Stephanie Molina hasn't had much of a childhood so far. Lots of visits to the doctor. Lots of school time missed. She can engage in virtually no physical activity lest her asthma and her allergies become debilitating. “She's exposed to dust and she starts coughing,” her mom said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “I don't let my daughter even move a cushion in here. She just goes to her room and does her homework.”
Restrictions on her young life have forced Stephanie into battle against the sort of depression no child should even know about, let alone deal with personally. “I really encourage her,” Molina said. “I tell her she can be somebody in this world. Just because she has all these respiratory problems shouldn't stop her. She's strong-that's what I tell her. But she gets really depressed.”
Stephanie was once sent to a therapist, Molina said, because she had told her pediatrician that she would rather die than live the way she was living. She was 5 years old.
Molina moved to Barrio Logan from Chula Vista in 1990 when she got married. Her husband works as a chef-manager of a local restaurant. Stephanie was born in 1991 and brought illness with her from the womb. A blood infection caused her to spend her first week and a half in the hospital. High fever brought her back to the hospital a month after she was allowed to go home.
Her respiratory troubles began at 6 months old. “She was always very sick,” Molina said. “We would take her, basically, weekly to the hospital. One year old, same situation. When she was about a year and a half old, she was diagnosed with asthma.” At 5 years old came surgery for various complications with her sinuses. And just last April, Stephanie had reconstructive ear surgery. “She's pretty unhappy,” Molina said. “She doesn't want to be sick.”
Molina herself never got sick when she lived in Chula Vista. The move to Barrio Logan, she said, brought her first real sinus problems-lots of congestion and sore throat. No one knows for sure, but her doctors say it's possible that Molina could have become ill from environmental pollution and passed it on to her daughter during pregnancy, lowering Stephanie's immune system. Although Stephanie's younger sister Elizabeth has exhibited minor respiratory illness, it looks like it's under control.
“I feel like if I passed something on to my daughter,” Molina said, “it's because I was already living here and I had already been affected. It affected me during my pregnancy, and now my daughter has these problems. They couldn't explain why she had been born sick. I think it's because of so much pollution that we're exposed to here.”
Barrio Logan has for decades been San Diego's low-income dumping ground. It's not unlike counterparts in other urban areas in California-Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland-where poor Latino and African American families have had to live side-by-side with heavy industry and have received little help from the government because they lack political clout.
The tide for Barrio Logan may have started to turn in the past year. The neighborhood made headlines in January when state air-quality officials announced they had detected very high levels of hexavalent chromium near two Newton Avenue chrome-plating shops, Master Plating and Carlson & Beauloye Machine Shop. Hexavalent chromium is the nasty, cancer-causing heavy metal that made a feisty legal investigator named Erin Brockovich a worldwide celebrity.
Eight months later, after having been sued by San Diego County, Master Plating agreed to shut down not only its chrome operation but also its nickel- and copper-plating work and close its doors forever. Under the settlement, Master Plating's owner must decontaminate the property by Nov. 15.
But if you ask community activists, Master Plating's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental dangers in Barrio Logan, and they're irritated that it took so long to get anyone to do much of anything about problems that have been obvious to the residents for decades.
Quality of life in the neighborhood has been under assault since before it was even called “Barrio Logan.” Built as a residential community for Anglo-Americans in the late 19th century, Logan, which also included what's now Logan Heights, Sherman Heights, Grant Hill and Memorial, became largely an African American enclave in the 1910s and '20s when the white residents moved into newer San Diego developments. Devoid of political power, Logan was designated as San Diego's new home of heavy industry about that same time. In came the fishing and shipping industries, which, to be fair, brought lots of good jobs, but they also brought foul odors and dangerous pollutants, which rode the prevailing winds directly into Logan. By the 1940s, Logan was San Diego's largest Mexican neighborhood. In came the junkyards and auto repair, chrome plating and painting businesses.
“There's been studies that have looked at what makes communities more vulnerable to the location of heavy industries.... [Those studies] have found that race is the No. 1 determining factor,” said Paula Forbis of the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), a nonprofit environmental justice organization that is assisting Barrio Logan residents. Studies show that what makes a minority community even more vulnerable is a turnover between two different races, as was the case in Barrio Logan during the first half of the last century, Forbis added.
The 1960s brought freeway construction to Logan, and Interstate 5 cut straight through the middle. The area north of the 5 became Logan Heights; south of the freeway, where most of the industrial businesses were located, was called Barrio Logan. The Coronado Bridge, with its support structures standing tall over Barrio Logan, was finished in 1969. One of the cruel ironies of Barrio Logan is Chicano Park-the community's only real park space sits directly beneath the Coronado Bridge. The community made the best of it though, evident by the colorful murals splashed across the many concrete supports, depicting the neighborhood's rich culture and its battles against racism and environmental injustice.
In the 1970s, residents began to mount challenges to the mixed industrial-residential patchwork zoning, but other than some victories over junkyards, they enjoyed little success. In the 1980s, the Environmental Health Coalition joined the fray. EHC activists documented health impacts of the mixed-zoning and advocated for policy changes. There were successes on paper, but nothing ever really improved in the neighborhood.
The city envisioned moving the residents west of Interstate 5 out of the area and making it exclusively an industrial zone, said Forbis, who's co-director of EHC's Toxic Free Neighborhoods campaign. “[But] there was never an affirmative effort on the part of the city to relocate the residents. So industries moved in, taking over what were previously residential-sized lots, so what you have now on the ground is a patchwork quilt of heavy industries and residences. And it's really an unhealthy mix because of the emissions of these facilities [and] because of the accident risks.”
Buoyed by a 1996 study conducted by Scripps Research Institute, which found that 28 percent of Latino children in Southeast San Diego had probable or possible asthma-compared to 7 percent overall-EHC conducted its own health survey and found that children in an area encompassing Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Sherman Heights and National City were twice as likely to be asthmatic than their counterparts in a control group. “One of the other very disturbing facts that came out in this survey,” Forbis said, “was that a full third of the population only had access to emergency health care, so that if a person didn't have regular access to health care, it's less likely they're going to be diagnosed with asthma.”
But studies don't necessarily translate into policy changes, and city and county officials didn't exactly spring into action. “This has been a very long fight,” Forbis said. “The community residents have been complaining about [Master Plating] for many years. Their noses were telling them there was a problem many years before the monitors ever were put out there.”
The monitors Forbis mentioned belonged to the state Air Resources Board (ARB), which eventually decided to make Barrio Logan the first of six sites chosen statewide for its Children's Environmental Health Protection program. The ARB installed ambient air-quality monitors at Barrio Logan's Memorial Academy charter school and at sites in Chula Vista and El Cajon, and state officials collected data for 17 months, from October 1999 to March 2001.
“I think what has really turned the tide in this instance,” Forbis said, “was that the state was willing to commit the resources to get to the bottom of this issue, and since that data has come out, the local county health agencies like the county Air Pollution Control District and the Department of Environmental Health have taken a very aggressive stance in getting the problem resolved. But it took many years to get them to that point.”
At first, however, the results were unremarkable. A year and a half's worth of testing showed little more than that Barrio Logan's air was sometimes not terribly healthy-less healthy than Chula Vista, about the same as El Cajon and statewide, and much healthier than urban L.A. But the ARB monitors weren't telling the whole story. The data on hexavalent chromium were insufficient, and the monitors didn't check at all for particulate matter from diesel exhaust, which residents have been up in arms about for years. At the time, the state's methods for studying particulate matter were inadequate.
The ARB's next study targeted chromium, and last December state officials found alarmingly high levels of the toxic metal. A double-check revealed the same. “These were extremely high levels-very high levels-higher than any levels than had ever been recorded, as far as I remember,” said ARB spokesman Jerry Martin. “We immediately knew this was a problem. Chromium is a very toxic compound. It doesn't take a lot of it to make you sick.”
Martin compared the results to what the state saw at Suva Schools in Bell Gardens in Southeast Los Angeles, where, in 1988, the community protested against nearby chrome-plating shops that had been emitting hexavalent chromium for the previous 30 years. Two teachers at the schools had miscarried deformed fetuses in 1988 and another teacher had to abort one. “Comparing the levels of chromium from Suva School to the levels we found in Barrio Logan,” Martin said, “some of the levels in Barrio Logan were much higher, and that immediately set off alarms with us.”
The results didn't surprise anyone in Barrio Logan. “At some point we have to say we have enough data, based on what we know about chrome plating, and to say that chrome platers don't belong next to people's houses,” Forbis said. “Something that almost every environmental regulator I've ever met will tell you is that chrome platers don't belong next to houses, and yet the land-use folks haven't quite caught up to that fact yet.”
Forbis noted that the high cost of the work in Barrio Logan will prohibit the state from monitoring any more sites near potential polluters locally. “One of the challenges here is that the state has spent over a million dollars on the monitoring that was conducted around Master Plating,” she said. “Certainly, that's not a model that can replicated. So what we're really hoping is that this prompts more proactive action from the city.”
For his part, Martin believes there's more pollution in Barrio Logan than meets the state's detectors. “You have to understand, this is the first time we've ever done this,” he said, “and as a science, quite frankly, not a lot is known about the cumulative effects of toxins. If you ask me my personal opinion, there probably are a lot of other problems there that we didn't find, that we have not been able to put our finger on.”
He noted the high level of diesel-fueled truck traffic in Barrio Logan-trucks headed for the Port of San Diego's 10th Avenue Terminal mainly-and explained that 70 percent of all airborne toxins we breath come from diesel exhaust. Add to that emissions from ships at port, construction of the ballpark in East Village and industrial companies such as the Nassco and Southwest Marine shipyards and the Kelco seaweed processing plant and you have yourself a real swirling soup of air pollution.
“Unfortunately, this is a new area for us,” Martin said, “and so we don't have all the answers.” However, he added, “I don't think it's that much different than other low-income areas around the state and, quite frankly, may be better off than some.”
For many residents and activists, the most galling ingredient is the truck traffic, and although alternate routes might lessen the impact slightly, the neighborhood's proximity to freeways and the destinations themselves guarantees a certain level of permanence.
“Anything we build in Barrio Logan is going to be impacted by a bridge, by a freeway or by port industry, so we're kind of in a tough spot,” said Ben Hueso, manager of the city's Barrio Logan Redevelopment Project. “The community wants us to focus on residential uses and a mixture of commercial and business-type uses. If we do anything industrial, it's got to be light industry, something that provides livable-wage jobs. But you can't ignore the fact that anything that you touch in Barrio Logan is going to be next to massive transportation infrastructure and massive port-front industry.
“If you look at the 10th Avenue Terminal, it creates massive amounts of truck traffic,” Hueso added. “We have the railroad yards [and] the Chevron Oil tanker facility next to the 10th Avenue Terminal. We have Nassco, Kelco, Southwest Marine, SDG&E. If you look at all those uses from the port, they call contribute to the air quality of the community, not to mention 70,000 cars per day [on] Coronado Bridge and the 200,000 cars per day on the Freeway 5. That's massive amounts of vehicle emissions. And if you compound that by the grandfathered industry in Barrio Logan-we have welding shops, refinishers, chrome platers, port-related industry-all that contributes to the poor air quality.”
Hueso has the unenviable task of leading a redevelopment project that is too small to be of much use. A redevelopment area is a tool local governments use to fix up blighted neighborhoods. It allows them to hang on to increases in property tax revenue that would otherwise go directly to Sacramento to be divvied up statewide. Under redevelopment, the revenue stays in the project area and helps finance new development such as affordable housing and shopping centers, which, in turn, increase the funding for future projects.
In San Diego, the most lucrative redevelopment project is Horton Plaza, an engine that powers the city's Downtown Redevelopment Area. Barrio Logan's redevelopment area has no such engine. “The problem is we do not have the financial resources to even carry out a very small percentage of what Barrio Logan needs,” Hueso said. “We don't have anything remotely close to the Downtown Redevelopment Area. We have a very, very small redevelopment project area that mostly has land on it that does not contribute to the tax base. A lot of it is a bridge or a park or a school or a property that has been taken off the tax rolls.”
So far, in the 11-year life of the Barrio Logan Redevelopment Project, the only significant project to be completed was the Mercado Apartments. That's where Elena Molina's family rents a partially subsidized unit. The complex sits on formally contaminated San Diego Gas & Electric property-almost directly beneath the Coronado Bridge, where particulate matter from vehicle exhaust falls like rain.
Molinas said she had hoped for a unit further away from the bridge. “When they were distributing the apartments,” she said, “I didn't want to be right under the bridge, but this is the one I got.”
The small redevelopment area-which is roughly bordered by 16th and 26th Streets on the west and east, and by Main Street and Interstate 5 to the south and north-was established mainly to create a mercado, a Mexican-style market place on land southeast of Cesar Chavez Parkway (formerly Crosby Street). Numerous businesses were removed to make way for the project, which promises to be the center of Barrio Logan's community life, but to this day the land sits vacant, the Redevelopment Agency unable to secure financing for the deal. A contract with a developer, Land Grant Development, was severed by the city in September.
Mateo Camarillo and Luis Garcia, owners of Chuey's bar and eatery, sat in their restaurant last Friday and talked about their frustration. Camarillo repeatedly interrupted himself to point out an almost constant chain of 18-wheelers rumbling just outside the door on Cesar Chavez-reportedly 500 per day-and Garcia griped about the Redevelopment Agency's inability to move the mercado project forward.
“The city could do a lot more for this area. Look at our next-door neighbor, Centre City Development [Corporation, the agency the drives downtown redevelopment]. Why is it positive there and it just started recently? They had a lot of [contamination] cleanup over there. What about Horton Plaza? They did what they wanted to do in those neighborhoods, but they have not accomplished what they intended to do here.”
The conundrum, Garcia said, is that it will likely take gentrification of Barrio Logan to get the city to genuinely interested in it, and gentrification, with its attendant rising housing costs, is exactly what activist don't want.”
Garcia himself recently struck a real estate deal that's, in one sense, part of the problem and, in another, part of the solution. He sold two houses next to Chuey's for far more than they should be worth. While that contribute to rising overall housing costs, he believes the people who bought them-Latinos-will help provide better access to City Hall.
For his part, Hueso would like the city to expand the redevelopment area. He said there are owners of property that hold small industrial business who would like to sell to the agency, but they're outside the project area. “The [City] Council has been hesitant to move forward on expansion because they don't feel the entire community's on board,” he said. “Then you have a percentage of the people in the community who fear redevelopment and fear displacement, so they don't support expansion. So we have a lot of politics and a lot of opposing views that really don't give us all the tools that we need to come in and undertake a comprehensive redevelopment program.”
The continuing pressures on the community, however, will force change, Hueso predicts. “I see a growing frustration that I think will ultimately lead to the expansion of the area,” he said. “I think we will be able to undertake some projects successfully that will create a synergy or a catalyst to undertake new projects.
“As we get more people interested in the area and investing in the area and bringing resources to the area... I think it's really going to contribute to creating an exciting waterfront community.”
Such talk frustrates Garcia. “It needs to be expanded, yes,” he said. But “how can you expand and make more promises when you haven't fulfilled the promises of the past. When do we get the retail center here? When do we get additional affordable housing.”
Added Camarillo, “There's potential to solve problems if there's a will. If we all put our heads together, we can solve them together, whether it's access to money, whether it's getting housing.” He said there's an expression in his native Tijuana: “So close to the United States, and so far from God.” Barrio Logan, Camarillo said, is so close to the decision-makers in Downtown San Diego, but so far from their minds.”
Camarillo and Garcia said they can put together an investment team for the mercado project if the city would simply level with them about the red tape that is still tangling up the contract with Land Grant Development. “That's all doable, however, we don't want to be sued for interfering with the business interests of somebody else,” Camarillo said. “We just need a straight answer.”
Building new projects is one thing; maintaining control over the old ones is another. The residents and health activists say that more polluting businesses are out there. Not only do they want them stopped, they also want new regulations put permanently in place that would keep “dirty” industrial businesses from coming in and taking their places.
To that end, they want the Barrio Logan Community Plan, which hasn't been updated since being approved in 1979, and its accompanying zoning laws altered so that it outlaws the existing mixed industrial-residential framework. That's the only way residents are really going assume control over their neighborhood, said Sonia Rodriguez, another resident of the Mercado Apartments and a community organizer for the Environmental Health Coalition. Her daughter also has asthma. “It's too hard to fight each site one at a time,” she said, “so I think what we need to work on right now is the community plan. They've got to find the money to redo the community plan.”
Supported by City Councilmember Ralph Inzunza, who represents Barrio Logan, the city's Land Use and House Committee on Sept. 18 recommended passage of an emergency ordinance banning new chrome plating businesses in Barrio Logan and an update of the Barrio Logan Community Plan. The full City Council is expected to vote on those matters in November.
But even if they vote “yes,” no source of money to fund the plan update, which city officials say will cost $1.2 million, has been identified, said Lara Evans, a city planner responsible for Barrio Logan. “If you know of a donor or benefactor,” she said, half-jokingly, “who wants to gives us $1.2 million....”
“We are actively seeking grant funds,” Evans explained. “We were just told about two weeks ago that we did not qualify for California Financing Authority [funding]. We were, like, 10th, and they were only looking at the first nine applications out of 137 applications. We were one out-it was really horrible.”
Not surprisingly, such talk of municipal poverty irritates residents. “How can it be that in other neighborhoods, they're redoing the plans-in some cases when they're only 10 years old-and they can't find the money for this one,” Rodriguez complained. “It shouldn't be just because we're asking-isn't it part of the city's obligation? The plan they made was based on ideas that people had [30 years ago]. Things have changed.”
After Rodriguez spoke, her friend Elena Molina, whose daughter has so many health problems, returned the conversation to Stephanie. “I'm worried,” she said. “Right now, she's sick. She went to school sick-a lot of coughing and very tired. I'm going to send a bill for my daughter's health care to those industries. The doctors told me I could do that.”
Then she thought better of it. “We've never wanted to get into these kinds of problems-could be a waste of time. We'd have to be in court. As long as I can work, I'm not going to ask for anything. But you know what? I don't want money. I'd like for them to return to my daughter the childhood that she has missed out on.”