The Battle For Barrio Logan

Sep 23, 2013

Drive through the streets of the Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Diego and you quickly notice that it is a hodge-podge; From the vibrant murals of Chicano Park dancing on the underbelly of the freeway, to the shipyards that lace the water's edge, to residential housing tucked in next to industrial warehouses.

Barrio Logan is in many ways just a small slice of the city, wedged between shipyards on one side and the freeway on the other, bisected by the towering Coronado Bridge. But the fight that emerged around the update to the community plan pitted industry and residents against each other in fierce battle.

Georgette Gomez gave me a tour of the neighborhood. She is with the Environmental Health Coalition, an activist group that focuses on environmental issues that impact minority communities. She said the residents of Barrio Logan are predominately poor people of color.

Almost drowned out by the loud drone of idling trucks, Gomez pointed out a petroleum factory which she said stores toxic and dangerous chemicals.

"These are heavy chemicals that are being stored there right in front of affordable housing," she said. "A housing project. To me it's just like a - I don't want it ever to happen - but it's an accident waiting to happen."

Outside that housing project I met with activist Maria Moya. She was talking with a group of residents, asking them about the times the pollution got really bad in the past decade.

They tell her it was horrible, with toxic fumes piped into their apartments and the noise of idling trucks from six in the morning until well after dark becoming a drumbeat in their ears.

Moya is a short woman with a round, friendly face, and her voice wavered between impassioned edict and giggling laughter. She said this was the neighborhood the shipyards built, and the seeds of the struggle playing out today were sown in World War II when the American government brought in Mexican workers to work on the port.

"They needed the labor," she said, "but there were restrictions on where people of color could live, so what did they do? They placed them in Barrio Logan."

Moya said she is not against the shipyards. After all her father, her brothers, and her husband all made their living working on the docks. That is how they ended up calling Barrio Logan home.

Barrio Logan was a neighborhood that served the building and restoring of ships. While the community settled in, so did maritime business. Without proper zoning regulations industrial businesses and houses grew up along side each other. The result? Polluted air that directly affected the residents. People living here are three times as likely to get asthma than in other parts of San Diego.

Moya said the pollution got worse and the residents got sicker, yet for a long time nothing changed. "It takes a lot of banging on the door and screaming and hollering for things to change in this community."

She mentioned the beachfront neighborhood where many of the city's richest residents reside. La Jolla is just a few miles north, but Moya said if she lived there "and I have a little noise issue, that is taken care of right away. But here people have been screaming about their health and their children's health and no one is listening."

Only a few years ago the exhaust pipes from plating factories ran directly into these low-income housing units. Residents Moya talked to said that meant sick children and families with multiple miscarriages, not to mention cancer. Over time, things have changed for the better.

But the real victory, she said, is the passage of a new community plan that separates industrial uses from residential homes.

On the other side in this debate are the shipyard and its business interests. They agree that there has been bad and incomplete zoning in this neighborhood.

Chris Wahl is spokesperson for the shipbuilding industry and the businesses that serve them. He said updating the community plan in Barrio Logan is a no-brainer.

"Everybody wants to have a better separation of uses, we are all on the same page on that," he said. "But it can't be at the expense of the shipyards and their future."

That is what placed Wahl and those in the shipbuilding industry on the other side of the debate. He said most of the health issues the community faces have been resolved.

"The air is now equal to the air in Poway," he said, referring to an upper middle class neighborhood inland in San Diego.

The most contentious territory in this fight was a few square blocks that will now act as a buffer zone between the shipyard docks and residents homes. Wahl argued that land should be used by commercial industries that serve the shipyard. He said without that, the industry might not survive.

The new plan allows for commercial use, but new businesses would need to get approved first.

"I think it is a principal issue," Wahl said, "I think the fact of the matter is the shipyards and the maritime industry believes that the city would rather have homes than the shipbuilding industry there."

But City Council Member David Alvarez, who represents Barrio Logan, said that was not true. He said in the battle over the new plan, industry was trying to do what it has done all along, get out of being regulated.

"We want to not encroach on industry because those jobs are good jobs and we want to keep them," Alvarez said. "But we also don't want to put industrial uses next door to somebody who lives in Barrio Logan or will live there in the future."

Alvarez admits the issue is personal. He grew up in Barrio Logan in a house sandwiched between machine shops and he said he has the asthma to prove it.

He said the battle for Barrio Logan is really just an old story: Poor residents that lose out to powerful moneyed interests. But this time, Alvarez said, he wants to change the ending.

"This is the best example of the worst that San Diego has done in the past and also it's bringing about the worst of San Diego," he said.

San Diego is known as a business-friendly town, where industry special interests usually get their way. But the makeup of politics has as of late has been creeping towards the left.

That is perhaps why, at the end of an emotionally exhaustive six-hour city council meeting in mid September, the vote on the Barrio Logan community plan update was split on party lines, five to four. As for who won, it was the residents' plan to keep industry out of the buffer zone.

While grim-faced industry stalwarts left the room in silence, a cheer rose up from the resident activists.

Georgette Gomez, the activist who first showed me around, hugged friends and neighbors as they offered congratulations.

I walked up to her to ask her how she felt and saw tears running across her cheeks.

"Really, you want to ask me how I feel?" Gomez drew in breath and tried to answer the question.

"It's just ... over 30 years, of working towards..." and her voice trailed off. Her next sentence was almost undecipherable.

"They finally recognized us" she said.

In the background residents took pictures to mark the moment, cheering "Viva Barrio Logan."

But their celebration could be short lived. The maritime industry is considering taking the plan to voters in a referendum.

Copyright 2013 FRNTRS. To see more, visit