This past Monday, a dozen Barrio Logan residents along with three staff members from the Environmental Health Coalition stood at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Parkway and Newton Avenue and pointed a small, blue device that looked a lot like a Dustbuster at passing cars and trucks. The device measured the levels of toxic particles emitted into the air from each vehicle. The data the group was after was how many of these particles were coming from the diesel trucks that travel daily-an estimated 500-from the loading docks at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal up Cesar Chavez Parkway to the I-5 freeway.
In the rare moments that the street was free of trucks, the machine's electronic display registered anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 particles. Then a 16-wheeler would pass by, sending the numbers soaring as high 308,000; when three trucks drove by at once, the machine registered 500,000.
The type of pollutants-ultra-fine particles-that the machine was picking up aren't regulated by the state Environmental Protection Agency, but EHC and Barrio Logan residents are pretty sure that having that many diesel trucks pass through a residential area each day isn't healthy for the people living there.
Given that the financially strapped Port District-which saw $40 million cut from its budget when Lindbergh Field fell out of its control earlier this year-is actively seeking new tenants to lease 10th Avenue docks, the number of trucks traveling down Cesar Chavez is expected only to increase.
Getting the trucks off the street has been a long-time goal of Barrio Logan residents, said community activist Rachael Ortiz. An I-5 corridor study conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the entity tasked with overseeing San Diego County transportation development, agrees an alternate route is necessary, due largely to the Port District's demand that trucks have better freeway access.
Ortiz and other community leaders want to see a ramp built at 32nd Street that would connect Harbor Drive to both Interstates 5 and 15. All that's standing in the way is a massive junkyard, some businesses that are up for sale and temporary Navy housing.
The Port District, on the other hand, favors an overpass that would run directly from the 10th Avenue terminal to Interstate 5. All that's in the way are a few blocks of Barrio Logan homes and businesses located on Sigsbee Street. Port District project analyst Stuart Farnsworth said there's been an additional proposed overpass that would run above 16th Street, at the northernmost end of Barrio Logan.
Farnsworth said there are pros and cons to each proposal but added that the Port District's goal is to keep traffic moving and get the diesel trucks off neighborhood roads. Both Farnsworth and SANDAG senior project manager Michael Hix said plans wouldn't move forward without a detailed environmental impact study as well as significant community input.
For their part, Barrio Logan residents are tired of having freeways cut through their community-itself a product of I-5 bisecting the part of town then known as Logan into Logan Heights and Barrio Logan in 1963. In 1969, the Coronado Bridge went in and later became both the foundation and canopy, literally, for Chicano Park-the community painting elaborate murals on the freeway supports throughout the park, a sort of “screw you” to Caltrans. “Varrio si! Yonkes no!” reads one of the murals.
The word “barrio” derives from the Arabic word barr, meaning “of an open area.” In the U.S., barrio is more stigma than geographic signifier, connoting racial segregation and, subsequently, economic hardship and blight.
This month's issue of San Diego Magazine awarded Barrio Logan the title of “Ugliest Place” in the city. In the larger scheme of things it's a minor snub, but the designation is both telling and reductive.
Barrio Logan, Ortiz points out, is ugly-but, she quickly adds, it looks a whole lot better than it did 30 years ago when industrial development dwarfed residential space. And the ugliness that remains today has little to do with the residents who live there and more to do with negligent government policy that allowed businesses banned in other parts of the city-mostly machinery repair and junk yards-to set up shop in Barrio Logan.
On a driving tour of Barrio Logan, Ortiz points equally to obvious signs of community pride-freshly painted homes, thriving gardens and landscaped median dividers where local kids have planted flowers and trees-as she does to the businesses everyone wishes would clean up or move out. “Mi barrio precioso,” she quoted-a common expression of neighborhood solidarity-“it's a good word.”
Ortiz was born and grew up in what's now known as Logan Heights. Her father worked in the Barrio Logan cannery, now Continental Maritime. After spending a few years as a college student and activist in San Francisco, Ortiz returned to her community 33 years ago. Her day job is executive director of Barrio Station, an ambitious, multi-faceted nonprofit organization that serves the area's at-risk kids.
Ortiz talks fast and changes topics even faster (“life's too short,” she says). She can swear like a trucker when she gets worked up over an issue affecting the community, but breaks down momentarily when talking about the years it's taken for her people to earn a little political respect. It's only been since the 1980s, for example, that Barrio Logan has had sidewalks and paved alleyways. It was a major victory, but now there's the 500-a-day diesel trucks to deal with as well as a growing homelessness problem caused by the concentration of social service agencies that sit at the border between East Village and Barrio Logan.
Barrio Logan's problems began before its creation. Waterfront industrial development and the area's Latino population burgeoned throughout the 1930s and into World War II when businesses catering to naval ships moved into the area. In the 1950s, the city changed its zoning laws, designating Logan an M-2 zone or, in layperson's terms, a free-for-all zone. By the 1970s, Barrio Logan was home to 53 junkyards and a slew of businesses that relied on toxic chemicals to get their work done. Most of those junkyards have since moved to Otay Mesa after the community was able to get the California Coastal Commission to sign off on a new land-use plan.
Zoning laws in the area, however, are still relatively loose and industrial businesses mingle with houses. A January 2002 study by the state Air Resources Board found that the air in Barrio Logan had 28 times more chromium 6 than large urban areas. One of the biggest causes of this, Master Plating, a chrome plating shop, closed this past fall but only after years of community activism, City Council fumbling and a significant number of the area's kids being diagnosed with respiratory ailments.
Driving through Barrio Logan's mid-section, Ortiz's car creeping along at 10 MPH, she points to blatant code violations flaunted by the barrio's irresponsible neighbors-violations that have been largely ignored by the city's code compliance investigators, something Ortiz attributes to understaffing.
Neighborhood Code Compliance did not return Citybeat's phone call.
“This stinker,” Ortiz points out-a word she frequently uses during the drive-“is supposed to have redwood slats,” to fence off operations from the houses surrounding it, as dictated by city law. The offender, a recycling plant, has, instead, wire fencing with a flimsy green tarp sticking to it somehow. Wide-open gates as well as a towering sorting machine that processes recyclables expose the rest of the neighborhood to flying dust particles and views of mountains of trash waiting to be processed. Weeds crowd the sidewalk in front of the facility. Nowhere else in the city will you see a massive recycling plant in the middle of a residential area.
Someone's home-likely there before the recycling plant-sits directly next door. “Pretty little house,” Ortiz says, “just trying to make it.
“It's a real head trip,” she says of the destruction some of these businesses have done to the area. “Do people know what they're doing? Do they care?”
In 1990, 133 acres of Barrio Logan was designated a redevelopment project area to encourage interested developers and investors to work with the community to build and attract the types of housing, shopping areas and businesses that best suit the needs of the residents.
Attracting developers, however, hasn't been easy, said Ortiz. On top of that, it's sometimes hard for the community to trust outsiders, and understandably so. But the most ambitious project so far, 156 housing units along Logan Avenue, proposed by San Diego-based Urban Innovations, has community support and Ortiz's promise that she'll work closely with the developer to make sure all phases of the project jibe with the community's wants and needs.
The project is still waiting for the city to throw in its share of funding. Hueso says he's hopeful it'll work out.
The new housing will be affordable to those making around $32,000 a year-$573 for a one-bedroom and up to $859 for a three bedroom-high, perhaps, for Barrio Logan's $12,500 median household income, but, as Ortiz points out, many of the families living in the dilapidated homes and shacks that now sit where the new units will go are paying the same amount for sub-standard housing as they would for a new place.
“If you don't improve neighborhoods, you're not going to improve people's lives,” said Ortiz. “And people are just fighting to stay here.”