Monday, Sept. 29, 2008 | Behind the wheel of her toothpaste-green coupe, Tershia d’Elgin peers worriedly down at the hulking city truck parked alongside the 32nd Street Canyon, a wide ravine speckled with scrubby plants alongside Golden Hill Elementary School.

If someone is messing with the canyon, d’Elgin has something to say about it. She parks the late ’60s model Porsche on the slope descending from her cobblestone house, sallies up to the truck and introduces herself to a city worker, her raucous hair lifted slightly by the wind. His answers seem to assuage her worries. She gets back into her coupe and cruises past the canyon, pointing out the new vegetation and the songbirds.

For more than six years it has been her battleground and her baby, pitting her twice against the San Diego Unified School District and now against the city of San Diego in her quest to preserve one of the few wild spaces left in the urban core. D’Elgin averted plans to build a new school on the canyon in 2002 and to clear part of the land for a school playfield in 2006, arguing that infringing on the canyon was ecologically irresponsible.

Paving or clearing the canyon would destroy habitat for rare and endangered species such as coyotes, she argued. It would harm water quality by removing the deep-rooted native plants that naturally filter pollutants from water as it runs through the canyons to the bay. And it would obliterate a wild patch in the city, denying children a rare opportunity to learn about nature and robbing Golden Hill neighbors of an oasis.

It was not a simple or painless debate. There were no villains, only competing ideas vying for space in Golden Hill: building a school, keeping the bay clean, displacing as few people from their homes as possible, and preserving the wild. Some former school officials still believe the elementary was shortchanged by her victories, left with a small gym instead of a playfield. And more families lost their homes when the school was relocated away from the canyon.

Yet d’Elgin rejects the idea that saving the canyon means sacrificing the rest. As the canyon is slowly beautifying, cleaned and restored bit by bit with the funding d’Elgin has wrangled from foundations and the government, children are learning about canyon ecology thanks to another nonprofit. Once a blighted and junk-filled ravine, the canyon is now an unusual green space beloved by neighbors and children.

But there are still battles for d’Elgin to fight. She argues that native plants will be demolished in the name of fire safety as the city tries to clear brush; she complains that the retaining wall at Golden Hill Elementary destroyed the slope, paving the way for invasive plants. She recently brushed back an effort by the sewer department to build an access road into the canyon.

“It’s such a drag to always be at war,” d’Elgin said. “I don’t really enjoy the contention. I’d so much rather make something beautiful.”

D’Elgin does not think of herself as warrior. Public speaking makes her quake; when she gets agitated she cries. She prefers holding canyon cleanups to protests. But she isn’t a diplomat, either. When she is outraged she sends impassioned e-mails from a cluttered home office she dubbed her “war room” — e-mails she suspects her allies in established environmental groups would prefer she not send. Above all she is persistent, spending an average of 20 hours preserving and advocating for the canyon each week.

“She kept raising a stink. She was nonstop,” said Bob Kiesling, formerly the chief facilities officer for San Diego Unified, who opposed d’Elgin on the playfield location. “She kept barraging everybody. You name it.”

It’s the same reason that her allies treasure her.

“She can be abrasive from time to time. She doesn’t pull her punches,” said Eric Bowlby, executive director of the San Diego Canyons Coalition. “She truly is outraged — and yet there’s a grace in how she delivers that outrage.”

The canyon was originally picked by the school district as the site for Golden Hill Elementary, one of the new schools built with billions in bond money after enrollment exploded in San Diego Unified. They had given the neighborhood group in Golden Hill three locations to choose from, and the neighborhood group had demurred from choosing at all.

So San Diego Unified chose the plot that would force the fewest people out of their homes, said Tom Mitchell, formerly the San Diego Unified director of community engagement. It wasn’t too close to a freeway. It didn’t overlap a gas line or an earthquake fault. And a school seemed like a vast improvement over the canyon, which was then littered with mattresses and trash. Much of it was privately owned, and they bought it.

“It was a rotten piece of property and we weren’t taking much of it,” Mitchell said. Other options meant tearing down Victorian homes or big apartment buildings. “We decided to take as few homes as possible — and that meant taking part of the canyon.”

But from her home down the street, d’Elgin was troubled by the idea, which seemed unnecessarily destructive. She wasn’t a scientist; trained in fashion design in France, she worked as a “book doctor” editing and ghostwriting other people’s books. What little she knew about ecology she had learned from a native plant landscaper she dated.

Yet environmentalists from the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society validated her worries about building on a rare green space in the city. Bowlby said that destroying native plants could pave the way for aggressive weeds like Arundo donax, a bamboo-like species that absorbs less water and filters fewer pollutants than the deep-rooted vegetation that naturally blankets canyons. And the canyons host rare and endangered species such as coyotes and a songbird called the gnatcatcher, said Mike White, San Diego director of the Conservation Biology Institute in Encinitas. They are among the few remaining open spaces in urban San Diego.

“I felt the argument that children would want nature destroyed was wrong,” d’Elgin said. “I learned there was a basis for my gut feeling. … And I wanted to do something.”

“I’m a Taurus!” she concluded. “We are not going to be stopped!”

D’Elgin plunged into the grassroots group that had already formed in Golden Hill, the

Friends of the 32nd Street Canyon, and started sending e-mails and calling politicians. When she walked her dog she carried an armful of flyers, inviting neighbors to canyon cleanups that doubled as media events and pitches to elected officials. Instead of protesting with signs she and her allies beautified the canyon, and tried to convince others to care.

She pushed for the school to relocate or cancel being built at all. Student numbers were already dropping and the nearby school, Brooklyn Elementary, seemed like it could accommodate the kids. She was later proven right when Brooklyn closed and sent its students to Golden Hill Elementary; the Brooklyn site was leased to a charter school, and Golden Hill is expanding into a K-8 school to boost its enrollment.

But San Diego Unified was committed to building the school and leery of alternative sites that meant displacing more homeowners. D’Elgin enlisted help from bigger nonprofits with similar goals: the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Canyons Coalition. They amplified her message by sending out alerts over e-mail, spurring more phone calls and e-mails to city leaders. D’Elgin penned letters to the editor and hundreds of people signed a petition to move the school.

The neighbors’ persistence paid off as the canyon cause grew more popular with city leaders such as Council members Ben Hueso and Toni Atkins. San Diego Unified had purchased most of the canyon, but a portion belonged to the city, and the school district was loath to use eminent domain to take city property. They retreated from the plan in June 2002, moving the school away from the canyon and buying 11 more homes to make up the difference at an estimated $2.9 million cost.

D’Elgin’s victory stunned other activists who believed the school district was undefeatable because it had eminent domain. She won change by persuading neighbors, and by showing elected officials through cleanups and petitions how much they cared about their cause. It was the kind of grassroots power that could seat or unseat the officials who warmed to their campaign.

“She keeps us all believing that it’s worth doing, even when we’re exhausted,” said Carrie Schneider, an advocate for Switzer Canyon in North Park. “She will leave no rock unturned to find a solution.”

A Virtual Convening

In August, we began 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 not only about our problems but ways to solve them too.

voiceofsandiego.org staff

But their win didn’t end the controversy over the canyon. San Diego Unified later floated a plan to build a playfield at the mouth of the canyon, a space that could double as a public park. D’Elgin and her allies worried that clearing the space would create an inroad for invasive plants and chip away at the habitat for endangered species. School district representatives argued that they needed an outdoor field for children to exercise and play, a standard feature at other new elementary schools in San Diego.

“It was on the verge of turning ugly,” said Richard Barrera, a Golden Hill resident who will replace Luis Acle as the area’s school board member in the fall. Most of the students were Latino, many of the activists were white, and the split seemed to play on those divisions, he said “You could feel the school district starting to do an us-versus-them.”

But pressure from the canyon supporters and their allies in city government convinced San Diego Unified’s chief administrative officer, Jose Betancourt, to shelve the project, Kiesling said. Golden Hill Elementary is building a mini-gymnasium instead, again at a higher cost to the school district, and it never built on the private land it had purchased.

Kiesling wishes it had ended differently.

“These kids need to get out and run,” Kiesling said. “All the other schools have a field, except for this one. It’s ridiculous that one person stood in the way of the whole thing.”

The activists who side with d’Elgin believe the canyon itself has become an amenity for children, a far cry from the junk-littered lot that San Diego Unified wanted to replace. And though the dispute once threatened to split Golden Hill, Barrera said the acrimony between the school district and the canyon group is dissolving, marked by joint meetings about canyon education and preservation.

“It’s like an outdoor playground where they can learn about the canyon and do hands-on work right there next to their school. …Why destroy that natural advantage?” Barrera said. “It’s always been a great opportunity to bridge that divide and build community. And now it’s actually happening in that way.”

Today a local nonprofit teaches children about wetlands in the canyon, bringing classes there from three nearby elementary schools. Kids helped to clear tires and sofas from the ravine, destroyed a towering thatch of invasive reeds, and nurtured native plants to replace the weeds. Their work to restore the weedy, trashed canyon has been bolstered by more than $300,000 in grants from government agencies and foundations, and d’Elgin and her group have netted awards from former Mayor Dick Murphy, Senator Barbara Boxer, Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, Congressman Brian Bilbray, and the Urban Land Institute, among others.

“It’s awkward to have gone through this brief battle for our playfield. The people who fought to block the playfield are people that I should be working with — and for a period of time I worked against them,” said Juan Romo, principal of Golden Hill Elementary. “But it’s behind us, and we’ve mended relations since.”

D’Elgin’s latest battle is with the city, which is trying to slow wildfires by thinning brush in the canyons. She complains that decimating native plants along with weeds can actually worsen the situation, opening the way for non-native grasses that burn more quickly than the native brush they replaced. The activist fends off that threat between serving on the Community Forest Advisory Board, fundraising for a new nonprofit, nurturing the canyon and writing more fervent e-mails to politicians and her neighbors.

“I can’t stop. I need a recovery group,” d’Elgin said. “As I said, I’m a little psycho. But so much is at stake.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@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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