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Renaissance in Barrio Logan

Artist and community activist Salvador Roberto Torres stands in Chicano Park, a southeast San Diego neighborhood, surrounded by some of the massive murals he painted more than 40 years ago.

The artist addresses members of the San Diego Professional Tour Guide Association and shows them a conceptual drawing of his dream. It illustrates the massive concrete struts of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge — the ones in the water — covered with art.

“It could be paintings; it could be tiles,” Torres explains when asked to elaborate. “It can be anything you want it to be.”

This is why Torres is sometimes called “the architect of the dream.” The artist believes anything is possible if you are willing to work for it, much as he did in the early 1970s after his family’s home was demolished to make way for Interstate 5 and the bridge. Torres eventually replaced resentment for all that concrete with optimism and creativity and began to paint.

Many other artists were brought in over the next several years to cover these giant canvases, and now, like stained-glass windows in a cathedral, the mammoth murals relate the history and mystique of Chicano lore, both universally and locally.

And thanks to Torres and others, these more-than-40-year-old paintings were recently been refurbished, making them even more vivid than they were originally.

“The paints have changed (for the better) in the last 40 years,” Torres says, and thanks to new sealers and a specially formulated protective wax, the murals will remain bright and pristine.

If taggers do hit the murals, “we can wash them at low pressure and 250 degrees,” explains Martin Arevalo of Graffiti Prevention Systems of Los Angeles County, when questioned by tour guides. “This melts the wax, the graffiti washes off, and we reapply the wax coating.”

The murals are said to be the largest such collection in the world. I haven’t been able to discern whether that refers to size or number, but they are big and there are a lot of them. And in April, thanks to barrio residents who spent many years documenting the history of the neighborhood and the artworks, the murals earned a place in the National Register of Historic Places.

Barrio Logan is one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods. “Barrio” is the Spanish word for neighborhood, and the name Logan memorializes Congressman John Logan who tried to bring the railroad to the area in the late 1800s. The barrio experienced its greatest growth around 1910 when thousands fled the Mexican Revolution. The residential nature of the community began to change during World War II when military facilities, that blocked access to the bay, were built. Further deterioration occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when Interstate 5 bisected the area, and ramps to the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge were constructed.

Today Barrio Logan is experiencing a transition — or even a renaissance of sorts — with entrepreneurs opening gathering places within a few blocks of Chicano Park — places like Ryan Bros Coffee (1894 Main Street); Blueprint Café (1805 Newton Avenue); and the San Diego Public Market (1735 National Avenue).

San Diego business women Catt White and Dale Steel, after a decade of trying to raise private and public funds to bring the market to life, decided to go it alone. Through social media, they raised $146,000, enough to establish the first phase of the market. The duo foresees something akin to Pike’s Market in Seattle or San Francisco’s Embarcadero, with space for produce stalls, restaurants and shops where artists and craftspeople can make, display and sell their wares. Visitors can see that some of this has already materialized if they stroll through the colorful, renovated industrial building where vendors offer purple carrots and other unique, appealing produce that I couldn’t identify.

To visit Barrio Logan and watch the transformation, take the Coaster to San Diego’s Santa Fe station; transfer to the Blue Line Trolley. Disembark at the Barrio Logan stop.