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New Heights
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

By Sneha Abraham

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 Initiative.

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 the mid-1990s.

"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 hear.

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 teachers.

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," Robert said.

"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 world."

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 development.

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 particular encouraging.

"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 were before."

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 that area."

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.

The Storyteller

"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 Southwest.

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 cultures.

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 history.

"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."
 
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