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Dead roaches and beer cans were scattered everywhere. Graffiti covered the walls. A trash can of vomit festered in the bathroom. Sonny Zizzo looked around the house on Mansfield Street in Normal Heights and knew he had a lot work to do.

“It was beyond anything I’d ever seen before,” Zizzo said. Because his hair salon on Adams Avenue was around the corner, he walked by every day. “Something told me like, ‘OK, you need to change this house.’ It was an eyesore.”

The house, which sits next to a church, near an elementary school and directly facing a park, had a reputation as a nuisance — people streamed in and out, trash collected in the yard, loud music blared from broken or missing windows and whistles and comments chased people passing by.

Today, the windows have been replaced and the people frequenting the building are getting hair cuts or shaves. A ping-pong table sits in the backyard and art decorates the walls inside.

Zizzo has transformed what was once a trouble spot into what’s now a fledgling business. The 34-year-old opened a barber shop there in January called Fellowship of Barber Surgeons. A small red and blue striped barber pole is out front.

His effort highlights the impact that one business can have on one section of town, even in a recession. The influx of time and money has made a clear difference, neighbors say, and made life nearby better.

The property once attracted police attention. San Diego Police Officer Dean Thomas, a community relations officer, said he started hearing complaints from local residents about the property last year. Coupled with observations from patrol officers, Thomas said he began ordering more patrols to the area last summer.

The house stood out in the neighborhood, he said.

“It was like putting a wrecked car in a new car lot,” Thomas said. “It was obvious it was an issue.”

When Zizzo took over the place, he and his original business partner worked on overhauling the house for about three months — taking down walls, replacing the plumbing and building the porch out in front. In total, Zizzo said they spent about $30,000 on renovations. Now Zizzo owns the business by himself.

Since then, many neighbors have noticed the obvious improvements — and some intangible ones.

Pete Chodzko lives in the condo complex behind the building with his wife and 8-month-old son. Before Zizzo took over the property, people who stayed there used to heckle his wife when she walked the couple’s dogs, Chodzko said. Eventually, Chodzko said he started walking the dogs.

Now that the barber shop has opened, Chodzko said his wife can walk the dogs again. Chodzko said he’s looking forward to bringing in his friends and brother for a shave — and to hang out.

“I just appreciate the work that they put into it because I know what it was,” Chodzko said. “The guy who cleaned it up deserves an award.”

The barber shop isn’t the only business in Normal Heights to open recently. About 20 businesses along Adams Avenue either opened, relocated or expanded in about the past year, said Jim Schneider, executive director of the Adams Avenue Business Association.

In addition to his hair salon, Zizzo had always wanted to open a barber shop, he said. Last fall, when the property became available, Zizzo said he saw an opportunity. He hopes to create a neighborhood barber shop with a modern feel.

“I can remember my grandpa telling me stories of going to the barber shop and they would spend four or five hours there just talking,” Zizzo said. “We don’t have that anymore.”

Since the barber shop opened in January, Zizzo said a lot of business has been through word of mouth. He said he’s grateful he can give back to the neighborhood that allowed his hair salon business to do well.

That’s part of what Zizzo said drew him to open another business in the area in the first place.

“I just really felt good about doing this and I said, ‘You know what? Screw it. I’m going to sacrifice and I’m going put the money into it and if it works, it works,’” Zizzo said. “It’s only money. Not that I’m loaded but if it works then it’s worth it. If it doesn’t work, then you walk away and you do something else.”

Please contact Dagny Salas directly at dagny.salas@voiceofsandiego.org. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/dagnysalas.

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