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City Heights could be San Diego’s richest poor neighborhood.

It has the highest concentration of nonprofit groups in San Diego County. And since 2000, two foundations alone have invested more than $265 million in the neighborhood of 70,000. That’s nearly the same amount the city of Chula Vista spends on its 260,000 residents annually.

But despite that mammoth injection of cash, the foundations that have made long-term commitments to the neighborhood – Price Philanthropies in 1993 and The California Endowment in 2010 – have little hard evidence to show they’ve improved the lives of residents there. (Disclosure: Price Philanthropies helps fund Voice of San Diego. The California Endowment funds Voice of San Diego’s Speak City Heights coverage.)

Nearly every researcher and community organizer you talk to in City Heights admits the needle hasn’t really moved on any statistical gauge. The community still performs worse than the county average when you look at income, employment, obesity rates, educational outcomes, crime – you name it. Any trends showing improvement tend to follow national trends, meaning the community hasn’t exactly rebounded from its lows.

More than two decades after the city declared a state of emergency in City Heights, it seems the community is still digging out from a legacy of overcrowding and disinvestment.

The largely immigrant and refugee community is wedged between Interstate 805 to the west, Euclid Avenue to the east, State Route 94 to the south and busy El Cajon Boulevard to the north. In the 1990s CalTrans bulldozed an eight-lane trench and ran Interstate 15 right through the middle of the neighborhood.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

For residents there, it was a colossal smack in the face. They’d already seen the last remnants of 1930s and 40s suburbia razed and crammed with shoddy apartment blocks – with no room for parks or libraries.

Crime had gotten so bad the community’s own business association papered billboards with a plea: “Welcome to City Heights, Crime Capital of San Diego. Won’t Anybody Help?” A Union Tribune article from that time actually calls City Heights “the rotting core of America’s finest city.”

Former city manager Jack McGrory recalls hearing from one of the construction sites when redevelopment began in City Heights: “The superintendent called and said there’s a guy here who just got shot and he’s dead on the corner here. It was a pretty wild place.”

‘We Created the Shell’

McGrory became the architect of the city’s City Heights intervention. His City Heights Urban Village project now anchors a police station, park, recreation center, library, school, shopping center and affordable housing complexes.

The city pulled it off with significant help from the late Sol Price. The founder of Price Club – what we all know as Costco – infused millions into the project. He made loans to the city, school district and a private developer for much of the new infrastructure. Price erected an office building to house nonprofit service providers and affordable townhomes for families and seniors.

His family’s investment in the community hasn’t let up. The foundation estimates it’s spent $200 million there since 2000 – about half on transforming the diverse neighborhood with bricks and mortar.

It’s bought up land throughout the neighborhood, but most visibly along Fairmount Avenue near the urban village. More housing, a health center and a YMCA facility rise above 1920s commercial buildings and ’70s strip malls.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Robert Price, Sol’s son who is now president of Price Philanthropies. “This community is an amazing community; it’s a community of immigrants. My hope is that we will be here to maintain this community as a place where people who are arriving from other countries, who need the opportunity, can settle in this community and have the resources and the opportunities that’s going to be good for them and their children.”

Photo by Katie Schoolov, KPBS
Photo by Katie Schoolov, KPBS

On paper, the community hasn’t measured up yet:

• With a median income of $35,776, City Heights families live on just more than half the countywide median income of $63,373.

• In some City Heights patrol areas, police report a rate of nearly 40 crimes per 1,000 residents. That’s compared with a citywide rate of 28 per 1,000.

• Nearly 60 percent of fifth-graders in the neighborhood are overweight, compared with 44 percent of fifth-graders countywide.

• Students at Hoover High School in City Heights are nearly twice as likely to drop out of school as their peers district-wide.

• The percentage of Hoover graduates moving on to post-secondary education has remained steady at about 50 percent since 2005.

Laura Deitrick heads the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego. She said reversing generations of disinvestment in City Heights is going to take, well, generations.

“Everyone wants to talk about impact and if you’re not making an impact in, like, five minutes, then you must not be doing it right,” Dietrick said. “But, you know, if you think back to the beginning of a big company like eBay or Amazon and you look at how long it took them to even break even, investors didn’t blink an eye. We think that’s normal. I think we need to be realistic about what we’re trying to achieve and how long that’s going to take.”

And Dietrick said there’s nothing wrong with looking at more qualitative indicators – like pride in one’s community.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Indeed, talk to residents and most say things generally feel better in City Heights – and that’s not just engaged residents community groups want reporters to meet. We knocked on doors and stopped several on the street to get an unfiltered opinion.

“From when I was little, when little kids were thinking about other things – robbing, doing this or doing that – they kind of don’t think that way around here now,” said Philemon Cortez, 36, on his way to pick his son up from middle school. “I can see the influence that my son is getting that it’s not bad, that it’s not he wants to follow bad people. There’s good people around here now.”

Cortez unwittingly credited the change to Price. He doesn’t know who financed the buildings on his route but said they turned the community around “because there’s a lot of things that go on in these buildings.”

“We created the shell,” McGrory said, “so that other people could come along and help deliver the services along with us.”

‘Owning Change in Their Community’

When the city razed the 50 or so acres of City Heights homes and businesses to put in Price and McGrory’s urban village, residents didn’t really come out to community meetings or express much concern, said former City Heights Community Development Corporation director Jay Powell, who was not directly involved with the project. Those losing their homes just wanted out of the neighborhood, and eminent domain gave them that chance.

Flash-forward to today and meetings are the lifeblood of this neighborhood. There are the usual planning groups and neighborhood associations. There are regular meetings for residents who just want to tell police about their concerns. And there are parent meetings. Lots of parent meetings.

Every month, mothers fill the auditorium at Rosa Parks Elementary School to learn about the steps they can take to keep their kids on track for college.

“It’s something that on a daily basis is part of our goals, part of our daily vocabulary at home,” said Yolanda Rodriguez through an interpreter.

Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

She has three children in the San Diego Unified School District and said she knew nothing about the school system – let alone how to get a kid to college – when she emigrated from Mexico 15 years ago. Rodriguez started out coming to those monthly meetings at Rosa Parks and now runs a nutrition program through a parent center funded by Price Philanthropies.

Most of the schools in City Heights have them, and they stand as an example of the kind of work going on inside all those brick-and-mortar improvements Price and the city made.

“Our goal has evolved. I think when my father, Sol Price, came into City Heights, his idea was to try to build some tangible evidence that this community could improve,” Price said. “But over the years we’ve become much more expansive in what our goals are. And now it’s really a holistic approach.”

While students in the neighborhood haven’t caught up to countywide averages for academic achievement, Rodriguez said conversations about college are happening more and more around City Heights dinner tables, and that’s a major shift. She said they’re also talking a lot about the food on their plates.

“In the field there’s been a lot of focus on the economic and the structural pieces of community development. So you come into a neighborhood, you take out all the bad housing stock, and you replace it with something new, and then you have an increase in property value. But I think that the learning over time has been that that hasn’t always worked well,” said Diana Ross, collaborative director for longtime neighborhood advocacy group Mid-City CAN, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the community this month. “You really have to pay attention to the people side of it.”

In 2010, Mid-City CAN partnered with The California Endowment on a 10-year effort to improve health in City Heights. Their strategy: If any new infrastructure comes to the community, it has to be because residents became empowered, demanded it and were heard by elected officials. It’s a bottom-up approach aimed at sustainability – when the initiative ends, the work shouldn’t.

“That’s part of the leave-behind. So it’s not just the end goal or the change that residents want to see, it’s also leaving behind the leadership and the power base for people to continue to own change in their community,” Ross said.

The most powerful example of this kind of work, Ross said, is a youth-led campaign to bring a skate park to City Heights. After years of lobbying elected officials, the youth have the funds they need and are in the design phase.

On a recent evening, they met with park and recreation staff to dream up the perfect park, cutting out renderings of rails and ramps and assembling them on a map of the park like dresses on a paper doll. Their work was interrupted by adults who own homes near the proposed park site and aren’t sold on the plan.

Photo by Katie Schoolov, KPBS
Photo by Katie Schoolov, KPBS

The room grew tense as the homeowners shouted things like, “Skate parks belong in industrial areas!” and “You don’t come into somebody else’s space without asking first.” The room calmed as a soft, but confident voice in the back of the room offered to show them a report that might allay their fears – an impact assessment suggesting the park is likely to decrease crime in the area. The voice belonged to 17-year-old Leslie Renteria.

“Before joining the (campaign) I was pretty shy. I never thought that I was able to speak up in front of people, and more, to speak up to defend what I believe in and the work that we’ve done. I just didn’t think I was important in the community,” Renteria said.

Through her involvement with the skate park campaign, Renteria said she realized she wants to become an urban planner so she can continue the work she and her peers have started in City Heights.

Through the Endowment, young City Heights residents have also successfully lobbied for no-cost bus passes for students, helped shape the city’s urban agriculture ordinance and developed a pilot program to keep kids who get in trouble with campus police out of the criminal justice system.

For Price and the Endowment, which currently have no statistical gains to show for their investments, Renteria offers hope. But they’ll still have to wait another four or five years to see whether they’ll get a full return on their investments. That’s when Renteria would graduate from college and apply for urban planning jobs – hopefully for them, with the city of San Diego.

“It takes a very long time for this approach, but I think it’s more sustainable and it’s worth the changes you see in the long run,” said Steve Eldred, who manages the Endowment’s initiative in City Heights. “But people have to have patience.”

StoryMap by Megan Burks
StoryMap by Megan Burks

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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