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When he graduated from design school in Los Angeles, Jerry Guzman-Vergara returned to Sherman Heights, the neighborhood east of downtown San Diego where he grew up.
Once a place where prostitutes and drug dealers lingered on the sidewalk outside his family’s Craftsman home, the neighborhood was improving. Violence was down, community groups were forming and a grassroots arts scene was developing.
But the neighborhood’s reputation persisted. It’s one of five in the Greater Logan Heights area, alongside Logan Heights, Memorial, Stockton and Grant Hill. The neighborhoods had a history of feuding and have long struggled with the challenges that often afflict largely low-income, minority communities: crime, poverty, limited access to amenities.
Guzman-Vergara, 30, comes from a family of Greater Logan Heights activists. His grandmother was one of the founders of the Sherman Heights Community Center, and when he came back to San Diego, he decided to take up the mantle.
He joined the community center’s board, and was soon tapped to be its assistant director. Armed with a designer’s eye for aesthetics, he, with the help of other advocates, embarked on a mission: to rebrand their community, improve its reputation, and do that by fostering unity among residents. And it started with giving the five neighborhoods of Greater Logan Heights a new name: The Historic Barrio District.
I sat down with Guzman-Vergara to talk about why that name reflects his goals for the community’s identity, some of the resistance he’s faced and how the continued eastward expansion of downtown could impact his community in the years to come.
A lot of people refer to these five neighborhoods as Greater Logan Heights, but I always hear talk of the differences between the neighborhoods.
That really goes back to the gangs and their borders, and that mentality spread throughout the community.
Each neighborhood had its own gangs?
Exactly. There are still gangs out there, but the younger generation sees beyond that. There’s a lot of differences between the neighborhoods, but a lot of pride. There’s a lot of culture, a lot of art, you see the murals. A lot of families know each other.
When did this idea of very distinct neighborhoods start to fade?
The late ’90s and early 2000s. Around 2004 I started pushing this concept of the Historic Barrio District. For me it was about creating unity here, and really taking pride in our community and not being divided by neighborhoods. A lot of our residents and friends have embraced it and made it their own. We’re still very proud of our neighborhoods, but it’s not like, “My neighborhood’s better than yours,” or the other negative gang connotations of “claiming” your neighborhood. It’s helping to erase that whole mentality. Now when I throw that name out there, people feel a sense of ease, like, “Oh, it’s historic now. And it’s a district. I need to go check this place out.”
Whenever I talk to people about this part of town, people are always unsure about where I’m talking about. They confuse it with Barrio Logan, which is nearby.
You used to tell people, I live on this street, and they’d say, “Ah, vives en el Barrio.” People always see it as one big barrio. I don’t know why.
But people from Sherman will be very uncomfortable if you call their community Logan Heights or Barrio Logan, because for them, they live in Sherman Heights. But it’s something we sometimes let pass because it’s so much easier not to have to give an explanation of what our community is and what separates it and what the boundaries are.
I love saying “the barrios.” But even a lot of our own Mexican families here didn’t like us calling them barrios, because they think people think negatively of that. Then I started explaining we would call it “El Distrito de Barrios Historicos,” and they were like, “Oh, I like that.” We’re more than one neighborhood and we want to let people know that, but at the end of the day we’re one community.
Historic Barrio District necessarily implies a strong Latino identity. But these neighborhoods historically were predominantly African-American. There are still African-American families here, and a lot of the churches serve black congregations. Does that label exclude them?
I think there is a factor that excludes them, and I have had to go back and forth making sure we include them. One of the things we’re trying to see is how we’re going to maintain the culture in our community without losing it to a flush of new people. That was another reason we came up with Historic Barrio District. To what extent are we excluding the African-American community? To be honest, I don’t know how we’re going to resolve that issue and it’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with the African-American leaders in our community.
We’re kind of on a hill here, and if you look to the west, you can see downtown over there, and how quickly it’s spreading in this direction. Now it looks like there may be a lot more money going into downtown redevelopment, and that could all continue spreading east.
It really started in the late 1990s, with the ballpark speculation. I don’t want to say the culture here is changing, because it’s still a very ethnic Mexican-American community. But we are at risk, and that’s one of the things I personally am concerned with, that we lose our identity.
One woman I spoke to told me she got a phone call from a neighbor, who asked her, “Did you see that white woman walking her dog down the street today?” It took her by surprise, because what better exemplifies being a member of a community than walking your dog?
We can’t stop gentrification, and I don’t plan to waste my time on that. That’s energy going in the wrong direction. We all want change. We’re done trying to fight change, but we want to do it the right way. I think one thing we can do is combat unconscious gentrification, where it’s not really taking into consideration the existing culture and lifestyle that we have here. I’m not saying I don’t want to go to a wine bar down the street, because I do. We also have to take into consideration other people and their needs, like dry cleaners, pharmacies, good markets that sell fruits and vegetables, which we don’t have here. Do those things bring on more gentrification? Probably.
You had a coffee shop that you closed down because of a zoning issue with the city. It was one of the few successful family owned businesses here. If you take a walk down Imperial Avenue you see shuttered storefronts everywhere. You wanted your coffee shop to start changing that. How do you do that now?
I don’t plan on going at it alone. I have lists and lists of people who own businesses somewhere else who have said they want to come back to the Barrio. In a sense I see the closing of the shop as a blessing because I have this opportunity to now tell these business owners that I’m heading down to Imperial Avenue. Do they want to take this opportunity to create this hub?
I got a call today from a former Logan Elementary School teacher who was frustrated there are so few parks and green space for kids. A beautiful new library was built on the campus of Logan Elementary, but it took out half of the school’s playing field, so the kids have less space to run around. Is the Sherman Heights Community Center working on that?
We have a joint-use field across the street from us, but it’s always locked up. The school uses it during the day and after 3 o’clock it’s supposed to be a public park. But it’s always closed. A lot of kids just jump the fence. We used to have keys and used to open it up at 3 o’clock. But they changed the locks on us. We don’t know what really happened. They said that they were tagging up the walls, and there’s no lights. But that’s one of the bigger concerns for a lot of our residents. That’s something we haven’t even tackled yet because I don’t know if we’re the appropriate organization to take that on or if it’s something the neighborhood councils can do together. We need to work with the city on that.
If you wanted infrastructure like parks, one possibility would be redevelopment, but you’ve been really opposed to letting the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. move in.
We were just not prepared. We wanted more information, and at the end of the day, SEDC had an outgoing president. Our City Council president couldn’t vote on anything having to do with redevelopment (because of conflict-of-interest concerns). That’s bad thing number two. And we started hearing about a city study to redevelop Commercial Streets and Imperial Avenue. We wanted that to get done too. Nothing was certain, nothing was guaranteed, and they never will be. But those were some of our concerns.
I know we need redevelopment. But we want to look at it as a tool, not just something that’s going to come and eat us up alive. I would love to see a declaration of rights for the community, like the Dudley Square neighborhood in Boston, so that when anyone comes in, if it doesn’t abide by what we want in our community, it’s not going to happen. That would be a buffer for us, to hold people accountable, including ourselves.