This is not a story about sexual predators. If anything, it’s a story about life in a modern suburban neighborhood in the wake of the foreclosure implosion. But it does start with sexual predators, or at least, a conversation about them.
“We were all at one of our neighbor’s kids’ parties,” says Judy Gallardo, wife, mother, engineer, and resident of McCain Valley Court in Chula Vista’s westernmost Otay Ranch development, one block from the intersection of East Palomar and Paseo Ladera. “We were discussing the tragic events from earlier in 2010” — the assault and killing of Chelsea King and Amber DuBois in suburban North County. “We started saying, ‘It’s so common nowadays that you walk outside your house and you don’t even know your neighbors. It’s amazing when you go on the Megan’s Law website,’” which maps the location of registered sex offenders. “You just never know who’s listed there” — or where they’ll show up.
So a few of the parents decided to check. The cul-de-sac of McCain Valley Court was clear, as was Strawberry Creek Street, the cul-de-sac that leads to McCain Valley Court. In fact, the whole development of Sutter Creek was clear. There were four registered sex offenders within a one-mile radius, one of them about 1000 feet away on Mount Dana Drive. But Mount Dana is out past the neighborhood’s guard station and across the broad expanse of East Palomar. (And it is a broad expanse: two lanes each way, plus a 20-foot-wide center divider, plus sidewalks on both sides, themselves lined on both sides by sapling trees and strips of turf.) Still, says Gallardo, the whole affair was a reminder that “It’s important to get to know everyone on your street, to foster good relationships with everyone, so that everyone keeps an eye on each other — to make sure kids are safe. It’s our intention to get some really good, strong community going here.”
Good, strong community can be tough to come by these days. Both Gallardo and her husband Victor work in La Jolla; their commute runs 30–40 minutes each way, depending on traffic. “There are a lot of professionals here, and it seems like everyone’s living a fast-paced life — you go to work and come back home.” Maybe you get takeout, maybe go to a restaurant. (Gallardo estimates that 80 percent of her family’s dinners happen that way. “We’re like VIP members of the Cheesecake Factory.”) Saturdays, there’s your three-year-old’s soccer game, and you squeeze in errands and maybe an outing. “There were faces that I recognized, but I never got a chance to meet most of my neighbors.”
So Gallardo decided to throw a block party. “If you’re not going to help out and make things better, then you really can’t complain. I went house to house and dropped off a flyer asking if people were interested and what dates were good. I had a little green box for the flyers by my front door, and every morning, there was a pile of papers inside.” She was hoping for July 4; she settled for August 20. “There are 30 homes on our street, and only 5 homes weren’t able to make it. One family moved out the week before the party; they were so disappointed: ‘I can’t believe that after all these years…’” It was, you see, the neighborhood’s first since it opened in 2002.
“I remember them building the Vons on Telegraph Canyon Road when I was a kid,” says Eric as he sits down by his wife Crystal under a shade tent in the middle of the McCain Valley Court cul-de-sac. (A neighbor is watching their daughter as she waits in line to sit on the motorcycle belonging to Police Sergeant Danny Hollister, who has been invited to the party along with Chula Vista Fire Captain Darrel Roberts, engineer Dangkhoa Nguyen, and firefighter Matthew Carleton and their urban search and rescue truck.) “My parents moved to Chula Vista in 1967; the house was ten years old. We were on L Street; that was the east side of town at the time. This was all cow pasture.”
“And I grew up on the north side of town,” adds Crystal. “At one point, I could see my new house being built from my bedroom window in my parents’ house. And when we first moved in, you could still see cows.” Now, you can see houses, and more houses, and roads and cars, and yards and some crepe myrtle and palms.
The couple bought in 2001, when all of this was still just plans on a page. Crystal, happily engaged and eager to get in on the recovering housing market, was poking around in a nearby open house. “The price was probably around $400,000,” well over her limit at the time. “But I loved looking at houses, and they told me there were some lower-priced homes going in nearby that weren’t ready yet. They said prices were climbing steadily. I said okay, went to the builder’s office, looked at the pictures with the building elevations, picked a lot, and sight unseen, I put five grand down. I was first on the list, first one to pay, and first one to move in. All the plots around the end of the cul-de-sac were still empty.
“Most of us who have been here since the beginning are still here,” she continues. Most, but not all. “This whole block was under $330,000 in the first phase. But two years to the day after we first moved in, there were For Sale signs in the yards. There were a few investment owners who had bought, never moved in, sunk in $40,000–$50,000 on landscaping and upgrades, and then sold for at least $150,000 over the original price.” And even conventional buyers were hitting the jackpot: “Our neighbor across the street sold in one day, for $205,000 more than what they paid two years earlier.”
At four years, the For Sale signs sprouted afresh. “My immediate next-door neighbor bought a house that was a little bit bigger than mine for $320,000. He sold at the four-year mark for $675,000 and bought a huge house east of here somewhere — we lost contact. A nice family moved in, but they bought at the very top of the market, and just this past year, they lost the house. They had to do a short sale for $360,000. The people who bought it from them scored a deal, but the people who lost it are unfortunately out. That’s what we’ve seen over the past year and a half — people who paid well over $600,000, some who even paid in the high $700,000s. Those are the folks who were most affected by the foreclosures.” And there were a lot of them, “Probably a third of the houses on this street.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, original owners were not common among the casualties. “When we bought, we eked out every last cent we could — I remember wishing for just $5000 more, to get a little bit bigger house. But at the time, lenders were not lending like crazy. You could only buy what you could afford. There weren’t any of these crazy shark loans, deferred-interest this and balloon-payment that.” As the market spiraled upward, she was tempted to cash in — who wouldn’t be? — but she’s not sorry she stayed put. “I used to sit in my house and look at the little chart that says how much your home has appreciated. I beat myself up, thinking that we could have bought a little more. But it’s only worth that if someone pays it. My house is my house, and that’s that. We scored big and we’re still here.”
And she’s glad to be here today. She admits she has yet to meet anybody new, but the event feels right. “I know the faces of people who live down here at the bottom of the street, but only because I see them coming home. A lot of us are working families; it’s not like the ’50s, where you had a wife who stayed home with the kids. You’re cordial, but I couldn’t tell you who everyone is.” Part of that, of course, is due to the sales-and-foreclosure turnover, but that phenomenon may be history here. The foreclosure wave has passed through, she says, “and it’s been pretty stable for the past year.” It’s a good time for a party like this.
Getting There and Settling In
The toll section of the 125 south, the part of the freeway that was going to save Otay Ranch from endless treks down Telegraph Canyon Road toward the 805, cuts through steep hillsides and over deep ravines as it curves away from the free section. There is little traffic as I head down between the bare, brown hillsides; at one point, I count five cars and a school bus. Now and then, I spy a single house atop a hillock; one or two look like small farms. The massive bank of FASTRAK sensors suspended over the freeway looks forlorn and superfluous — until I pass the H Street exit coming into Chula Vista. Then the march of houses is on; then the huge power station I passed a ways back starts to make sense. By the time I’m on East Palomar, I can understand the signs announcing a future rapid-transit corridor along a center island that is now thick with daffodils.
The landscaped roadways were a selling point for Gallardo, who bought the last house offered in phase one. “I’m always in front of a computer at work, and when I drive, I’ll notice the hiking trails” that snake up the hillsides rising from the street. “It’s a reaffirmation for me, every time I drive.” She contrasts it to various upscale North County neighborhoods that can be reached only by driving through industrial areas, or agricultural zones, or older, less pristine developments. “I don’t want to be scared, wondering, ‘My goodness, what kind of neighborhood am I in?’ I want to feel happy as I exit the freeway — all of a sudden, everything looks really nice. And it’s important for when I have guests from out of town. The planning of the community was perfect.”
Gallardo grew up in Santee, her husband Victor in west Chula Vista. They were newly married in 2001, “renting a town home in the Scripps Ranch area. We were down here visiting Victor’s parents, sitting in Café Tazza on H Street, and I picked up a newspaper while I was sipping on a mocha. There were all these colorful ads for new communities in Chula Vista. I never would have known they were here.”
At first, she hesitated. “When we would go to visit Victor’s parents, I would ask, ‘Are we safe?’ and he would laugh at me. All I ever heard about Chula Vista was the drive-by shootings. I always thought, ‘It’s a good thing I live in Santee, because there are no gang-related things.’ Victor would say, ‘Did you know that in old Chula Vista, the majority of residents are actually older white people?’ Now I’m, like, ‘Whoops! I fell for the stereotypes.’ As a matter of fact, I’ve seen more Asians and whites here than Hispanics.” (Gallardo is herself Hispanic.)
Stereotypes or no, she loved the newness. “They put in all these new parks, and all these new schools and facilities. My son’s ‘school,’ Kids Depot of Otay Ranch, is only a block away. I didn’t want a long commute with him; I see so many accidents, and I don’t want my son subjected to that. And they have webcams. It’s run more like a school than a day care. Everything is set up like a curriculum. At three years of age, he’s already got his own little personality. He knows the Pledge of Allegiance. He knows what the capital of the United States is. He’s very well prepared for the assessment test they do for kids entering kindergarten: colors, shapes, everything they test them for. And I can see the school he’ll be attending from my backyard.” She thinks that, with good parent participation, the new schools can rival those of Poway.
The newness, of course, extended to the house itself. “I loved the fact that it was completely brand new, and we would not have to worry about ‘Oh, what did the previous residents do to their home?’ I don’t want to sit on a toilet when I’m not quite sure who lived there before me.”
Unlike Crystal and Eric, Judy and Victor didn’t buy at first sight — they looked in neighborhoods further east as well. But Sutter Creek won out, thanks mostly to its larger backyard and the pressures of time. “If we’d waited any longer to jump in, we would have missed out. The phase-one houses were getting picked up so fast, and phase two would have been much more expensive. Every week, when we came back to see the model homes, there was another price hike.” They spent around $310,000 and got the middle model: four bedrooms, 2010 square feet. “We like the layout; the smaller model has only three bedrooms, and the larger model doesn’t really have a full front yard. You basically drive up to the front door and then swing into the garage.”
In the beginning, they planned to upgrade. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, stay here five years, then sell and move into a bigger home.’ But then, we were discussing it with our next-door neighbors — they were also part of the phase-one buyers. They said that when they bought into this community, that was it; this was their permanent home. They said they were very disappointed with the many neighbors who were thinking of flipping and moving. They wanted to build relationships.”
When the bubble started expanding, the Gallardos started hesitating. “We got reluctant. We thought it sounded too good to be true. I’d love to move to a bigger home, but I’d rather go for security. I love facts. If I’m going to move, I want it to be because I can afford it and pay it off.” Eventually, “I thought it was really crazy. There were people buying homes smaller than this one for $600,000. I was wondering, ‘Are they thinking it’s going to go up to a million? Why would they buy if they didn’t think it was going to go up?’ It was very sad to see.” A cheerful exception: “One of our good friends lived a couple houses up the street. He was also a phase-one buyer.” Later, “He rented out his house here and purchased a larger home, much more expensive. Eventually, he had to foreclose on that one, but because he had kept this one, he was able to come back here. He had something to fall back on.”
Now that they’ve dodged the foreclosure frenzy, “We figure, ‘Okay, we’ll be living here for quite a long time. We definitely want to get to know everyone.’” Their only regret is that the homeowner’s association can’t afford to staff the security cottage 24/7. “The security cottage was a big reason why a lot of us purchased in these communities. The plan was to have it 24/7 after all the homes had been built and sold. But because of the foreclosures, the homeowner’s association says they don’t have it in their budget. Now we have someone from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.”
The Block Party
A Mylar balloon shaped like the sun twitches in the warm late-afternoon breeze; it is fastened to one of the hazard markers blocking through traffic to the street. From here, the party can be seen off at the end of the cul-de-sac: people, tents, a fire truck. Between here and there, house after stucco house, three models varying slightly in footprint, shade of tan, and complexity of roofline. As you get closer, you can hear the children: scads of them, mostly under ten, riding tricycles, playing badminton, reflecting in their faces and skin the street’s ethnic mix of Filipino, Hispanic, white, Asian, and black. Guys man the four grills spread out along the curb; ladies staff the row of serving tables, dishing out a mix of Filipino fare and backyard American standards. You can fetch beer or soda for yourself out of the coolers.
Judy Gallardo floats from table to table, not quite a hostess, but definitely a facilitator. She invited the policeman, who is letting the kids blare the siren. She invited the firefighters, who are letting other kids hold a running fire hose. Later, she will gather the adults and get down to civics: “I just want everyone to know that these guys may not be here next year because of the tough economy — budget cuts and such. Many of us moved here because it’s such a great community: the schools, the fire department, the police department. If in the next few months you hear about fund-raising efforts for the fire department, it’s really important that you participate. And we can also help out by showing up to city council meetings.”
When I see Gallardo a few weeks after the fact, she is still enthusiastic about the event. “Everyone was so excited and happy to participate, which was amazing. I was very surprised to find that we have some high schoolers here on the street. And we’ve started seeing new neighbors coming outside with their kids, people who just kept to themselves before this. One of the new daddies came out with his 18-month-old son and started talking to us. We said, ‘As soon as your son starts running, he’ll be out here running with the rest of them.’ Before, he probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to just come out and say, ‘How’s it going?’ It’s very nice to be able to recognize more faces.”
The Child Culture
Of course, there already was some community going here, thanks in no small part to those children’s birthday parties and, before that, to children in general. The surrounding neighborhood is lousy with parks: Veteran’s Park to the east, Heritage Park, even a park just across Palomar. It’s one of the things that make the area so attractive. Even so, says Gallardo, “Usually, on Fridays, our kids will be outside in the cul-de-sac.” Because sometimes, lots of times, you don’t want to make the trek to the park; you just want the kids to go outside and play. Backyards here tend to be small (Gallardo’s lot, which is typical, is around 7000 square feet) and surrounded by high fences; if you want room to run with your buddies, you go out front. And because this is modern-day America and there are things like Megan’s Law websites, “A couple of us adults will go down there to monitor their playing. In the summer, they’re out there from around 6:00 until 8:00 or so. We have to drag them inside for dinner. The sun goes down and it starts to get cool pretty fast, but the kids don’t feel a thing.” While the kids play, the grown-ups get to talking. People get friendly, and when birthdays roll around, “We make sure we send out invites to everyone.”
Once upon a time, maybe, communities would gather to celebrate great communal events, like the harvest, or perhaps around events that united disparate parts of the community, like a wedding. Maybe there was a town square, with a church and a marketplace. Down here in Otay Ranch, the nearest thing to a town square is probably the yawning and opulent Otay Ranch Town Center Mall, four miles to the east of Gallardo’s home, just off the toll section of the 125. There are other, smaller squares on the way from there to here: earth-toned clusters of two-story stucco buildings containing, say, a dentist’s office, a pediatric clinic, a Calvary Chapel, and a bar-and-grill. But you wouldn’t want to throw a party there. Down here on McCain Valley Court, the community gathers in your backyard, for your child’s birthday party.
“It’s almost every week,” marvels Gallardo. “You’ve got lots of Mexicans and Filipinos in this neighborhood, and Mexicans and Filipinos love to party. They just go all out. Even if it’s a party for a two-year-old, it does not matter. You do everything for your guests; you want to make sure they’re having a great time, so you basically spoil them. We’re going to one at our neighbor’s tomorrow — their son is turning four. They’re Filipino. They’ll have tons of food. Just like me, they always take a day off before the party to decorate and everything.”
Gallardo opens the vertical blinds that hide the sliding door leading into her backyard. She shows me where they had extra concrete poured along the side to make a place for the taco stand they like to have at parties, plus the barbecue, the appetizer tables, and the ice chests. “We have beer, to make sure the adults have a great time.” She shows me the brackets in the fence that will hold the PVC pipe that will hold the birthday banner and serve as anchor points for other decorations. “All the balloons go up around the fence. My husband thinks I’m crazy because I get so stressed, but it’s extremely important to me to have nice decorations and to have a theme. Many of us moms are planning a year ahead of time.”
The back section of the patio provides seating for adults. The grass is left open for children and the rented inflatable jumpy castle. “If we have clowns, they’ll set up over in the back corner.” If Gallardo could pick an upgrade to her house, it would be a second-story balcony that would also serve to cover part of the patio. “My son’s birthday is in the middle of March, and we never know what the weather is going to do. You do everything for your guests; you make sure they’re having a great time. You spend probably close to $800 on food and drinks and probably $2000–$3000 all together.”
A movable birthday party — you could find worse things upon which to build community, especially given the character of McCain Valley Court. The street is just eight years old; many of the original buyers were — like Crystal and Eric, like Judy and Victor — first-timers looking to settle down and start families. And later buyers were the same way. Jen and her husband Von bought here in 2008 after renting for a year just five houses down the street. She grew up in Huntington Beach and saw here what she hoped would turn into a similar sort of neighborhood life cycle. First, there are lots of families with young kids. Then the kids grow up and leave home, and the street is adults-only for a while. Then the adults get tired of owning big houses they don’t need and sell them to new families with young kids. And so it goes, all very neat and tidy. Imagine a world with no old people telling the kids of today to get off their lawns.
Imagine, also, a world where kids don’t have to think so much about Megan’s Law. “If we know the neighborhood really well,” hopes Jen, “it could be a good thing for raising our kids the way we were raised. We got to go outside and play without our parents sitting in their lawn chairs and watching us. I don’t want our adult issues to become my child’s issues. Our goal is that one day, our son could ride his bike to the grocery store by himself, be outside by himself. Within reason, of course — but we don’t want him to be worried about every person he meets. We want him to be independent.”
Jen and Von decided to buy because “we were starting our family, and we wanted to make sure we got a house. We know the prices are going to change, but we plan to live here for years, so we’re not really concerned with that. We sold our condo in Rancho Del Rey at the end of 2006, but things were really hot in the real-estate market, and I just didn’t feel comfortable paying $512,000 for a new home. So we decided to rent and to see if we could handle a mortgage. We really liked the people and the location — we weren’t interested in being further east than this. But we were still looking in other neighborhoods when the house we bought came on the market. It was a foreclosure.”