In mid-October a 23-year-old man was shot in the face in an apparent drive-by shooting at the southwest corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues. It was a bloody crime scene. Just two days later, however, the intersection was re-energized. The corner was transformed by a gathering of artists, musicians, dancers and community members who came together to take back a location with a long history of violence and disrepair.
They congregated for a Better Block Southeastern San Diego event. Artists created original paintings on electrical boxes and storefronts. Planter boxers and benches were installed to turn the area into a welcoming space. [More on this effort later.] Local talent performed throughout the day. That's the exact transformation Barry Pollard of the Urban Collaborative Project (UCP) wanted to see—from tragedy to celebration.
"This corner needs an injection of new energy; creative energy, peaceful energy," says Pollard, as he sits in a storefront converted into a pop-up art gallery for the Better Block event. "And that isn't going to be the solution, but hell, it's much better than people shooting each other. This will start a conversation."
Pollard is in the middle of a battle to turn Euclid and Imperial—an intersection in Encanto that has in the past been called the "Four Corners of Death"—into a thriving arts-and-culture district created by and for the residents of the neighborhood.
Through the UCP, a small nonprofit focused on civic engagement and community outreach for the betterment of Southeastern San Diego, Pollard is working on a grassroots level with a dedicated team of volunteers and supporting nonprofits to make this vision for the corner a reality.
He's galvanized a cooperative of, so far, 15 local artists to develop an action plan for public art, find funding strategies and create art pieces around the intersection. These will include murals on various buildings, non-permanent installation pieces and functional pieces like the benches and planter boxes.
The UCP also works on various community and youth engagement projects throughout Southeastern San Diego, including voter registration, health and food access education and neighborhood cleanups.
"I don't want to hire people from other communities to come here," Pollard says. "We want people from this community to contribute to create a degree of focus and synergy. I want young artists to start claiming this as theirs, and to do that by putting their art on it."
Among the artists working with Pollard is Blaize Mekinna, a resident of Southeastern San Diego.
"[Euclid and Imperial Avenues] seemed like such a vital place where the community could come together, hold events and bring more life instead of liquor stores and death," she says. "I see that a lot of things have been proposed through the city that haven't manifested, where they have in other communities. So I would like to be a part of the remedy and make more art present, not just locally, but generate outside interest, too."
While his efforts to build this better block have been applauded by many, Pollard has become a controversial figure in the city after routinely calling out the city of San Diego and the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, which he believes are standing in the way of neighborhood progress.
A major issue has been the installation of wooden planter boxes and benches on the corner of Euclid and Imperial. Pollard claims the mayor's office never provided city codes or guidelines for their installation, but that he did have a permit for temporary installation as part of the Better Block event. Pollard had them installed for the event but did not remove them afterward. He has incurred fines from the city and been ordered to remove them. Pollard had planned to relocate the planters and benches to Project New Village's community garden last Saturday. However, when volunteers gathered to do the removal, an attorney who was part of the removal team read through a letter from the city and saw that a permit was needed for removal. So Pollard and his team decided to leave the planters and benches in place.
Pollard is vocal about his disappointment with the mayor's office, and thinks there should be a bigger focus on the disrepair of local buildings than on a project he feels is doing good.
"I'm saying wake up, start paying attention to our neighborhood and start letting us be as creative as we can," Pollard says. "We understand there needs to be some consistency and guidelines, but make the guidelines, don't just create rules. Don't slap us with fines because of what we're doing. It's like the plantation owner is slapping the hand of the slave and saying, 'You boys be good over there or we gon' show you.'"
The mayor's office offered this assessment to CityBeat: "The city's Development Services Department (DSD) has asked Mr. Pollard to remove the improperly installed planters and benches at Euclid and Imperial. The mayor's office and Councilmember [Myrtle] Cole's office informed Mr. Pollard about the requirements needed to get the proper permits for his project. He chose to move forward with the project without obtaining a permit. Furthermore, DSD has determined the work was not done up to code. No individual, business or organization is allowed to install anything in a public right-of-way without appropriate approval from the city. To date, Mr. Pollard has never filed for a permit. If and when he does, the city will be happy to assist him."
The story is still unfolding. As of press time, Pollard says he will be meeting with the DSD this week to discuss a removal permit and future plans for the benches and planter boxes. He says he's following the city's instructions as they're providing them and creating a flowchart in order to track and share the process with other organizations.
While this process has been undoubtedly arduous and often combative, Pollard is still hopeful that the four corners will have new life brought to them and has joined forces with other community groups citywide to move towards making this a process for the entire city.
"What has been clear to me is that this issue is a symptom of the problem that is the city needing a policy that's transparent, user-friendly and equitable for all community members within the city," he says.