San Diego In early October a woman phoned Ryan Hill at Don Carlos Taco Shop on La Jolla's Pearl Street to complain about his signs. They're illegal, and besides that, she ranted, "They are ugly, gaudy, and look like Mexico." Hill, who is Costa Rican on his mother's side, took umbrage at the characterization, especially the derogatory reference to Mexico. "I told her," he says, "that some of the world's most beautiful things are in Mexico and that she was treading on dangerous ground with a racist comment like that."
But the woman, who did not identify herself, told Hill that if he didn't take down the signs she would boycott his store, call the La Jolla Light, and file a complaint with the City of San Diego. "I questioned why she would bother city hall about signs at a time when we have such serious financial problems downtown," Hill says. Then, after she hung up, he beat her to the punch, reporting the incident to the La Jolla Light himself. "People at the Light come into my store all the time," he says. In its October 27 issue, the local weekly ran a short article standing up for the taco shop.
To understand the complaining woman's ire, I ask Hill if he recently added new signs. "I put them up in 2001, when we bought the store, in an effort to make the place more colorful and to increase sales," he tells me. But Hill does admit to putting more "stuff up now and then" since that time.
He says that his Uncle Carlos opened the taco shop in 1984 at the suggestion of English-language students he was teaching in La Jolla who had eaten his food at parties. It is the oldest taco shop in La Jolla, according to Hill. Carlos died in 1998, and three years later his niece, Seidy Hill, bought it from his son. Seidy is the mother of Ryan Hill, who speaks proudly of the store's being a family business. His father, sister, and brother also work at the store.
On October 27, Officer Steven Cousins from the city's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department paid a visit to the shop and gave Hill a written demand to remove his signs. On an "administrative citation," Cousins cited city code: "It is unlawful to display any sign without the required sign permit sticker. Banners, pennants, flags, streamers and other similar devices shall not be permitted." (One can see the city permits, which must be visible, on the large signs of most major businesses.) Cousins then advised the shop owner to "remove all banners from building, railings and patio cover by [November 4] or [a $100 fine] will be issued."
Hill adamantly contested the citation during his conversation with Cousins. In addition, Hill says that he gave the officer a copy of the La Jolla Light article, which had come out that morning, and vowed to complain to his councilman, Scott Peters. By this time, he says that Cousins had become quite "heated" about their argument.
Hill did not remove the banners and subsequently received a second fine of $250 for not removing them by December 22. On a visit to the store in early December, I notice, hanging from railings, numerous pennants with Corona beer advertisements. Bright reds, greens, and yellows display the name Don Carlos Taco Shop and the words "Everyday Is Now Tamale Sunday."
At the time he spoke with Officer Cousins, Hill says he pointed down the street to a number of other businesses that displayed illegal signs too. The inspector "told me that they haven't had a phone call about them. 'And we're a complaint-driven department,' he said. I replied that, in that case, I'd like to register a complaint, a citywide complaint. But he said that I had to be specific. He acknowledged that there are thousands of signs all over San Diego that are in violation, but 'We only go out when a complaint is registered about a sign.' I said, 'How is this fair? Some woman develops a personal thing about me or my store. As a result, I'm singled out, and nobody else has to pay any consequences. If you're going to enforce these rules, enforce them all over San Diego. Don't pick and choose when you're going to enforce them.' "
Would it be illegal, Hill tells me he went on to ask Cousins, for a business to hang an American flag without the city permit? He says he was told that there can be exceptions. "That's just too vague," he says. He then put to me the following hypothetical. "I live in Hillcrest. Suppose I complain about businesses in my neighborhood for displaying gay pride flags. Is the city going to come out and do my bidding for me because I don't like seeing that flag? That's a scary thought to me."
Subsequently, Hill says, he has called the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, and the office of state Assemblyman Juan Vargas. George Balgos, an aide in Vargas's office, told him, Hill says, that "what I'm dealing with is an overeager officer going out and busting people and that the rules he's following are antiquated and need to be revisited."
But Hill's main complaint is that Neighborhood Code Compliance gives competitors in the taco shop business an unfair advantage by making him, but not them, take down signs. Not surprisingly, Steven Cousins and his boss, Tony Khalil, see it differently. Khalil, a senior engineer with the department, tells me shortly after my visit with Hill that the extent of Hill's signage actually gives Don Carlos Taco Shop the unfair competitive advantage. "Every inch of that taco shop is covered with signs," he says, "and only 30 percent of a proprietor's linear frontage is permitted to be covered. How can you defend that? It's unfortunate that the woman who complained about his store used the negative reference to Mexico, because something as egregious as that [much signage] has nothing to do with ethnicity. And if other businesses see them getting away with it, they will follow suit. Anyway, we only asked Don Carlos to remove their banners, and not signs they had painted on the building, because it looked like they had gone to some expense to do that."
Khalil admits that there are uncontested violators of the signage ordinances all over the city. But he cites budget problems as the reason his department "can only be reactive now, no longer proactive. We don't turn our backs on violators, but the Neighborhood Code Compliance Department now is down 12 investigators due to budget issues. We can't even afford business cards," he tells me.
I also speak with Steven Cousins, who tells me that after his visit to the Don Carlos store he went to the other owners Hill had pointed out as being nearby violators of the city's sign ordinances. "I canvassed the neighborhood," says Cousins, "and saw nothing similar to what's on the Don Carlos place. But I did inform businesses that had violations, and all of them immediately cooperated and took down the offending signs. But not Hill."
Khalil calls Cousins a "very mild mannered investigator." Cousins recalls his visit with Ryan Hill at the Don Carlos Taco Shop. "He began shaking his fist at me. As I was leaving and going to my car, he was behind me, and I kept turning my head because I didn't know what he was going to do. He followed me, screaming that I was a racist," says Cousins, adding that his wife is Hispanic.
But Hill thinks the issue is bigger than his shop. "Let's look at the city ordinances," he says. "How can laws that forbid banners and pennants and yet are violated everywhere in the city be any good?" Nevertheless, shortly after Christmas, to avoid the next fine of $500, Hill removed all of Don Carlos's offending signs. Officer Cousins made a spot check on January 3 and closed the case.