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Inside the house on South 35th Street, Ernestine Johnson, a 68-year-old retired teacher, sifted through mounds of junk that overflowed onto the porch, onto the sidewalk and out back. On the street, a large truck was filling up with things Johnson and her husband planned to keep: a bicycle, a car jack, some shoes.
The city of San Diego would discard the rest, despite the Johnsons’ objections.
Behind the house, four men hired by the city were already at work clearing out an old storage shed so they could demolish it, hurling armful after armful of stuffed animals and video cassettes and blue jeans into a massive dumpster.
This was their undertaking: Clearing away tons of stuff — cars and lawnmowers and furniture and who knows what — that Jimmie William Johnson had accumulated on his property over the years as his home fell into disrepair and was overrun by druggies, transients, delinquents.
The 69-year-old known for helping the neighborhood’s wayward youth had his own problem, his family said: He was a hoarder, spending his days collecting things he never used.
It had taken a Superior Court judge’s order to set the sequence in motion: Demolish Jimmie Johnson’s storage shed. Dismantle his garage. Board up his house. Throw everything away.
|The Johnson family purchased the Mount Hope home in 1968.|
It became so overrun by stuff that a judge ordered the house
boarded up and its contents discarded.
The City Attorney’s Office sent out a press release. TV news crews showed up. By quitting time on the second day, the city’s crew had filled three industrial-sized dumpsters and hauled four truckloads of metal to a recycling plant. “A good day,” one worker said with a half-hearted laugh as he wiped away sweat.
But inside the little old house, Ernestine Johnson, who brought up two daughters there, was hurting.
“This house didn’t look nothing like this when I raised my family,” she said, standing on the porch, looking toward the sheet of plywood covering the doorway. What had happened to her house? How could it have gotten to this point? When the cleanup is done, she and her husband won’t be allowed on their property without the city’s permission.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
In 1967, Ernestine White was all of 24, a young transplant from the cotton fields of northeastern Mississippi, and a student at San Diego City College. One day she was standing outside downtown’s Balboa Theatre waiting for the bus when a 25-year-old sailor from Louisiana named Jimmie strutted up and asked for her number.
She gave it to him, “and that’s how it started,” she remembered. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with his charm, she said, even if he did talk too much. By the next year they were engaged to be married and looking for a pastor to preside. They found one, at Mount Olive Baptist Church, in a southeastern San Diego neighborhood where many young black families lived.
|The Johnsons were married at the Mount Olive Baptist Church,|
just a block away from the house that was cleared.
At their first meeting with the pastor, Jimmie Johnson wouldn’t stop talking, as was his tendency. So Ernestine went for a walk. A block away was a little pink house with a For Sale sign. She ran back to the church and dragged Jimmie with her.
They bought it. And so they moved into the little house just steps from the church that married them, in a neighborhood called Mount Hope. What a fitting name, so full of promise for the life they were about to begin, he as an electrician at the naval base on Coronado, she as a teacher at Lincoln High. Their little pink house was perched up high, not on a mountain so much as a hill, and they could look out over the cars passing on Imperial Avenue down below.
“It was our little mansion in the ghetto,” said Taisha Johnson, the couple’s oldest daughter.
The girls had the only club house in the neighborhood, fashioned from a pickup truck’s camper their father brought home from somewhere. It was one of the nice ones, lined with shag, and their friends would come over to play in the yard next to the house. Ernestine would make fruit punch and cake.
|One of the Johnsons’ dogs roams the property where|
crews removed tons of items collected over more than a decade.
The girls took dance lessons and piano. Jimmie Johnson wanted them to know the finer things, because “his family was poor, dirt poor,” Taisha said. But it wasn’t always easy. When money was tight, Jimmie Johnson would go to the bread lines. He wasn’t ashamed, his daughter said.
Jimmie Johnson had big plans for his property, and he had an eye for good deals. But that knack evolved into something more. It is difficult for his family to say exactly why or when the hoarding started, but it wasn’t long after the girls moved away. The signs may have always been there, Taisha said.
When the girls were young he bought a station wagon at a police auction, and on weekends the family would drive it to flea markets. One day, beaming, he pulled up to the house in a compact, bright yellow school bus.
“Look at this, we have a bus!” Taisha remembered him saying. “It works great!” The girls were horrified. But Jimmie Johnson drove them to school in it until a wheel fell off.
In the mid-1970s, he built a concrete foundation behind his house and put the frame of a triplex on top.
But to renovate and rent it, he would need toilets, piping, wires, drywall, tiles, duct tape, so much. He started collecting, for the day when he could get the permits and everything else in place.
Eventually he moved his family to a house around the corner. But over the years, the sight of Johnson pulling up at South 35th Street with truckloads of junk became as unremarkable to neighbors as seeing the trash truck on collection day.
As his hoarding got worse, the city took notice.
Johnson’s property became a nuisance and a danger, the city said, a hub for drug users and transients who found easy cover under the untamed foliage or who squatted in the empty triplex, which Johnson never finished remodeling.
In 1996, the city won its first court order against the family and went in to clean up. But Johnson never stopped collecting junk. His family said he couldn’t.
Over the next decade he fought the city in court. Taisha Johnson said he was convinced he could take care of the cleanup himself.
Rather than hire professionals, he hired young men from the neighborhood to help. He told them to stop drinking and smoking and to come work.
Across the street, Teresa Farris saw it all from the time she moved in 12 years ago. The crack epidemic that started in the 1980s had already swallowed up many of the neighborhood’s young men. Jimmie Johnson would come back from church distributions with armfuls of bread to give to the wayward men.
“People would tell him, ‘Mr. Johnson, I’m cleaning up my life!’ and he’d say ‘Good, come help me on my house.’ And he’d pay them. Then they’d come back and smoke crack there at night,” she said. “It got to be too much.”
Three years ago, a second house on his 35th Street property burned to the ground. The mess was becoming too much for the city to let it continue. Last week, a judge dismissed Johnson’s final attempt to keep the city away.
When the television camera crews started arriving, Taisha Johnson thought her father had reached out to the press. He’d planned to call the Voice and Viewpoint, a community newspaper whose lashing editorial voice is often critical of the city. But then she found out the city had sent out a press release trumpeting the judge’s order.
The cameras set up in the middle of the street.
“People are going to think I’m a dirty person,” Ernestine Johnson told her daughter, amid tears.
“I said, no mom,” Taisha Johnson said. “We just need to get my dad help.” Jimmie Johnson was in the hospital last week, for surgery. The City Attorney’s Office told him to stay away while the crew did its work.
So instead, Ernestine Johnson sorted through the mounds and pulled out the things they wanted to save.
From afar, the mounds left behind looked like rolling piles of trash. But it was easy to picture how each item ended up there. Jimmie Johnson was frugal, his family said, and he had plans for his land.
As he traversed the city in his flatbed truck, he could imagine how a toilet, a copper coil, a couch, a water cooler, a keyboard, might come in handy. And so he took them, planning that someday they would all find a place in the beautiful complex he wanted to build.
But it never happened. Instead, the house in Mount Hope became a graveyard of Jimmie Johnson’s discarded ideas. Last week, while he recovered from surgery, four men threw them by the armful into large white bins.