November 14, 2003

Searching for Balance in Old Town

By Raymond R. Beltrán

Part One

The part of National City considered “Old Town” stretches along the east side of the Interstate 5 Freeway. Residents will say that it begins on 8th Street and traveling down Roosevelt Avenue, or Hoover Avenue, or Coolidge Avenue, this small nook of National City will end on 24th Street. Traveling through Old Town, as small as it is, the common driver or walker can immediately be turned on to the stench of paint shops and diesel fuel, the buzzing of power tools, the constant animosity of industrial business, and in between each of these buildings, a community un-yieldingly stays grounded in a place they call home. Included in this juxtaposition is Kimball Elementary School, where parents send their children to learn Monday thru Friday in the event that they are well.

These Old Town National City homes on Coolidge Avenue share a neighborhood block with two auto garage businesses, Crown Trucks and Turbo Transmissions.

In the midst of it all lives Violeta Marilyn Monroy, single mother of three and long time Old Town National City resident.

In December 2002, Violeta’s eight-year-old son, Brandon Monroy, was rushed to the hospital because of an asthmatic seizure attack. Since then, his health has been the focal point of the family’s life. As Violeta sits in her studio kitchen, she goes into detail about the nightly routines she’s endured recently in previous years while caring for an asthmatic son: They all go to bed together. She wakes up in the middle of the night to an eight-year-old son who’s sweating profusely and who’s body temperature is way above normal. His breathing is weak, and he’s clutching his chest as if about to have a heart attack. She starts to panic and tries to bring his temperature down with a damp cloth. It’s not working, he’s not breathing as much, and she begins to give him his hourly, prescribed doses of Sudafed, Flonase, and Sodium Chloride solution, to name only a few. If his body rejects the medication, as it does at times, she will have to dress her little boy, pick him up in her arms, and walk to the nearest transit station to catch the bus and take him to the emergency room. The next day, and maybe even a few days after that, he will stay home from school and his teachers will attempt to provide him with his daily homework. All the while, Violeta has to make sure that her home’s windows are closed at all times because there’s a thick stench of paint in the air, and at night, it’s more potent.

“When he [first] got the asthma attack, half of his lungs got pneumonia,” says Violeta wiping her eyes. “I constantly feel him every night. His bones ache because of his temperature, and it goes on for about three nights at a time.”

Since December, Violeta has had to quit her job in order to act as Brandon’s personal nurse, taking care of him while he stays home from school, rushing him to the hospital in the middle of the night, and on call for anything that may happen to him, as she has become fearful for her son’s life. Having to quit her job has put Violeta in a financial bind that constrains her and her family to the industrial Old Town National City neighborhood.

Brandon is a student at Kimball Elementary School, which faces two automotive repair shops. When he was in second grade, he had to miss twenty-eight consecutive days because of his asthmatic condition. Due to his sporadic truancies, Brandon’s been held back a grade level and will never be able to academically catch up to where he should be. Violeta says that what bothers her most is that he is a good student and keeping him home only injures his chances of success.

Having a number of students with the same health problems as Brandon, Kimball Elementary School principal, Dr. Nancy Waters, asserts that it’s very difficult to work under such conditions. According to her, the school as well as the rest of the neighborhood is in an area classified as “residential / light industrial.” She says that since she’s been living in Old Town, residents are currently being bombarded with toxic fumes provided by the type of business being held between almost every home. With the amount of physical defects being addressed in the past year, the words “light industrial” could appear to be an understatement.

This is a view from the front steps of Kimball Elementary School on West 18th Street and Coolidge Avenue, facing Carlos’ West Coast Automotive garage.

Kimball Elementary School, on the corner of West 18th Street and Coolidge Avenue, faces Import Auto Specialists and Carlos’ West Coast Automotive. The Monroy family shares Hoover Avenue with Bannister Steel, Inc., Custom Light and Iron, Inc., and Miller Marine. Old Town National City acts as home to many industrial businesses dealing with chemicals, lumber treatment, shipyards, and automotive body shops among many others. Dr. Waters admits that the relationship between businesses and residents is not an aggressive one, but it’s definitely time to start regulating what kind of businesses are being constructed in their backyards.

It’s even become a struggle to keep the students in the classrooms at Kimball Elementary. Instead of attending classes on a regular basis, students are frequently either sick at home or at the doctor’s office. In the four years that Dr. Waters has been principal, she says that Kimball Elementary has seen an increase in asthma cases from four students in 1999 to twenty eight students today. In trying to improve attendance records on her campus, she’s introducing “good attendance incentives” for students, and she’s begun to advise parents to make doctors appointments after school hours.

To educate Old Town residents about the effects that industrial businesses have on their health, Dr. Waters has held monthly community meetings hosted by the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC). EHC information indicates the parallel between asthmatic prevalence rates in Old Town National City and the industrialism that produces particulate matter. Particulate matter 10 (PM 10) is a microscopic variety of particles small enough to be inhaled into a person’s lungs. PM 2.5 is smaller than the latter and can reach in respiratory places PM 10 cannot. Sources of particulate matter have been identified as manmade as well as natural (motor vehicles, factories, industrial business, consumer products, etc.). These particles are the direct cause of asthma, cancer, and other respiratory-related deficiencies.

In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced data to measure the quantity of air toxins across the United States. The EHC took the data in order to map out certain hot spots in San Diego. According to the EPA’s data recorded, West National City is an area toxic enough to cause 500-800 people out of 1 million to be at risk of getting cancer. “This is an estimate for the region as a whole and the levels could be higher right next to an emission source, such as the freeway, or downwind of an industrial source” (Environmental Health Coalition: Summary of Air Quality Information and Concerns in National City, 10-24-03).

In the past year, concerned residents, and parents like Violeta Monroy, have been working with the St. Anthony’s Organizing Ministry (SAOM), an organization formed by the patrons of St. Anthony’s Church in Old Town and that is supported by the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP). The SAOM has been addressing the industrial issues in Old Town National City for the past year, and they have been the medium between concerned residents and the National City Council.

“This area has been neglected for the past fifty years,” says SAOM member Carmen Roa. “We’re trying to solve some of the problems that come out of a mixed use of land. There are so many older people that will not leave the area, and people complain about not being able to [relax] during the day because of the general businesses making noise. They have an auto shop for a neighbor, and it’s hard.”

Another Old Town National City home on Coolidge Avenue is subject to paint fumes while having Jocson’s Auto Body and Paint garage for a neighbor.

Carmen’s husband Refugio says that SAOM has been requesting that the city rezone businesses to help resolve the situation, but they’ve been denied. He says that there are a number of areas on the west side of the Interstate 5 Freeway, and certain areas along the 54 Freeway, to begin a business district. He says that their concerns and proposals have been labeled as anti-business, but St. Anthony members want to highlight that this is not the case. They admit that there needs to be some type of work because people need to earn a living, but it’s the type of businesses in Old Town that are causing the imbalance between the residential community and the industrialism there.

On October 6, last month, Violeta Monroy and Dr. Nancy Waters, along with other grieved residents, were able to address their concerns to city council members. She says that even though Mayor Inzunza did sit and listen to her, he only offered sympathetic words but no concrete resolution or commitment to the situation in Old Town.

Along with the idea of rezoning businesses, it was suggested that the city begin to build facilities that are relevant to “family-oriented”, community needs. Dr. Waters says that since she’s been a resident of the Old Town community, there hasn’t been a laundry mat or a grocery store, and she also implores for a bilingual representative for the National City Chamber of Commerce, so that residents can comfortably converse with them about their issues.

“I think the solution is maybe [building] their warehouses somewhere else. They should start worrying about the people instead of the businesses. Our health is going down the drain,” urges Violeta. “I’ll continue concentrating on [Brandon’s] health, but if I start working, he’s going to be in the same situation, and he can’t take care of himself. I am able to be with him, now. I want him to have an education and I want him to be somebody, but why should I go work a minimum wage job when my son is at home almost dying?”

The business community, along with the Chamber of Commerce and elected officials, has yet to respond. Their issues will be recognized in the second part of Searching for Balance in Old Town.

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