In a cozy house on Laconia Street, Kiari Sanders, 8, sat at the kitchen table, her little brother beside her nibbling at the cornbread on his plate. The aroma of beef brisket wafted through the house as adults trickled through the front door for the monthly meeting of the Broadway Heights Community Council.
“He’s jealous,” she said with a smile, “because I got fifty bucks.”
“She got two fifty bucks,” Booker, 7, corrected.
She corrected in turn, with the grammatical wisdom that comes from being in the third grade. And from being an older sister. “I got fifty bucks twice.”
Since February, Kiari has assumed an important responsibility in her neighborhood.
She is in charge of maintaining the community sign, which in gleaming gold letters welcomes visitors to Broadway Heights, but also asks them, please, to drive safely.
In February, she did it up in red and pink hearts for Valentine’s Day. In March, she decked it out in green clovers for St. Patrick’s Day. This month, she scattered plastic Easter eggs and pastel-colored pinwheels that spin in the breeze.
Her project so enhanced her neighborhood that she was awarded $50 by the community council. She kept at it. This month, she was rewarded with another $50.
“It shows beautification,” she said, the word struggling to find its way out.
Kiari’s sign rests at the base of Mallard Street, which crawls up a hill as it divides two southeastern San Diego neighborhoods and, in a sense, two worlds. To the south lies Encanto. In the last year there were 24 aggravated assaults, two armed robberies and one murder there. To the north lies Broadway Heights, which police say has one of the lowest crime rates in San Diego — just one aggravated assault and one armed robbery in the last year.
The sign that welcomes you to the neighborhood resembles one you might find outside a gated community in the suburbs, not across the street from truck lots and a tire shop.
But this is Broadway Heights, 192 houses strong and well organized. Its residents have worked to prevent their own children from being drawn to crime by engaging them in the community-building process.
Thus Kiari Sanders’ sign project. And Justin Young’s project to keep his street, Tiffin Avenue, clean. And Deanna Howard’s efforts to teach her computer-savvy peers the importance, still, of proper penmanship.
The neighborhood’s children formed a youth community council that mirrors the adult council. But its meetings are run and its decisions are made, entirely, by children.
Recently, they have been canvassing Broadway Heights, collecting signatures for a petition to change the name of the neighborhood’s shortest street from Weston Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
There is no city street in San Diego named after the late civil rights leader (just State Route 94), and the neighborhood’s children, ever-civic minded, asked why not here. They took up the issue at one of their monthly meetings and since then have been collecting signatures to present to the City Council for consideration.
On Thursday, more than 40 residents crammed into every corner of Robert Robinson’s living room for the monthly meeting of the adult council, one of 23 across southeastern San Diego.
At the start, Robinson, the chairman, took off his baseball cap and passed it around the room. A flurry of hands reached into pockets and purses to pull out mostly single dollar bills they dropped into the hat. The take: $27 for the neighborhood’s youth scholarship fund.
“Don’t feel shy if you don’t put anything in it, but let me tell you something,” Robinson said from his perch behind a cloth-covered table at the front, “this money is going to do something good.” There were nods and murmurs of approval all around.
Next on the agenda: an upcoming trip for neighborhood children to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
It would be an apolitical trip, Robinson assured those concerned. “I believe he was a two-time president, wasn’t he?” he joked. “And I believe he made history, didn’t he? What’d he tell that guy? ‘Take down that wall?’”
There were laughs and more affirmative murmurs. “Plus,” Robinson said, “he was a movie star.”
In keeping with the council’s philosophy of tapping the neighborhood’s human resources and keeping financial ones within it when possible, the chartered bus would be chauffeured by a Broadway Heights resident.
“So we don’t have to worry about any funny business,” Robinson said.
For the two hours that followed, Broadway Heights residents heard from current and would-be government representatives and grilled them about neighborhood and national politics alike. When would Broadway Heights’ power lines go underground? How could the state’s parole system be reformed to improve southeastern San Diego communities? What about improving local schools?
They arrived at no paradigm-shifting revelations, but discussed the ideas with enthusiasm.
The politicos among them, including Jimmie Slack, chief of staff to City Councilman Tony Young, and Emma Turner, a state Assembly candidate, were happy to engage. Even the councilman made a brief appearance.
None there had anything but praise for Broadway Heights. “This is a model for communities across San Diego,” Debra Farrar, a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department’s Southeastern Division, told the living room full of people.
Twenty-four years ago, Robert Robinson had recently arrived to Broadway Heights and was displeased with what he found.
The seven hilltop streets of Broadway Heights were pocked with drug houses that attracted groups of teens unknown to residents. Robinson called an impromptu meeting with three of his neighbors, among them Ralph Barnhill, who has lived in Broadway Heights since 1967.
They gathered in Robinson’s living room one evening, and discussed the possibilities for organizing their neighborhood. In the weeks and months that followed, the men brainstormed, calling each other in the middle of the night if that was when a good idea struck. Broadway Heights had been colloquially called “Dodge City” by local teens. So for starters, they found their neighborhood on a map and reclaimed its name, which no one remembered.
They decided a community council could best engage residents. They knocked on doors and encouraged neighbors, previously unknown to each other, to join. They formed bylaws and an organizational structure that delegated responsibilities ranging from youth engagement, to external communications, to bereavement when a Broadway Heights resident dies.
“It was important to PTSOP,” Barnhill said. “Put the stuff on paper.” Treating a neighborhood — even one as small as Broadway Heights — with the formality found in higher levels of government gave active residents a defined sense of their roles.
In the years since, the council has recruited new members annually and welcomed new residents as if they were lifelong friends. They have built relationships with the City Council, the police department, and private agencies like San Diego Gas & Electric, which at Thursday’s meeting announced that Broadway Heights would be the site of a pilot project to help residents improve energy efficiency in their homes.
San Diego Police created a beat specifically for the neighborhood, though it rarely sees much activity, except for the block parties, movie nights and neighborhood cleanups that residents organize. Residents delight that police officers rarely need to patrol in Broadway Heights.
LaVerne Wightman has lived in Broadway Heights for just more than a year. She moved in with her fiancé temporarily while she battled cancer, but decided to stay after being embraced by the community.
She noticed an immediate turnaround in her 17-year-old son, who had been caught up in the juvenile justice system, but who in Broadway Heights got involved with the youth council and started doing better in school.
“I’ve never seen him do so well,” she said. “I just really love this community. I really do. If it takes a village to raise a child, this is where I decided to raise mine.”