Barrio Logan is in the midst of a self-imposed identity crisis.

Alex Zaragoza on Culture logo

Residents are still reeling from a citywide vote in June that shot down their years-in-the-making plans to shape the neighborhood in a way that would steer homes away from shipyards.

And ever since the historic, predominately Chicano/Mexican-American neighborhood began to build cache among hip, young urbanites, longtime residents have begun to feel the threat of their neighborhood losing its character.

That’s what happens when an area people once visited only when they made a wrong turn becomes a hub for exciting art and culture. Developers begin to creep in. Visit the neighborhood and you’ll already see condos beginning to rise to the sky just feet from Chicano Park, the epicenter of San Diego’s Chicano civil rights movement.

Enter the Barrio Art Association. The group has been formed to fulfill two missions: promote Barrio Logan artists and to conserve the Barrio way of life. That means preserving the area’s Chicano heritage, maintaining its vibrant arts scene and blunting some of the effects of complete gentrification.

Still in its early days, the BAA is composed of community organizers, local business owners and others who have a vested interest in maintaining the Barrio’s identity.

“About three months ago, I got contacted by a group of business people down in the Barrio and they said, ‘We’re really concerned because we can feel development coming,’ ” says Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the BAA. “You stand on the southeast end of the Barrio, you can feel the East Village coming, and I think people remember 10 years ago, the East Village, there were really artistic and creative things going on there, and there still are. But a lot of the culture that was there was wiped out. People know the narrative, right? Artists move into a neighborhood, they make it cool and trendy, developers move in, prices go up, artists get booted out. So the very thing that made it trendy is gone, so there’s nervousness about that because in the Barrio you have that history of art.”

Nicholls, a New Zealand transplant, has a background in community organizing. He worked at the Pacific Beach Business Association and the Hillcrest Business Association, for which he still offers consulting. He and the board members that make up the BAA have set forth a plan to carry out their two missions.

The BAA will work closely with the artists and galleries that make up the Barrio Arts District, which creates and promotes neighborhood arts events like the Barrio Art Crawl, a monthly series of gallery openings, open studios and special programming throughout the Barrio’s arts spaces.  Among them are La Bodega, The Stronghold, Roots Factory, Bread & Salt, The Glashaus, Woodbury School of Architecture and many other galleries that have turned Barrio Logan into one of San Diego’s most exciting arts districts.

For the upcoming Barrio Art Crawl on July 26, the BAA will light the Chicano Park murals so they can be viewed after dark. They’re also planning a large arts festival around late September/early October to coincide with the unveiling of the Barrio Logan sign, designed by BAA board member Armando Nuñez. The hope is to turn the festival into an annual event.

BAA members seem aware, though, that their events have the potential to backfire in a way by creating an atmosphere that’s more attractive to development.

“A festival doesn’t change the realities of the economy,” says Nicholls. “In fact, it probably creates this idea that property values are worth more and exacerbates the problem.”

That’s where projects to preserve the Barrio way of life come in. The BAA has put together a three-step objective it believes will ensure the community keeps flourishing culturally.

Create a Barrio Public Art Fund

The BAA is waiting to be granted nonprofit status from the IRS. Once it gets the green light, the group will begin soliciting donations and applying for grants from organizations like the Port of San Diego, the San Diego Foundation and anywhere else with a few bucks to spare. It hopes to set up a charitable fund that bankrolls projects and artists working strictly within Barrio Logan.

“It creates a permanent source of funding for these artists, and it’s relatively easy,” said Nicholls. “You have to get people to contribute to the fund, but for every dollar that’s raised through the Barrio Arts Association, 75 percent will go into this art fund.”

The goal is to raise $80,000 annually for the art fund.

Work With Developers

Though they’re wary of development having an impact on neighborhood character, Nicholls and the BAA want to work with developers – stopping development, after all, is basically impossible.

“How do you get the benefits of new development but preserve your culture and your neighborhood?” he said. “What we’ve seen in the Barrio before, and with other neighborhoods, is that people don’t want their neighborhoods to change so they say no [to developments]. Saying no is not a solution, especially when the way that the city makes its money is through new development.”

They’re lobbying City Council to require all new developments created in the Barrio to give 1 percent of their budget to the Barrio Art Fund. Developers already pay fees for each unit they build to help finance parks, community centers and other neighborhood amenities. This would be similar, but would be a new fee marked only for the local art initiative.

“I actually don’t think that that’s unreasonable,” Nicholls said. “A lot of other cities do that, and there are other neighborhoods in the city of San Diego that have special set-asides for the arts; suburban neighborhoods mainly. I think this is a perfect time to propose that.”

Build Live/Work Space for Artists

This is a long-term goal. The BAA hopes to purchase – and help others purchase – properties that can be turned into live/work spaces for local artists.

“If you become the developer, you can develop the property in the way that you or the neighborhood wants it developed, not the way that the bottom line dictates,” said Nicholls. “The bottom line dictates these big towers. This way, you can build housing for artists to do their craft in the neighborhood.”

Once granted nonprofit status, the BAA hopes to take advantage of certain tax credits that would help them acquire space for artists. They’re looking to organizations like Space 4 Art, which is currently moving its live/work gallery and studios to Sherman Heights from the East Village, for inspiration on how to accomplish the goal in a way that feels true to Barrio Logan’s principles.

They don’t, however, want to emulate the Makers Quarter project, an urban real estate development taking over East Village that’s also being marketed to artists and other creative types.

“I really feel like the difference between the two efforts is that there are plenty of artists in the Barrio,” Nicholls said. “We’re not trying to bring artists to the Barrio. We have them. We’re trying to preserve them whereas with the East Village, this feels like they’re making something up. I love what they’re doing [at Makers Quarter] and I like the guys that are organizing it, but I think the developers are trying to make a cool thing that they can later develop. It doesn’t feel honest.”

The residents, activists and artists who have helped Barrio Logan thrive and grow have been there for decades, Nicholls said. The BAA will simply work to maintain the artistic identity that’s already there, Nicholls said.

“Advocacy and strategy is more about becoming the owner of this movement,” said Nicholls. “If you’re afraid of developers, become a developer. If you don’t have any money, set up a fund. Work with what you’ve got. My hope is that it all comes to fruition. It’s totally doable, someone just has to do it.”

Alex Zaragoza is a freelance writer covering arts and culture in San Diego and Tijuana. She also writes the column "There...

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