I used to go to City Heights as a reporter. It was the city's disgrace. It made me feel grim about the cheery, sunny region I love...with other such lonely, separate places tucked away like islands. City Heights is only a mile east of the center of San Diego...but far enough from our lives that most of us have never thought of trying to find it.
But as Sol Price has leveraged his wealth and compassion into City Heights, it has become one of American's most poignant redevelopments. It stands as a beacon of San Diego civic conscience.
This was San Diego's most desperate slum, one that often seemed beyond the law. Drive by shootings turned sidewlks into alleys of death. Some nights I rode with plainclothes units on drug busts. Cops who had worked in Chicago and New York ranked City Heights on the nation's Most Dangerous list.
That thought outraged a stubborn San Diego lawyer, Sol Price, whose father had fought other battles as a union organizer in the bitter labor wars of Depression-era New York.
And now social historians speak of Sol in the same breath as Jane Addams, who marched into Chicago slums a century ago. She turned an industrialist's mansion into America's first settlement house for poor immigrants. Sol turned big box stores into affordable housing.
She won the Nobel Prize. Sol refuses even to be named Mister San Diego.
Sol invested some of his Price Club profits to rebuild City Heights his way. He never gives money away. He leverages his wealth to steer public projects.
He offered City Hall a deal. He sponsored a shiny new police station in the midst of City Heights. It wasn't placed there to insure law enforcement, but community pride. Then he helped build city schools and a community college, athletic grounds, pools and parks.
He gave tens of millions of dollars, overseeing spending to prevent rakeoffs or kickbacks.
But the eccentric Sol refuses even to walk around his miracle community with reporters. Once, I got him as far as the new library. He disappeared inside and sent me on tour with a friend.
Sol grumbles still about City Heights. Now that it's been gentrified, he says, rents have gone too high. But he presses on.
His son Robert focuses money and reform on the basic issue of schooling at City Heights. William Jones, whom Sol helped send to Harvard, builds low-cost housing in which community service can offset the rent.
City Heights is not quite as separate now as it was before Sol Price. But still the Episcopal bishop John Chane talks about the difficulties of San Diego becoming a unified city.
He says, "Our challenge is not that we don't know each other. It's that we dont' want to know each other."