Ricky Johnson, an African-American man, stood up to address the crowd. Fixed on him were the eyes of his Mexican, Filipino, and Samoan neighbors — people who have gradually but overwhelmingly come to populate San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods.

“I’ve been in this community a long time,” he told the audience of about 200 on Tuesday night. “And all these people I see around here, I just don’t know where you all came from.” More than a few eyebrows arched.

Those people had been invited to discuss the neighborhood’s future by the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a large southeastern San Diego nonprofit. Walmart and Target each want to build a store on vacant land the nonprofit owns in the Chollas View neighborhood, a poor community that’s seen better days. It’s long been neglected by mainstream businesses, and the Jacobs Center has been trying to turn the community around.

But Johnson doesn’t want to see either a Walmart or Target in Chollas View, his neighborhood. He said he wants to see a mall where black residents can open up stores.

Johnson’s comments reflected an underlying racial tension that has simmered beneath the surface of many of the improvement efforts that the Jacobs Center is undertaking in the Diamond neighborhoods of southeastern San Diego’s Fourth City Council District, which stretches from Interstate 15 to Lemon Grove. The nonprofit’s efforts and its cast-a-wide-net-approach are shaking the deep-rooted, largely African-American power structure that has long prevailed in the district, even as its black population has shrunk and been surpassed in size by both Latinos and Asians.

Some of the community’s black pastors have grown uneasy about the nonprofit’s work and the roughly 56 acres of land it’s bought near the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Market Street.

“One of the things we have always been concerned with Jacobs is that they are purchasing a lot of the land in the African-American community,” said Pastor Ray Smith, president of Pastors on Point, a prominent coalition. “We appreciate that they buy blighted land in the area, but our concern is that if they’re going to purchase the land, we need to be a part of that decision.”

Some of the pastors’ concerns were echoed at Tuesday night’s meeting at the Jacobs Center, but mostly the conversation focused on the task at hand: What the community’s residents — black, Latino, white, Asian — most wanted to see built on the vast vacant Market Street parcel.

That inclusive conversation is one that Jacobs Center officials believe is overdue, especially considering the wide diversity of San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods. But they also recognize that it has ruffled some feathers.

“I think we’ve always been controversial primarily because we’ve always been committed to community voice, and to ensuring that as change happens, all residents get a voice,” said Jennifer Vanica, president and CEO of the Jacobs Center. “Ours isn’t really a message about leadership control. It’s more about democracy at work, about decentralizing who calls the shots and people having a real stake in their own neighborhoods.”

For decades, African-American pastors have called the shots in southeastern San Diego, each having a sphere of influence extending as far as their own congregations and wider still, because of the alliances and coalitions they build with other pastors.

“The church has been the strongest institution in the black community,” said Bishop George D. McKinney, pastor of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ, “and it has had influence over more people than the NAACP and the Urban League and all the other organizations combined, because on a Sunday you have thousands of people assembling in churches and hearing their pastor speak on issues important to them.”

“There’s a strong loyalty to ministers,” said Council President Tony Young, who has periodically incurred the wrath of the community’s pastors. “If the minister says be mad at Tony, they’re going to be mad at Tony.”

But southeastern San Diego’s black population has continued to shrink — to roughly 31,000 from 39,000 a decade ago — as Latino and Asian communities have grown. The arrival of a large nonprofit like the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, with its you-can-play-too philosophy, was a game changer for political organization.

“Now, you have this situation where the black church’s influence is declining because the black people are moving out of the community,” McKinney said. “If you’ve had some perceived power as a clergy leader and suddenly your base is being diminished, and there’s another entity coming in with money and with vision that might not be the same as yours, there’s some suspicion there, some fear, some uneasiness.”

When the Jacobs Center arrived in 1997, it introduced an innovative approach to community development to an area that was in sore need.

The community had no grocery stores, no banks and few locally owned businesses. What it did have were the remnants of a once-thriving industrial community that provided jobs and an economic base — until those businesses moved away, leaving the community to deal with the domino effects of economic divestment like poverty and crime. For help and guidance, much of the large black community turned to its leaders, the church pastors.

But enter the Jacobs Center, a $20 million nonprofit with a startlingly simple philosophy for improving the community: knock on people’s doors, find out who lives there, and find out what they want.

“We found that most of those folks were totally disconnected,” said Roque Barros, who leads community outreach for the Jacobs Center. “They didn’t know anything about their neighborhoods. They were out of the loop.”

And they were Latino, Asian, Pacific Islanders, and white as well as black. It was those groups that the nonprofit started reaching out to, Barros said, and not the already well-connected community of black pastors. They brought those people together, to help make decisions about what to do with all that land.

“We came in with a very strong belief system that we need to build cross-community understanding so everyone can come to the table,” Vanica said. “So that every ethnic group could have a voice.”

As more ethnic groups get pulled into the discussion about the neighborhood’s future, that voice will be increasingly multi-lingual, as was evident by the headphones people were wearing for translation Tuesday night. Vanica said that in the coming weeks, the nonprofit planned to host a community meeting similar to Tuesday’s, but entirely in Spanish. That would be a first.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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