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Leaving 'good enough' alone

San Diego City Beat (2008-02-12) Pat Sherman

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Most inhabitants of idyllic Potrero like the place just the way it is. Thanks anyway, Blackwater.

By Pat Sherman 02/12/2008

Though a controversial military contractor’s plans to open shop in Potrero may have put the tiny San Diego County hamlet on the world’s radar screen last year, the community has been humming along nicely for more than 100 years—residents will have you know—with nary a lick of outside intervention.

Sure, Lindsay Lohan hasn’t done any time there, but the town, 45 miles east of San Diego, is not without its own low-level notoriety.

Through the years, residents have included Bill Mc Neilly, a chemical engineer who obtained a patent on xanthan gum (used to thicken the very Bubblicious that Lohan sardonically snaps) and sculptor Malcolm Leland, who created the brass Bow Wave in San Diego’s Community Concourse.

Still, given the chance, the majority of Potrero’s low-key inhabitants would gladly slide back into obscurity. Since the arrival of the first white settler in 1868, the population has swelled to only about 850 people (talk about slow growth). It’s a place where buzzards roost, coyotes holler, people refer to distances with “as the crow flies” and oaks and sycamores are fed by underground springs.

Capt. Charles G. Mc Almond discovered Potrero while en route from Mexico to Pine Valley on a mission to mend his ailing health. At the time, the 27-square-mile area was home to a sizeable population of Kumeyaay Indians, who still regard Potrero’s peaks and valleys as sacred turf (when fire rages through the area, as it often does, the cleared land can be easily scavenged for Indian artifacts, locals say).

Surveying the region’s craggy hillsides and valleys dotted with coastal live oak, Mc Almond reportedly sighed, saying, “This is good enough for me.”

Prior to his death in 1887, he would become Potrero’s first postmaster and a deputy county clerk.

Mc Almond wouldn’t be the last to gulp down lung-fulls of Potrero’s untainted mountain air to get well.

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For Harriett Molloy, doctors warned, it was rural living or a rubber room. So, in 1979, Molloy fled her urban Wisconsin life and moved to Potrero—by then a quiescent community of craftsmen, artists, hunters and Christmas-tree farmers four miles from the U.S.-Mexico border at Tecate.

Molloy had been inexplicably and chronically ill since the mid-’70s, though doctors had tried everything to cure her mysterious malaise, which included fatigue, headaches and nausea. After being referred to a series of psychiatrists, Molloy herself began to wonder if she were crazy.

Frustrated with her physical and psychological problems, Molloy’s husband, a bigwig in the then-burgeoning reel-to-reel and quadraphonic-sound technologies, left her.

Molloy was eventually diagnosed with environmental illness, an acute allergic reaction to low levels of chemicals, fumes and other substances in the modern environment.

Her brother found her a modest house in Potrero, which she secured for $350 down and some cash her husband later sent from the sale of her car. She stripped the house of everything chemically based, covered the walls with non-toxic paint and replaced propane with electric heat. Slowly, the clean air and tranquility began to work its magic on her body and mind.

“This is the place,” said Molloy, now 70. She considers herself cured. “It worked.”

Learning of Molloy’s miraculous recovery, others with similar maladies began showing up on her doorstep. Since 1979, some 300 people have sought respite in one of her cabins or trailers, a retreat Molloy refers to as the Last Resort.

Mike Streenan, who owns the Potrero General Store off state Route 94 with fiancée Willena Arnold, referred to Potrero as “the last hurrah.”

At the store last month, Streenan stocked Sno Balls, apple pies and other confections that he drives miles to retrieve (the Hostess delivery truck doesn’t make its way up windy state Route 94, the main artery in and out of town).

Streenan and Arnold had just started selling lottery tickets the day before, and Streenan was happily hoisting them off on his customers.

“It’s Patti, the lottery queen!” Streenan chimed, as Potrero cabinetmaker Patti Farish approached the register with a 12-pack of St. Pauli Girl.

Before his arrival, Streenan spent 12 years living with the constant whoosh of the Big Dipper roller coaster and drunken beach brawls near Belmont Park in Mission Beach. With his eyes partially obscured by tinted glasses, it is hard to get a read on his expression, though, like many in Potrero, Streenan is noticeably guarded against outsiders and their intentions.

“It’s just like living in Mayberry,” Streenan said of the town. “There’s no bums on the streets; everybody knows everybody. This is how it used to be everywhere. People have forgotten what that was like, because they’ve lived in the suburbs for so long.”

Though only 51, Streenan says he is content to spend the rest of his life in Potrero, one of the few remaining vestiges in the county untouched by time or big-box development.

“I’ll be here till I’m dead,” Streenan said, in a voice somewhere between resignation and pride. “This is it.”

Willena and her daughter Emily found their way back to their native Potrero after a stint in the Mojave Desert, when Emily was a toddler.

“It’s like I live, eat, breath, sleep Potrero,” said Emily, now 23 and working in her mother’s store. “I’ve always found work here.”

Emily dates a childhood friend, Isaac Nuño.

“That’s how small it gets,” she said. “Like, I end up dating one of my friends from forever…. At least my mom likes him.”

The day before, Mike, Willena, Emily and Isaac were huddled around a barbeque packed with sizzling ribs, burgers, steak and chicken in Potrero County Park, sipping beers with about 20 family members and friends. Nearby, some of the group’s children tore it up on playground equipment.

Isaac’s younger brother Dan tended the grill as Isaac, 28, expounded on life in Potrero.

“It’s the greatest place ever,” he said. “You can do anything you want in Potrero…. We like the freedom that we have out here and how far everybody is away from each other…. You can have bonfires in your front yard, just chilling out, drinking beers.”

A young woman in the group added, “You can hang out with your friends and not have someone call the cops on you.”

Sharon Arnold, who returned to her “stomping grounds” to join the Saturday afternoon grilling party, speaks with weariness about the bustle of living in the city. She’s not talking about San Diego, mind you, but Jamul—population about 6,000.

Her daughter, an oral surgeon, and son, who’s in the heating and air-conditioning business, chose to stay in Potrero and are among about 20 members of the Arnold clan who still live there.

“They call people up here a bunch of rednecks, but it’s not true,” said Sharon, 42, quivering against the cold, her blonde hair tucked beneath the hood of a faux-fur-trimmed red winter coat.

“It is different,” she said. “People will come up here. They get afraid, like some lady drove up 94 the other day [and] asked us for directions. She said, ‘Oh, these roads scare me!’”

Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions—you get used to it, Sharon said.

“I had to take a yellow diamondback from my cat once,” she said. “She was about to get bit…. That doesn’t scare anybody up here.”

Along with the family septic business, the Arnolds have their own urban legend, which includes two explanations for how patriarch James Calvert Arnold came to acquire 165 acres south of Potrero County Park.

Younger family members, such as Emily and Sharon, relish a version of the story that has James C. Arnold purchasing the land at a bar, slapping between $150 to $3,000 into the palm of a cash-strapped inebriant, then pocketing the deed.

“Yeah, that’s the story,” Emily laughed, a hint of family pride in her voice. “The guy was hammered and he’s all, ‘I want to get rid of it,’ and my great grandpa’s all, ‘Alright! I’ll take that!’”

Emily’s grandmother, 73-year-old Yvonne “Bonnie” Arnold, tells a different story about her father-in-law’s land acquisition. James C. Arnold owned a bar—The Ark—across from Ream Field in Imperial Beach, she said. However, he didn’t drink or smoke and grew tired of the business, scanning the newspapers for property as far away as Oregon.

He eventually purchased the Potrero property and an accompanying house in 1955, for $3,000, Bonnie said.

Though many have come to Potrero for the healthy atmosphere, in a tragic twist of fate for the Arnold family, James Calvert and all six of his children, including Bonnie’s husband Eugene, succumbed to cancer.

“It was terrible,” she said. “I don’t like to remember the dates. I loved them all.”

Bonnie Arnold lost her mobile home in the Harris fire last fall. She also suffers from chronic arthritis and congestive heart failure. In conversation, however, she remains remarkably upbeat, speaking at length about her love for Potrero.

“Every time something bad happens to somebody here, they have a spaghetti dinner and we go over to the community center and we make pies and cakes and breads and cinnamon rolls, and then after the dinner we have an auction,” she said. “Everybody whose house burnt down or something, we usually make about $2,000 and give it to them to get back on their feet.”

As the Arnold family grilled, that same charitable sprit was in action, at the opposite end of Potrero County Park. In a show of bipartisan unity, resident Jan Hedlun donned a vintage Wild West dress to raise money for Bonnie and 16 others who lost their homes in the Harris fire. An occasional performer with the Gaskill Brothers Gunfighters reenactment group, Hedlun collected about $150 for mock outlaw-style arrests during the fundraiser, which also included a silent auction.

A band composed of members of the Men of Praise motorcycle club from Chula Vista performed, as a few Red Hat Society ladies who found their way into town milled about the concrete dance floor with men in leather jackets. Young girls in ornate dresses handed out elaborate gift baskets to the highest bidder.

Raking in the most cash for his arrest and release was William “Billy” Crawley (his fiancée, Christine Dillon, upped the ante for his release).

As a noose was slipped around Crawley’s neck, his mock executioner, Don Lytle, called, “Any last words?”

“I won’t see you in heaven,” Crawley joked.

Hedlun and Crawley both serve on the Potrero Community Planning Group, which advises the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on important land-use issues, such as Blackwater Worldwide’s proposal to open a paramilitary training facility in Potrero. The project, to be built on 824 acres formerly used as a chicken ranch, would include an evasive-driving track, helipad, armory and as many as 15 firing ranges.

In December, five former members of the planning group who voted to support the project were recalled in a special election. In their place, voters installed a new board, composed entirely of community members who want to keep Blackwater out of their backyard. Hedlun was the only planning group member to vote against Blackwater and retained her seat.

Crawley’s family moved from Lakeside to Potrero in 1977 “to get away from the city,” he says. Crawley said he has stayed because of the people—that and Potrero’s proximity to Cleveland National Forest. He also hunts turkey, quail and rabbit.

Crawley believes the new planning group can convince the supervisors to reject Blackwater’s proposal, though they must first do their homework on the complex land-use issue, he said.

“We don’t want to appear as biased to the county,” Crawley said.

Though many believed the new board’s first meeting on Jan. 10 would be a cakewalk, the ousted planning group members and a vocal minority of Blackwater proponents were there to take issue with the new body’s lack of procedural acumen and knowledge of the Brown Act, the state law that regulates public meetings.

At one point, former planning group member Thell Fowler lost his cool, shouting, ‘Hey, hey, hey! … Shut up!”

“Do not take that tone with other people,” replied Hedlun. “Do not ask them to shut up.”

Among the new group’s top priorities is reversing the previous board’s favorable vote on Blackwater. They must then make a separate motion to recommend that the county reject the facility.

Hedlun, who has since received training from the county in public-meeting protocol, characterized the new planning group’s first get-together as a “bloodbath.”

“It was the most horrible experience I’ve ever had,” said Hedlun, so shaken that she handed over her chairmanship to Carl Meyer, another returning planning group member. “I felt I was the target for whatever angst that they happened to have.”

Though Hedlun may have been under fire that day, from an outsider’s perspective, she is a calming presence in her community. As tempers flare, her words have the power to soothe people on either side of the issue (Fowler eventually settled down and apologized to her during the meeting).

Like Molloy, Hedlun came to Potrero in 1994 to deal with a chemical sensitivity, triggered by years of working in the aerospace industry. Five years later, her husband was killed by a drunk driver on state Route 94.

These days, Hedlun works as a clerk in a law library and spends a lot of time trying to become centered.

“I’ve lived alone for over 10 years,” she said. “I don’t have a television, and I rarely listen to radio. I’ve learned to listen to the land. I learn to embrace silence to learn more about myself…. Potrero is a place where silence can be a noise.”

When the community is at odds, Hedlun’s motto is “Agree to disagree.” It is perhaps this very ethos that has allowed the sleepy border town to heal a number of issues that have divided it in the past—from a resident’s failed proposal to build an airport on his property to residents’ indignation amid an affair between a former volunteer fire chief and a female firefighter.

“People are passionate,” Hedlun said. “It takes a couple of years, but then everyone gets back together and starts working toward what we need.”

In his spare time, Crawley is a bassist in a band called the Promontory Riders, which plays mountain music and traditional bluegrass. Also in the band are guitarist Damian Bowles, and his wife Marion, a retired schoolteacher who plays a 1918 Gibson mandolin.

The Bowles’ home is powered entirely by the sun, Damian’s generator, tractor and F-250 truck by biodiesel.

“We’ve been on solar and off the grid for 12 years,” said Damian, a 46-year-old former deadhead who moved to Potrero with his mother in 1975. Damian stayed despite painful memories of being the lone longhair in high school.

“I got my teeth knocked out of my mouth the first week of school, and my mom had to pay for it,” he says. “The guy that beat me up was the head wrestler…. They were the anti-Communists.”

Their hair in dreadlocks, Damian and Marion fit the part of master composters and medical-marijuana advocates—the latter, Damian says, has turned some in the community against them. A stone’s throw from their home is Tecate Peak, or Kuuchamaa, site of a sacred Kumeyaay temple.

The land Blackwater seeks to develop, a low-lying valley and former chicken ranch ensconced by mountains, is valuable agricultural land, Marion said.

“That’s prime alluvial soil,” she says. “It takes 1,000 years to make one inch of alluvial soil, and this is what we’re supposed to protect, because our health comes from the soil. There’s some places you can’t grow anything on, and that’s where they should go—an old military base.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the local Kiwanis chapter, which organized the fire fundraiser and is largely composed of folks who favor Blackwater. Kiwanis member Ed Boryla and his wife Marilyn sold their Lakeside condo and moved to Potrero to own horses. Boryla ran unsuccessfully against Crawley for a seat on the planning group.

Also attending the fund-raiser in the park was booted planning group chair Gordon Hammers, who served as a corporal in the U.S. Army from 1956 to ’62 and owns Mountain Empire Internet, the Internet service provider for Potrero.

“I got my discharge just as Vietnam was getting into full bloom,” said Hammers, during an interview last fall.

“Gordy,” as he’s known to his neighbors, said it feels like Potrero has been barraged with anti-war voices from outside the community that have clouded the debate over Blackwater.

“The anti-war people from the East County Democratic [Club] took this on as a project to try and block it. To them, it was a surrogate for the war.”

Don Lytle, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which holds Medieval and Renaissance revival weekends each year in Potrero, fears what could happen if Blackwater gets the green light, then pulls out.

“What if it doesn’t work and they say they’re going to sell it off?” Lytle questioned. “Well, they’ve turned this area from being agricultural to commercial. Now they can put anything they want to in there. There goes a Wal-Mart.” Lytle, a leather craftsman by trade, said he cherishes his rural existence, the closest he said he has come to Wichita, Kan., where he was born.

“Out here, you can go outside at night and see the stars and hear the wildlife,” he said, motioning expansively to the sky and park grounds around him. “You get a touch of the four seasons in a different way than you would in town. When Christmastime comes along and you live at the ocean, it’s the same as Easter. Up here, you might get snow. You’ve got a fire going; it’s warm when you walk inside.”

Steve Kowit is a professor of languages and humanities at Southwestern College. His poetry textbook, In the Palm of Your Hand, is used on campuses across the country. The venerable poet and his wife Mary, who works in the IT department at the University of San Diego, moved to Potrero 18 years ago, despite their initial concern about the long drive to and from work. Their home on Coyote Holler Road, which they share with seven cats and a dog, has stunning views of both Tecate Peak and Potrero Peak. At night, the lights of Tecate and Tijuana are visible in the distance.

Though Kowit prefers to let Hedlun and others do the heavy lifting when it comes to dealing with county officials, he uses his poetic voice at events to fight Blackwater’s advance.

Earlier this month, Kowit spoke in Hillcrest, prior to a screening of Alternative Focus’ new documentary, Blackwater in Potrero.

Los Angeles Times food writer and poet Dawna Nolan, who has taken Kowit’s poetry courses, described Kowit this way on her blog: “Unruly curls, twinkling eyes, tilts his head when he’s listening hard. He’s a breathing, passionate invitation to poetry... resists ivory-towered dogma—insists upon the meat of the heart and the terrain of being alive."

Kowit read the Hillcrest crowd a tender, humorous poem about his life in Potrero, as a testament to what is at stake.

In the poem, he recalls watching his wife run through the rain in, he pauses and smiles sheepishly, “that blue housedress,” on her way to release a gopher he had trapped in their yard. He knew she would.

Blackwater’s facility would be less than a mile-and-a-half north of Kowit’s home.

“I mean, hunting is awful enough, but to know that this malicious, awful group of cowboys [are here], it’s just terrible,” Kowit said, estimating that about two-thirds of the town is conservative or votes Republican.

“It isn’t as though it’s the liberals or the anti-war people” who object to Blackwater, he said. “Helicopters landing and taking off are very loud, but the gunshots every day, all day long, I don’t think Mary could survive it, and I’m not sure I could. The truth is we would probably be forced out.”

Many people in the area fear Blackwater has an ulterior motive for setting its sights on Potrero—getting a piece of the lucrative private border-security action.

Kowit, who said he’s had whole families of illegal immigrants stumble up to his doorstep, seeking a bit of food, water or other kind gesture, is among the many that don’t favor what is perceived by many to be Blackwater’s trigger-happy hand being put in charge of border security.

Bonnie Arnold recalled a time in the early ’90s when it was discovered that large numbers of children from Mexico were being dropped off at the border and then bussed to Potrero Elementary School. Though she once fretted over illegal immigration and the growing Latino population in her community, she has softened on the issue throughout the years.

“At first I didn’t want it, but now, who cares?” she said. “It’s progress…. You can’t fight it; you can’t hate your neighbor.”

Though she’s not wild about the prospect of military contractors driving tanks down the dirt roads of her community, Bonnie is pragmatic.

“At this point, I really don’t care,” she said. “Progress is something we can’t help. Everybody’s having babies. Everybody has to live, everybody has to work—and it all takes crowds.

“We should be like Japan,” she said. “You can’t be buried in Japan. You have to be cremated…. We’re going to have a whole state one time and it’s gong to be nothing but cemeteries.”

Harriett Molloy, a self-described born-again Christian, said she was at first unsure about the prospect of Blackwater setting up shop but has since changed her mind.

“My bottom line is this: A community that is clean, mountainous and where people [come] for peace and quiet is not a place for an organization like Blackwater,” she said. “They tell us what they do there would not pollute us, but once an organization like that goes in, there’s no telling what they might do.”

For Lytle, whose good friend, Robert Arnold (yep, same family), lost his home in the Harris fire, the peace of mind he’s found in Potrero is worth the threat of being burned out every few years. When he sits down to paint, draw or sculpt, the only barrier between him and his muse is the cry of a hawk or the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. “I like being out in an area where there’s not a lot of people so I can do my craft and my work,” Lytle said. “You know what kind of company you keep and the community you’re in if every four blocks there’s not a liquor store.”

Topic revision: r1 - 13 Feb 2008, CathyMiller
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