The National Association of Realtors is in town this week and wanted to spiff up and showcase one of the city’s less-seen neighborhoods. What could go wrong?

The mayor would come. There would be a D.J. People would see all the great businesses.

But the mayor canceled. The D.J. played to an empty block party. The business owners were pissed off and called the whole thing an intrusion that ignored their contributions and priorities.

This was Barrio Logan on Friday afternoon, the site of a well-intentioned event that turned into a tense culture clash.

The San Diego Association of Realtors decided months ago to hold a “better block” event this week in Barrio Logan, timed to coincide with a national gathering of real estate agents. Volunteers would build benches and planter boxes on Logan Avenue, then close the area to traffic for an evening to celebrate the upgrades.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same kind of “better block” effort a community group in Encanto tried to pull off last month. That group has been ordered by the city to remove everything it built after being threatened with fines for an unpermitted project.

But there were some big differences between the Encanto project and the Realtors’ Barrio Logan affair.

The one in Encanto was organized by a group from the neighborhood. The one in Barrio Logan was concocted and executed mostly by outsiders.

That didn’t sit well with some business owners along Logan Avenue, those who would presumably benefit most from a “better block.”

“They told us they were going to help us build a better block, when we’ve already been here building a better block for years,” said Manny Basabe, whose store, Mesheeka Clothing Company, was closed in protest. “We can do it ourselves, like we’ve always done.”

The business owners weren’t keen on closing the street in the first place and their concerns were borne out by mostly empty businesses Friday afternoon.

And the fact that it was put on by the Realtors association and promoted to their peers from around the country smacked of gentrification to a community that’s already concerned it’s coming.

“It doesn’t feel like this is something for the people who are already here,” said Bernie Fishman, who owns Beat Box Records.

Rene Vera, who owns The Chain, a bike and skate shop on the street, wondered what exactly was motivating the Realtors.

“Why are they even showing it to Realtors?” he wondered. “To say they should invest here? To say they should keep an eye on it?”

Several businesses that closed in protest also hung signs on their storefronts that said things like “Stay out of Barrio Logan,” “You are not welcome here” and “Better block … for who?”

Sherry Hodges, the San Diego Association of Realtors’ government affairs director, said the idea for the event came from the national association, which did something similar last year in New Orleans. She said the event was part of the local association’s commitment to public service and created a chance to showcase Barrio Logan to out-of-towners.

Many of the volunteers came from the association’s Housing Opportunities Committee.

It’s not like the things they were doing were harmful, or even undesirable. They made fake diagonal parking spots on the street, which the business owners wanted. The businesses would even rather the benches stay.

It was the lack of local involvement, and suspicion of outsiders’ motives, that bothered business owners.

But at least one volunteer came to regret what the group had done, after seeing how Barrio Logan residents perceived the effort.

Spring Valley Realtor Patricia Montgomery volunteered the last two Saturdays to help build benches. But Friday she wondered if the effort was misguided.

“The people are offended that we’re here, and I’m hurt by that,” Montgomery said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to come into my community and say it wasn’t good enough. I’m heartbroken. I really am. I get it now. Now that I see the other side, I get it.”

Both the Realtors in Barrio Logan and the neighborhood group in Encanto had event permits, but neither had specific permission to install benches and make other permanent improvements, which they both wanted to do.

But the organizers of Friday’s event in Barrio Logan have yet to receive a threatening letter from the city. That’s what the Encanto group got last month. After weeks of wrangling with city staff to make their benches permanent, they were told to pull everything out, or begin receiving hefty fines.

A city official said the Realtor group is expected to remove everything. But the unpermitted benches have been up for weeks, and the city hasn’t threatened any fines.

Overall, elected officials seemed a bit more enthusiastic about the event organized by Realtors, given that they were scheduled to speak at the event. But that enthusiasm soon waned.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer was supposed to speak at the Realtor event. He didn’t show. Neither did County Supervisor Greg Cox or Councilman David Alvarez.

In fact, very few people showed at all. A few dozen people, mostly volunteers and protestors, stood around. A D.J. played, but nobody was dancing.

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

When the mayor didn’t come, one of the organizers gathered people around and gave brief remarks. She said things were going on behind the scenes to help the community and she promised that volunteers would not just to pull up and leave.

She finished talking, and people went back to milling around.

“I’m sure it was well-intentioned,” local artist and community activist Hector Villegas said. “We aren’t opposed to people from outside being here. I’m saying, we have our vision. We have our own things we want to do. They forced their vision on our community.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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