A Freeway Runs Through It: How City Heights and Barrio Logan Fought Local Political Machines to Save Their Neighborhoods

by on April 25, 2017 · 0 comments

in History, San Diego

chicano park parque chcano

Editor: The following is a retelling of how the San Diego communities of Barrio Logan and City Heights fought CalTrans and the local political machine to save their neighborhoods. (Originally published April 24, 2013.)

Resistance, Vision and Community

By Anna Daniels / San Diego Free Press

During the month of April, San Diego Free Press has been providing extensive coverage of Barrio Logan. Much of that coverage has focused upon Chicano Park–its history, its national historical designation and its deep spiritual and community connections.

Chicano Park exists in Barrio Logan because of the construction of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and the loss of property and displacement of lives that it caused. The community responded in a powerful, unique way. Residents couldn’t stop the construction, but they did lay claim to the land beneath the immense concrete pillars that enabled travelers above to make their way across the Coronado Bridge, oblivious to the transformation occurring below them. The land that was being readied for a California Highway Patrol substation was re-claimed as a long promised park. The reclamation began as a twelve day occupation that involved hundreds of people.

The residents and supporters of Barrio Logan made history by claiming that land and turning it into a park; they wrote and continue to write their history by virtue of the stunning ever expanding number of murals painted on the pillars which recently received designation on the National Registry of Historic Places; and they annually celebrate their victory. This past Saturday was the 43rd anniversary of Chicano Park.

Demolition for Freeway Eight Blocks, City Heights

Demolition for Freeway Eight Blocks, City Heights

City Heights was likewise changed forever when eight city blocks along 40th Street- people’s homes and businesses–were scoured from the face of the earth in the early 1990’s to make way for the last connecting link of I-15, which extends from Canada to Mexico. City Heights would become a scorched earth community divided by an enormous ditch in keeping with Caltrans signature construction style.

Resistance was spearheaded by the City Heights Community Development Corporation (CHCDC), whose leadership recognized the grim impacts of the construction upon a fragile and fragmented social structure in the poor, ethnically diverse and densely populated community of City Heights. Like Barrio Logan, City Heights was also lacking in public infrastructure investments–most notably parks, schools, libraries, street lights and transit options.

While Barrio Logan residents claimed the land under the Coronado Bridge, City Heights residents were presented with a plan to actually create land above the freeway. A blue ribbon panel with expertise in similar projects in Seattle and Phoenix explained that covers could be constructed over the freeway to knit the community physically back together and create adequate space to incorporate some of those much needed public amenities without further displacing residents.


visions nowThe Visions Project was born and Jay Powell was hired by the CHCDC to coordinate the community organizing, political advocacy, funding mechanisms and inter-agency cooperation required to accomplish the construction of five blocks of cover. The Visions Project encompassed more than the freeway covers, however.

It also addressed the need for environmental monitoring– two elementary schools were adjacent to the freeway construction. There was significant concern about the impact of freeway pollutants upon one of the most vulnerable segments of our community–our kids– which were referred to in the Caltrans environmental impact report as “sensitive receptors.” The project was far thinking in its inclusion of bike paths. One of the most critical elements, beyond the covers, was the rapid transit plan on the freeway to enable transit dependent residents to get to their jobs in the northern and southern parts of the city.

Two decades have passed since that great notion– the Visions Project–was undertaken. At the beginning, a portion of the land was reclaimed and a vibrant community garden flourished for five years on the scraped earth. The garden was surrounded with bright and whimsical artwork that gave expression to hundreds of local school kids, artists and residents. Like Barrio Logan, City Heights expressed its identity through its creative impulses and a belief in the regenerative force of nature itself.

City Heights Community Garden, Dancing Carrots

City Heights Community Garden, Dancing Carrots

But the garden was a temporary, interim use of the land until the freeway construction began. The garden and artwork were dismantled after five years. Despite the massive organizing effort, the local political will to support the construction of all of the covers was not there. As Ron Roberts, who was a City Councilman at the time summed it up with his “no” vote, the costs per square foot could not be justified– in City Heights.

Resistance to outside perceptions of what can and cannot be justified in City Heights and our own vision of what City Heights can accomplish were impossible to bury beneath that freeway construction. Resistance and vision continue to live in the unwavering commitment of residents–and the City Heights Community Development Corporation– to other elements of the Visions Project.

The 43rd anniversary of Chicano Park was celebrated in Barrio Logan this past weekend. City Heights residents are probably not largely aware yet that we too have a victory to celebrate. Megan Burks at Voice of San Diego/Speak City Heights reports that “Nearly 30 Years Later, Centerline Gets on the Fast Track.”

City Heights residents have indeed waited and continued to advocate for the vital rapid bus routes traveling north and south on the freeway–the Centerline. SANDAG made the unexpected announcement that they had identified funds to complete the project by May 2015.

It should be noted that the past decade at least of local organizing and advocacy work has been directed toward SANDAG, which consistently responded with “no” to the pressures for completion of the Centerline. As someone who worked on the original Visions Project twenty years ago, I have felt certain that I would never live long enough to see the Centerline construction because of SANDAG intransigence.

For decades now local residents and local leaders have kept up the good fight to keep the Centerline issue alive. Each one of those hundreds and hundreds of people deserves to have his or her name listed somewhere. I am therefore reluctant to give special acknowledgements when it obviously required the efforts of so many.

Maria Cortez Banner City Heights

Maria Cortez Banner City Heights

A very public acknowledgement is in order however to City Heights resident Maria Cortez for her extraordinary commitment to the Centerline over the long haul. Maria has stood numerous times on the University Avenue transit plaza informing residents of crucial developments that required their support and attendance. She has been present at SANDAG and MTS meetings, providing public testimony on behalf of the transit dependent. Maria is the face of our resiliency and hope. A portrait of our community hero is emblazoned on a street banner a few blocks from my home.

Maria Cortez provides yet another parallel to the Barrio Logan community. I was struck by the extraordinary commitment of Josie Talamantez who worked for decades within various bureaucratic systems and within the Barrio Logan community itself to achieve recognition of the Chicano Park murals on the National Register of Historic Places. Hundreds of people supported both Maria and Josie, yet each one of them provides special insight into what heroic action looks like.

Public acknowledgement must also be given to the incredible effort that the City Heights Community Development corporation has expended from the inception of the Visions Project to the board members and staff throughout the past two decades who continue to advocate for not only the completion of the Centerline today, but bike paths and functioning transit plazas at University and El Cajon.

Our new City Heights councilwoman Marti Emerald also deserves recognition for her advocacy of the Centerline at last month’s SANDAG meeting. And Mayor Bob Filner gets a special shout-out. “…then Councilman Filner, saw the potential of a Centerline for San Diego’s economy and required it as a Caltrans’s promise in the City/Caltrans freeway agreement, then pending before the City Council.”

Resistance, vision and community have unique manifestations in City Heights and Barrio Logan. Our communities understand the importance of remaining vigilant. The question remains whether we will find a way to engage in mutual support across these two communities. We have a reason– a freeway runs through it.


Anna Daniels was a past president and board member of the City Heights Community Development Corporation and participant in the City Heights Community Garden



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