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A popsicle vendor pushed his cart past a gutted two-story house on Island Avenue in Sherman Heights. For just a moment as he passed, the familiar tinkle of his bells drowned out another sound, one that’s become increasingly common in this Latino neighborhood east of downtown: a nail gun’s pop pop pop.
On the back porch of the house, Lannon Turowski was reinforcing decayed wooden beams with crisp two-by-fours. He’s been working on the house “weekend warrior-style” since February, trying to restore it and get it ready to sell by May.
He moved to California two years ago from Cedarburg, Wis. He’s also considering buying out his friend’s half of the house (they went in on it together last year) and moving in there himself.
“You can go up on the balcony and see the Coronado Bridge on one side and Petco Park on the other side. You can’t get that anywhere else,” he said. “My real estate agent said, ‘I’m telling you, Sherman Heights is the last affordable housing left in San Diego.’”
It is also one of the few neighborhoods in San Diego whose white population has increased in the last 10 years. Since 2000, in the western portion of Sherman Heights closer to downtown, Latinos have decreased from 83 percent to 70 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to Census data. The percentage of the white population has doubled, from 10 percent to 20 percent. (As illustrated in the graphic below, the darker the purple, the more the white population grew.)
In California, San Diego County and the city, communities have overwhelmingly experienced growth in their Latino populations. Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, in Sherman Heights and many Latino neighborhoods surrounding downtown, the opposite is true. The downtown development boom of the last decade and its inland crawl through East Village, punctuated by the construction of Petco Park, is beginning to alter the historic and symbolic centers of San Diego’s Mexican community.
The signs of that shift are visible on nearly every residential block in Sherman Heights, where one after another, aging and faded Craftsman or Victorian homes are being gutted and restored. They’re being converted from multi-family properties — once rented by Latinos — back into single-family homes. At least five full-scale restorations were underway within three blocks of Turowski’s house this week.
Turowski is converting his house from the rented duplex it once was back into a single-family home.
“You don’t want rental people in a restored house,” he said. That rules out many of the low-income Latinos who still live in the neighborhood, who have rented there for decades.
Many of them have stopped by to ask about the house, to take a peek. To tell Turowski they remember the families that used to live there. “Everybody knows everybody around here,” he said. “I couldn’t get any work done.”
A half-block away, the Sherman Heights Community Center is a gathering place for the neighborhood’s Latino population, offering after-school programs, low-cost meals and meeting rooms for local events.
“We’ve seen the changes happening,” said Jerry Guzman-Vergara, the center’s assistant director. “But when you see the numbers, it’s like, ‘wow.’”
He acknowledges there’s little to be done about the neighborhood’s changing demographics, since many Latino families rent and may be priced out. Guzman-Vergara is instead strategizing on how the center can help the neighborhood maintain the feel of a tightly woven Latino community.
The center has already taken a lead in trying to create a permanent Latino brand for the community. It has marketed Sherman Heights as part of the “Historic Barrio District” comprising nearby Latino neighborhoods like Logan Heights and Grant Hill, which have also seen increases in their white populations, according to Census statistics.
Guzman-Vergara plans to reach out to the center’s new white neighbors. He wants them to understand that popsicle vendors and seemingly permanent garage sales are considered ways of life in the community, not neighborhood nuisances.
Turowski’s house is one of several properties that he and a friend have bought on the same block in the last year, which they’ve restored and started renting out — to a white serviceman and his Latina girlfriend, and to a couple of white tattoo artists, he said. Turowski and his friend are looking for more houses to buy, but are facing stiff competition, he said. They bought the house he was fixing up Wednesday for $180,000 last year. They hope to get $450,000 for it this summer.
“A few years ago no one would have looked at this neighborhood,” he said. “But they cleaned it up. They put that stadium there.” He pointed west, to where Petco Park is visible from the second story of his house. “You’ve got a mini San Francisco. It’s like a postcard.”
Three blocks away, Dustano Tomas Gomez, a quiet 88-year-old with dyed black hair punctuated by a shock of white, has watched the changes for almost 40 years.
He moved to the United States in 1945 as a bracero — a guest farmworker from Mexico — and eventually settled in San Diego. He bought a house in Sherman Heights in 1976, when the neighborhood had many more black families and when the last of the white families were moving out.
By the 1980s, he said, it was a terrible place to live. Prostitutes, drug dealers, and gang members lurked at night. Every morning, he would wake up to paint over the graffiti. He and several neighbors once staged a protest in front of the La Jolla house owned by a man who also owned the apartment complex on Gomez’s block. They wanted him to clean it up.
They formed the Sherman Action Committee, organized with the Sherman Heights Community Center and got police more involved. The neighborhood started improving, but it was still occupied mostly by Latino renters, so homeowners didn’t fix the houses up as well as they could have, Gomez said.
About three years ago, he noticed that white people were coming back, and that his Mexican neighbors were leaving. The sun-bleached shingles that lined the outside of Victorian homes were being painted bright colors again.
“Rents have been going up and up,” he said in Spanish, sitting on his front porch and pointing to the homes within sight once occupied by Latinos, but no longer. “They’re moving to City Heights, and over there, to the east.”
He thinks it’s unfortunate they’ve had to leave. In the 1990s, he bought four apartments on the property behind his house, and has tried to keep rents as low as possible for the working-class Mexican families in them. But he also enjoys seeing the improvements to many of the Victorian houses in his neighborhood.
“It’s peaceful now. I think it’s good if they come to give a better image to the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re Latino or not,” he said.
In any case, he doesn’t feel threatened. On Wednesday morning, he and his wife walked to Union Bank, 12 blocks away on Market Street, to make the final $739 payment on the mortgage they’ve had since 1976.
“We walked back very happy,” Gomez said, the corner of his black moustache curling along with his grin. “I told my wife, today, this house really is ours.”
Keegan Kyle contributed to this report.