In San Diego, Two Different Paths to Change
Two neighborhoods, just four miles apart in the vast sprawl of San Diego’s ravines and canyons, are walking two different paths toward community improvement.
Greater Logan Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood that was once mostly African-American, is methodically bringing together community groups that have never much worked together before. Colina Park, a polyglot of immigrants and refugees where language barriers and distrust run high, is finding ways to communicate and build a culture of activism.
They’re both part of the Neighborhoods First Initiative organized by San Diego LISC, and they’re both moving into implementation of their quality-of-life plans.
Colina Park brings together people from virtually every corner of the world – Vietnamese, Mexicans, Sudanese, Karen people from Burma, Somalis and other East Africans, to name a few. An estimated 40 languages are spoken at its kitchen tables and on its sidewalks. The average household income is about $20,000, and roughly one in three households doesn't own a car.
Colina Park's ethnic groups are just learning to communicate with each other.
Courtesy San Diego LISC
Located in a far corner of San Diego's City Heights area, Colina Park has often been overlooked by programs aimed at the larger area. That's not surprising since it has no community organization to lobby on its behalf. And because of its transient population, it has a weak identity among residents themselves.
"When you ask people in Colina Park where they live, they say City Heights," said Sakara Tear of the City Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC), the convening agency for the area's Neighborhoods First program.
By contrast, Greater Logan Heights, which includes five communities and similar income levels to Colina Park, has a history of activism dating back to the 1960s. For much of the 20th century, it was an African-American enclave. Today, it is 85 percent Latino. And it has a multiplicity of neighborhood groups, many of which bang heads over what needs to be done to improve the community.
Many do agree, though, that the redevelopment of downtown San Diego will spill into Greater Logan Heights in the form of gentrification, forcing long-time residents to move. Distrust of outsiders is high.
"We get organizations all the time coming here. We call them grant-sucking agencies,” says one community leader who requested anonymity for fear of alienating funders.
Teaching community activism
Two years ago, when LISC and the City Heights CDC began working with Colina Park residents to create a quality-of-life plan, they knew the diversity of the neighborhood would make the process difficult. It was even harder than they expected. (Related story: The challenges of partnerships)
Tear, who oversees the area’s Neighborhoods First program, says plans for simultaneously translating the planning meetings for everyone in the room were quickly dropped because there were just too many languages represented. So organizers relied on images.
"When we said, 'housing,' we didn't just say the word, but reinforced it with a picture," said Tear, the daughter of Cambodia refugees. "When we said, 'bad housing,' we showed a picture of a house with peeling paint. When we talked about 'walkability,' we showed a crowded sidewalk."
Many of the immigrants were shy about expressing their opinions, Tear says. "So if they didn't want to raise their hand, they could put it down on paper."
For many, the democratic concept of community activism was scary. "The refugee population – they're new to this country, and they don't come from places where acting collectively is allowed, so there's a psychological barrier to organizing," said Kerry Sheldon, a planner who coordinates the Neighborhoods First programs for San Diego LISC.
There is also a general distrust of government officials, particularly those in law enforcement, said Amina Adan, an emerging community leader who was born in Somalia and spent time in Kenya before arriving in the U.S.
"Immigrant people, they think if they talk to the law, it will affect their immigrant status," she said. "They think, if you have trouble, you don't run to the police. You run away from the police."
National Night Out was a pivotal event, bringing out a large and diverse crowd.
Courtesy San Diego LISC
Even so, one of the first efforts at community action during the planning stage – participation in the National Night Out on Aug. 5, 2008, in support of anti-crime efforts – was a resounding success. "We had 300 residents out walking," says Tear. "I've been here my whole life, and I was shocked at how many people came out. I've never seen 50 people doing something together in this neighborhood."
The quality-of-life plans for Colina Park and Greater Logan Heights were presented to city officials at a Making It Happen Celebration last Oct. 21. Since then, Tear and other organizers have been focusing on training a core of community leaders, such as Adan, to oversee the implementation of the Colina Park plan.
Earlier this year, some 50 residents attended a series of workshops on housing, employee and immigration rights. Now, a handful of leaders are meeting with developers, organizers and city officials to learn the ins and outs of land-use policy and procedures.
"You find out what goes into things that go up in your neighborhood," says Sidney Michael, one of the trainees, "where the money comes from, how they select developers, the zoning, what can and can't go somewhere, the involvement of the City Council.
"You get an inside look at it. It's going to help us a lot. There are two or three major sites that the city is looking at buying and redeveloping. We'll play an important part in what goes on there."
"A living document"
For more than a century, the Bethel Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American congregation in San Diego, has been a major presence in Greater Logan Heights. And even though most of its members have moved to other communities, they return each weekend for services in the sanctuary at 3085 K St.
So Monte A. Jones, CEO of BAME Renaissance, Inc., the community development arm of the church, was taken aback recently during a meeting with another neighborhood leader.
"This young lady said to me, 'I like you, Monte, even though you're an outsider.' "
Logan Heights Neighborhood Council members recruit resident volunteers at the Sherman Heights Barrio Marketplace.
Courtesy San Diego LISC
Division has long been the norm in Greater Logan Heights, and that's been a major challenge for the Neighborhoods First Initiative, which is overseen by the MAAC Project, also known as the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee.
During the planning stages, "a good number of organizations were not open to being at the table," said Adolfo Ventura of the MAAC Project. "We ended up working with those who were willing to come on board."
In recent months, community leaders have shown a greater willingness to meet together, said Karina Serrano, a MAAC Project organizer. "Collaboration," she says, "has started to happen – 'You can use our space' and 'we'll help you with the schools.' "
The message to recalcitrant groups has been that the quality-of-life plan for Greater Logan Heights is "a living document" and won't be left forgotten in a drawer.
"This is moving on. If you're on board with some projects and not with others, those projects are going to continue anyway," says Serrano. "We're not going to stop a project because guys can't talk to each other."
Banners promote local retail.
Anyone remotely involved in the preparation of the plan and its implementation has been flooded with updates about each step in the process, such as the opening of a financial opportunity center at the MAAC Project office in the Mercado Apartments at 2001 Newton Ave.
The center, funded by Citi Foundation, JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Sempra Energy Foundation and LISC, provides low- and moderate-income people with a wide range of services – financial counseling, employment placement and career advancement help, assistance in reaching economic goals – in a single location. A similar one-stop-shopping office has opened in Colina Park at the International Rescue Committee at 5348 University Ave.
Greater Logan Heights leaders and residents "must hear about the Neighborhoods First Initiative once a week at least" through e-mails and other communications, said Ventura.
A steering committee of half a dozen Greater Logan Heights leaders meets monthly "to make sure to keep the plan alive," Serrano said. And although they've been acquainted with each other professionally for many years, these steering committee members soon realized that they were still somewhat strangers.
"They said, 'We need to get to know each other,' personally as organizers and about the projects being done," Serrano said. "So they began making mini-presentations to each other. That was interesting. We assumed everybody knew about what everybody did, and, yeah, to some extent, they did. But not the details."
It's a good step, and maybe an indication that the community is on its way toward overcoming old differences and joining together to address neighborhood issues.
"In the future, we hope, everyone will be 'kumbaya' at the same table," said Serrano.
And, knowing the work that still needs to be done, she laughed softly.
See also: Bridging Ethnic Divides through Stories -- and Recipes
This video documentary was created by teens from Colina Park and Greater Logan Heights, through the Media Arts Center of San Diego's Teen Producers Project.
Posted in San Diego