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El Cajon's crowded discontents

City of boxes

El Cajon policeman on Lexington Avenue. Concedes El Cajon City Councilmember Todd Keegan, “The valley floor needs a lot of improvement."
  • El Cajon policeman on Lexington Avenue. Concedes El Cajon City Councilmember Todd Keegan, “The valley floor needs a lot of improvement."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Witness the legacy of El Cajon.

Just 20 minutes from downtown San Diego, El Cajon (“the big box” in Spanish) is a sprawling box between old U.S. Highway 80 and State Highways 67 and 94. In recent years it has become the local media’s poster child for bad city planning — branded a “blight,” “pit,” and “disaster" by editorialists and “homier-than-thou” readers in other parts of San Diego.

Many of El Cajon’s flatland apartment units can still be had for 1980s prices: $375 for studios; $525 — or less — for two-bedroom apartments.

Many of El Cajon’s flatland apartment units can still be had for 1980s prices: $375 for studios; $525 — or less — for two-bedroom apartments.

It has the bad luck to be ranked number two in the county for violent crimes and overall crime (National City took first prize) and is still healing from the three multiple murders that took place within its borders (a 44-year-old man killed five family members in 1985; a 19-year-old college student shot four people then himself at its Family Fitness Center in 1993; then, two weeks later, an elderly man shot seven people from his second-story apartment, killing two, before dying when his apartment burst into dames). It is home to five street gangs — VU, Dukes, Orphans, Townsmen, and DBL — according to local police. And the rundown parts of its valley floor are stomping grounds for prostitutes, drug dealers, panhandlers, and thieves.

El Cajon is a two-tiered city whose flatlands are dotted with apartment buildings, gun shops, liquor stores, fast-food eateries, and commercial businesses in white-and-turquoise stucco rows. However, just miles away in its manicured hillsides are houses costing up to $2 million. While pickup trucks and lowriders tailgate along El Cajon’s flat-land boulevards and squad cars creep through the flatland’s “hot zones," family vans loaded with kids and shopping bags crisscross through its hillsides, and longtime neighbors converge for sunset horseback rides.

Some may argue that El Cajon should be called “Los Cajones”; in recent decades it has become a “city of boxes” — apartment boxes. Within its 14.4 square miles are more than 800 apartment buildings containing 18,000 rental units. More than 52 percent of El Cajon’s housing is multifamily units. This means a majority of its 89,000 Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, Arabian, and Vietnamese residents are renters — transient populations, with little or no investment in their living spaces.

The apartment has existed for millennia but never has overcome its low-class image. In ancient Rome and Ostia, the proletariat (laborers) lived in four- to eight-story buildings called insulae (Latin, “islands”), which were brick, covered with concrete. The insulae had wrap-around balconies and interior staircases leading to courtyards and upstairs residences. But their shoddy construction and limited water supplies led to many collapses and serious fires.

Centuries later, apartments (modest personal suites) within great mansions became homes for medieval servants. This enabled the help to be available at all times. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that apartment buildings—as we know them today — cropped up in neat rows in Europe’s largest cities, most notably Haris. They were four-to five-stories high, designed to house the middle class. Until elevators were invented, upper-floor apartments were smallest and cheapest.

Then, when the Industrial Revolution dawned, apartments crossed the Atlantic to house America’s tired, poor, huddled masses who yearned to breathe free. But unfortunately, the new edifices were suffocating. As the country’s immigrant population skyrocketed in urban areas, harried builders erected inexpensive, poorly constructed, unsanitary multifamily housing to accommodate hordes of poor, large families. The buildings’ units typically consisted of narrow rooms (the largest was usually 11’ x 12') arranged end to end like boxcars. One-bedroom apartments, 325 square feet in size, sometimes housed as many as seven people.

World War II precipitated a second housing crisis in America as single-family home construction braked to a halt. When the War ended, the country once again strained to accommodate a dramatic population shift. Young singles, newly marrieds, and childless couples eking out modest wages lined up for apartment units. From 1957 to 1972, when their numbers increased precipitously and American industry pushed into the suburbs, apartments rose on the landscape like blades of grass.

It was during this time that El Cajon metamorphosed into Los Cajones.

Before the 1950s, El Cajon had been a sleepy valley of citrus groves and vineyards. But a population stampede prompted developers’ bulldozers to raze the croplands to make room for hundreds of new families. This sudden change from agrarian to suburban vista put the EI Cajon Citrus Association, which had been operating since 1918, out of business. Between 1950 and 1960, El Cajon’s population increased by 623 percent. It became the second fastest-growing area in the state.

Today El Cajon’s detractors condemn its former administrators for permitting the overbuilding of rental units (“handing out permits like candy”), but during the late 1950s, El Cajon’s building plans seemed reasonable, particularly after the Stanford Research Institute predicted to city councilmembers that El Cajon’s population would continue to explode, eventually reaching between 70,000 to 90,000 by 1975. Already in the early 1960s El Cajon had, according to a promotional brochure, “about 43,000 friendly and hospitable residents.”

But then the local economy suddenly slouched. And El Cajon trembled. Unable to afford mortgages and maintenance, some apartment property owners walked away from their buildings, or, as can be seen at some sites today, reduced their upkeep. They let their building*’ paint peel and metal rust. Despite a series of well-intentioned “paint-up/fix-up” campaigns sponsored by El Cajon’s government from 1971 to 1986, the “apartment problem” remained unsolved. In recent years, according to El Cajon City Council member Todd Keegan, a moratorium was imposed to prohibit the erection of new apartment buildings within city limits. Since 1995, El Cajon’s Redevelopment Agency has rehabilitated 472 multifamily housing units and provided financial assistance to their property owners. But there’s still quite a bit of work ahead.

EL Cajon’s first commercial structure was a “multifamily” hotel/tavern built in 1876 by innkeeper Amaziah Lord Knox, at what is now the southwest corner of Magnolia Avenue and Main Street. It was a two-story building costing $1000, and it straddled the junction of two dusty roads — one leading north through Lakeside into Julian’s gold country; the other following the path of what is now Highway 80. Teamsters hauling mining supplies and gold ore parked their freight wagons beside the site overnight before traveling on to San Diego or Julian. There were about 25 families living in El Cajon Valley at this time. The more religious among them traveled by horse and buggy to San Diego on Sundays to attend Mass. The journey took three hours each way.

El Cajon Valley was “filling up rapidly with the best class of people,” raved an 1883 promotional brochure. It was celebrated for having “No Winter and No Cyclones,” only “Healthy, Happy Homes” and a vista “almost Edenic in its beauty.” Farmers grew oranges, olives, raisin and table grapes, figs, apricots, peaches, japanese persimmons apples pears nectarines, cherries, English walnuts almonds, and French and German prunes in its “chocolate-brown” and “bright red” soil, according to another booster pamphlet. And El Cajon’s valley air was thought to bring relief and cure to invalids.

But the pamphlets did not promise serenity. Even a century ago, El Cajon had a rowdy nature. It was a meeting place for laborers and cowhands from neighboring mountains and valleys who, on their paydays congregated at the town’s main saloon, which “reeked of sweat, bourbon, and Bull Durham smoke” (San Diego Historical Society archives). The more inebriated gunslingers shot lanterns off passing buckboards and smote the saloon’s kerosene lamp that hung above its entrance. Even Amaziah Lord Knox was not beyond initiating a shotgun fusillade at a host of swallows that dared attempt to build nests at his hotel. He killed “as many as 11 birds at a single shot,” reported the Valley News in May 1894.

By the turn of the century, El Cajon had its own grocery store, Presbyterian church, post office (with triweekly mail), harness shop, two blacksmith shops, and two-story school-house. Before 1878, though, the children of El Cajon regularly convened for lessons at the cottage of a squatter named Hooker.

EL Cajon remained a rural vista of ranches, vineyards, and orchards for several decades. In 1910, it began to celebrate an annual “Fruit Day.” The following year, it received electricity (gas wouldn’t come for another 18 years). And in 1912, it incorporated. Guns and “criminal mischief" were still problems, according to city records. In 1914, El Cajon’s “Woman’s Club” petitioned the city board to more strictly control “rowdyism.” A deputy marshal was appointed (at $3/day) to work 13-hour shifts to keep the peace. Store owners discussed hiring night watchmen to patrol their stores at night. Horse-racing down Main Street (from Lincoln to Magnolia Avenue) got banned because it threatened women and children who crossed the street to pick up mail from Browder’s Drugstore. Meanwhile, the tenants of Fisher Ranch were ordered to stop discharging their firearms because their stray bullets were endangering townspeople.

By 1929, this “Valley of Opportunity” (a name given El Cajon by its Chamber of Commerce manager Winfield “Doc” Barkley) had nearly filled up, according to longtime residents. There was no space left, they said, for newcomers’ ranches or vineyards.

Little did they know that in 1941, 5000 soldiers would descend upon what would soon become Fletcher Hills to establish a training camp, and then, after World War Il’s conclusion, the bucolic valley would begin its irreversible flowering into a bustling suburbia.

It is El Cajon’s contemporary home-owning population that takes most umbrage at El Cajon’s bad reputation. “Everything you could possibly want is here,” says Jack Harrison, a retired property manager who lives in El Cajon’s Granite Hills area. “My wife and I could live anywhere we want to — our income is secure. But we’re happy here. We moved here 20 years ago, and we’ll live here for the rest of our lives.”

Troy Kuenne, whose home is north of Mount Helix, says, “El Cajon is a good place for the family. Where we live, it’s close to lakes and mountains— almost rural. I like it because I do a lot of hunting and fishing. We haven’t had any evidence of crime in this area.”

But El Cajon’s apartment residents are not so chauvinistic about their hometown. They voice worries about the street gangs who hang out on Washington and Emerald Avenues. They complain about the “ugly and sleazy" downtown area. A few recount anecdotes that sound more like NYPD Blue plots than everyday apartment scenes — guns being tossed into their bushes by fleeing perps; police helicopters buzzing constantly overhead; a dead drug-user propped against a Dumpster; nightly pop-pop-popping of nearby gunfire; cops chasing suspects through their apartment hallways; and passels of “recovered” former street-gang members, sporting shaved heads and prison tattoos, rapping about Jesus as they wave replica firearms.

“They called it ‘The Jungle’ where I lived," says Michelle Hull, now a Spring Valley resident but formerly an Emerald Avenue apartment resident. “You could see people doing drug deals in their cars — my nine-year-old daughter saw that. I couldn’t let her go outside the apartment unless I was with her."

“I feel unsafe in the downtown area,” says Marlene Aguirre, who is concerned that street gangs are “spreading like wildfire.... I’m going to move back to La Mesa, because I’d rather pay more rent to have a safe apartment.”

Many of El Cajon’s flatland apartment units can still be had for 1980s prices: $375 for studios; $525 — or less — for two-bedroom apartments. But while this makes shelter affordable for the poor, it also attracts a seedier element.

“Prostitutes, gangs, drug dealers all have to live somewhere— and they’re not living in single-family homes that they own but in low-income rentals where they won’t be noticed,” says Officer Chris Krug, coordinator of El Cajon’s Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program.

Concedes El Cajon City Councilmember Todd Keegan, “The valley floor needs a lot of improvement. I don’t think the city has been listening to people as much as it could have in the past."

But if it listened, what would it hear? Some people suggest that El Cajon “go upscale” by converting into a high-rent “Soho West," brimming with boutiques, salons, trendy coffee shops. In other words, like so many West Coast suburbs before it, El Cajon should send its poor packing. Others demand abstractions: less crime, more rehabilitated apartments, a picturesque and safe downtown. But for some reason, they don’t tell El Cajon’s bureaucrats how to achieve this.

El Cajon has rehabilitated, repainted, financed, patrolled, built, tore down, educated, wooed merchants, erected a “superblock,” all to little avail. On March 2, it launched a Goals 2000 Committee, open to all concerned residents and businesspersons, which will explore and try to solve El Cajon’s problems. About 30 people showed up.

The city also was the first in San Diego County to adopt the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program, a certification course for apartment owners and managers that has been used in 43 states and three Canadian provinces. So far, according to Krug, 134 apartment buildings are registered in the three-step program, which teaches tenant screening, gang and drug detection, security improvement, and neighborhood-watch techniques. Buildings that have completed certification, says Krug, have enjoyed a 34 percent drop in police calls.

Advertisers, marketers, image consultants, publicists, psychologists, and sociologists know what El Cajon is finding out: once something is perceived as “bad,” it takes more than just physical change to convince people that it’s now “good.” El Cajon needs spin. El Cajon needs to discover how it can distance itself from its past reputation. How it can shed its image as “Rental City.” How it can lure La Jolla sales reps with BMWs and platinum credit cards to its store parking lots....

El Cajon needs to think outside the box.

Thirty-eight years ago, author Jane Jacobs railed at developers’ misguided attempts at urban renewal. Her words remain apropos today:

“There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend — the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars — we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

“But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, scaled against any buoyancy or vitality of city life.... Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums.... Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961).

If the beautification of El Cajon were easy, if the answers of the editorialists, armchair architects, government critics, and yuppie supremacists were realistic, Jacobs’s words would sound anachronistic as we read them today at the turn of the century.

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