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By Sneha Abraham
The City Heights district of San Diego is
on its way back, thanks to a long-term initiative led by Price Charities
and the deep personal commitment of Robert Price '64
Children ran into the garden, jostling to grab seats on the new mosaic
benches. They sat in the deep shadow of a large figure unveiled just a
few minutes earlier. Commissioned by community builder Robert Price '64
and sculpted by fellow classmate Kay Mura '64, the Storyteller creation
was a female, open-mouthed, with her face, arms and legs cast in bronze.
The Storyteller Sculpture Garden, a space at Rosa Parks Elementary
School set aside for reading, was now open. The mad dash was a moment
that the sculpture was built for-a moment for the children of the City
Heights district of San Diego, located northeast of downtown.
More than just another school, Rosa Parks is a community center for the
children and parents of City Heights-and City Heights has come a long
way over the course of nearly 15 years, thanks to Price Charities.
Price, his family and their charity have commissioned much more than a
sculpture for the city; they've commissioned community change. In close
partnership with fellow businessmen, nonprofit and government
organizations, Price Charities is giving this community an extreme
makeover: city edition-or as it's officially known-the City Heights
City Heights' 72,000 residents speak more than 30 languages
and numerous dialects, and it is one of the most diverse and densely
populated communities in San Diego County. But it is also one of the
most economically depressed.
Rosario Iannacone, who was born and raised in City Heights, was ashamed
to tell people where she lived. Schoolmates called her "ghetto gal." She
remembers all too well the Menlo Street vibe in the late 1980s through
"There was a lot of drug dealing going on," Iannacone said. "The local
high school had a drug bust ... and there was a lot of gang rivalry."
She recalls the neighbor on crack who would raise a ruckus for all to
A few incidents are seared on her memory-like the time the pipe bomb was
thrown into her mother's bedroom. Or the night the young man around the
corner was shot outside his house. Iannacone was preparing for a final
exam in accounting, but she said she couldn't concentrate or study. All
she could think about was the image of the chalk tracings on the
street-the outline of the young man's body.
After she got married, Iannacone moved from Menlo Street in 1995.
Even the supermarket wouldn't stay. Vons left town. Crime was out of
control. To this day, unemployment and poverty are high. Income is low,
as is home ownership. High school graduates in City Heights make up only
40 percent of the population, while 60 percent earn less than $25,000
per year and more than 30 percent fall beneath the poverty line. The
schools had further problems: low academic achievement, overcrowded
classrooms, lack of resources and high turnover among both students and
Businessman and philanthropist Sol Price of Price Club fame, Robert
Price's father, saw all of this and saw an opportunity for comprehensive
change. "My dad was looking for a community that needed intervention,"
"You know what City Heights was?" was his father's rhetorical question,
"It was a poor relative. It was the third world of San Diego County ...
it was a dumping ground for immigrants."
Sol's concern tremendously influenced his son's commitment to community
philanthropy and development. "I didn't choose City Heights-my father
did," Robert said. "It was a little bit serendipitous."
Robert also cites his Jewish faith tradition, "As a Jew ... a very
fundamental part of our culture and religion is the idea of tikkun olam,
a far greater concept than what we are doing ... it means repairing the
Perhaps not the world, but City Heights is certainly under repair.
"Project by project, it became a redevelopment of City Heights," said
Councilwoman Toni Atkins, whose district includes the City Heights
neighborhood. "A lot of the hopes and dreams that the people of City
Heights held-(Robert) Price came along and helped make those hopes and
dreams a reality." Atkins, a council member since 2000, listed efforts
Price Charities spearheaded: libraries, a pool, a recreation center, new
schools and a tremendous amount of money. But Price Charities didn't
just throw money at problems, she said. They also partnered with
organizations already in town.
"I doubt that I could tell you every single organization and community
group that they supported," Atkins said. "There's a return on their
investment in terms of empowering the community."
So what began as a campaign to get Vons to stay in the neighborhood
evolved into a complete overhaul of the city, which continues to this
day. Healthy development has several key prerequisites, according to
Robert Price. "You need jobs, medical and social services, good
education, safety, community participation and housing. These are the
things at the head of the list," he said.
There are three major components of the Initiative: educational
programs, community development programs, and housing and commercial
Price Charities funds a program that partners with the San Diego State
University School of Education, three City Heights public schools and
the local teachers union to improve education.
The three local schools, Rosa Parks Elementary School among them,
operate as "community schools," meaning the schools provide
comprehensive health and social
services to students and their families. Each school has full-time
on-site nurses and on-site social workers who provide assistance to
students and families. Additionally, The Price Scholarship Program
provides high school graduates opportunities to complete an associate
degree and/or certificate program at San Diego's City College, while
participating in community service projects.
Community development programs include a community service program,
which connects residents with service opportunities at local nonprofits.
The home loan program provides $50,000 down payment assistance to
first-time homebuyers in City Heights; borrowers pay off the interest
through community service. The Price Community Builder Fellowship
Program sponsors six graduates from San Diego State School of Social
Work to work in six nonprofit agencies in City Heights.
Housing and commercial development make up the bulk of Price Charities'
work in City Heights. "People can talk big but often nothing actually
happens," Price observed. "One of the things that we really did right
when we started was that we didn't start with programs but with
something very tangible-the Urban Village," an area that is eight square
blocks covering 30 acres.
"It's very important to immediately get something tangible that's
produced-it establishes real credibility."
The Urban Village's library, community service center, community pool,
performance annex, continuing education center, police substation and
neighborhood alliance are all certainly concrete, credible evidence.
Further tangible developments include 116 Village townhomes, the City
Heights Center (which houses nonprofit and public agencies), a Model
School Design (a plan to build a "smarter" urban school which integrates
housing) and the Metro Career Center (an 86,000 square foot office
building housing a regional job-training center).
The most success they've had is in dealing with real estate, including
block after block of abandoned structures along the Interstate 15.
Controlling real estate and getting critical pieces of property properly
developed is absolutely vital for community health, Price said.
Commercial verve translates into resident confidence.
"When we got involved, people didn't live there by choice," he said.
"Now people choose to live there-it's a big change."
Iannacone, who left in 1995, moved back to Menlo Street in 2001, where
she grew up. The same street where drug deals used to go down had now
become "a place I felt like I could raise my children," she said.
Iannacone saw enough change in the last year that she took the position
of assistant director of community school programs for Price Charities.
The neighborhood climate change is one result Price also finds
"The quality of life in the community has improved so much. Simple
things, like being able to walk in the community in relative safety," he
said. "Or being able to go to schools that are a lot better than they
Along with the successes there have also been some lessons learned.
Looking back, Price said, "I would have put more effort into developing
a stronger organizational mechanism for people to feel that they were
participating in decisions-some kind of representative council. That
would have been better than what we did-we didn't do a very good job in
But missteps aside, tremendous good has been done. "It has been all
positive," Councilwoman Atkins observed.
Price is confident that there is even greater good ahead. As Price peers
into City Heights' future, he has two visions. "One vision would be that
Price Charities isn't really going to be needed, because the community
is able to develop both its infrastructure and its human resources. That
it becomes self-sustaining."
Price also hopes that, "Perhaps some of the things we've done in this
community will be replicated in other places-(I hope) there will be
transference of knowledge from City Heights to different communities."
That's one vision that is already being realized. Former President Bill
Clinton and Henry Cisneros, former secretary of housing and urban
development in Clinton's administration, paid a visit, Atkins said.
Seattle has come knocking, too.
The schoolyard unveiling of the Storyteller sculpture is a fitting
signpost along the road. City Heights' story is still unfolding.
"I wanted Storyteller to represent all of us," artist S. Kay Mura '64
said at the sculpture's dedication at the Rosa Parks Elementary School.
After extensive research into the school and community-gathering
stories, poems and photos-a vision of the sculpture was birthed. Mura
said the visual inspiration came from the tradition of ceramic
storyteller dolls made by the Native Americans of the Pueblo Cultures in
The bronze storyteller sits, her lap wide; her arms are outstretched,
palms upward; her eyes are closed, mouth open. Her dress is made up of
160 tiles, hand-painted to make a quilt of textiles from different
Each of the benches encircling her in the sculpture garden is covered
with a mosaic of tiles and tells a different story: The School, about
the teachers, administration, curriculum as well as the history of the
school and what makes it special; The Children, about the children's
lives at the school, along with their poems and casts of their hands;
The Neighborhood, about the history and development of City Heights and
what it looked like before and after revitalization; The Community,
about the diversity of ethnicity and culture and stories that tell of
the multicultural experiences; and Rosa Parks, herself, the biography,
scenes from her life and quotes about her and from her.
When Robert Price '64 commissioned a sculpture for Rosa Parks
Elementary, he asked fellow Sagehen Mura, who lives in Hawaii and is a
professor of art at Leeward Community College, where she teaches
ceramics and sculpture. As a sculptor of several large installations for
schools in Hawaii, Mura was familiar not only with the technical aspects
of installing a sculpture but also the considerations necessary when
working with a school.
Mura said she had no idea where the project would go or how it would
look when she was asked. She created the sculpture garden to be a place
for teachers to
take their students and tell stories or teach writing, poetry and
"It is my hope that you, we, the community and anybody who stops to look
will find some sense of identity with the sculpture," Mura said at the
dedication in November 2006. "... When you look, I hope that there will
be parts that you can see your own stories."