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The sidewalks drop steeply in Colina Park. Mothers lean back slightly as they shuffle down with their toddlers in tow, their strollers eager to roll away.

Elva Chavez was headed up. She was on her way home after picking up her daughter at Horace Mann Middle School. She huffed as she pushed her weight into her stroller for the climb up 52nd Street, a block south of El Cajon Boulevard. “It’s good exercise,” she said with a smile. Across the street, a second woman abandoned her grocery cart at the base of the hill and carried her bags the rest of the way.

“The store carts are hard to push up,” Chavez said.

It’s a daily grind in Colina Park, the northeastern-most corner of City Heights. A third of its residents, like Chavez, have no car and rely on public transportation to navigate the city. But Colina Park’s hilly topography makes getting around the neighborhood almost more challenging. Carrying groceries or laundry home is easy until they step off the city bus at El Cajon Boulevard and walk into the neighborhood, eyes skyward.

A low-cost neighborhood shuttle that is currently in the works should make day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping easier for residents like Chavez, and for Colina Park’s elderly immigrant residents for whom climbing hills is all but impossible. The City Heights Community Development Corp. is in the first stages of planning the shuttle, which will operate within the neighborhood and connect residents to nearby commercial strips.

The shuttle is one of 32 projects that nonprofit and private partners in Colina Park have identified and begun implementing in recent months. They are compiled in the neighborhood’s first quality-of-life plan, a resident-created document that sets out plans for collaboration among residents and local organizations to improve safety, education, health, housing, and the neighborhood’s aesthetic appeal.

Colina Park is one of two pilot neighborhoods selected by the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. to launch its Neighborhoods First program, which hopes to revitalize distressed neighborhoods through targeted financial investment and coordinated local involvement. The other neighborhood is Greater Logan Heights.

The initiative is the first time the people of Colina Park have undertaken a concerted effort to improve the neighborhood.

It is the only one of City Heights’ 16 sub-communities without a neighborhood association. It is mostly immigrant, with large populations of Somalis, Southeast Asians, and Mexicans.

It is also a transient community. Ninety-five percent of its residents are renters. That demographic profile posed particular challenges to coordinators, said Sakara Tear, a City Heights CDC employee and the initiative’s manager

“Unlike neighborhoods like Barrio Logan where there is a history of organizing, the roots are not there yet in Colina Park,” she said. “Coming together for common purposes is foreign to our residents. In their home countries, it’s even often frowned upon.”

It also helps explain why Colina Park, at City Heights’ eastern edge, has been the slowest neighborhood to reap the benefits of the redevelopment and revitalization efforts in mid-city.

City Heights is not starved for philanthropic attention. It has enjoyed hefty investment by San Diego’s Price Charities, which 13 years ago launched a comprehensive initiative to revitalize the community through targeted economic development, affordable housing, education and social service programs. The California Endowment has selected City Heights as one of 14 communities across the state where it will launch a 10-year initiative to improve community health.

But many of the improvements have not trickled down to Colina Park. Residents, because they aren’t homeowners, don’t always feel vested in the community, Tear said, and don’t involve themselves in local decision-making processes.

The potential exists in the neighborhood, though, said Joe Horiye, LISC’s San Diego director. One of the criteria for selection as a LISC pilot neighborhood was “existing opportunity.” Colina Park has several social service agencies and youth programs, but most operate independently and without collaborating.

“The community has all the tools and resources to make it a more engaged neighborhood, but no entity has taken the extra time to line it all up together,” Tear said. “That’s what we’re doing with the quality-of-life plan.”

Over the last year, the City Heights CDC convened residents to discuss and gauge their needs. Staff members drafted the quality-of-life plan based on that input. The document outlines eight broad strategies residents identified as important, Horiye said. They include leadership building, youth services, and neighborhood aesthetics. Residents recommended specific projects to satisfy each strategy, and staff of the CDC wrote in those deemed feasible.

Much of the input was not surprising. Residents wanted affordable housing, healthier communities, safer streets. But other concerns may not have surfaced without engaging residents directly, Tear said. Transportation to navigate the hills within the neighborhood, for one. Thus the shuttle program, she said.

Other projects will build networks of tenants and landlords to improve relations between renters and owners, establish youth mentoring programs, and promote public art. A condition for including a specific project in the plan was a local agency’s commitment to develop it, Horiye said.

“So often, when you’re investing in poor communities, people tell you that they’re tired of being overplanned and underserved,” Horiye said. “We made sure that all of the projects were going to be implemented.”

Some have already launched.

Eugene Johnson, a local martial arts instructor, has recruited a corps of volunteer parents for the community’s Safe Passage program. Parents will stand on high-traffic street corners to shepherd students to and from school and discourage bullying and fights between rival gangs.

Safe Passage, coordinates with school security officers, city police and firefighters, but employs parents and neighborhood residents to canvass the neighborhood.

“It’s important to have parents,” Johnson said. “If you have police, some of the kids aren’t going to respect them. When they see a parent or grandparent, you know they’re going to fly right.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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