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Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 | As far as dream homes go, it was a head scratcher.

The National City neighborhood had all the charm and amenities of skid row. One block to the west was a string of juke joints and road houses collectively known as the “mile of bars.” Around the corner was the Pussycat Theater, a grungy movie house running porno films until the early morning hours.

The landscaping was a tangle of weeds and overgrown bushes watered by the dozen or so transients who lived two-doors down in a unit that lacked a working bathroom. The garish white paint that covered the once-beautiful brick construction was peeling and the front porch was in a shambles.

But on an August morning in 1978, a young Janice Martinelli gazed up at the house on A Avenue and saw something she had wanted all her life — a little piece of history she could call her own.

The place was Brick Row, National City — a block of row homes that in the 1880s had been among the most prestigious addresses in San Diego County. The houses were built for railroad honchos who wanted living quarters in their Southern California outpost that reminded them of their East Coast roots.

The ensuing century, however, had not been kind to Brick Row. And as Martinelli ascended the steps of her unit that summer’s morning, she knew she had a lot of work ahead of her. She didn’t know at the time that her rehab project would lead to a 30-year love affair with National City and become a catalyst for the beleaguered town’s reconnection with its glorious past.

In the years since, Martinelli has had a hand in saving many historic homes, establishing the city’s first-time homebuyers program and bringing to National City the Mills Act, which provides tax breaks for people who buy and maintain historic homes.

Martinelli has done much of this good work as president of the National City Historical Society, and member of the city’s Planning Commission. She’s also done it in more personal ways, helping people she meets along the way — people who share her passion for history, and her values.

In 2005, 21-year-old Yesica Cerda was a student at National City’s Bay Vista College of Beauty with dreams of someday opening her own salon. On a February day that year Martinelli, the tall, 50-something with big, big red hair, walked into the college looking for someone with the courage to tackle the mountain of curls on her head.

Cerda stepped forward, and ended up seeing her dream become a reality far sooner than she had thought it would. She noticed Martinelli thumbing through a magazine that highlighted the Victorian era, and remarked that she had loved the Victorian style since she was a little girl.

A year later she was living in the top floor of a Brick Row unit, and on the bottom floor operating The Palace Salon, a beauty salon that is true to the Victorian era down to the combs Cerda uses in her client’s hair. It would not have happened without Martinelli providing start-up money for the business and a work-live space for Cerda in Brick Row.

“After getting to know Janice, I realized that she has helped many other people in many other things,” Cerda said. “And I know she did this out of her heart, she wasn’t expecting anything in return.”

Carolyn Sipes said that for her, meeting Martinelli was like “winning the lottery.” The two came across each other a couple years ago when Martinelli was soliciting volunteers for the National City Historical Society. As she was copying down Sipes’ address, Martinelli noticed that the Kaiser Permanente nurse lived in an apartment.

Martinelli offered Sipes the opportunity to rent a historic property she owned, and said they could talk about the possibility of Sipes buying the home from her. Sipes did end up buying the home, with Martinelli picking up the closing costs.

“I had to come up with $500,” Sipes said of the home purchase. “She gave me an opportunity I would have never had without her.”

Martinelli spends most days zipping around in her Toyota MR-2, sometimes decked out in a full Victorian gown, on her way to a tea party or to City Hall to meet with — and sometimes fight with — Mayor Ron Morrison

“She’s one you hear coming down the hall,” the mayor said. “She’ll yell ‘Morrison!’ and I know I’m in for it.”

A Virtual Convening

This story marks the beginning of a year-long series and special partnership between voiceofsandiego.org and the San Diego Foundation.

Every day we read and write stories about things that are going wrong in the San Diego region. We read about problems in the housing market. We find out about unaffordable transportation, problems with parks and the environment. We learn about fraud, malfeasance or apathy.

This is important. But it’s not all that is happening in San Diego. In communities all across the county, people are joining together to improve their corner of San Diego. They’re creating housing solutions. They are repairing public spaces. They’re figuring out how to make their communities more livable, more accessible and more prosperous.

The San Diego Foundation is sponsoring the year-long effort by voiceofsandiego.org reporters to find and tell the stories of these people. The writers will learn what particular problems the residents faced and how they decided to confront those challenges. What tools did they use? How did they work with governments, businesses and their neighbors to find solutions? And how did they succeed?

This is the essence of the stories: Residents facing a challenge in their neighborhood and overcoming it to create a better place for them and their fellow citizens.

In addition, we will invite the people we encounter not only to submit to interviews for our stories, but to discuss with our readers what they have done and how they did it. The package — the stories, videos, audio and forums — is meant to share optimism and assumptions. In other words, we want to create more of a collective understanding not only of what is wrong with some of our neighborhoods, but what can be done about it and what has worked for people right next door.

Two months ago, as we started to prepare, we asked you to tell us your stories. We were flooded with excellent ideas. But we can’t do this for the whole year without more of your suggestions.

Please look at your own community and see if any of what we’ve just talked about sounds familiar. Have you or some of your neighbors tackled problems (and solved them) in a way that could provide a model and hope for others in the region?

If so, please, send your stories to andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org and we’ll consider them for the ongoing series.

But most importantly, keep your eye out for these stories over the coming year and perhaps we can all learn something about how not only to worry about our problems, but learn ways to solve them.

voiceofsandiego.org staff

Martinelli can be abrasive, say Morrison and others. And she’s had a penchant from time to time for butting in where she’s not necessarily wanted. But no one questions her commitment to restoring National City’s pride.

At the turn of the last century National City was, in many respects, the jewel of San Diego County. Incorporated just six months after the city of San Diego, it was home to a seaport, a railroad terminus and acres and acres of fertile farmland.

The city’s birth can be traced to Frank Kimball’s 1868 purchase of the 26,000-acre El Rancho de la Nacion for $30,000. National City was incorporated 19 years later in the midst of Southern California’s first great land boom.

Wealthy people from Northern California and the East Coast flocked to the city, seeking even greater wealth from railroads, shipbuilding and citrus and other fruit and vegetable farming. And when they came they built churches, homes and a music hall that befitted their status.

The 20th Century, however, did not prove as kind to National City as the latter half of the 19th Century. While San Diego’s waterfront boomed with the development of Seaport Village, the Gaslamp Quarter and the Convention Center, National City’s became where they put shipyards and warehouses.

By the time Martinelli moved to Brick Row in the late 1970s, the city had among the highest crime rates and the lowest median incomes of San Diego County cities, and had been tagged with the moniker “Nasty City.”

After the city faced near bankruptcy in the middle 1960s, Mayor Kyle Morgan, and George Waters who followed him, focused their energies on expanding the city’s tax revenue. Resulting were the Mile of Cars and the Plaza Bonita mall.

“We raised the sales tax revenue from $500,000 to just under $9 million while I was there,” said Morgan, whose mayoral reign lasted from 1966 to 1986.

But the focus on new revenue came at the expense of the city’s past. New car dealerships and new malls meant less time and political capital for preserving homes and buildings that were rapidly approaching their 100th birthdays.

“When I took office, we didn’t worry about historical things for awhile,” said Waters, National City’s mayor from 1986 to 2002. “People just didn’t want to spend taxpayer money on historical things — things were just overlooked.”

Soon after moving to Brick Row, Martinelli had earned a real estate license. And over the next several years began specializing in historic homes. By the end of the 1980s she had purchased three units in Brick Row.

She had also become an aficionado of the city’s classic Victorians like the Oliver Noyes house, which was built in the 1890s by National City’s first postmaster and owned in recent years by John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.

Too often, she realized, important old homes were being torn down or their historic value ruined by remodeling jobs.

“The city sold a lot of permits to tear down and remodel old buildings, not knowing the historic importance of the buildings,” Martinelli said.

She became involved with the National City Historical Society, which in the mid 1980s had $300 in the bank. Its members spent most of their time holding bake sales to benefit Granger Music Hall, built in 1896 by Ralph Granger, a silver miner who had struck it rich in Colorado.

Martinelli, who is now president of the historical society, began in the 1980s to establish a network among the organization, the city and the owners of old homes. Eventually, a policy was adopted that required the city to notify the historical society before pulling a permit on buildings older than 50 years.

Brad Raulston, the city’s community development director, said Martinelli’s efforts have benefited the city beyond just the beautification of old homes.

“If done right, it is an economic development tool,” said Raulston, who also lives in Brick Row. “You’ve seen what the Gaslamp (Quarter) has done for San Diego — you have an attraction that people will come to see and spend money around.”

As she became more involved with the historical society, Martinelli the real estate agent realized an opportunity. In the early 1990s, National City’s homeownership rate hovered around 30 percent, and was inching further downward each year.

“You guys should start a first-time homebuyers program,” she remembers telling City Council. “They said ‘OK, we need your help.’”

So, with Martinelli as the catalyst, the city launched a program in 1994 that eventually helped more than 200 households by providing first-time buyers with low-interest second mortgages that covered down payments and closing costs. All told, the program issued more than $3.3 million in loans.

“You saw the improvements in the neighborhoods,” Morrison said. “We bumped [the homeownership rate] up over 32 percent — that is a significant when you consider the number of residences in the city.”

The city killed the program in 2002, because housing prices were going up so fast that the city could not longer afford to underwrite the second mortgages. However, with the recent market declines the city is planning to reconstitute the program in the next fiscal year, Morrison said.

While the first-time homebuyers program brought Martinelli to the periphery of city government, it was a pornographic book store that forced her to center stage.

In 1985, Chuck’s Books moved in behind Brick Row. In addition to selling adult books and magazines, the shop featured “peep-show” booths. And from her back porch, Martinelli had a full view of the goings on inside the store.

She went to City Hall and found that the shop was operating without a license and a violating city laws by operating throughout the night.

The city soon embarked on what became a 6-year battle to shut the porn outlet down, with Martinelli as its main resident witness. Her involvement led to physical threats against her, she said, as well as the loss of several tenants.

“I had my tires slashed, threatening notes left on my door,” she said of the ordeal, which didn’t end until the California Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the store be shut down permanently. “Everyone else either moved away or sold their properties.”

Martinelli not only held her ground at Brick Row, but ended up on the city’s Planning Commission, serving from 1992 to 2006. And in 2002, she led the committee that brought the Mills Act to National City.

The act provides for a tax break to owners of historic properties who pledge to keep them up in a manner that maintains their historic significance. Twelve homes in the city are now Mills Act properties.

In 2005, Martinelli embarked upon her most ambitious preservation effort to date. She had learned that the Hawken House, a Craftsman built in 1912 by one the city’s most prominent families, was about to be sold to developers who had plans to tear it down and build an apartment complex. Also part of the property were three “Streamline Moderns” homes, an architectural style prevalent in the 1940s.

Soon after learning of the pending deal, Martinelli wrote a $1.2 million offer for the property. She refinanced one of her Brick Row units and sold another property to come up with the down payment. And since, she said, she has sunk most of her life’s savings into restoring the homes.

“Its one of the finest Craftsmans in San Diego County,” Martinelli said. “I just couldn’t bear to see it go away.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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