Their Own Paradise

Paradise Hills lies in a small corner of southeastern San Diego, butting right up against National City and State Route 54. It's a low-lying neighborhood, despite the dips and bobs of the hills; the sky looms large over the slope-roofed houses atop the crest, while rows of compact, one-story homes line the streets below. Reo Drive, which cuts through the western side of the community, is home to the majority of Paradise Hills' businesses. Save for a minimart, everything is here: the post office, the pizza shop, the Mexican restaurant, the medical clinic, and La Palapa, a grocery store. A few stores sit empty, including a former boutique and a gift shop. All of Reo Drive's businesses are mom-and-pop operations--no Starbucks here--with hand-painted and colorful signs beckoning customers. Many of the storefronts look untouched by modernization; La Palapa is painted a dusty but cheerful pink; the pizza joint offers the bucket-seat benches and stand-up arcade games of an era passed. There's a feeling of comfortable stagnancy about the place, as though not much has changed in the past few decades, giving it a rare air of authenticity.

Paradise Hills feels decidedly '50s, in its layout as well as its architecture. From aerial photographs, the streets seem designed by postwar tract-housing developers; long thoroughfares loop cul-de-sacs, whose maddening no-outlet roads dead-end abruptly, perfect for cookie-cutter suburban dwellings. While the houses have a similar style--ground-hugging, modestly sized, and rectangular--some tracts were built in the '50s, others in the decades that followed. Remodeled and added onto over the years, many houses now have their own design.

At the crest of one hill is a section of Navy housing, Spanish-style duplexes and fourplexes with tiled roofs and bright green lawns, built in the mid-1990s. These places have the benefit of a million-dollar view, one that extends all the way to the Coronado Islands. Down the hill, the story is a little different. There is more evidence of wear and tear, and the views often don't extend past the next-door neighbor. Some houses have new coats of paint, patched roofs, and cheery decorations--a flamingo here, a pinwheel there--and others seem to have resigned themselves to decline. Sagging furniture sits on porches, some straggling out into the packed-dirt front yards. Trees have been hacked into stumps, the bodies of discarded televisions lying beside them. Other yards are crammed with toys--bikes, bright plastic playhouses, sandboxes--and hand-lettered signs advertising day-care centers. Picket or chain-link fences line the properties, dividing the lots into neat little rectangles, giving a polite but firm air of protectiveness. There's a distinctly family feel about the place, though, one of a sturdy community.

This feeling isn't lost on potential homebuyers. "The houses have what realtors like to call--at least they liked to call when I was a young man--good bones," says Guy Preuss. Preuss, who's 65, bought his home in the mid-'70s and has lived in Paradise Hills ever since. He's seen the neighborhood shift from white collar to blue collar, from predominantly white to predominantly minority, and from families whose children are grown to an insurgence of younger families. Now he's seeing a shift from dilapidated to renovated. The houses are a worthy investment, according to Preuss. "If you buy the house as a fixer-upper, it's worth fixing up, because you can fix them up," he says. "So what happens is, these houses are bought by the young couples with two kids and half a dog and a quarter of a cat, and the next thing they do after they buy the house is they buy new shutters and paint and they fix 'em up. So the housing stock is pretty stable." The evidence of this is easy to see: newly planted sod, plywood covering holes in half-finished additions, and "For Sale" signs staked beside gleaming walkways.

No matter how sanitized an area can become, though, danger may remain close at hand, particularly with the younger set. "At first glance it seems really nice and safe and pretty," says Kate, manager of the Charles L. Lewis III Memorial Skate Park, at the foot of Potomac Street, "but from the things I hear from the kids, it's actually kind of a bad neighborhood." Kate, who is in her mid-20s, originally hails from Washington, D.C., but moved to California four years ago. She now resides in Mexico and commutes to Paradise Hills each morning to open up the park.

During the six months Kate's been at her post, quite a lot has gone on around her. "I saw a couple of gang fights," she says. "They were more up towards the recreation center on the top of the hill, and it was a couple of Samoan gangs, and there were, like, 20 or 30 kids on each side." She points to the center, 300 yards to the south and just visible behind a row of trees. "They'll wait outside the recreation center for whichever kid they're waiting to jump, and they beat them up and then take off," she explains.

Another brawl she witnessed took place in the cricket field next to the skatepark. It was between two girls, 11 or 12 years old, from a school on the other side of Paradise Valley Road, and it got very ugly very fast. A couple of teenagers had warned Kate about it, so she had a cop there to meet them, but he wasn't of much use. "All of a sudden, like, 50 kids came running down the hill from the school and met in the field, and they made a big circle around the outside, and the cop was sitting on the side over here just watching the thing, waiting for it to happen," Kate describes. She tried in vain to get him to intervene and finally broke up the fight herself by pretending to be on the phone with the cops, a ruse that caused the kids to scatter, chasing after their prey. "They gave the girl, like, a two-minute head start, and then all 50 kids just started chasing her down Paradise Valley Road," Kate recalls. "Kids were in the middle of the street running down the hill, and traffic was stopped. It was crazy-crazy."

But the community is quieting, according to some. "Things have calmed down greatly," says Doug, who has spent all of his near-18 years in Paradise Hills. Doug attends Morse High School, in the adjacent community of North Bay Terraces, and is an avid artist and author of a blog, "Change Is Constant" (hiphophostage619.blogspot.com). "Gang-wise, things have calmed down, and cops have been cracking down on it. Pretty much the problem now is not even gangs anymore; it's about being better than another person, material stuff, you know what I'm saying?" He cradles his skateboard. "Gangs are still a factor here, because just a few weeks ago a friend of mine, he was shot around this area," Doug says slowly. "And it was around six o'clock when him and his good friend were shot, and they weren't even related to any kind of gang so... It's a shame that innocent people like him fall down victim to this kind of stuff."

Doug, who is the youngest in his family, has managed to avoid that lifestyle. "I listened to my mommy," he quips, then turns serious. "My two older brothers, they were into the gang stuff as well, like, they'd always tell me not to do the things they did, but early on when I was younger, I wouldn't understand what they were doing 'cause I was fortunate enough to have them keep all that stuff away from me. Because I've seen my friends, my peers, they're my age, and they'd have older brothers, even sisters, that wouldn't care if they were smoking pot or doing whatever, a lot of the gang stuff, in front of them, and they weren't ashamed of it. But I'm blessed to have two older brothers to be considerate about my future 'cause they don't want me messing up like them."

Many area kids end up "banging," joining gangs and causing upheaval in the neighborhood and within their families. Doug recently ran into an old friend from elementary school and realized that he'd joined PH, a local gang. "I found out his aka and that he was the same guy I saw on the news in a high-speed chase. I went, like, 'Wait, wait, wait. That's you?'" His laughter doesn't undercut the seriousness of it. "It's ridiculous," he says, "but then again, the people I've known, I'm not surprised."

The gang's reach has its limits, though. Pat Fickling, the head librarian at the Paradise Hills Branch Library, considers the danger to be relative. "If you're hanging around with people who are questionable, then you're in for some questionable activity," she says. "So, yeah, there is gang activity, and some of it spills over from National City because we're so close. And so a lot of those National City gangs consider this their turf. I don't think if you're walking down the streets, the odds are any better of something happening to you here than anywhere else. A lot of it is your perception."

Riad Mansour, who manages a convenience store, agrees. "Before working here, people used to talk about Paradise, like, very dangerous, you know? From my perspective, I think that's bogus." His store, which belongs to his aunt and uncle, is known as "Mom and Pops." Mansour has been here three months, moving from San Jose; before that, he lived in Iraq. "I mean, I see a lot of nice people here, you know?" he continues. "Family people, friendly people." So far, he's had few major problems, and in all the 18 years Mom and Pops has been in operation, everything has gone smoothly. Mansour does, however, acknowledge the danger. "I mean, it is dangerous because it's mixed with all different kinds of people, especially the young ones," he says. "That's what the danger comes from, the young people. Not, you know, older. Young fellas. Teenagers, 18s and 20s, 22s." The worst trouble they make for him is being loud in the store or, on occasion, stealing.

For Guy Preuss, the only evidence of gangs is the graffiti, which he can't stand. When his friends from the East Coast come to visit, he says, "I'm sort of ashamed. The only gang I really know of is the Paradise Hills Locos, and that's, once again, hearsay," he says, most likely speaking of PH, the gang Doug mentioned. "But who these damn Paradise Hills Locos are, I don't know. These people must be damn near my age now," Preuss says, laughing.

Even though he is not involved with any gangs, Doug knows their names, and he rattles them off: PH, which stands simply for "Paradise Hills"; BNG, or Bahala Na, a Filipino gang; STS, for Santanas; and AKP. Their graffiti scrawls across most of the sidewalks of Parkside Park with an almost gothic letter style, nearly illegible. "The ground is the gang's canvas," says Doug, "and they're not really great artists." The crisscrossing layers of graffiti solidify the gangs' presence, making them loom larger than perhaps they are. But they're around.

Doug recalls a day "back in the '90s" when he was accosted by a man who nearly ran him over outside his house, an experience he chronicles in his blog. "'Your ass didn't even stop at the STOP sign!' I yelled as I was walkin' into [my friend] Ken's ride," he writes. The gangbanger wasn't having any of it and shouted back. "'I don't give a fuck! This is my 'hood! Aye! AYE!'" he bellowed, before driving off. Bristled, Doug continues venting his frustrations at the situation and those like it on the virtual pages of "Change." "I'm especially pissed at the fact that he claims this neighborhood that I grew up for my 17 years 'n' most likely went through the same bullshit he did," he writes, "fucking loser."

Aside from gangs, the biggest complaint of the area's residents has stemmed from the board-and-care facilities the neighborhood has cultivated over the years. Rather than catering to the infirm and elderly, many board and cares provide homes for substance abusers and people with severe mental illnesses but without providing the care that the title implies. Residents, for the most part, are left to their own devices, which means many of them end up trolling the streets. The facilities are hard to spot since for privacy (and most likely aesthetic) reasons they don't advertise. "Just look for a house that's way bigger than it should be," says Fickling, explaining how easy it is for these places to spring up. "Somebody comes in and buys a property, expands it so it can hold more people, and then with a very minimum, as I understand, of licensing and paperwork, can open one of these places," she says. With residents free to roam, they often end up at places like Mom and Pops to cash checks and buy lottery tickets and cigarettes. Some chitchat, almost incomprehensibly, with each other and with Mansour, who takes it all in stride. "I don't mind, you know," he says, referring to the cluster of folks who gather to sit in the plastic chairs outside the store, "if they get a soda, a smoke, or something." He stops, but adds quickly, "No beer."

But along with gangs and absent board-and-care moguls, there are those who seek to better the community rather than take advantage of it. Heavy improvements are planned for Paradise Hills, the biggest of which is the ongoing Reo Drive Revitalization Project, which has been more than ten years in the making and aims to spruce up Paradise Hills' one-block commercial hub. The situation outside the rows of shops on Reo Drive is atrocious. Cars park in small lots of uneven and potholed blacktop that extends all the way to the curb. Sidewalks are almost nonexistent. At either end of the block sit two empty, weed-filled lots, one formerly a gas station and the other a failed recycling center. A third empty lot mid-block is screened by a fence. It was Guy Preuss who, after spending a morning in South Park to grab breakfast, realized that there were alternatives to the current layout of Reo Drive. In South Park he saw a narrowed street, a widened sidewalk, and trees on Grape Street in front of the Big Kitchen. "There was a sign on the corner that said this was done with federal transportation money at $750,000," Preuss says, "and I looked at that and said, 'How can this happen here and we have crap in Paradise Hills?'"

Preuss went to work. Along with various other community activists, he spoke to the dean of the NewSchool of Architecture, former planning department head Michael Stepner, and Stepner organized a two-semester course that gave students, divided into two teams, the task of designing a revamped Reo Drive. "What happened is the students came up with models, and they came up with a little booklet," Preuss describes. "We had community meetings. On the corner we have a 99-cent store now, but at the time we had a storefront church in there, and the church let us use that for community meetings, and we had a merchant association and everybody bought into the project. We sort of combined the best features of the two teams for the street design."

The next step was finding funds. The project was awarded some park and rec money from the state--about $300,000--and the City commenced engineering studies. Congressman Bob Filner came to visit the site. "He got us some transportation money," says Preuss, a $300,000 grant, which required a 20 percent match from the City.

The students' work was both comprehensive and thorough. Phase one of their design included the 14-foot-wide sidewalks, the narrowed street, diagonal parking, and a landscaped median. But after the initial funds were raised, the project stalled. By 2003 enough money remained to plant eight small trees, build three crosswalks of tan concrete stamped in a river-rock pattern, and construct four sidewalk popouts at either end of the block, to reduce the distance for pedestrians crossing the street. A memorial plaque for one of the integral members of the project team, Danny Delgadillo, was installed mid-block.

There is a long, long way to go. Congressman Filner acquired another grant for the project, for $250,000, which also requires a match from the City. "We were up to $900,000 --somewhere around there--which you would think would finish the project," says Preuss. He pauses for emphasis. "They're still doing the engineering studies."

No matter the setbacks, the project marches on. "We convinced Filner and Tony Young that if they finished this project, it uplifts the neighborhood," says Preuss, "and it's true. This is the only commercial center in Paradise Hills. You get the 14-foot-wide sidewalks, you get the opportunity for little places like this to do sidewalk dining. Fourteen-foot-wide sidewalks make this commercially viable, and we start putting in sales-tax revenue back in the City."

Another project in the planning stage: a new library. Located two blocks south of the business district, the branch library, built in 1964, is showing signs of wear. Pat Fickling, who has been head librarian since 1994, points out stains on the particleboard ceiling where rainwater has threatened to spill down onto shelves and ruin the books. "This is years and years and years' worth of leaks," she says, pointing to a buckling brown patch, "and that's just one of the places. There's a leak that's right over one of the Internet computers, and one morning we came in and the computers were just sitting in puddles of water." The library is scheduled to be replaced in 2010. "There's no site chosen, and there's no money, so I don't know exactly how they're going to do it, but it would be nice to go out on that note," says Fickling, speaking of her retirement, which is slated for the same year.

Fickling, who does not live in Paradise Hills but is a community champion nonetheless, watches over the library with a careful eye and has an acute understanding of the community's movements. "There used to be a wonderful Mexican restaurant across the street," she says, pointing out the front window, "but they got priced out of business. I guess they kept raising the rent and raising the rent. And that was really a community gathering space too." Fickling makes a point of being a fixture in the area and attends many community events and meetings. "At one time, there was really a spirit of activism in this neighborhood," she says, shaking her head, pointing at an archived flyer for the library's "buy a brick, build a library program," which allowed residents to purchase a symbolic brick to help raise money for the present building. That was close to 40 years ago.

Despite what might seem like a lag in community activism--the PTA at one of the local schools, Fickling says, totals three parents--several groups watch over Paradise Hills, the biggest of which is the Skyline–Paradise Hills Planning Committee. A mix of residents from both communities, the group's responsibilities include considering conditional-use permits--off-sale beer and wine licenses, housing-extension plans made by residents who wish to expand their homes, and cell-phone towers, which not only provide additional phone service but can be a lucrative opportunity for homeowners. Many cellular companies construct what they call stealth antennas, which disguise the towers as light poles, chimneys, or trees. Homeowners can get up to 15 grand a year by allowing one of these to be installed on their property. The trees are strange structures, too tall and bright to be real trees, pouring forth a harvest of green boxes. There was recent grappling over one stealth antenna, which some considered an eyesore, but the resident finally won out; at 15 grand a pop, it's hard to argue against.

For those interested in grassroots organizations, there is the Paradise Hills Village Council, of which Guy Preuss is chair. "The Paradise Hills Village Council is basically an oral newsletter," Preuss explains. "People get together to complain about graffiti, to complain about the board and cares when they're not controlling their patients properly. It's a resource for the politicians to make contact with the community. In the course of a year, field reps from all the elected officials will show up." The complaints and requests of the residents of Paradise Hills then get filtered to the Skyline–Paradise Hills Planning Committee and eventually to the City.

One of the regular attendees at the village council's monthly meetings is Alonzo Alexander, a community relations officer, whose dual duty is to act as both community liaison and patrol cop. He rules his roost from a storefront office in the middle of a shopping center in the neighboring community of South Bay Terraces, a few blocks east of the skatepark. "We take more time out to deal with social issues that might be taking place in the community," Alexander says, by way of explaining his job. "For the most part, I'm still a cop. I'll arrest you, probably faster than most of the cops in the field, even though I'm community relations," he continues, laughing. "Granted, I want to do it with a smile, if I can, so you understand that we're not the bad guys, we are trying to provide a service."

Alexander spends most of his evenings shuttling from meeting to meeting, trying his best to make it to each and every one of 30 community meetings each month. His days start at ten o'clock in the morning and often end in the night hours. He also works closely with the director of the Navy housing and with its private security guards, keeping them up to date on goings on in the area. About a year ago, in an outsourcing move, the Navy partnered with a professional management and construction company in ownership of the housing, which greatly helped remedy some of the problems within it. "It's my understanding there were a lot of people that were asked to leave," says Alexander, "because they weren't within compliance. We also found out that a lot of the people that were asked to leave did not have rights to be there anyway. They had somehow managed to be involved in a sublet format, or they were there living in housing while So-and-So was out at sea. So they weren't concerned about rules or who the neighbor was." He pauses. "As far as now, it feels like a...it's almost like a Ward Cleaver feel to me." And the impact on the surrounding community has been positive. "They have a park and they have ballgames and things like that, so a lot of people from the outer community will come and just sit and relax in there also," he says. "So I've got nothing but plusses about how that change has been seen."

Alexander's goal is to make open dialogue with the community--especially young people--his top priority, and he approaches his task with a firm, respectful grace. "One of the biggest things was getting out there and communicating with everybody," he says, "getting them to understand we're not saying that kids shouldn't be able to go and hang out, but we really need to monitor where they're hanging out, why, and who they're with, make them aware of the dangers that exist out there so they understand when it's time to break up and move on. Don't stand around and let the problem get bigger for you." Alexander thinks it is working. "That has been a change from when I first came here," he says, "because it used to be that people just wanted to stay in the house and stay out of the way, you know, 'I don't wanna be involved. I don't wanna take any chances.' There's one or two knuckleheads who run through here and they'll do something stupid, newsworthy-wise, sensationally. Kids will be kids, no matter where you're at, and we'll expect a certain amount of activity from them. People are gonna be people, no matter where you're at, and you expect a certain amount of negativity, but most of it is positive."

Negative or positive: Guy Preuss is here to stay. Preuss remembers purchasing his house with help from a Navy buddy. Arriving by accident after his fleet orders were changed, he set his sights on property ownership almost immediately. "By the time I knew I was coming to San Diego, houses were selling for $32,000, and when I got here, they were selling for $42,000," he says, "so I immediately said, 'Well, just to keep pace with the market, I need to buy a home.' Besides, I didn't want to live on the base anymore, so I bought a house. And then I discovered, 'Oh, this is really a nice place to live,' and I never left."

Doug, on the other hand, wants out. He tucks his skateboard under his chin, looking out at the park he used to rule with his friends, a crew of skaters who often had to duck into the canyon as gangs strolled through to fight. "I'd really like to get out of this place, like just as far as possible," he says, strongly though without malice. "I'd really like to visit New York. Experiencing downtown and the city life in general, I feel like it's for me, for someone to be, like, social and outgoing and, I don't know. I need diversity, basically. I'm actually getting tired of hanging around my own."

Alonzo Alexander, who lived in Paradise Hills with his wife and four daughters up until recently, loves the area; it's his base, his beat. "It's a hidden jewel," he says. "It's one of those sleepy areas where you can still somewhat afford a piece of land." He pauses, fiddles with his radio. "It's a hidden jewel that seems to be coming back," he says softly.

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I live in Paradise Hills and I can even find any kids. I have not seen any fights or anything like that.

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