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Where Being Able to Vote (and Cross the Street) Is a Big Deal

Ernestina Diaz has lived in the United States for 34 years and is studying to take the citizenship test. She hopes to be able to vote by November.
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Above: Ernestina Diaz has lived in the United States for 34 years and is studying to take the citizenship test. She hopes to be able to vote by November.

The story of Ernestina Diaz drives home the one storyline hovering above everything in San Diego's newest City Council district.

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She's lived here for 34 years, since her mother and father immigrated to the United States when she was a young girl. She calls City Heights home, and for a long time owned the piñata store on the corner of 42nd Street and University Avenue where she still helps out.

Diaz has a lot of hopes for her corner of the city.

She can't vote. But, boy, does she want to.

"I'm studying right now to be a citizen," she says, "to be able to elect better representatives."

The city of San Diego's Redistricting Commission created District 9 last year to provide a second Latino-majority district. And indeed, they did. Latinos account for slightly more than 50 percent of the district's population. Many, like Diaz, can't vote or aren't registered to. They end up making up only about one-quarter of the registered voters in the district.

Meanwhile, in whiter neighborhoods like Kensington, Talmadge and College Area, those numbers are reversed. One Kensington resident told me residents there comprise 4 percent of the population but expect to be one-third of the votes in the primary.

That tension is at the center of both candidates' campaigns.

Current District 7 Councilwoman Marti Emerald is now looking at a district much different than her current one. Her No. 1 priority: voter registration. She says she and her staff will tutor would-be citizens, something that doesn't typically fall in the everyday job duties of a council member.

Her challenger, businessman and activist Mateo Camarillo, is only a candidate at all because no other Latino jumped in.

"I'm running because underserved people need representation," he says.

When not at the piñata shop or caring for her kids, Ernestina Diaz is studying both civics and English, all on the hopes that she can take the citizenship exam this year and vote for the first time in November. She wants the red and yellow sections of her street to be painted nicely, for the fire hydrants to work and for the city to allow her to put more bright piñatas and other goods outside of her store.

She sees other areas of the city like downtown and wants her neighborhood to be like that.

"We want the city to be beautiful, too. We want them to pay attention to us, to our streets," she says.

I'm spending the week in District 9, getting to know its leaders and residents, zeroing on in the big issues and talking with the candidates. The juxtaposition between neighborhoods like City Heights and Kensington is strong. Neither really wanted to be grouped with the other.

Camarillo, who headed up a group advocating for Latino representation in redistricting, didn't want Kensington, Talmadge and the College Area in the district — and he lives in Kensington. And leaders in Kensington and Talmadge wanted to be with neighborhoods like Normal Heights and North Park in District 3, with whom they say they have more in common.

The issues in City Heights are basic ones involving crossing the streets safely or finding a way to get to work and school. In Kensington, the biggest fight right now is against the small green utilities boxes that popped up in Talmadge as a result of utility-line undergrounding. Still, neither candidate made an issue of it. These kinds of differing priorities aren't abnormal across political districts.

I'm still touring the district and met with both candidates today, so the reporting is a work in progress. There are some parts, like Southcrest and Mount Hope, that I haven't touched on yet. Here are three issues that have emerged so far:

1. Non-Car, Street-Level Infrastructure

An MTS bus on a San Diego street.
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Above: An MTS bus on a San Diego street.

Yes, I need a better name for it. Here's what I'm trying to describe: You constantly hear in City Heights about the low rates of car ownership (only one-third of households own a car) and pedestrian safety. That means the need for improved public transit, safer crosswalks, better sidewalks and more room for bikes. People want better, safer ways of getting around without a car. Hence my snappy catch-all: Non-car, street-level infrastructure. Stay with me, I beg you, it gets better.

Here's a collection of stories that highlights the issues I've come across:

A new grocery store in City Heights revives a sense of urgency among advocates to do something about a dangerous intersection at University Avenue and 54th Street that many pedestrians have to cross.
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Above: A new grocery store in City Heights revives a sense of urgency among advocates to do something about a dangerous intersection at University Avenue and 54th Street that many pedestrians have to cross.

• The dangerous intersection at 54th Street and University Avenue that features a street corner that's more like a freeway on-ramp. Some busy routes are missing sidewalks and a new crosswalk can be a celebrated thing.

Residents have been advocating for the “Center Line” for decades. A station was built on the Interstate 15 overpass long ago for the line.
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Above: Residents have been advocating for the “Center Line” for decades. A station was built on the Interstate 15 overpass long ago for the line.

• The long wait for the transit stations that have been built and planned for the University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard overpasses at their intersections with Interstate 15. The overpasses, which include locked, never-used bathrooms and ticket booths at El Cajon, have sat idle for a decade. The regional planning agency has promised the Center Line, a north-south bus connection to jobs centers, will finally be built beneath the overpass, something some residents have been waiting for nearly half their lives.

• Cyclists in City Heights are more likely to be injured in a crash than those citywide, but the neighborhood nonetheless is becoming a hub for biking. So much so that the two candidates are even being asked for their plan for bikes.

• The "Little Saigon" cluster of Vietnamese businesses along El Cajon Boulevard is seeking a formal designation from the City Council in hopes of eventually adding simple street-side improvements like artisan-style sidewalk pavers, decorative street lights and an arching street sign.

2. What Comes After Redevelopment

Advocates want to know what will come of two city-owned vacant plots on El Cajon Boulevard now that government-sponsored redevelopment is dead.
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Above: Advocates want to know what will come of two city-owned vacant plots on El Cajon Boulevard now that government-sponsored redevelopment is dead.

I didn't expect "enforceable obligations" to be such a catch phrase this week.

But with redevelopment's death, neighborhood residents are wondering what planned development and beautification projects will get prioritized and actually completed — and what comes next for government-sponsored urban renewal. In the parlance of redevelopment's death, they want to know which ideas are "enforceable obligations" (something that will still get finished with remaining redevelopment funds) and what will die alongside redevelopment. This is important for the affordable housing projects that dot the neighborhoods, as well as other simple beautification projects.

One specific thing that came up a couple of times: what will happen to two vacant plots of land on the north side of the El Cajon Boulevard-Interstate 15 intersection? Residents said the plots, ringed with temporary chain-link fence, used to be owned by the city's Redevelopment Agency and were transferred back to the city upon redevelopment's death. They said they've been waiting for something, anything to happen there for a decade.

"Enough's enough," says Beryl Forman, who works for the Boulevard Business Association and is nicknamed "Ms. Boulevard." She said the city needs to at least open up the lots as community gardens or pocket parks in the short-term.

3. Undergrounding Drama

Utility lines await undergrounding at the intersection of Adams Avenue and Jean Drive.
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Above: Utility lines await undergrounding at the intersection of Adams Avenue and Jean Drive.

The whole point of undergrounding power lines is to get rid of an eyesore. You take all those tangled wires that muddle neighborhood air and cram them beneath the earth.

Kensington residents, however, think San Diego Gas & Electric didn't do much beautification when they undergrounded in neighboring Talmadge. Every few houses now has a small green utilities box in that thin stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb (which, I learned, has a variety of names, including the awesome "devil's strip").

"They replaced an eyesore with an eyesore," says Don Taylor, who serves on the also-awesomely-titled Undergrounding Sub-Committee of the Ken-Tal Planning Group.

Residents have managed to postpone the undergrounding in Kensington as they work out a system with the city. They cite Mission Hills' undergrounding as one done more tastefully and say it should be the model for their neighborhood.

Tom Hebrank, an active Kensington resident, feels strongly about the undergrounding, too. He looks at it, though, and acknowledges that he'd pay more attention to City Heights if he were the council member. "Their needs are greater than our undergrounding," he says. "The focus should be there. That doesn't mean that streetlights aren't important to us."


Originally published by our media partner, Voice of San Diego.

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