City Heights Leaders Fight For Five Years For Mural In Teralta Park
A handful of community leaders and residents have gathered in City Heights every few weeks for five years to try to get a mural painted in their neighborhood.
But they have run into a series of roadblocks, including a lack of response from Caltrans, the state agency that owns the wall where they want the mural, and objections that part of their design would cause Caltrans to violate the U.S. Constitution.
When they first got the idea for the mural, residents commissioned Linda Sheridan, CEO of the San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance, to plan the process.
"Art is transformative, it reflects the truth of the community and what it is," she said. "Especially this mural, people are not going to believe what this mural is going to communicate, not only to the community but to the region and any visitors that come. It's the visual of the heart of the people,"
Sheridan sent out surveys to City Heights residents asking them what they wanted the mural to say about their community.
"They learn from each other, they have very diverse backgrounds," she said. "They speak I don't know how many different languages in this community and yet they connect from each other, they learn from each other and they really honor that."
The theme they settled on was "Unity in the Community." They wanted to put the mural on a 263-foot wall in Teralta Park. The park sits directly on top of Interstate 15 and used to have a lot of gang activity.
Dan Tomsky, a community leader, said the park represents the change and growth City Heights has made.
"The wall was being quite often tagged with graffiti by gang-related youth and others and the quest was knowing that mural art is a real deterrent from that kind of vandalism," he said. "It was a great opportunity to redirect youth to positive expression."
In addition to displaying the diversity of City Heights, the mural features key neighborhood landmarks such as the City Heights Library, Central School and the iconic Teralta neighborhood park sign. The community decided to include the words: acceptance, diversity, harmony and justice in Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and English. The plans also included a few messages to represent the "Unity in the Community" theme including, "We are America," "We Welcome You" and "Education, Reading and Respect."
"The text and the words are an integral part of the art expression and in a sense are very sacred to this point," Tomsky said. "They underscore, I think in a very constructive way, the hopes, the aspirations as well as the history and the diversity, culturally and age wise of this community."
But it's those words that started the mural organizers' problems. Caltrans owns the wall and according to their policy, text is not allowed on transportation art. Back in April, the mural organizers asked for a formal waiver so they could include the text and then they waited. They say they got no response from Caltrans for months.
Sheridan, who helped plan the process from the beginning, said the long wait has been beyond frustrating.
"I mean you want to shake your head and say, 'Seriously, we can't function differently from this? We can't function at a better level in response to the needs of a community?'" she said.
The mural working group doesn't want to give up hope. They've enlisted the help of District 9 Councilwoman Georgette Gomez and are looking into bringing more of their elected representatives on board. They also want to invite Caltrans to Teralta Park to have a conversation with the community and understand their plans.
After the community group waited for months for a response from Caltrans, when KPBS reached out for this story, the agency said in a statement they plan to approve the mural "within the coming days."
But, without the text.
"Unfortunately, Department guidelines do not allow transportation art murals to contain text," the statement said. "This stipulation has been conveyed to the organization. The Department looks forward to having this meaningful mural added to the City Heights community."
When asked why Caltrans won't consider a waiver for text from the organizers, a spokesperson responded that the agency is "required to be content-neutral."
"Once we allow text on one transportation art in violation of the State’s Project Development Procedures Manual, Caltrans will lose its ability to control text on future structures, because it cannot arbitrarily pick and choose which transportation art will be allowed or disallowed to contain text without violating the U.S. Constitution," the statement said.
Mural organizers like Sheridan said both images and words can be "content" with a message.
"You can offend somebody with an image, you can offend somebody with a color of some sort or the way you use that color," she said.
Maria Cortez, a longtime City Heights resident, said she will continue to fight for the mural she says celebrates the change and growth of her neighborhood.
"Now the park is thriving, the community has come together, communities come out here, the kids play soccer games late in the evenings, we have had movie nights here in the park," she said. "The mural would also integrate art and what a difference it would make to have art displayed out here throughout the community."
She said getting the mural painted would also be a sign of how her community has learned to work together, and to her, that would be the reward.