Lopez Chavez is a self-taught artist from Guanajuato, Mexico, currently focused on digital illustration. She lives in Logan Heights.
When I first saw the murals at Chicano Park, that was it. I knew Barrio Logan was my home. The way they told the barrio’s stories in bold vibrant colors took my breath away. The community’s Mexican American history and plight adorning the very freeway that split it apart. More than six years ago my partner, Chris, and I opened an art gallery in Barrio Logan to support local artists and opened up a world of art to residents.
I met Chris about eight years ago. We were both curating art shows in San Diego. He invited me to curate a show at his gallery. It was such a success we decided to open an art gallery together. We found a space in the heart of Barrio Logan. The space was basically a junkyard. Someone was living there. The entire block it was located on was dead. At that time, the area was so unsafe, taxis would not pick you up or drop you off there. Still, we knew that with hard work and creativity we could create an art hub for Barrio Logan’s local artists and community.
We rented the space in October 2013 and opened in January 2014. With his very own hands, Chris turned that abandoned junkyard into an art gallery. He redid the uneven floors, renovated the bathroom, fixed the ceiling, installed electricity and built studios for artists to rent.
The opening was beautiful. We displayed a wide variety of art from local and international artists, some as far away as Russia. The gallery was filled with watercolors, acrylics, sculptures, jewelry, music, poetry and even puppets. Everyone was excited to see this brand new art gallery open in the community. Not only did the art scene show up, but neighborhood families came out too. For many people, it was their first time experiencing an art show or being in an art gallery.
Our art shows attracted thousands of people each weekend. Local artists were so happy to see people admiring their work and buying it. The people who came to our shows wanted to eat and drink. Not that long after we opened, businesses owned by people of color and women started to pop up. Hundreds of small, thriving businesses filled the once-empty area. It was beautiful. It also meant that the property value had gone up.
Due to the success we helped generate, the building’s owner wanted to quadruple our rent. We couldn’t believe that after six years of love, labor and improvements we’d made, he would do this to us. We couldn’t afford the new rent but didn’t want to leave our barrio. We found another location in the neighborhood. It was a warehouse that was twice the size with a big outdoor area. However, we only hosted two shows there before the pandemic hit and the quarantine started. Since we couldn’t host live shows, we couldn’t pay the rent. We had to close.
The value we added to our community was unfortunately weaponized against us. At first, it was exciting to see small businesses open up, but then landowners started exploiting the economic and cultural vibrancy that Barrio Logan’s residents and businesses had created. They bought up properties then raised the rents, forcing closed the small businesses whose work made their purchase profitable.
It is not just the small businesses; longtime residents are being forced out, too. The artists and families who are the essence of Barrio Logan cannot afford to live there anymore. When a small business is closed or a family evicted, Barrio Logan loses some of its magic. I am calling on the San Diego City Council to protect Barrio Logan’s magic and preserve it for generations to come.
The City Council has the power to pass laws that require developers to build more affordable units and protect families from eviction without just cause. Tenants should have the right to return to their home after a landlord remodels it without facing a huge rent increase. Families who have to move should get financial assistance so they don’t end up on the street as many have. We weren’t able to save our gallery, but City Council members can help longtime residents. Without them, Barrio Logan just won’t be Barrio Logan anymore. The melody of Mariachi music, the notes of a guitar drifting out of a bar, the rhythmic beat of Aztec dances, low riders rumbling by, the smell of chiles asando and sweet street corn, it will all just fade away.