sided buildings. That epitomizes how William Jones sold the community down the river.”
Nielsen points out that Market Street now looks the same — or worse — than it did before Jones replaced Leon Williams on the city council in 1962. Like many people in Southeast, he felt the street was an embarrassment to Martin Luther King’s name, and he voted for returning the name of Market Street. All the talk about SEDC coming in to improve Southeast was political rhetoric, according to Nielsen. He sees the organization’s activities as a big land grab. The agency now owns about 200 acres in Southeast, including about 130 acres at Gateway Center on Market Street at I-15, and sixty-six acres in the Route 252 corridor, which at one time was supposed to link I-5 to I-805 but which now is slated for housing, industry, and commercial development. The agency also controls but doesn’t own large chunks of other Southeast properties, where it’s planning various economic development schemes. “Enormous amounts of money have been spent by SEDC and Project First Class. Do you see any improvement here? Where did the money go?” fumes. Nielsen. “It went into the pockets of developers, and National Avenue, Ocean View, and Imperial are still eyesores. People in San Diego think that they have to have a poor area, so nothing gets done here.”
He turns a corner near Thirty-eighth and Acacia, where a new auto body shop has been squeezed in between two homes. Nielsen shakes his head. “Only in Southeast,” he exclaims. “Where else would that be allowed to happen?”
We drive over to National Avenue, past a liquor store at Thirty-second Street that advertises its acceptance of food stamps, and head up toward Otto Square, one of Ernest Hahn’s first shopping center projects. One of the few large grocery stores in Southeast is a Food Palace in this center, run by a Middle Eastern family. On the way toward the center, Nielsen points out dilapidated commercial buildings, some of them only a few years old. “Look at the shit that was built during the Jones’s and William’s tenure,” he declares. “Who the hell would want to buy a home in Southeast, after seeing this street? What has San Diego done to improve National Avenue or Imperial or Ocean View?” At Otto Square, Nielsen indicates that there are no streetlights over the sidewalk a condition that he says contributes to the perception that southeast is a dangerous place, a breeding ground for crime, no place for white folks. How difficult can it be for a politician to get streetlights put in, he wonders. “Would you allow this in Clairemont?” he asks.
Theophilus (Theo) Logan says the borders of Southeast San Diego are elastic. “Southeast is almost what you perceive it to be,” he says as we case around the area in his mauve Oldsmobile. He notes that white people have the impression that all of Southeast is a high-crime area, partly because “white people will hear of a crime on University Avenue or somewhere in Spring Valley, and if black people are involved, whites will say, ‘Yeah, that’s Southeast San Diego for you.’ But blacks know better. It may be a far better area than whites perceive it to be. And the people who live here are far more law-abiding than whites think.” Maybe so, but it’s been years since Logan sold a house in Southeast to a white family; he does sell a lot of houses for whites who are moving out.
Logan has been a realtor in Southeast since 1962. He proclaims himself an optimist who has few gripes about the area. Business is good now because of all the new housing construction on Southeast’s eastern fringes, but business has always been good for realtors in Southeast. “From 1966 up to today, there’s been a constant shift in population,” says the sixty-nine-year-old realtor, a former board member of SEDC. We’re heading west on National Avenue toward Fortieth Street. “It was predominantly white, then black, and now the blacks are moving out to the suburbs, and Hispanics are moving in. The Hispanics are buying up everything they can get their hands on and fixing them up. Even resident aliens are buying. This is basically the lowest-priced housing in the city.”
Logan wants to begin this tour in the oldest part of Southeast and move out into the newer sections in Skyline and eastern Encanto. He explains that most of the houses west of I-805 were built prior to World War II. Now about half the homes in this area are rented, and most of the people buying in this area are Mexican-Americans. He thinks the influx of Hispanics will finally stabilize the resident population. “The Mexican people are going to stay here,” he says.
Moving east on Logan Avenue past Euclid, empty lots and visibly broken commercial dreams start to give way to the prim rectangles of suburbia. The fifteen-year-old houses here run in the $85,000 range and are all but indistinguishable from homes in older white suburbs. The main difference here is the superb view and the number of houses with barred windows. Logan’s brother has a home here with a view from the Coronado Islands to La Jolla. In their haste to get as far away as possible from the center-city area, white wage earners abandoned these individually built houses in the late 1960s for the flatlands and tract uniformity of places such as Poway and Santee. Logan says only about ten percent of the residents on these quiet streets are white now, mostly elderly people who bought their houses new.
Farther east is the Skyline area, surrounded to the north by Encanto and to the south by Paradise Hills, a fairly well-heeled community that many people consider to be outside the boundaries of Southeast. Many homes in Skyline also have commanding views and sell in the $100,000 range. Logan navigates to the north, pointing to the mixed area of Asians, whites, and blacks living in newer homes above Morse High School He says the townhouse style houses are being purchased as fast as they’re being built. The contrast between the startling green hills in Skyline and the grungy lots and strip centers along nearby Imperial Avenue is arresting. We cross Imperial, where workers are building another eastern trolley extension close to the site of a future new welfare office, near Fargo’s Barbecue. Unlike many of its former competitors, Fargo’s hasn’t yet been supplanted by a taco shop. Imperial looks just as downtrodden as it has for as long as I’ve been through here, or at least since 1972. “See, Southeast has let itself be ringed by other commercial properties,” Logan explains as we head uphill toward Brooklyn Avenue. “Downtown, Lemon Grove, National City, North Park, all have better shopping districts. You gotta leave here to shop.”
At sixty-fifth and Brooklyn Logan slows the car and gestures east. “That’s where we had the incident,” he says in a low voice tinged with sorrow. Sagon Penn was accosted by the police in March of 1985 at the end of this hushed street. The only movement there now is the mail carrier, who seems to pass through the area on tiptoe.
We drive north along the eastern fringe of Emerald Hills, one of the most prestigious places to live in Southeast. Some of the lots are a full acre, and many are dotted with avocado trees and horse corrals. Logan says many retirees and white-collar workers live in this area, which is ninety-five percent black, with trim lawns, two-car garages, and shaded sidewalks. These homes sell for between $85,000 and $100,000. “The same identical houses built at the same time by the same developer in Allied Gardens now sell for about $15,000 more,” Logan explains. “Same identical houses.” We cruise past the corner of Roswell and Melrose on our way back down to Market Street, past a two-story house with a commanding view of downtown San Diego. Logan says this was where Bill Thompson, the publisher of the black newspaper Voice and Viewpoint, lived until he was murdered a few months ago. We move on in silence.
On Market Street, Logan comments that “I wasn’t as shaken up as some people about the vote.” He’s referring to the decision by voters to take Martin Luther King’s name off the street signs and bring back Market Street. “It may be a blessing in disguise. Market STreet was no great tribute to the man.” We’ve made our way down to Thirtieth Street and are rolling slowly past a group of young black men milling behind a building on Imperial Avenue. “I wouldn’t be down here after dark,” Logan says as the men eye us not altogether benignly. “These guys right here will kick your brains in.”
Back at Logan’s office at the corner of Forty-fifth and Logan, the rhythm of street life in Southeast seems hundreds of miles away from Emerald Hills and Skyline. Across Forty-fifth is a small market where older men loiter and drink. Across Logan is another market, owned by another Middle Eastern family, where younger men loiter and drink. Across Logan is another market, owned by another Middle Eastern family, where younger men loiter and drink. Police are constantly stopping and talking to the idlers, taking down the names of unfamiliar faces. sometimes joshing with the regulars. Logan parks his car and glances across the street at the older, bony men standing quietly in the parking lot. “I think unemployment is a bigger problem than drugs here,” he says. He points down the street to a row of dreary-looking apartments. “You’d be shocked if you could see inside those places, see how many young men aren’t working. Sometimes it’s frightening to me to see how many able-bodied men are sitting around looking at TV in the middle of the day.” We bid good-bye, and Logan goes back to a good living inside a converted house with pellet holes in the front window.
We’re touring the serene reaches of Paradise Hills in a patrol car, and community-relations officer Ali Hassan is getting mad. “White people think Southeast is full of misfits, malcontents, and people who hate law enforcement. It hurts me.” Hassan is driving through his old bet, the area where he spent most of his police career as a patrolman. “Crime is higher in other areas of San Diego, it’s just that there are more passionate crimes here. They’ll use a rusted razor instead of an expensive gun.”
Hassan has already shown me the hilltop Baldwin Rancho (just off Imperial Avenue), with one of the best views in San Diego, and the new Valencia Views subdivision, which abuts Bonita. He’s shown me where the Ito family lives on Ito Court, the people who sold off much of the land to development here to the east of Skyline. He’s boasted the virtues of Southeast like a prideful parent, naming Manny Guaderrama (deputy police chief), Larry Stirling (state assemblyman), and John Mabee (Big Bear supermarkets founder whose first grocery store, Johnnie’s, was located at Forty-third and Logan) as local luminaries who were raised or started their careers in Southeast. “This is probably the best place in San Diego to raise a child, because it can grow up among a diversity of people. A child raised here will be better prepared to deal with the world than one raised intentionally in an isolated environment. Those kids raised in all-white communities are going to perpetuate the world’s problems when they grow up. If I were a white family, I’d raise my kids here.” What about all the dope dealing on the open street, I wonder aloud. Is that something a child should be exposed to? “Well,” Hassan rejoins facetiously, “send your kids to Patrick Henry [High School] then. They got no drug problem there.” Actually, there is quite a well-documented drug problem there. But then again,the night before our tour, there was a drug killing two doors down from the private school in Logan Heights where Hassan sends his two kids; during an open house at the school that night, many of the kids, parents, and teachers heard the gunfire.
Hassan points the squad car toward Delta Street, which divides Southeast San Diego from National City. On the way, I ask him why there are so many churches, many of them occupying storefronts in failed strip shopping centers, throughout Southeast. “People of black and brown ancestry, living in a state of depression need an outlet,” he replies. “Look at these guys on the corner. You can see the dismay in their lives. It’s a mental state that sets in from years of having nothing to do. Many of them have never had a job. You’re gonna find a church, a pawn shop, and a liquor store all connected up in one neighborhood. You hawk property to get some dollars to buy liquor, get drunk, get in a fight, and go to church on Sunday to redeem yourself. These churches are a psychological aid. If you’re rich, you go to a shrink and pay for your redemption; if you’re poor, you go to church.”
Just off Forty-third, Hassan swings onto Delta Street. A couple of blocks to the north is the 270-acre swath of empty lots that was cleared ten years ago for the construction of the now-defunct 252 freeway connector between I-5 and I-805. To the south is an area of National City comprising modest single-family homes that ends on Delta Street; the north side of Delta Street is Southeast San Diego, and for a half-mile stretch, the cheap, unkempt tenements alternate with newer stucco apartment buildings. “There’s a real problem here on this street.” Hassan says as we glide past idle men and women waiting in parking lots. “A lot of narcotics are sold here, and when people across the street call, they say they live in National City, but the4y’re reporting a problem in San Diego. It causes confusion over jurisdiction, and the crooks know it.”
Hassan stops another patrol car coming the opposite way. He asks the cop what’s going on, and the officer reaches over and grabs something off the seat. He holds up a baggie of rock cocaine. “A guy just got shot in the pee-pee over this,” the cop says. “Shot three times. He’ll survive. With half a pee-pee.”
On the way to lunch at the Catfish Club, Reverend George Walker Smith’s fraternity of black professionals that convenes at Christ United Presbyterian Church in Golden Hill, Hassan remarks on the dearth of supermarkets in Southeast. We pass through the parking lot at Otto Square. “This used to be Otto’s Nursery,” he says, explaining the center’s name. “The Food Palace here used to be a Food Basket. There was an Alpha Beta in the 5000 block of Logan, s Safeway at Twenty-fifth and Imperial, and a few other stores here. Now they’re all gone.” The conventional wisdom has it that the stores were wracked with theft and other crime, and merchandise had to be priced too low to make a profit. The old Safeway at Twenty-fifth and Imperial is now a welfare office. It closed a week after its manager was shot to death during a robbery.
Hassan says Ramsey Najor now owns the Food Palace in Otto Square. Yet another “A-rab” grocery-store owner, in the local parlance. “They like to be called Chaldeans,” Hassan instructs. “Descendants of an ancient merchant class that predates Christ.” We drive a few blocks up Ocean View, where Hassan points out places he once was able to arrest ten people a day, “before we drove a lot of the crime elsewhere. Crime occurs where people allow it to occur. There used to be shootings here every day, until people marched up this street and demanded action.”
The loss of the white-controlled grocery chains and the angry marches of black residents are pillars in Hassan’s theories about the black dilemma. “The problem with black Americans is the really think they’re free,” he says, zooming past boxing immortal Archie Moore’s aging brick house on I-15. “But you’re not free until you can establish your own destiny Look at the Asians who’ve come over here without even knowing the language, and they’ve succeeded. Blacks have become dependent on everyone but themselves. Look at our role models, Michael Jackson has given us a silent signal that maybe it’s best not to look like yourself. Blacks have a serious problem with color. The fair-complected feel they’re better than the darker people. We’re merely Caucasians with dark skin, confused and in a state of shock.”
This confusion and shock is in evidence at the Catfish Club. Less than two weeks before Martin Luther King’s name had been stripped from Market Street, and the black members and guests of the Catfish Club had immediately embraced the idea of forcing a nationwide convention boycott of San Diego. Newly appointed Urban League president Herb Cawthorne was giving a windy speech in favor of the boycott, and I can’t fight off the distinct impression that he recognizes in this issue his chance to establish himself as a viable black leader. He is the embodiment of the understandable anger in the room at the way King's name was rejected, but there is still something incongruous and spiteful about calling for a boycott. Many blacks, including Hassan, told me they didn’t want a trashy thoroughfare like Market Street named after King, but still some kind of protest mechanism had kicked in almost automatically after the vote.
I meant to ask Cawthorne about the seeming contradiction in the boycott — its effects would be felt mostly by businessmen, not the ordinary voters who cast the ballots against King, many of whom don’t want convention tourists here anyway. But after his speech, which he closed by repeating the end of King’s “I have a dream” speech, many people stood up to integrate their support of the boycott and seemed to try to outdo each other in eulogizing Dr. King. It’s almost impossible not to sound like a racist these days if your question King’s deification or fail to see the point of the boycott. I held my peace. A week later, while the TV cameras rolled, Cawthorne called off the boycott. The white businessmen in the Chamber of Commerce had agreed to underwrite a King memorial.
On the way back to Hassan’s office, we stop by the Community Preparatory School in the 300 block of Dewey Street, between Ocean View Boulevard and Commercial. Hassan’s kids attend this small private school, which is run by thirty-nine-year-old Hakin Alaji and his wife. White ash from police flares still sit in piles on the street, where cops had cordoned off the area the night before to investigate a killing at the Chat ‘n Chew beer hall, two doors down from the school. Alaji meets us out front on the street. He is subdued and says he is looking for another place to move the school. “It wasn’t like this when we first moved here a few years ago,” he relates. “Oh, there were burglaries. We had to put bars on the windows, but then they kicked the door frame out and we had to put bars on the doors. But there weren’t people hanging out on the street, this concentration of people we have out here now.”
Alaji says he grew up in Southeast, and it has changed. “We never locked our car, never locked our doors,” he recalls. “Now we have to have bars on all our windows, and my car has been stolen four times.” And he bought a gun to keep at the school. Hassan breaks in to say many people are buying guns in Southeast — just for protection. “A couple of women I talked to won’t leave home without a gun,” Alaji says, almost embarrassed. “I talked to eight people before I bought a gun, asking if I should. They all had one, and they said, ‘You mean you don’t!’” He laughs, we laugh, but none of us thinks it’s funny. “But these problems are everywhere,” Alaji continues, “I have a friend who got burglarized in Mira Mesa, and now he wants to move somewhere else. I said, ‘Where you gonna go? You can’t escape it.’” He laughs again, but his eyes look pained.
Before Atif Hakim and Ben Rivera took me on a tour of their Southeast San Diego, we were standing around talking in front of Hakim’s disheveled apartment house at Twenty-second and Island, in Sherman Heights. Two beat cops walked slowly up Twenty-second, across the street. Hakim, who is big, richly black, and wears his hair in spikes, looked at the cops with disgust. “It’s terrible that our community’s occupied like this,” said the last chairman of the Sagon Penn Defense Committee. “They’re the criminals. They can ask me for my ID any time they want, throw me in the car, and take me to the station, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You can’t even go to a park in Southeast anymore without falling under suspicion. The police no longer consider that going to a park is a recreational activity.”
Hakim says he lives with and witnesses police brutality every day. He believes that it’s a natural outgrowth of an institutional racism that grips San Diego. “There’s very little individual racism anymore,” he observes. “They don’t call you ‘nigger’ anymore. Now they call you ‘criminal,’ dope addict,’ ‘gang member,’ and ‘illegal alien.’ Cops stop my people here constantly to check their eyes, check their arms, run ID checks. Sure, drugs are a problem here, but you can’t stop a social problem by violating human rights, by creating a military state.” He says this institutional racism showed itself during recent community forums in Southeast. He laughs incredulously when he recalls how city leaders responded when some people demanded the resignation of San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender because he was insensitive to the issue of police brutality. “They said, ‘Don’t bring the chief’s personality into this.’ But that’s exactly why they fired [black city manager] Sy Murray, because of his personality!”
We climb into Rivera’s car, which is parked in front of a tiny park containing a few pieces of playground equipment. Next to the park is the boarded-up and charred hulk of a burned-out building. Rivera and Akim say the building was burned about four years ago. “Look at this,” Hakim rails at the black hulk. “One of the most dangerous places in town to play is this park.”
Rivera, a 24-year-old student at SDSU who recently spent a year as a board member of the Chicano Federation, and Hakim, who is 30 and trying to organize the People’s Tribunal Network to fight police brutality, consider themselves politically enlightened. Like Warren Nielsen, they believe that Southeast’s leaders have failed the community, but for vastly different reasons. “For a year, we [students] asked the Chicano Federation to take a position on police brutality, but we couldn’t even get them to validate the events we had record of,” says Rivera as he drives up Imperial Avenue. “We were seen as disrupters in their meetings.” From the back seat, Hakim chortles, “You don’t want to attack ‘Massa!’ Hell, I called the NAACP in Los Angeles, and they didn’t even know one black attorney!”
Rivera says that prior to the late 1970s, the Chicano Federation was something of a radical group but that the militant members were purged after a drug scandal. The organization had to sanitize itself in order to hang on to its government funding, Rivera claims. Now it’s headed by former City Councilman Jess Haro, and it seems to go out of its way not to upset the local power structure. Rivera sees the federation as an impediment to the communication with the Chicano community, precisely because the organization is perceived as the voice of the Mexican-Americans. “We can’t speak directly anymore,” he says. “We have to talk for a year to the Chicano Federation before they’ll say anything. If we do speak directly, we’re seen as causing division within our own community.” Adds Hakim, “People in Southeast aren’t people anymore, we’re just another special-interest group now.”
Rivera remarks that the street we’re driving on, Imperial Avenue, was considered the local Mason-Dixon line until whites started abandoning the area in the late 1960s. “Blacks and Mexicans couldn’t come [north] across this street,” he explains. This was the border.” We pass a Catholic church at Thirty-second Street, where a statue of Christ with its hands cut off bears the inscription, “Come to me, you who labor.” Three blocks north is a major drug-dealing area, across the street from the playground of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School; a few blocks south is an area known for prostitution, because of its proximity to the Thirty-Second Street naval station. “All these churches keep people passive,” Hakim observes. “Plus, it’s a good way to make money,” adds Rivera. They both chuckle at the local ministers who drive Cadillacs.
Rivera parks at the Memorial Park and Recreation Center, near Thirtieth and Ocean View. The authorities say this is a center of gang activity. We walk toward a baseball diamond, and Rivera points to an empty, weedy lot. “That used to be a mini course,” he says. Rivera played Little League baseball here as a boy. “This used to be more of a community,” he recalls. “There were more youth programs here, it was better organized.” Now ominous messages decorate some of the buildings. La Policía Asesinó A Tony!! reads one spray-painted communique, referring to the recent death of homeboy Tony Gastelum after police shot him repeatedly with an electronic stun gun. Other messages read, “Put the chief in jail,” “Stop Pig Torture,” and Chale con La Placa (to hell with the cops), Hakim remarks that in other communities, people can go to malls, movie houses, bowling alleys, nightclubs. Southeast has no modern shopping malls, no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, no fancy nightclubs. “And here you don’t have a nice yard with a pool,” he says. “All you got is a park” He sees this as a way for the police to centralize and control minorities, which has led to a kind of symbiotic relationship between the police and the Southeast residents. “People just put bars on their windows and call the police in rather than try to improve conditions,” he says.
Rivera says that in other communities, white-owned construction companies and contracting firms pitch in to help build local youth facilities, “but we don't have that here, we don't own those things. So we need government to help us.” He says that a place like Barrio Station, which is supposed to help youngsters go straight, is cheap looking, mostly because it depends on government money to stay alive. “It’s not first-rated because it’s in the barrio,” he states. “They get away real cheap because it’s for Chicanos. And then people in La Jolla or Rancho Bernardo complain about their tax money being spent to help us.”
We drive over the Market Street. On the way, Hakim explains why he thinks the removal of Dr. King’s name from the street is a non-issue. “What would King have done?” he asks. “He wouldn’t be mobilizing people to name a street after Booker T. Washington. And if anybody deserves a street name, it’s Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t move to the back of the bus. King’s just one of many civil-rights leaders, the one acceptable by whites. The day they held that protest march down Market and called for a convention boycott was the day Tony [Gastelum] dies from police torture in Southeast. And they’re out marching for street signs?”
As we pass Gateway Center, I comment that the new market and college there seem to be good developments for Southeast. “It’s insulting,” counters Hakim. “All of a sudden, they want to give us a college to learn how to be box boys. And the jobs they’re creating? After I work there, will I be able to buy a house in Emerald Hills? No, I won’t. They’re service jobs, man, teaching us how to get along with while people.”
Like Officer Hassan, Hakim and Rivera suffer with the knowledge that blacks and Chicanos live on the mercy and whim of white bwanas. Down by the bay, Rivera drives by the Logan Heights Community Health Clinic and notes that its new wing was paid for by Joseph Coors. He sniffs the air, remarking how Kelco, the kelp processing plant at the foot of Crosby Street, stinks. “We get all the stinking businesses down here,” he observes. “Ship building, the tuna canneries, Kelco. And now that ship building and tuna have gone bust, they still want to keep hold of the waterfront land.” We head north on Harbor Drive, and Rivera recalls coming down to the San Diego Rowing Club pier to go fishing as a young boy. Now the Rowing Club is an expensive Chart House restaurant, and next door is a little park where Rivera feels unwelcome. “The people who come to the Chart House don’t want to see Mexicans in the park,” he says. Rivera also claims that the nearby convention center, under construction just south of Seaport Village, snatched away the Southeast community’s last open access to San Diego Bay. “In their quest for the tourist dollar, San Diego is backing into the community and eating it away,” Hakim observes.
Over at Chicano Park, I ask why the locals deface the murals with spray-painted graffiti. But Hakim and Rivera see graffiti much differently that do outsiders. “What’s wrong with graffitis?” Hakim asks. “It’s just youths expressing themselves.” Rivera adds, “Why can’t they have something to show what their lives are all about?” I must admit that after spending some time in Southeast, I begin to tune out graffiti in the same way I tune out all the advertising on the streets of Hillcrest or Clairement. You don't by the way, see much advertising at ll in Southeast, which is one rather refreshing result of economic depression.
The graffiti in Chicano Park is also understandable in light of the overbearing police presence in the area, Rivera says he commonly sees cops walking around there with their batons out, and police cruisers routinely drive at high speeds across the grass as they take quick shortcuts for Logan to National avenues. The graffiti is a way for local youths to claim a park that isn’t really theirs.
As we make for Las Cuatro Milpas, a Mexican restaurant a block west of Chicano Park, Rivera complains about how easy it is for politicians to avoid doing anything to improve living conditions in Southeast. “All you have to do to get around the Southeast issue is call George Walker Smith or Jess Haro or [contractor] Gil Contreras, instead of talking directly to the people on the street. That’s tokenism. The people in power would like you to believe that those guys are our leaders, but who elected them? You should see Contreras at community forums trying to talk about police brutality, and he’s wearing gold all over him. It’s a joke. There are no real leaders here, because there’s no real forum for us all to talk. Jess Haro isn’t our mayor, but he might as well be. The Catfish Club isn’t our parliament, but it might as well be. We don’t really have a way to talk to the rest of San Diego.
Before we reach the restaurant, Rivera passes by the Padre Serra Center, an immigrant amnesty and legalization office operated by the Catholic church on National Avenue. The name was changed a while back from the Padre Hidalgo Center, and Rivera sees in this an encapsulation of how Southest has been tamed and kept quiet by the white power structure. “You know who Hidalgo was?” he asks. “He helped start a revolution in Mexico. But Father Serra was something else: accepted mainstream, status quo.”