THE BELL TOWER OF OUR LADY OF THE SACRED HEART CATHOLIC CHURCH CAN BE SEEN FROM ALMOST ANYWHERE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF CITY HEIGHTS. RISING INTO THE CLEAR, UNCLUTTERED AIR ABOVE A WELTER OF VIETNAMESE RESTAURANTS, CHINESE PHARMACIES, FINANCE COMPANIES, BODY SHOPS, AND BILLBOARDS READING “CANNABIS STUPIDA” AND “PROTEGE SU FUTURO, USA CONDONES;IT IS A SIMPLE SYMBOL IN A COMPLEX COMMUNITY.
If you keep your eyes level with the palm fronds that brush the bottom of the sky, it is possible to imagine you are in a Mexican village or an Asian rice paddy. Lower them and it’s a different story—very different from the one that the founders of City Heights had in mind.
In the early 1900s — when the first trolley tracks to City Heights were laid across the scrub land — real estate developers painted a vision of a shining city on a plateau overlooking Point Loma and Coronado. “Four thousand live wires,” trumpeted one 1912 brochure “...are working like beavers to establish a healthy, well-governed community from which every citizen may receive equal benefit and share the same pride.”
That’s not quite how things worked out.
The perception is that people don’t live in City Heights, they pass through it on the way, please God, to someplace better. It is a surface analysis that enrages longtime residents who point out pockets of affluence hidden away in the side streets and canyons. And even in the most run-down neighborhoods, there is a sleepy charm about the dusty palm trees and small stucco bungalows that hark back to the 1950s when City Heights was in its prime. But nobody disputes the assessment that the shining city on a plateau has slid downhill.
Once a quiet community of middle-class homeowners who grew old and sold their properties to developers looking for cheap real estate, City Heights gradually turned into a holding container for the poor, the dispossessed, and refugees — people from all over the world, jammed like cordwood into crumbling bungalows and high-density apartment complexes. An estimated 83,000 people live in City Heights, which makes it among the most overcrowded neighborhoods in the country.
“Within 90 days of an international incident,” says former City Heights Town Council president Michael Sprague, “we’ll get refugees — from Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea — all the refugee camps. The Red Cross comes through, the U.S. makes a commitment, and in due time they arrive here. City Heights has the two essentials — cheap rent and good transportation.”
City Heights’ situation worsened in the 1970s when Caltrans announced it was going to complete the last 2.2 miles of U.S. Route 15, which runs along the western edge of City Heights to the Mexican border. Property values plummeted, landlords stopped caring about who lived in the real estate scheduled for demolition, and the fix was in to turn City Heights into a world-class slum.
About five or six years ago — people differ on when the first outward signs of an inward shift began to be noticeable — something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. After decades of being known as the gritty, blight-ridden center of crime, drugs, prostitution, and gang warfare in San Diego, City Heights began to turn itself around.
Crime is down, hope is up, and the damaged nerve endings of a dying community are beginning to repair themselves. People who used to be tot) afraid to speak to their next-door neighbors are now sharing house keys. Volunteerism at the Mid-City Police Station in City Heights has reached almost Disneyland proportions, with residents driving graffiti-removal trucks, forming foot patrols, and attending weekly meetings to exchange information with the police and find out what’s going on in their immediate neighborhood. City Heights is no longer considered happy hunting grounds for men seeking San Diego’s best prostitutes, according to a recent Web site check.
“That’s true,” says Lee Houck, the founder of CHOP (City Heights on Patrol), a volunteer citizen-surveillance organization. “In September of 1997, we got four restraining orders against 80 prostitutes — the judge showed us how to bundle the orders to save money. And there were so many residents who wanted to go down and have their day in court that the police had to hire a bus to take them ail down.”
And after months of being delayed by El Nino, this Sunday is the scheduled grand opening of the Urban Village—eight blocks of public resources that will include a library, theater, playing fields, social service center, all one block from the new Mid-City Police Station.
The result of a public-private partnership between the City of San Diego and the CityLink Investment Corporation, which was loaned start-up funds by the Sol Price Foundation to begin construction, the Urban Village is a multimillion dollar investment of time, materials, and hope—hope that the people of City Heights will take ownership of their community. If there is, in fact, something to own.
The tale of City Heights’ comeback reads like a massive Victor Hugo novel, densely plotted and unfolding on many levels. Some of the most influential characters in the story do not even know each other, but their histories and agendas have intersected to affect a community that might, in the final analysis, become a shining city on a plateau after all. And while there is no one individual or reason responsible for the turnaround, a lot of people say it all started at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Our Lady’s sits at the intersection of Marlboro and Orange Avenues, holding down one corner of a square block of parish-owned property. It is a tidy kingdom, with freshly painted iron gates, clipped shrubs, and swept paths that connect the church, rectory, and former convent, which is now a residential drug-treatment facility that shares a parking lot with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Elementary School.
On Sundays, the bells call the faithful to Mass five times for services in three different languages — English (2), Spanish (2), and Vietnamese (1). The 8:30 a.m. Mass is in Spanish. The church is packed.
City Heights is a poor community. Our Lady’s is a poor church. Most of the parishioners are unemployed or have menial jobs as gardeners, kitchen help, or domestic workers. The men wear workshirts, windbreakers, and hooded sweatshirts, the women roughly the same. There are a lot of babies in blanket sleepers.
It is a solemn, at least superficially attentive congregation. “Te rogamos, Senor," they intone at proper intervals. At “The lord’s Prayer,” everyone steps into the aisle to be connected with each other by joining hands. Only a small percentage of the congregation takes Communion.
“A lot of people,” explains parish activist Ada Padilla, “leave families behind in Mexico and start new ones here, or they never marry to begin with, so they don’t feel they can go to Communion.”
Padilla, 42, is a soft-spoken woman who works for the San Diego Organizing Project (SHOP), an interfaith federation of 18 churches that helps people in churches come together to find a common voice on issues that affect their common welfare. She is tightly woven into the Hispanic community.
“Mexicans celebrate everything really big,” she says. “When we have babies they get baptized and it’s a big social event. When our daughters turn 15, there’s a ritual called Quinceanera when they are presented to society, wear a white dress, and the parents pay for a Mass, after which they have a party. But Father Rich gets them right there and says that until the parents get married, the baby can’t be baptized until it’s older, and until the girl is instructed in her faith there is no celebration.”
Father Richard Perozich is the priest in charge at Our Lady’s. Assigned to the parish in 1996, rumor has it that he was not thrilled with the assignment. Nor was everyone thrilled with Father Rich, who concedes that he had a rough beginning.
“Certain people,” he says tersely, “had their agenda, and I was just here to facilitate it. I expected more respect and less challenge.”
Padilla laughs when this remark is repeated to her. “Father Rich met with some resistance when he came,” she confirms, “but I told him to calm down and be nice.” Nice may not be Father Rich’s first line of defense.
“He’s very direct,” concedes Sister Linda, principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Elementary School. “You have to come to terms with his style, which is a 'This is the way it is’ approach. And I have to think very carefully about asking him for something because he does not know the meaning of the word ‘procrastinate.’"
The speed with which Father Rich transformed Our Lady’s Church proves Sister Linda’s point.
When Father Rich arrived in 1996, the church was drab and in debt — to the tune of $350,000. The bishop wrote off the debt and a wealthy East Los Angeles contractor agreed to supply the parish with everything but the elbow grease.
Church doors were remade and rehung, nicked pews sanded down and revarnished, kneeler cushions recovered, and rotting orange carpet pulled off the terrazzo floors, which were restored to a shine. A new color scheme, thought out by a priest-architect colleague who sat for hours in the church thinking it through, was implemented by those parishioners who showed up to paint. Bringing the different cultures in Our Lady’s together was Father Rich’s first test.
“White people want to discuss everything,” he says. “Hispanics are grateful to be included and like to listen, and the Vietnamese don’t want any meetings. They say, ‘Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.’ ”
They did and the result is a dramatic combination of cinnamon-colored pillars and rafters set into warm vanilla walls with turquoise accent colors, which manage to reflect Mexican, Asian, and Anglo sensibilities.
“We painted by numbers,” says Father Rich, “from the Stations of the Cross on down, and rented a cherry picker to do the rest.”
Not everybody liked the results. “Whenever you go to colors,” says Sister Linda, “you’re going to get a strong reaction.” Then again, Father Rich is a pretty strong color himself.
A blunt, not particularly diplomatic man who was a late vocation (for 14 years before that he was a physical therapist in a San Diego sports clinic). Father Rich is very clear about what a priest is supposed to do. “Our job is to turn people toward the Lord and offer them a complete transformation of their being.”
This is not exactly ’90s New Age talk, but Father Rich is in the classical tradition of the priest who sees himself as a dispenser of the sacraments, and while he estimates that he gives away $400 or $500 a month in cash, Burger King coupons, and gas certificates (“When someone’s hungry, cold, or naked they can’t hear the Word”), he does not view himself as a social activist.
“It’s the layman’s job,” he says, “to take Christ to the world. My job is to animate them.” Padilla is the sort of layperson Father Rich has in mind. She uses him as her confessor. “If you’re straight with him, you can say almost anything. He may not like it, but he’ll listen, and he’ll be right there with you and help you in your struggle.”
When asked if he thinks the biggest struggles in the parish are economic. Father Rich shakes his head. “No, the biggest problems are relational. Probably a quarter of all the people here have been sexually violated, and so they form relationships that are unhealthy.”
On the subject of the modern culture, he views the American Way of Life — striving for continual happiness — as the ground of sin. “One has to sin in order to have constant fulfillment and happiness. And in this culture, we don’t want to suffer. But Christ was made perfect through suffering.”
There is probably no closer illustration of this conviction than Father Rich’s assistant, Father Joseph Phien Pham. A slight, scholarly man of 47, Father Pham’s route to Our Lady’s is the same as many other parishioners. He was a refugee of war.
Imprisoned in Saigon by the Communists in 1977 for being ordained without permission, he finally escaped as a “boat person” in 1989, when he landed in Indonesia and was immediately put in another detainment camp, where he spent three years with 20,000 other refugees.
But Father Pham remembers those as happy days. “There were about 4000 Vietnamese Catholics and no Vietnamese priest to help.”
In 1992, he arrived in San Diego — the same year Father Rich was ordained — and was assigned by the bishop to Our Lady’s to serve the Vietnamese in the parish.
Our Lady’s has approximately 1600 families registered on its books. But that only represents about 25 percent of the actual number of families who partake of the parish activities. A high number are “illegals” and are afraid to sign their names on any roster.
After the 8:30 Mass, the almost entirely Hispanic congregation leaves the church, and the pews fill up with a constituency that is sparser but more diverse.
Father Pham’s sermon, in heavily flavored English, is on the meaning of the word “poor.” “There are four meanings of this word," he begins. “Without material wealth, without influence or power, without protection, and — finally — someone who puts his or her total trust in God.” One way or another, this sums up everybody in the church.
Compared to the Hispanics, the Vietnamese are better schooled and have refugee status, which enables them to qualify for government assistance. It is an imbalance within the parish that creates a separation between the cultures, but at the distribution of Holy Communion, the distinction is blurred.
Father Pham is assisted by a young Hispanic man, a middle-aged black woman, and an older white woman. On my way down the aisle, a small, nut-brown older man, with white hair and a gold cross on his breast, extends his gnarled hand to me from his pew with a broad smile and then to the man behind me. On my way back, I pass a pew full of tiny Vietnamese women in ao dais and hair pulled back into buns, who look as if they are waiting for the bus in Saigon. Elsewhere, there is a scattering of ruddy, elderly Irish faces, remnants of the blue-collar Navy and aerospace workers who remained in City Heights after retirement.
That particular Sunday, the parish is holding its annual rummage sale in the school gym. Pannine Tallabas, co-president of the PTA, is there to man the cupcake table. She is a cheerful woman (“I’m here until we sell out”), and she likes City Heights because — despite its problems — it’s a real neighborhood.
“Everybody on my block says hello to everybody else, even though you might be mad at them for parking in your space. You never know when you might be out in the cold and need them.”
She ticks off who lives around her — a Vietnamese family, an Hispanic family, and a black family. “Plus one white woman,” she adds. “She’s our token white. We kid her and say, ‘Hey, what’s the matter? Did you get lost on your way to El Cajon?’ ”
City Heights is shaped roughly like a back molar. The northern, or biting edge, is El Cajon Boulevard, beyond which lie increasingly more affluent suburbs. Two fractures—Route 805 and the still unfinished Route 15 — define the western edge. The eastern boundary is 54th Street, which runs due south into Chollas Parkway and canyons. Within this 350-block area, residents speaking 42 different languages or dialects. The student body at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s elementary school reflects these facts.
In the 1950s, the playground was filled with primarily Irish-American children whose parents worked in the shipyards or held white-collar jobs in downtown San Diego. Now the children — from Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Somalia, Senegal, and Ethiopia — could be an ad for Bennetton. They play easily together, giggling over Spice Girl foldouts and throwing balls unimpressed by their differences. It is probably one of the few schoolyards in the United States where this is so.
On the morning I visited the school, the children were assembled in the gymnasium before going to class. Sister Linda made some announcements about the hot-lunch program and then commented upon the children’s appearance. “I want to compliment so many of you for looking so sharp and nice this morning.”
Dressed in plaid skirts, navy blue pants, and sweaters, the children sat quietly on the gym floor. A male teacher stepped forward to ask if there were any birthdays. There weren’t. Then the children rose to say a “Hail Mary” and Pledge of Allegiance, after which they filed out to class.
Sister Linda is silver-haired, pink-cheeked, and approachable with a calming Mr. Rogers sort of personality. She has been at Our Lady’s for five years and thinks the community is improving. When she first came, she says she couldn’t look out her office window without seeing something she wished she hadn’t seen going on. “Anything,” she says, “could and did happen.”
The children are, in her words, “terrific. They’re friendly, natural, but realistic about their lives. Safety is an issue. And drug dealing. They see what’s coming down. And their parents have long hours, many of them going to school and work. More and more grandparents are involved.”
“Grandpa Chu” is one of these grandparents. A small, bespectacled, elderly Vietnamese man who comes to school to help children who can’t speak English, he is one of two Vietnamese foster parents (“Grandma Connie,” whom I didn’t meet, is another) who are part of a government-funded program through Catholic Charities that pays a small stipend to low-income senior citizens in City Heights to help children with special needs.
On the day I visited Sacred Heart’s sixth-grade class. Grandpa Chu arrived to take two recently enrolled Vietnamese boys to the library to read them stories while the rest of the class was studying fractions.
“We want to kiss fractions good-bye,” says sixth-grade teacher John Kilroy, “but we can’t until we can do this stuff in a reasonable amount of time.” He passes out a test for the students to do at their desks and wanders over to the window ledge to kibbitz.
This is Kilroy’s first year as a teacher. A former executive with GTE, he has five children (“There isn’t anything I haven’t seen”), one of whom, by a second marriage, goes to school here. Once Kilroy had made enough money to be financially secure, he decided he wanted to get into a classroom. “We got along great from the first day,” he says.
I ask Kilroy about gang influence. “The kids know about gangs,” he says. “They go to parties where gang members are there, but right now they’re only wanna-bes. It’s something you can’t avoid. Who are you gonna be, John the Baptist, saying, ‘Repent, or I’ll kick your butt’?”
The classroom is sparsely furnished, six rows of four desks, two computers on a side table, and a stool for Kilroy to perch upon in front of a wooden lectern. The words “Catholic,” “Respect Your Elders,” and “Quiet Pride” are written above the blackboard. The atmosphere is calm, orderly, and — as the children bend quietly over their worksheets—deceptively hopeful. The path ahead of these children is not as wide as it looks. Kilroy knows this.
“These kids are at an age where they’re asking, ‘Am I going to grow up to be a jerk, or am I going to be somebody?’ They haven’t made the decision yet, but you hope to be able to catch a few of them. They come from some pretty tough spots.”
The school operates on a tight budget with scant resources. “We make a big effort,” says Kilroy, “to keep the school clean and picked up so the kids will take their education seriously. But they’re not stupid. When they get handed a ripped-up textbook, they feel degraded. The science books are so old that they say, ‘It may be that in the future that we will be able to use solar heat to warm our houses.’ I skipped over that chapter.”
The students pass in their math papers and Kilroy changes the subject—to ancient Greece. Picking up some photographs from his desk he holds them up.
“I have some authentic pictures of Greece and someone you know pretty well,” he announces before passing around some snapshots of the Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens.
One of the boys looks carefully at a picture of a young Vietnamese man standing in front of the Acropolis. “Is that Grandpa Chu?” he asks.
Kilroy nods. “He let me have these to show you.” And for the next 25 minutes he puts the class through a rapid review on “The Age of Pericles.”
“What’s an oligarchy, anybody remember?”
Nobody volunteers. “Well, it’s when the king needs the rich guys to help him ward off the invaders. But the rich guys say, 'We’re not going to help unless we get a piece of the action,’ so the king says, ‘Okay,’ and cuts them in on the power. That’s an oligarchy.” “Pericles,” continues Kilroy, as he gathers up the snapshots, “built and decorated the Acropolis and the Parthenon, but he wanted to do something more. He wanted to strengthen the power of democracy by spreading the power to more people.”
The children gaze silently at Kilroy, their Mexican, Cambodian, Irish, Vietnamese, Senegalese, African-American, Filipino, and F.thiopian feces empty of all expression save innocence.
Then the bell rings. The Age of Pericles is put on hold.
After the eighth grade, most of the children at Our Lady’s go on to Hoover High School, 60 percent of whose students come from the parish. If the history of City Heights could be said to have had a low point, it was in the winter of 1993, when three students from Hoover High were killed in a gang-related slaying.
The footprints of the poor do not leave much of an impression. There was no mention of the murders in the local papers. But it was a galvanizing event within Our Lady of the Sacred Heart because two of the three murdered boys were from the parish. One of them had been trying to get out of the gang with which he had been involved.
“After the boys were killed,” says Ada Padilla, “we spoke with the police, the schools and with gang members themselves. They gave us a sense of how hopeless it was for them to go to school, saying that it didn’t matter if they graduated. They still couldn’t get a job. This led us to talk to the Chamber of Commerce and to start asking where the future for our children was.”
Two things happened in the 1980s to complicate that future. Caltrans started buying up houses — over 500 of them — along the western edge to make way for Route 15, which turned a large swath of the community into a no-man’s-land. Then, in 1985, crack cocaine was introduced to San Diego. Soon there were three or four active gangs in City Heights, with their identifying logos sprayed all over the neighborhood to mark off their turf.
“We were spiritually paralyzed,” says Padilla, “and we needed to address that, it doesn’t do any good to talk about God when people don’t have enough food for their children. They say, ‘So where is God when I need help?’ and people of faith have to say, ‘Here He is — in us.’ ”
Then the San Diego Organizing Project got involved. They began to hold house meetings within the parish, to talk about what needed to be changed and how it could be done. When the three Hoover students were murdered, the process was sped up.
During Lent of 1993 it was decided to hold a “Way of the Cross” in City Heights on Good Friday. Church organizers applied for a march permit for 200 people; 800 showed up.
“It was a very unifying experience,” says Sister Marita, who was a catechist and liaison to the Hispanic community at Our I.ady’s. “We talked about the crimes, the crucifixions of today, and we would choose where to stop and say, 'This is where someone was murdered,’ or 'This is where the prostitutes are,’ and we would pray at those spots.”
Combing through the papers for mention of this event yielded no clippings either. “There wasn’t any coverage,” says Sister Marita. “That’s why you can’t find anything. That happens all the time.”
But reviewing the history of City Heights over the next five years shows that the voice of the community was getting louder, more organized, and being heard. The young people themselves were involved.
“One of them,” says Sister Marita, “said to me, ‘There’s no hope,’ and I said, ‘We will do something,’ although I had no idea what we would do. But we went to the city management, to Parks and Recreation, trying toget all this connected, to get more time in libraries and parks for the young people, job-related stuff for the summer. And that’s when we changed the whole school system — mostly through the San Diego Organizing Project.”
The ways of the SDOP are slow, elusive, and occasionally intimidating. They will hold a meeting, invite the powers that be to attend, and, if they don’t show, take pictures of the empty chair and spread it around the press and neighborhood.
“It can be unpleasant,” says the San Diego Police Department’s Lieutenant Sarah Creighton, who was stung by that ploy herself. “And sometimes their agenda doesn’t allow enough time to defend yourself, but generally, you get the message that things are not working.”
“It took me a while to figure out how they operate,” says Sister Linda, “but it’s about building partnership and being accountable.”
Meanwhile, other forces within City Heights were joining up for the good.
In 1994, an Economic Crime Summit was held by a newly formed City Heights Improvement Partnership — a mostly on-paper organization (there’s no office or phone) of concerned citizens who have a stake in seeing that City Heights does not self-destruct. A town council was formed. And in December of 1995, a “Posada ” (“Journey of Hope”) was conducted at Our Lady’s.
This time, the people offered prayers of thanksgiving. There was new street lighting, the premises of Lucky’s branch (“It had been a real pig sty,” says Padilla) had been cleaned up, there was the prospect of a new police station, and new career choices at Hoover High School — with internships and classes conducted by various health, business, and technical communities in San Diego.
“I started talking to the San Diego Organizing Project about four or five years ago,” says Hoover’s principal, Doris Alvarez, “about getting a biomedical technical academy. And I made several presentations at .Sacred Heart after the interfaith organization said they would get the parents there to listen — and they did. Then I am able to say, ‘This is what your parish wants.’ ”
In March of 1996, 300 members of the City Heights community met with San Diego city officials at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church to begin a dialogue on how to reclaim the neighborhood. “There is palpable excitement in City Heights,” says one Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross.
Five days later, the new Mid-City Police Station opened.
The Mid-City division police station in City Heights sits on an old Vons supermarket site. A multimillion-doUar facility with a spacious gym for neighborhood kids to throw hoops after school, it is not, to borrow the phrase, your father’s police station.
The outside is painted teal blue. Its windows are unbarred. The walls are not hung with self-congratulatory plaques but quotations from LaoTsu (“Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you”) and Eric Hoffer (“In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future”). The corridors bustle with mostly young, fresh-faced men and women who look as if they came straight from Notre Dame or the Peace Corps.
The Tuesday afternoon of my visit, the reception room is filled with people waiting to get fingerprinted—as part of their citizenship process. “Finns, Somalians, Laplanders, Albanians, Cambodians,” says Officer Ali Hassan at the front desk. “It’s God’s flower garden in here.”
Mid-City runs an active citizen-volunteer program. On any given day, dozens of civilians are in and out of the station picking up keys to graffiti-removal trucks and police cars. A particularly active senior citizen corps does vacation home-checks and takes part in the “You’re Not Alone” program, which checks in on the home-bound and elderly. Officers now have residents staffing their
store-front police stations, writing traffic citations for people who park in handicapped zones.
“Residents even have input as to who gets promoted here,” says Captain )ohn Madigan, who has been the head of the Mid-City Station for the past year.
Madigan is clearly enthused about how things are going in City Heights. Picking up the most recent set of statistics, he shows me the graph. “Violent crime is down markedly.”
Which is not to say that City Heights has turned into La Jolla.
One out of every three search warrants in San Diego is issued for City Heights, and violent crime is still about twice the citvwide rate. But Paul Osuna, a middle-school teacher in Chula Vista who grew up in City Heights, disputes the thrust of these statistics.
“When you’re talking about the densest community in the country, then you have certain problems that go along with high density. But the statistics don’t reflect the kind of day-to-day activities of families. And a real good example has been the North African communities, which have developed an extensive network. The Pan Asians, the same. Public image is City Heights’ biggest problem; being defined from outside.”
Madigan says there is a waiting list of officers wanting to work in City Heights. “This is the busiest station in San Diego,” he says, “and to be here, you have to work hard. But it’s exciting to work with a community that cares instead of being an occupying force.”
When asked what accounts for the change in City Heights, Madigan attributes it to increased citizen involvement. “When a community says that something is their problem, that’s the golden thread that runs through the success stories. That,” he adds, “plus the feet that we have someone at the top—Jerry Sanders— who promotes the philosophy of the police being a service provider. When the Rodney King verdict was announced and Los Angeles was burning down, we had a protest group marching down EI Cajon Boulevard being escorted by the police.”
On two occasions—one in the daytime and the other at night — I rode around with officers on the beat. If I was only seeing the good news in City Heights, taking the news randomly over a police car radio would correct my vision.
My first “ride-along” was with Officer Steve Rosenbloom, who’s been in City Heights for 12 years. “You’ve got very nice people here,” he says, “and then you’ve got the ones I have to deal with.” He slams the steering wheel with mock enthusiasm. “Job security! I love it!”
He pulls up alongside a parked car and looks at it. “Shall I be picky?” he asks. (I couldn’t see what the problem was.) “He’s in a red zone, and he’s from Arizona, for Christ’s sake.” He decides to let it pass.
Cruising by a corner on University Avenue, another main artery, Rosenbloom points out several young Hispanic men on the street. “They’ve got rock cocaine in their mouths. If I come up to them, they’ll swallow it, and if I catch them, it’s too small an amount to charge them with a felony.”
We turn into an alley behind some beat-up houses off University. “This is a major gang complex here,” he says, pointing to the graffiti on the backs of the houses that read “Wisker,” “Fantom,” and “Sur.” Just then he spots an older Hispanic man in an old Toyota Celica on Orange Avenue and motions him to the curb. “What’s he done?” I ask. “No license,” he answers. “How do you know?”
“I just do,” he replies. And sure enough the man hands over an ID that is legitimate but not a permit. Rosenbloom calls for a tow truck and takes the man’s car keys. The tow-truck operator arrives just as the man is walking away from the car.
“That guy seems a couple of french fries short of a Happy Meal,” says the tow-truck driver to Rosenbloom. As Rosenbkx>m pulls away, a woman in a red car calls out to him.
“Hey, officer. Have you seen the old guy in the wheelchair in the middle of the street?” “About a thousand times,” says Rosenbloom. (This was beginning to feel like shadowing Alan Alda in a MASH episode.)
It is 3:30 p.m. and nobody seems to be doing anything wrong in City Heights. The car radio gives out addresses of a pay phone where someone’s just dialed 911. “Rug rats,” says Rosenbloom, who nevertheless checks it out. “The kids are out of school.”
He turns onto Menlo and sees the man in the wheelchair that the woman had reported. He leans out the window.
“Hey, man, what are you doing in the middle of the street?” “The sidewalks are messed up,” says the man who then gets into a conversation with Rosenbloom about the stock market (“If I had to direct my money...”) and liquor (“I drink a little, but it’s not a priority”).
“Take it easy,” says Rosenbloom as we drive on down El Cajon Boulevard.
It is a bright, beautiful day in San Diego, and the clouds are spectacular in a wide-angle lens ofa sky. Maybe more trouble is found after sundown. A week later, I book a “ride-along” after dark.
This time my escort is Sergeant Ken Stewart, who has just joined the celebrated San Diego bike patrol. “We can go out and be proactive, stop and talk to people and do surveillance.” I ask him if he has seen any changes in City Heights.
“It’s looking pretty good, thank God. And the difference between now and seven years ago is huge.”
The first stop of the night is a driver with a broken taillight. Stewart does a license check. It comes up on the computer “Jesus Sandoval, previously deported criminal alien.” This sounds ominous. But it’s the wrong Jesus Sandoval, a name Stewart says is like the Hispanic version of Jones.
I ask Sergeant Stewart if he turns in undocumented people. (Ada Padilla told me INS authorities had recently followed people from a festival parade right onto the grounds of Sacred Heart.) “Not unless we see a load van where they’ve got people stacked up inside,” he says.
We turn onto Wightman and 52nd. He points to an apartment — “All Hast Africans.” Further down the street he points to a Cambodian temple. “I never have any trouble with the Cambodians.”
Almost next door to the Cambodian temple is a Laotian temple. “(The temples] are stability for these people. I feel for them when they’re new to this country, thrown to the wolves.”
Stewart stops at the Indo-Chinese storefront police station on University. It’s locked, but inside I see a big table, some pictures of the kids on a bulletin board, and a reception counter.
“(Detective] Ray Moody has been working for years to build up some rapport in the Asian community,” Stewart says. “Asian kids are small, slight of stature, and they get picked on. So the community and the police department started some basketball leagues and give dances.”
We get back into the car and Stewart checks his radio calls. They’re all routine — some domestic violence, cold crime calls, stolen cars. “In the old days,” he says, “there would be pages of violence and stabbings in progress.”
At 6:30 p.m. we drop into the weekly City Heights East police meeting at Rosa Parks Elementary School. Sergeant Moody, Lieutenant Shay, and another officer sit behind a table in a brightly painted kindergarten classroom. A banner — “Happy Birthday to Esmerelda, Victoria, and Phuong" — hangs above their heads. The process of sharing information between police and the community begias.
About 25 people are there, mostly white homeowners, one of whom has just moved into City Heights. “There’s drug activity next door, and I don’t know how to deal with it,” he says.
“You don’t have to justify your concern,” says Lieutenant Shay. “What you’re seeing is what we need to hear.”
A young, very pretty Hispanic mother, with a sleeping baby in a stroller by her side, tells a story, through a translator, of a young man who is selling drugs out of the laundry room. The smoke goes into her windows.
“He has no shame,” she says, “and the owners will do nothing. My family is telling me not to say anything, but I don’t want my house smelling of drugs.”
The officers tell her not to confront him anymore, that they will take action and report back to her next week.
Later, as the meeting draws to a close, I ask the group if things are any better in City Heights. There is much nodding. “Before we only used to talk about crime,” says one man. “Now we’re worrying about litter.”
As we leave, one of the women at the meeting deposits into Lieutenant Stewart’s hands two trays of lemon bars she baked. He thanks her and we get back into the car. We cruise around eating lemon bars until he spots a gray Cadillac that has already been stopped by another pair of officers (missing taillights).
Stewart checks to see if we are needed and then, as an afterthought, passes lemon bars to other officers. Just as we are about to pull away, one officer rushes toward the car, waving frantically. I tense for action. Did he hear something on his radio?
The officer leans into the window. “Hey, can we get two more lemon bars?”
The mean streets of City Heights seem to be rolled up for the night, but finally we get a call from the dispatcher say-ingthata 15-year-old Hispanic girl has been roughed up on University. We race to the scene.
She is standing in front of a storefront church, the Temple of Divine Prophecy. A sign iaside the window reads, “Come and receive free food basket, fill out our survey, meet an ACLU represenitive (sic).” The girl seems more upset than hurt and tells Stewart that a girlfriend banged her head against some window bars because she was jealous of her going out with her ex-boyfriend.
Officer Stewart radios for an ambulance and we wait for it to arrive. Within five minutes both an ambulance and a fire truck show up, which seems like overkill, but it does make one want to have a problem where so much concern exists.
“Even the bad guys call us when they’re in trouble,” says Stewart, whose dry, street-smart humor combines well with his purity of intent.
It’s nearly impossible to turn anywhere in City Heights without running into one name: Sol Price. The 82-year-old millionaire from z Jolla is an off-campus combination of Pericles and “Daddy Warbucks,” and it is difficult to imagine where City Heights would be today if he hadn’t decided to contribute his time, money, and acumen when he did.
Price is everywhere except in person. A private man who declined to be interviewed, he works behind the scenes at his headquarters in downtown I.a Jolla, where his desk looks out upon a restful collage of salmon-colored office buildings, red-tiled roofs, and the ocean. He is a good-looking 82, and while born with one partially closed eye, his other eye — which is open and intense — makes up for it. Price has been focused on City Heights for some time.
The period in which Price prospered and City Heights declined covers roughly the same time span. In 1954, when he opened his first Fed Mart in San Diego, City Heights was at the peak of its stability. During the next 40 years, while Price consolidated his gains and went on to found the even more successful discount merchandising chain of Price Clubs, City Heights slid downhill.
Then in 1993, the same year the three boys from City Heights were murdered, Price sold out his interest in the Price Club (which was renamed (Costco). “That,” says Paul Osuna, “is when Price began tinkering with the idea of investing in poor urban communities. But he did some pretty impressive research, Flying a team of people around the country, talking to experts, and taking notes before deciding what to do.”
According to Osuna, who was part of an early advisory board formed by Price, his original idea was to turn citizens into capitalists, enabling them
to become owners of the assets in their own communities so they would have a stake in it. “He still believes this,” says Osuna. But most of the people in City Heights are first- and second-generation Americans, and their understanding of capitalism is not as deep as their mistrust of the system.
“I went to quite a few of Price’s focus group meetings,” says Osuna. “It was interesting to see people scrambling for his ear. To have that experience was unsettling for me. But it was also interesting to hear him and realize how noble his vision really is and how he has to weigh what he wants to do against all the opposing forces within a small neighborhood and people who have been burned with projects and promises that didn’t materialize.”
Price joined together with former city councilman William Jones to create CityLink, an investment corporation dedicated to developing new assets in poor areas. Price does not profit from any ventures, but his start-up capital enables CityLink to go ahead with projects before final funding from other sources has been secured.
When he heard that the old Vons supermarket was going to close down, he decided to build another, similar store on the site. But after hearing that the community wanted the site for a new police substation. Price backed off and expanded his vision to make a new police station part of a larger plan.
Price wanted a police station that was community friendly, so he loaned over S3 million at a low-interest rate to Cityl.ink (which was ultimately reimbursed by the city) to design a station with a gym that could be a catalyst for kicking off an urban village. Many of the major components of that vision are now complete.
Next Price turned his attention to education. Challenging San Diego to create two state-of-the-art schools in City Heights that would involve the community, he paid for the principals’ salaries—a year and a half before Rosa Parks Elementary and Monroe Clark Middle Schools were built — so they could be part of the process. He insisted that the community have input in the schools.
“Every idea,” says William Jones, “was created by a focus group, which ultimately said, ‘Yes, something can happen here.’ ”
The elementary and middle schools are already up, and next Sunday, November 1, at 1:00 p.m., the ribbons will be cut in front of the Weingart City Heights Library and Performance Annex, with an upstairs community center where City Heights residents can take care of any city business without having to go downtown.
Next to the library is a Head Start child-care center for 80 children and the performing arts annex, with its roll-up door making shows possible in front of a grassy area outside. There are picnic tables, a tot lot, and a recreation center with four tennis courts, a 25-meter pool, water slide, and various multipurpose rooms. The “Dave Winfield Little Padres” field, designed for softball and soccer, will be used by the schools during the day and the community at other times.
Three blocks of Wightman Street are being widened to create a tree-lined promenade and parking area. And in 1999, a community college designed for students for whom English is a second language will be completed.
At final “build-out,” the entire village, which is a joint venture of CityLink and the City of San Diego, will comprise eight city blocks and include retail stores and offices. The total cost of the project is approximately $15 million, of which $5.25 million came from Sol and Helen Price.
Price has created some interesting arrangements. By tunneling his contribution to the urban village through the San Diego Community Foundation, the public portions of the project are, in fact, owned by the foundation. To satisfy Price’s demand that the project be maintained in a first-class manner, the foundation will lease the property to the City of San Diego and use part of the rent it receives to pay the City to maintain it — but “only,” says town council president Michael Sprague, “at the end of each year, and only if they’ve done a good job.” The other half of the rent money will go to support the City Heights Town Council.
Sprague, who describes himself as a “burnt-out mortgage banker,” who has been involved in City Heights politics for years, sympathizes with Price, who does not, he explained, want to throw his money fruitlessly anywhere. “He has said, in effect, ‘I worked hard for this money. I want you to work hard, too.’ ” But what seems most apparent is how hard Price is working still.
Hoover High School can thank Price for a hilly equipped medical clinic, which looks and operates like a small hospital. He has refurbished the auditorium and the library and bought all the band uniforms and instruments. There are 17 Price scholarships for four years at college and Price Fellowships for ninth-grade students to take part in enrichment programs, such as attending live theater performances or field trips to Washington, D.C.
In addition. Price pays a stipend of $100 a month to tenth-grade students to tutor elementary school students at Rosa Parks Elementary School. Chosen on the basis of completed community service, 50 new tutors are selected every year and continue to be paid until they graduate. At Monroe Clark Middle School, Price funds an after-school program.
The list of Price-supported people, projects, and organizations in City Heights is endless, which leads, inevitably, to the question — is City Heights codependent? If Price were to pull up stakes and leave, would City Heights collapse? 'The answer is: Not if Price can help it.
“At one point," says Paul Osuna, “I said to him that I could understand how difficult it must be for him not to worry that he will be the only one holding the bag.”
Price has let it be known that he is prepared to dig deeper into his own philanthropic pocket if the people of City Heights can take ownership and responsibility for the community. Otherwise, he will not.
“The biggest question,” says Osuna, “is whether or not City Heights will find a voice for itself. The San Diego Organizing Project has an outstanding model that works from the bottom up—going from house meetings to the parish level so that the voice becomes larger and larger. But how do you throw a net around someone who does not belong to a parish?'”
More specifically, how do you throw a net around a boy like Juan?
Juan Bogarin goes to Hoover High School. Waiting for him outside the main entrance of the school, I wonder whether the security guards — who arE everywhere, talking to each other on walkie-talkies—aren’t a little redundant. The several times I visited Hoover, the campus seemed very peaceful and, with its mixed population, as diverse as the United Nations. A Muslim girl in a sari walks up the front steps, followed by a gangly Vietnamese boy with a backpack.
In a split second, a stream of students descend the stairs. The guards are suddenly there, pushing the factions apart. It is oddly silent, as if everyone is too busy to speak. One of the boys, a handsome, glowering black boy, all muscle in a sleeveless red T-shirt, is pulled from the knot by the vice principal.
“Take off those gloves,” he tells him, “and put them in your pocket.” The boy complies, pulls off what looks like fingerless golf gloves, and walks angrily off the grounds. A few minutes after calm has been restored, Juan arrives.
Juan is 17 and a senior. He moved from Mexico to City Heights when he was five. His father, he says, was a farmer who owned some livestock in Mexico. They first moved to Tijuana, but it was too dangerous. After his father got documented, they moved here.
Juan’s mother goes to Our lady of the Sacred Heart on Sundays, but Juan does not go with her. He has an older brother, 19, a sister, 12, and another brother,
When asked what he thinks his best talent is, he says, “Giving advice. I know how to speak to kids without preaching. I’d just be their friend.”
Juan is a solemn, direct boy with large brown eyes and long lashes. He has a shaved head and the soft feathery beginnings of a moustache around a sensitive mouth. As we drive around the neighborhood, he points out different places where things have happened to him.
“That’s where I got robbed,” he says, pointing to the parking lot of a liquor store. “Over there” — where the new Rosa Parks Elementary School is now — “is where me and my friend got jumped by some black boys.”
I ask him about the gangs in City Heights. “When I was in the ninth and tenth grades,” he says, “I thought they were a major impact. But what you most have at Hoover are ‘wanna-bes,’ guys that look for problems because they don’t get enough love and support. That’s the main reason.”
Juan says that when he first came to Hoover, he didn’t care about school. But then he met Miss Stanley, who turned him around. “She trusts the students” he says.
We turn onto Landis Street, where the new Mid-City Police Station and gymnasium is. Juan had never seen the gym. It is only 11:00 a.m. and the gym is locked up, but Div Brasted, area director of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department, is inside. He lets us in. As we walk around the gym, I can tell he is sizing Juan up.
“You know,” Brasted says to Juan, “you might want to think about applying for one of our intern positions.”
Juan’s eyes widen. “How do I do that?” he asks.
Brasted takes him into the office, shows him a form, and writes out directions on how to get downtown to apply for the job. Juan takes all the information and as we leave he whispers to me, “I’m definitely going to go for it.”
— Phyllis Theroux
Phyllis Theroux was a columnist for the New York Times, a staff writer for the Washington Post, and a regular essayist for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She is author of California and Other States of Grace, Nightlights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark, and The Book of Eulogies.