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Barrio Logan artisans team up to bring people back to the neighborhood

Customers browse merchandise outside Sew Loka during Walk The Block in Barrio Logan on Aug. 22, 2020
Customers browse merchandise outside Sew Loka during Walk The Block in Barrio Logan on Aug. 22, 2020.
(Vito Di Stefano)

Called Walk The Block, the weekly outdoor event invites San Diegans to local shops and restaurants in an effort to revive the business district

It’s no secret that business districts in San Diego County have been struggling during the pandemic. Barrio Logan is no exception.

Claudia Rodriguez-Biezunski is the owner of Sew Loka, a sewing studio on Logan Avenue. Her business, like many others in Barrio Logan, took a huge hit once the stay-at-home orders went into effect. Foot traffic vanished overnight and continued for months.

“Right away, it just became a ghost town,” Rodriguez-Biezunski said. “I would say around March it started to get super quiet — there wasn’t anyone out here. It was actually really depressing to see. (Barrio Logan) is usually very alive, there’s always people out.”

San Diegans walk around Barrio Logan during Walk The Block on Aug. 22, 2020
Walk The Block, which happens every Saturday, brings San Diegans back into Barrio Logan. In March, the neighborhood had become a ghost town due to the pandemic.
(Vito Di Stefano)

According to Rodriguez-Biezunski, a large percentage of Barrio Logan businesses applied for government relief money, but many were denied. Though a few pivoted online or offered curbside pickup, the once bustling storefronts were struggling.

“I had an online store, but most of my business — like literally 95 percent of it — is all just people who walk in ... and that was no longer,” said Alexandra Perez Demma, owner of Simón Limón, a retail shop that carries various products by local makers and artists.

Many businesses paused operations completely, and at least one shop ended up closing permanently. Two months into the shutdown, Rodriguez-Biezunski’s neighbor Xochitl Villarreal was forced to shut the doors of her boutique NATIVO.

After witnessing NATIVO’s closure and talking with other business owners, Rodriguez-Biezunski realized they needed to take action to bring revenue back into the community.

Customers browse merchandise and take photos outside Sew Loka during Walk The Block in Barrio Logan on Aug. 22, 2020
Visitors take photos and shop outside while wearing masks and social distancing at Walk The Block on Aug. 22, 2020
(Vito Di Stefano)

“I started to think, ‘If I’m hurting, I’m sure there are other people who are also hurting and if we all come together we can really create something super special,’” Rodriguez-Biezunski said.

A few months ago, Rodriguez-Biezunski noticed businesses and restaurants in neighborhoods like Little Italy and downtown begin to move operations outdoors. She felt confident that Barrio Logan could host something similar, given that the neighborhood was full of creative people who had previously coordinated popular outdoor events like Barrio Art Crawl.

Rodriguez-Biezunski came up with an idea for Walk The Block, a weekly event to encourage San Diegans to visit Barrio Logan. With outdoor business permits, shops could set up retail booths in the street and restaurants could host diners on the sidewalk in an effort to revive the neighborhood.

In July, she approached other business owners to gauge interest. Some of them, like Perez Demma, were initially unsure about the idea.

“I was kinda hesitant just because Barrio Logan is already hit hard by COVID — you know, it’s one of the hot spots in San Diego,” she said. “So the thought of a lot of people coming down and showing up was kinda scary.”

After meeting with Rodriguez-Biezunski and hearing her plan, Perez Demma was assured that the neighborhood could host the event safely. Unfortunately, many of the other business owners who were originally interested in Walk The Block had to shift their time and attention to other matters, such as their families and health, due to COVID-19.

A promotional flyer for Walk The Block designed by Alex Perez Demma
(Courtesy photo)

But Rodriguez-Biezunski and Perez Demma were determined to make Walk The Block happen. Rodriguez-Biezunski decided to be the “guinea pig” and was the first shop in Barrio Logan to apply for an outdoor business permit. With decreased demand for her tailoring services, she planned to set up a booth outside her sewing studio to sell some of her original designs.

As a creative who “just sews and isn’t tech-saavy” she admitted the outdoor business permit process was completely foreign to her, describing the lingo in the government application as intimidating. Luckily her hard work paid off, and the experience helped her coach others when applying for their own permits.

Though Perez Demma has been able to resume Simón Limón’s normal business hours, she secured an outdoor permit to provide other shops and vendors the opportunity to sell outside her storefront on a rotating basis. She also designed promotional flyers to drum up interest for the event, as well as created hand washing stations inspired by an Instagram post from Cosa Buena, a nonprofit serving Oaxaca, Mexico.

One of Alexandra Perez Demma's hand washing stations placed along Logan Avenue during Walk The Block
Alexandra Perez Demma has built three hand washing stations so far, which are placed along Logan Avenue during Walk The Block.
(Alexandra Perez Demma)

In response to COVID-19, Cosa Buena builds unique hand washing stations that do not require running water, made with locally-sourced materials and painted by local artists. With Cosa Buena’s approval, Perez Demma brought the idea to Barrio Logan; she donates money to the nonprofit for every new station she builds.

Three weeks after the initial conversation, Walk The Block’s first event was held on Aug. 8. It now takes place from noon to 6 p.m. every Saturday, which was typically Barrio Logan’s busiest day before the pandemic.

Every business on the block from Chicano Park to 26th Avenue participates. Currently, six businesses operate outdoor retail booths in the street, with restaurants such as Border X Brewing and Salud hosting diners on the sidewalk.

Additionally, other businesses open their brick-and-mortar doors — many of which are closed the other six days of the week — abiding by indoor COVID-19 safety regulations like limiting occupancy.

All visitors are required to wear masks and social distance, and three of Perez Demma’s three hand washing stations are stationed along Logan Avenue. Rodriguez-Biezunski said that everyone has been very cooperative about the safety measures and that attendance has been higher than she expected.

A visitor using one of Alexandra Perez Demma's hand washing stations placed along Logan Avenue during Walk The Block
A visitor uses one of Alexandra Perez Demma’s hand washing stations at Walk The Block. The portable structure — based on a design from Cosa Buena, a nonprofit in Oaxaca, Mexico — includes a large watering can and bar of soap.
(Alexandra Perez Demma)

“I didn’t anticipate that (many) people to come out,” Rodriguez-Biezunski said, adding that she’s received positive feedback from both guests and participating businesses.

“We’re such a unique little neighborhood — we really need the community support right now to keep us afloat,” she continued.

Though only a month in, the initial support of Walk The Block seems to have brought the ghost town back to life every Saturday.

“I’ve had shop neighbors (say) ‘It’s so nice to see the block alive again’ … there’s like a pulse down there (in Barrio Logan) and for awhile there wasn’t — it was dead,” Perez Demma said. “But now you can feel that energy again.”


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