A person walks their dog at Dennis V. Allen Park in the Mount Hope neighborhood in San Diego on Jan. 19, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A playground in Mount Hope has gone unfixed for more than a year after it was destroyed leaving families in the southeast San Diego neighborhood with an empty space and no arrests. 

Dennis V. Allen Park, named after a Black activist who founded the San Diego Race Relations Society, was frequented by kids before the playground burned down. Before the fire, neighbors said, families would often gather for cookouts at the five-acre park. They recall the time when the park hosted more vibrant events, such as a jazz festival. Today, residents say the park is still their community gathering place, though some say gang activity and gun violence sometimes take place there. 

Why this matters

Residents of Mount Hope, a small Southeastern San Diego neighborhood identified by the city as a “community of concern,” say a playground that burned down more than a year ago is the latest symbol of the neglect neighbors have long felt. 

Today, residents told inewsource, the playground area is now empty – and they’re frustrated the city has yet to make repairs.

“We know that other neighborhoods don’t have to wait like we do,” said Dale Huntington, who sits on the local community planning group and is a pastor at a nearby church.

In November 2021, the playground was burned and authorities are considering it a vandalism incident because police could not determine the cause. Police say they have not arrested any suspects.

The city plans to replace the playground equipment by spring 2023, a city spokesperson told inewsource. The city also aims to add a recreation center, a parking lot and other amenities to the park, though plans are in early stages of development.

A swing set at Dennis V. Allen Park in the Mount Hope neighborhood in San Diego is located near the location of a playground structure that burned down, Jan. 19, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Michael Whyte, an activist who grew up near the park, said “it’s about time.” 

“They should have been doing something,” he said. 

Growing up in Mount Hope, Whyte recalls being pulled over by police while walking at the park when he was about 11 years old and was then put into a gang database. About a year later, Whyte became a gang member because of his environment and lack of male role models, he said. When he was about 16, his best friend was murdered at that park. Now in his 40s, Whyte said his older brother was fatally shot recently at that same park.

“As of now, and as of the last 50 years, the only thing that you have to do is go outside and hang with your friends,” Whyte said. “And your friends, more than likely, growing up in that neighborhood, are gang members.” 

Whyte is still a gang member, but uses his “power for good instead of evil,” monitoring police activity as part of the Pillars of the Community’s police accountability unit and publicly advocating for peace among gangs.

Mount Hope, a 4,000-person community between interstates 15 and 805, has been labeled by the city as a “community of concern.” These communities have more polluted air, higher poverty, are worse for pedestrians, including people with disabilities, and have worse health outcomes than other communities in San Diego.

Over a couple afternoons, mostly Black and Brown residents, reflecting the area’s demographics, were enjoying the park with frisby-throwing, dog-walking and hanging out. About 78% of the area’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, and 9% is Black, according to census tract data.

Depending on who you ask, residents might see Dennis V. Allen Park as a place where drive-bys happen or a grand opportunity to build community. 

Longtime Mount Hope resident Lawrence Glover said the park has gotten him out of violence. Comparing it to the ‘80s sitcom, “Cheers,” he said it is a place where he and his peers — many of them 50 and older – visit because “everybody wants to go where everybody knows your name.”

“This park right here is my sanctuary,” he said, who has been hanging out at the park for more than a decade.

Lawrence Glover is shown at Dennis V. Allen Park in San Diego on Jan. 19, 2022. Glover says he has lived his entire life in the surrounding neighborhood, Mount Hope, and would like to see more investment in the park. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Huntington said that his neighborhood has potential but it has been historically neglected by the city of San Diego, which has dedicated fewer resources to the area than other communities.

While other communities in the city get upgraded playgrounds or recreational facilities, Mount Hope receives fewer amenities, Huntington said, adding that his community has been asking for a recreation center for decades. 

He said that a lot of the crime can be linked to the lack of investment in the community. 

Since 2018, there have been six murders in Mount Hope, according to San Diego Police Department crime reports. This area also neighbors Mountain View, another community Huntington says has gangs, which has had the highest number of murders across the city since 2018.

Meanwhile, police calls for service in Mount Hope have decreased in recent years, from almost 2,400 in 2020 to 1,730 last year, a trend somewhat reflected in the park area. Last year, police received 170 calls for service to addresses immediately around the park, down from about 200 two years prior, according to an inewsource analysis of San Diego Police data. 

City data shows that other communities in San Diego have received millions of dollars more to improve quality of life than Mount Hope and its surrounding neighborhoods. 

The Mount Hope neighborhood surrounding Dennis V. Allen Park in San Diego is shown on Jan. 19, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Since 1988, the city has spent $11 million raised from developer impact fees, a common source of infrastructure dollars, to pay for projects in the entire Southeastern San Diego community planning area, which includes Mount Hope and eight other neighborhoods. (For perspective, Pacific Highlands Ranch, a wealthier community planning area, has received $133 million in impact fee investments since 1998.)

The destruction of the park’s playground is just one more example of how the Mount Hope community feels neglected.

“I don’t trust long-term that they will put the needs of a community that’s underrepresented first,” Huntington said. “Rather than the city fighting for us, they expect people who are working multiple jobs to fight for themselves and to speak up. The people who are loudest in San Diego are the people who get exactly what they want.”

The previous playground equipment that was burned was originally installed in 2012 and cost about $56,000, and the new one that will replace it will cost about $90,000, city spokesperson Tyler Becker said in an email.

Nicole Darling, another city spokesperson, said that the city has already purchased the playground equipment, and the manufacturer is currently working on the custom-made parts.

The city has taken more than a year to purchase the playground equipment because the insurance adjuster for the equipment “needed time to evaluate the scope of the damage and provide funding for the replacement,” Darling said. 

Whyte said future investments and the playground replacement by the city are some positive things his community needs.

“I’m excited, but until they do start doing anything, I won’t hold my breath.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Crystal Niebla joined inewsource in June 2022 as an investigative reporter focused on infrastructure and government accountability in the San Diego region. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. At the Long Beach Post, Niebla served...