Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 | On a fall afternoon three years ago, Joyce Brown was strolling through the tidy gardens at Metro Villas, the housing complex where she worked as resident services coordinator, when she noticed some of the boys from the project milling around, looking bored.
Brown, who said she considers all the children she works with her grandchildren, asked the boys why they weren’t playing their usual afternoon basketball game at Teralta Park, a short stroll from Metro Villas. The boys told her they had been instructed by a group of gang members not to come to the park any more. The gang wanted the turf for themselves, and they didn’t want young boys getting in their way.
“I said, ‘You are taxpayers and you can go into that park,’” Brown said. “And that’s when I said, ‘You know what, we’re going to have to mobilize and do something about this.’”
That conversation was the genesis of a community-wide effort shepherded by Brown and others in City Heights to clean up Teralta Park and to make the open space a more welcoming and safer environment for the children and residents who congregate there.
Over three years, Brown has helped secure the installation of closed-circuit television cameras in the park that are monitored by the San Diego Police Department 24 hours a day and pushed for the building of street lights to illuminate the park’s once-dark corners. She also helped found a monthly event called Metro Miles, at which dozens of people congregate to walk around and around the park, figuratively and literally reclaiming the space for local residents and their children.
Brown is something of a late bloomer when it comes to community activism.
For decades, as a carpenter in the construction trade, a director of janitorial services at the Del Mar racetrack, a customer services rep for Pacific Bell and a government worker at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Brown’s desire for community action bubbled beneath the surface, looking for an outlet.
In her many jobs over the years, the 60-year-old grandmother of six said she tried her hardest to help the people she served in any way she could, but ultimately found herself bound by corporate policies and the lack of reach offered by her employment.
So, at the age of 52, Brown decided customer service just wasn’t fulfilling enough and enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in human services at the Springfield College campus, two miles from Teralta Park.
She graduated in December 2003 and, a few days after graduation, spotted a billboard advertising the City Heights Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization in her home neighborhood. She called the group and was hired in January.
Brown went to work as a resident services coordinator, a job she described as “essentially being a social worker.” First at an affordable housing complex called Hollywood Palms and later at Metro Villas, Brown worked with residents from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds, helping immigrant families settle into life in the United States and doing everything from helping adults apply for jobs to helping children with their homework.
Working for the CDC, Brown said she finally felt the empowerment she had yearned for during the years she had sat behind a desk or answered phones.
“I don’t mean to sound corny, but I had reached a point in my life where I really wanted to make a difference,” Brown said. “The CDC actually gave me a platform. I had the opportunity to reach out to more people and a more diverse community.”
Brown’s work at Metro Villas introduced her to the park where she would have her first major success as a community organizer — Teralta Park. Built on a city block-sized bridge literally above Interstate 15, the park is one of the few open communal spaces in City Heights, but has long been a hotspot for gang activity and drug-related violence.
A Virtual Convening
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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?
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At the time Brown started at Metro Villas, Teralta Park had become almost a no-go zone for neighborhood children. Maria Cortez, who helped start the Metro Miles initiative with Brown and who has lived adjacent to the park for 36 years, said three years ago the valuable community resource had been almost overtaken by unsavory characters.
“The gang members had actually told residents that no families were allowed in the park, Cortez said. “They even beat up some of the children to get their message across,”
Brown jumped at the chance to confront the gang problem at the park, said former Councilwoman Toni Atkins, who has known Brown for years. Before she settled on the idea of a more organized approach to cleaning up the park, Brown took matters into her own hands, Atkins said.
“I always thought, ‘Please be careful,’ because she’d actually go up and run people out of the park,” Atkins said. “She and a couple of other women in the neighborhood just decided they weren’t going to put up with this.”
Atkins said her office put Brown in touch with the Police Department and Brown and Cortez began to organize their effort to reclaim Teralta Park. Brown said her first instinct was to provide a presence at the park that would help discourage gang members who were hassling neighborhood kids.
Together, Brown and Cortez corralled dozens of local residents and activists and began what became known as Metro Miles, a regular show of community strength and commitment that involved sometimes as many as 50 people walking around and around Teralta Park. Brown said she started with a group of children and their parents from Metro Villas and that the group swelled as local residents saw the marches and joined in.
The walkers wore green CDC T-shirts and Brown set the group a target of walking 100 miles in solidarity. By measuring the circumference of the park, Brown counted each mile walked by each walker and after 100 miles, the group had a big picnic at the park.
“It didn’t really take us that long,” Brown said. “Sometimes there were 35 or 40 of us. The Police Department came out, so did (Councilman) Todd Gloria.”
At first, Brown said, the group walked at least three times a week for at least a year. As conditions at the park improved, she said, the Metro Miles group began walking once a week and now walks once a month.
Apart from the physical discouragement to gang members and other criminals that the walks provided, Metro Miles also became a rallying cry for local residents looking to further clean up Teralta Park. Brown said the walks helped draw attention to the fact that the park’s lights were always being broken by vandals and helped to spur an effort to bring closed-circuit television cameras to the park.
San Diego Police Department Officer Jim Tulumello worked in the community at the time. He said the walks began to have an effect almost immediately, acting as a deterrent to drug dealers and other criminals who had made the park their home.
“They started the wheels turning and it became infectious in the community,” Tulumello said. “If there was a trend, it was certainly a positive trend, there was positive energy.”
And Kristin Beatty, a deputy city attorney and the neighborhood prosecutor for City Heights, said Metro Miles was instrumental in raising awareness of the park’s problems and securing action from law enforcement and the City Council to provide proper lighting and cameras at Teralta Park.
“A program like this, where motivated citizens take regular action to change the reputation and create a presence at a location can be really powerful,” Beattie said. “It’s a model that could be followed citywide, for sure.”
Brown now works as the CDC’s community engagement coordinator. Her latest campaign is focused on increasing mobility options for the citizens of City Heights. Working with the CDC and other local groups, she is spearheading an effort by local residents to have a long-promised public transport hub completed at Interstate 15 in the heart of City Heights.
The project would provide much-wanted high speed public transport to the neighborhood, allowing residents to travel quickly to job centers in North County and downtown San Diego.
Brown no longer attends all of the monthly Metro Miles marches, but tries to get to as many walks as she can.
Teralta Park itself remains a sticky problem for local police officers, with a high concentration of gang members, drug dealers and the homeless who hang around the park’s playground and picnic areas at all hours.
Local residents interviewed at the park said it is still a danger zone for unaccompanied children, especially at night, and the security officer at nearby Central Elementary School said he advises children not to walk through the park if they can avoid it.
But, for at few hours each month, dozens of local residents continue to don their bright green T-shirts and the park becomes a kid-friendly zone as the drug dealers and gang members move away to another corner of the city. And every night the lights and cameras Brown and others worked to have installed stand sentinel over the patchy grass and tagged concrete of Teralta Park.
“I’m really proud of what we managed to do here, really proud,” Brown said during a recent tour of the park.
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