Opinion » Commentaries

Agony and loss

For the last 40 years, I've watched my family neighborhood disappear into something else



The fireman's house just sold to an investor from Palo Alto. Almost a million dollars and it was gone in less than two weeks. It's the fifth house in a year. The Barbosas' sold to a San Francisco investor, and the pastor's to one from Portland. All turned into student rentals. The other two are the Spanish houses built in the 1920s on Cerro Romauldo, and are now rented out by their owners who escaped to another part of town. Michelle, the owner of my favorite house, told me she did not like the neighborhood anymore.

Yet it was the ideal neighborhood when I bought the fixer-upper on Ferrini. I could walk to Cal Poly, and my daughter simply crossed the street to reach her classroom at the little Charles E. Teach Elementary School. Colleagues lived all around, but also lawyers and maids, doctors and agricultural migrants. A slice of life. At the corner, low-income housing sheltered various struggling families, including a few who were mentally disabled and sometimes provided funny interactions but were never dangerous. I also remember an old Chinese lady, with her hair in a bun, dressed in a tunic, walking every day to the grocery store. What events she must have seen in her long life!

Most of all, there was kindhearted Joe next door. He would come and mow my lawn when I was not looking, and when my first husband finally surrendered to the Hodgkin's disease he had fought for years, Joe and his wife would check on Celia and me with a piece of cake or some other sweet to make sure we were OK. When Joe died, his wife took his place in giving a hand.

It was when the school district decided to close Teach school that I realized something was changing. Not enough children anymore, they said. Indeed, when I took a long walk farther away, I noticed that some of the once tidy lawns were covered with weeds, beer cans, and even cars. The student invasion had started.

I did not think much about it at first. Celia walked farther to Bishop Peak Elementary School, that's all. Then the school district decided to relocate Pacheco Elementary School to Teach and 500 kids came with cars and buses, instead of just 200 who walked. The first wave of emigration followed, with one-third of the neighbors moving out, including mine on the north side. Those of us who remained survived the assault, but this may have made us more confident than we should have been. When Gary and I decided to live together, and we got tired of looking at expensive boring places, we agreed to remodel my house instead. We won a "house beautiful" prize for our efforts, but then ... Oprah came! She liked SLO, called it the "happiest city," and attracted the attention of untold journalists to our once peaceful city. Best this, best that ... people flocked to it, developers drooled, investors bought, and the nightmare was on its way because everyone wanted a piece of the pie.

You owe me a good job, said the young man from Iowa. You owe me an affordable home, said the woman from Los Osos. You owe me separate bike lanes, said the cyclist. You owe me fun and games, said the student. You owe me more hotels, said the tourist. You owe me a bone, said the dog.

You owe me. I look with surprise at these three words because the only thing I ever thought anyone owed me was civility, honesty, and compassion. Otherwise, I always believed that I alone was in charge of my life, that I alone had to find ways to survive and flourish. Sometimes people came at the right time to give me a hand, and I am very grateful for it, but it was their choice. They never owed me anything. On the other hand, I believed I owed loyalty to my neighborhood. I was wrong because it is not my neighborhood anymore: 22 Chorro St. was built, 790 Foothill Blvd. is threatening, and workforce houses are disappearing at a speed I could never have imagined. What I witnessed during the last 40 years of my life is the thriving and the agony of a once family neighborhood, now given over to developers and investors. Δ

Odile Ayral still lives on Ferrini in San Luis Obispo. Send comments through the editor at [email protected] or write a response for publication and send it to [email protected].

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