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Arts get a boost with new facilities in Southeast San Diego

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When 18-year-old Chula Vista resident Christian Baez told his parents he wanted to pursue acting as a full-time career, they had a moment of panic.

"They pulled the car over to the side of the road," he said. The budding thespian was told to stay in school and keep his options open.

While south and southeastern San Diego have perhaps an unrivaled local cultural and artistic heritage -- think Chicano Park, globally recognized as a mecca of Chicano arts and activism -- careers in creativity have been long in coming.

Until now.

With the presence of the Old Globe Theatre on Market and Euclid, and the opening of the Jacobs Family Foundation and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation's $23 million community center behind Market Creek Plaza, a window of opportunity has opened for artists in southeast San Diego.

"When we came into office we wanted to advocate for more arts and culture in our community," said District 4 Councilman Tony Young. "We felt there was an unequal distribution of arts funding in the city, and we were getting the short end of the stick."

Young's staff, with the help of the Jacobs Family Foundation, the Globe and a $750,000 grant for arts collaboration and innovation from the James Irvine Foundation, set it sights on creating an arts village.

Today, within blocks of the Market Creek Plaza, artists and patrons will find the Malcolm X Library, the Tubman/Chavez Center and the 78,000-square-foot Jacobs Center.

Poised to enliven the community and attract visitors, Celebration Hall on the center's first floor has a stage and seating capacity for 1,000 people. This floor also houses a 5,000-square-foot commercial kitchen for use as a culinary training academy. Galleries and gardens adorn the third floor, where the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation are headquartered. Offices are located on the second floor.

Southeastern San Diego's diverse cultural heritage -- Samoan, Latino, Laotian, African-American -- can be seen in the center's designs, and the community was invited to participate in the facility's creation.

"The thing about us is that we have incomparable cultural qualities, art and diversity," Young said. "This is something that has continued to be outsourced to other communities. We need to highlight the arts and culture here."

When The Old Globe set its sights on southeastern San Diego with a desire and a promise to make inroads into the community, Young jumped at the chance to bring the organization into the neighborhood.

In January, the Globe purchased a 43,000-square-foot facility across from Malcolm X library, which has become the theater's Technical Center.

According to the Globe's executive director, Louis G. Spisto, the Technical Center not only increases the Globe's ability to design and build its scenic elements, but also "offers the opportunity for the theater to become a vital cultural resource in the southeastern San Diego community," he said.

Part of the Globe's commitment is to involve the community in workshops and education programs.

A series of short plays telling stories from the region will be developed, and Young's office has connected the Globe to local schools and community organizations to "create sustainable relationships for the long term," he said.

"There are a number of projects pending to attract artists," Young said, including a proposed mixed-use housing project down the street from the Technical Center.

The Technical Center will hire up to 50 staff members, including employees from southeast San Diego, and the Jacobs Center has set a target of 200 job opportunities. The center could also produce $5 million in annual revenue as soon as it is up and running at full capacity.

Many of the contracts to build the center went to District 4 contractors, as part of the Jacobs' local bidding and building philosophy.

Possibilities at the Globe's Technical Center will range from internships and training for recent high school graduates and young adults to production work in costume and set design.

The Globe's outreach efforts opened the door for student actor Baez, who recently appeared in a bilingual (Spanish/English) production of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" through the Globe's four-week acting program in Balboa Park.

About half of the performers in the performance were native Spanish speakers from south and southeast schools, said director Vivia Font.

The Globe's Education department will continue the program, and auditions for next summer begin in March 2009.

These students may appear soon on stages closer to home.

Though the arts village is still in the early stages, Councilman Young said the commitment and dedication of organizations like the Globe and the Jacobs Center have already transformed the community for the better.

Spisto agreed: "It's a major new focus that brings us into a wonderful relationship with an entire community that may not be coming to The Globe on a regular basis.

"Theater becomes an option for people in San Diego, a tremendous opportunity for both what's happening behind the scenes and on stage," he said.


Chung Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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