Wednesday, March 21, 2012


San Diego’s Chicano Park almost never existed. Before it became the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals it was the center of an up-rising by local residents and Chicano activists from all over California. In 1970, it was only a bulldozer away from becoming a parking lot and California Highway Patrol Station. This construction began despite plans for a park in the same site that were approved by the City Council in 1969. When a local college student inquired about the construction and learned that it was not for a park, he decided to alert the community. After many years of neglect from the city, the mostly Mexican community of Barrio Logan decided to take action.

The history of Logan Heights and Barrio Logan dates back to the late 1800’s. It was primarily a residential area during the turn of the century, making it one of San Diego’s oldest communities. Until 1905 it was just known as the East End before it was renamed after Congressman John A. Logan, who wrote legislation to provide federal land grants and subsidies for a transcontinental railroad ending in San Diego.

Mexican settlers began arriving in the East End during the 1890’s and the number increased significantly after refugees left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution in 1910. During this time the community began to transform as Mexicans became the majority ethnicity and expanded from the southern part of Logan Heights, eventually creating the neighborhood of Barrio Logan where Chicano Park is located.

During World War II, the community’s access to San Diego Bay was cut off by the expansion of San Diego Naval base as well as other military facilities which occupied the waterfront. The area was re-zoned to include industrial uses beginning in the 1950’s. This brought a lot of pollution, junkyards, and loud noises to the residency. In 1963, Interstate 5 was built directly through the heart of the community, separating it with elevated on-ramps and painting the former residency in concrete gray. 1969 brought the construction of the Coronado bridge directly over Barrio Logan, creating a high concrete ceiling over houses, installing giant concrete support beams, and further deteriorating the community. All this was done without the consent or input from the Logan Heights community, a practice that the residents were growing tired of.

The City Council’s 1969 promise to build a park was to compensate for the loss of over 5,000 homes and businesses removed during the construction of the I-5 freeway and Coronado Bridge. This came after several demands by the community to build a park to off-set the aesthetic degradation created by the overhead freeways supported by several large concrete piers. The bulldozing of the park site in 1970 was more than the neighborhood could tolerate. After being alerted to the construction, the local residents, several San Diego students, and other San Diego residents staged a non-violent protest in the form of a land takeover. On April 22, protesters formed human chains around bulldozers while others planted trees, flowers, and cactus. One protester commandeered a bulldozer to flatten the land for planting. Groups from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara also joined the protesters in the occupation to show support and solidarity amongst Mexican-Americans. The occupation lasted twelve days while negotiations between community residents and city officials took place. The construction was eventually called off and the land was designated for the creation of a park, which was to be designed by the community.

The idea for painting murals on the support pillars of the Coronado Bridge was first mentioned during a meeting the day after the occupation by a local artist named Salvador Torres. The work began in 1973 after the money was raised to cover materials cost. Chicano and non-Chicano artists from all over California were invited to contribute. Many of the images represent the struggle in the community of Logan Heights as well as nationally with the repression of Hispanic communities. The phrase “Hasta La Bahia!”, meaning “All the way to the Bay!”, represents the original goal of expanding the park to San Diego Bay and reclaim the land that was taken away from the neighborhood by Naval expansion. Other images depict community pride, activism, Mexico’s indigenous roots, field workers, support for education, Mexican culture, and religion.

Chicano Park was designated an official historic site by the San Diego Historical Site Board in 1980 and in 1987 the San Diego Public Advisory Board officially recognized the murals as public art. Chicano Park Day is celebrated every year on the weekend nearest to April 22. The park itself is easily accessible, but even easier to miss since it is located directly under the on-ramp that connects the Coronado bridge to Interstate 5. It is one of San Diego’s hidden gems and a historical site for the Chicano Movement. The murals themselves have received recognition internationally and their care and restoration by the local community continues to this day.

No comments: