It bothered Patty Cueva that nobody knew the dead man’s name.
Her family had just finished praying early on New Year’s Eve when they heard the booming crash, a neighbor screaming. They sprinted out of their Julian Avenue home, alarmed, to see the mangled car, a body and one shoe stranded on the street. It was a hit and run. The police turned to the neighbors to ask: Who was he?
And no one knew. Not even Cueva, who had lived on this same Logan Heights block since she was a tiny girl, along with almost her entire family. She later learned his name was Ralph. They had seen him go to work alone nearly every day, and somehow they had never stopped and met him.
It bothered her. And it bothered her again a few months later when City Councilman Ben Hueso visited her church and complained that people in Logan Heights never seemed to call his office, the way people in other parts of San Diego did. So abandoned houses weren’t boarded up. Trash lined the curbs.
“How do we get the neighbors to know that they can call when there’s a pothole? That they can call when there’s a light bulb out?” Cueva said she asked herself. And how could Logan Heights residents do that, she wondered, if they didn’t even know each other?
So Patty Cueva, her mother Zenaida and several of their neighbors started with a simple meeting at the Cuevas’ home, just down the block from a frosting-pink church and a hill overlooking the towers of offices and condominiums downtown. They blanketed the neighborhood with flyers, set out plates of pan dulce and coaxed people to “un cafecito con los vecinos” — a little coffee with the neighbors. Nothing fancy.
It was an idea that had already been floating around, aired by residents in neighboring Sherman Heights who had done the same thing. But Cueva was still stunned when the room filled for that first meeting in the spring of 2007. Twenty neighbors came and voiced their worries, written down one by one on a big poster board: Old mattresses and spilled garbage in the alleys. Streets that were too dark.
Those were the beginnings of the Logan Heights Neighborhood Council, a gathering so grassroots that Cueva and her neighbors shied from calling it a town council like other groups across the city, thinking it sounded too official. They now meet monthly at a nearby school and talk about local problems. They join up to clean the alleys and plant jacarandas, to call the city with their worries about untrimmed palm trees or how the city is providing for the homeless, and just to chatter at block parties.
“There was no place for neighbors to decide what they want for themselves,” said Kerry Sheldon, program officer for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit that helps improve neighborhoods. “It was a real missing link in that community.”
Though Cueva is recognized as one of its leaders, nobody is the president or the treasurer. They don’t have an official nonprofit number from the Internal Revenue Service. Cueva is unsure what their budget is: The little money they use on flyers, juice or supplies for neighborhood cleanups comes out of their own pockets or is raised at yard sales full of old clothes and toys they donate themselves. And while Cueva got to go to Chicago for training from other neighborhood activists through the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, she still speaks of the group as a fledgling thing, an organization that is finding its way.
But their work has already changed Logan Heights in small ways. Cueva and her neighbors coaxed a man living in an abandoned house overrun with chickens and trash strewn across the yard to leave and got the city to board up the building. Neighbors notice that the streets seem cleaner. And the workers in Hueso’s office say phone calls from Logan Heights have increased dramatically over the past two years.
“You see these organizations that have all these projects sucking thousands of dollars — big grants — and the community doesn’t see a lot of good out of that,” said Katherine Lopez, founder of the neighboring Memorial Town Council.
Cueva and her group are different.
A Virtual Convening
In August 2008, 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.
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 email@example.com 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
As they tape up yard sale signs in her front yard, clad in sunshine yellow shirts, the drivers of passing cars slow down and honk and wave. Cueva, grinning broadly, knows each one by name. Others come by shyly, sorting through the girls’ jeans and blouses folded on the table for sale.
“It’s a very small thing we do,” said Ben Rivera, a member of the group who works as a teachers’ assistant at San Diego High School. “But it’s going in the right direction.”
Cueva has lived in Logan Heights her entire life, most of it on the same plot of land on Julian Avenue. Her mother is a diehard school and church volunteer and dragged her to community meetings as a child, pushing for the police station that now stands just a few blocks away. Her Catholic school, her church and the building where her father worked as a school district mechanic were all within walking distance.
Now she is a young mother who teaches preschool in Little Italy, runs her own ballet folklorico group for kids, and sends her own children to nearby Catholic schools. She joked that her life sometimes feels like six degrees of Kevin Bacon: Everything is connected. Her family. Her neighborhood. Her work. She teaches children the swirling dances they will perform at neighborhood festivals; the festivals tie into her push to bring neighbors together; her neighbors meet at her own home for fundraisers.
She moved upstairs from her parents 13 years ago and has lived there ever since, still on the same parcel on Julian. Her mother Zenaida says they gather easily for dinners of carne asada, any day of the week. It is something Patty treasures, even as she wonders whether she should someday head off.
“I could pick up and leave and move into a beautiful house in Chula Vista,” she said. “But then what’s the purpose of me being in all these groups? What’s the point if you don’t even sleep here?”
Zenaida remembered other children telling Patty and her sisters that it was a bad neighborhood, but they never felt that way. Patty Cueva loves the Craftsman homes that dot the street in butter yellow and spearmint green, the mom-and-pop shops selling everything from brooms to icy raspados that she worries could be driven out of business by a new 99-cent store. It feels alive, she said. Even now it surprises her with its growing diversity, its changes. As she passes out flyers block by block, she sees more black families and more white students in an area still known for its Latino roots.
Cueva walked through the neighborhood on a recent afternoon, pointing out churches and nonprofits and industrial lots lined with jasmine. Her smart phone rang from time to time; she answered quickly in Spanish before continuing her tour. “When your 7—year-old asks you, ‘What meeting are you going to now?’ you know it’s become a family affair,” she quipped. As she rounded a corner, she spotted a dumped bag of trash, a blackened banana trailing from its open mouth onto the sidewalk.
“This is what I’m trying to stop,” she said, shaking her head.
While other neighborhood groups have sallied into political battles and endorsed candidates, the Logan Heights group has tried to stay neutral, making itself a place to air concerns and make common cause with neighbors. Their main stance is that residents need to be included in decisions that impact them.
For instance, many neighbors are worried about the tent cities cropping up in Logan Heights, but others fret about how to be humane and fair to the homeless people who live there. Cueva herself seems to struggle with that question. There are similar debates over the push to add more affordable housing in Logan Heights as residents worry about the density of the discounted buildings. Even little issues such as the florid murals that blanket the nearby highways can be complicated.
“I don’t want a mural on every corner! People seem to think that because it’s Logan, have a mural,” said Margaret Vela, a single parent who had grown upset about the declining condition of nearby homes.
“Well, we don’t all agree with that,” Rivera hastened to add, saying that he liked the murals.
“And that’s fine!” Vela said. “But I want someone to ask us.”
Before the Neighborhood Council came together, Vela had called around to stop heavy trucks from rumbling past Logan Heights homes. A metal sign now bans five-ton-trucks from wheeling past her door. She was already agitating for her neighborhood, but joining up with Cueva and others made it easier.
“People have so much power,” Vela said. “And I don’t think they know they have that much power.”
David Alvarez, a district representative for state Sen. Denise Ducheny, said Cueva and her neighbors also drew in people in who might not be attracted to the idea of campaigns or protests, who might not trust politicians or even, as Lopez hinted, local nonprofits. It is easier to relate to the idea of a clean street than it is to an ordinance, Alvarez said.
And it is exceptionally easy to relate to Patty Cueva herself, the smiling mother with a perpetually buzzing phone and a dusting of freckles over her nose, who leans over the table at her yard sale to exclaim, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” to a woman with a stroller.
“I just wish that there were more people like Patty in our neighborhood,” Alvarez said. “We’d make much more progress.”