The Boys and Girls Club on Imperial Avenue is a brightly painted refuge for children in Encanto, where poverty is high and old abandoned lots line the trolley tracks. But examine the building closely — its squat sprawling design, separate doors for entering and exiting, an ample parking lot — and you can see that it once served the neighborhood in a different kind of way. It was once a Safeway grocery store.
Down the street, a row of tattered storefronts has newer tenants too: four Pentecostal churches, all in a row. Farther west, St. Rita’s Catholic Church expanded its campus onto land where another grocery store once stood. The drug store on Market Street a few blocks away is long gone, too. It was replaced by a county welfare office.
The institutions that once nourished southeastern San Diego’s bodies have been replaced by ones that nourish its souls. They’ve become important places for many of the community’s down and out, without question.
But Bobbye Huffman, the 76-year-old owner of Huffman’s Bar-B-Q who has served ribs at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues since 1967, has watched the stores leave. And she wonders this: “Don’t people here have to eat too?” She’s considering finally shutting her own doors after more than 40 years, she said, and it’s possible her restaurant will become another vacant parcel on a block with too many of them.
The story of southeastern San Diego’s economic decline is more than half a century old. As black families moved there, limited by racial restrictions on land in other parts of the city, white families left for newer housing developments in northern communities. Businesses that had served the white residents started packing up, too.
It was the type of economic retreat that has been a scourge of many urban, poor, minority communities nationwide, and it accelerated southeastern San Diego’s economic decline.
Revitalization efforts meant to reverse the community’s decline have been underway there since the 1980s. A few new commercial developments have sprung up, but the changes have been slow. Large swaths of southeastern San Diego’s commercial corridors are still punctuated by little more than weeds.
Leon Williams, the city’s first black councilman, took office in 1969 as the economic flight was reaching a peak. He remembers pleading with grocery executives to stay. They told him it was economics. The community was getting poorer. They were unconvinced, he said, by studies he commissioned that showed his district’s income was a little higher than the city average.
Williams thought their implication was clear — that income levels in his community would continue to fall because the white-to-black transformation persisted. “It was racism, pure and simple,” Williams said this week in the living room of the Golden Hill house where he’s lived since 1945.
|Some newer businesses have already moved in. Imperial|
Marketplace is home to a Home Depot and a Verizon store.
The stores continued closing. The Safeway on Imperial Avenue was one of the last, its building sold in 1973 to what was then called the Boys Club. The building that housed a Fedco department and grocery store on Euclid Avenue and Federal Boulevard is still vacant, as is much of the shopping center that surrounds it.
Property owners who no longer lived in the neighborhood got city zoning variances, Williams said, that allowed them to start up industrial businesses like truck yards and small-scale manufacturers near residential neighborhoods.
“I tried to undo a lot of that when I was on the council,” Williams said. “But I was mostly unsuccessful.”
The abandoned remnants of those businesses became the community’s vacant lots. What did remain during those years were many of the black-owned businesses that had popped up to fill the void, and provided jobs to local African-Americans.
On Imperial Avenue there was a black-owned florist and a record store, a black-owned pie shop, and a real estate agent who found steady work placing black families in the only homes they were allowed to buy either by law, or because intimidation still ran high in other parts of the city.
And those businesses did well.
|The owner of Huffman’s Bar-B-Q on the corner of Euclid|
and Imperial avenues said it used to be tough getting a
parking spot at her restaurant. But as the black community
in southeastern San Diego shrunk, business dwindled.
“The black community, we had to support each other, because we couldn’t go anywhere else,” said Stanley Gentry, who with his brothers owns the Gentry’s Family Barber Shop. Their father founded it near the corner of Imperial and Euclid avenues in 1962.
Getting a parking space at Huffman’s Bar-B-Q in Lincoln Park used to be difficult, Bobbye Huffman remembered. “But today this neighborhood is dead,” she said in the elegant accent of her native Louisiana.
Her community is changing again. Now it’s the black businesses that are closing. The black community they’ve always served is shrinking. Sales have slowed to a trickle. Some of the Latinos who now make up the majority in Lincoln Park order ribs without the barbecue sauce or ask for it on the side. “They like to use their own,” she said. She doesn’t mind. But it’s a subtle sign that her business may be unsustainable. She’ll be closing sooner than later, she said.
Gentry’s barbershop clientele has dwindled too, and he offers a startling explanation for what he believes did in southeastern San Diego’s black business community. “Integration,” he said. “It killed black businesses because black people could go anywhere to get what they needed.” The black families that were able — the professionals — left for better neighborhoods. But the nostalgia was evident in Gentry’s voice.
The Gentry brothers will cut the hair of anyone who walks through their door, but their expertise is in serving the black community. Alan Gentry, Stanley’s younger brother, admits that despite his nearly 30 years cutting hair, “I’d still like to be better at cutting European hair.” But he’s never had much need to. Since whites left more than half a century ago, southeastern San Diego’s neighborhoods have never been a local destination like today’s downtown, North Park or La Jolla.
That lack of traffic, coupled with the relatively low incomes of many of the community’s residents, has only worsened southeastern San Diego’s economic struggle, and it’s one of the main reasons that a major redevelopment effort underway has centered around the Orange Line trolley stop that connects southeastern San Diego to downtown.
The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a $20 million nonprofit, has bought nearly 60 acres of land surrounding the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Market Street, with plans to redevelop the property into a mixed use community featuring businesses and homes. A Food 4 Less that the nonprofit brought to the intersection a decade ago — at the site of an abandoned aerospace manufacturer — became the community’s only major supermarket. It still is. Both Walmart and Target have said they want to open stores there.
City Council President Tony Young, who represents the area, has said he supports downtown redevelopment because the economic benefits would trickle into his own community by way of the trolley.
Not far from the trolley stop, the community’s own redevelopment agency has penned an agreement with a prominent pastor to develop a shopping center in the Valencia Park neighborhood.
And local business owners are trying to reinstate a previously failed business association that would collect fees from businesses in the community to improve storefronts and market them.
“We need something here,” Alan Gentry said as he finished a haircut. Vacant lots flank both sides of his barbershop. “Something that would bring black businesses back. Or just businesses, period.”
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.