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Robert “Chuckles” Hernandez has lived in Solana Beach since his birth in 1927. He said his family moved to Eden Gardens a few years later after being evicted from their Cedros Avenue home because their Mexican heritage. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Eden Gardens dispels past stories, continues to thrive

The second of a three-part series about Eden Gardens

SOLANA BEACH — “The Eden Gardens community is second to none in my opinion,” longtime Solana Beach resident Joe Kellejian said.

The former five-time mayor could list several reasons for that sentiment, but he made the comment while talking about the residents’ determination to thwart a growing crime trend in their neighborhood more than two decades ago.

While their efforts were successful and are ongoing, some outsiders still mistakenly view the community as an undesirable area. In fact, some home prices are approaching the $1 million mark.

Officially called La Colonia de Eden Gardens, it is the oldest community in Solana Beach.

It was first developed around 1920 so Mexican workers who tended the large citrus groves in Rancho Santa Fe could have their families nearby.

“Eden Gardens has always had a rough and tumble past,” Kellejian said. “It goes back to when movie stars who went to the (Del Mar) race track came into Eden Gardens to gamble and drink.”

Lifelong residents of the area, or their descendants, can share seemingly endless stories about youngsters getting in trouble with the law, but they say that was less about bad kids and more about stereotypes, discrimination and a few “bad cops.”

Robert “Chuckles” Hernandez, who has lived in Eden Gardens for most of his 87 years, recalls his daily after-school routine of eating a 5-cent ice cream in front of the local store with money he earned from sweeping a nearby cantina.

One day in the late 1940s, he and his cousin were taken from there to a stream and beaten by an officer after being accused of stealing a portable radio from a car.

The next day the accuser apologized to the boys after finding his radio at home, but the officer did not. Hernandez said his family didn’t report the beating for fear of being targeted by law enforcement.

Manny Aguilar, president of La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, said his brother-in-law, a “good student and athlete,” was allegedly handcuffed and beaten for “mouthing off” to a sheriff in the late 1960s.

Aguilar said his son was arrested for driving under the influence 22 years ago. He said it took a negative test result for alcohol and drugs from the hospital and the threat of a lawsuit for the charges to be dropped and the arrest to be expunged.

“There are bad kids, and there are bad cops,” Hernandez said. “But I don’t think that will happen again.”

Although these and other incidents resulted in a lack of trust in law enforcement, residents realized they needed the help of the Sheriff’s Department when crime increased in the community in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to some, the problems were no worse than those in other cities and not exclusive to Eden Gardens. They claim reports have been exaggerated by the media, unfairly giving the community a reputation as a gang- and crime-ridden area.

“The problems that we had were like every town,” Alice Granados, a 53-year resident, said.

“I believe a lot of it was exaggeration,” Hernandez said. “Most of it was from outsiders, not people living here. … It was not as bad as the media would say. What happened was overblown.”

Kellejian, who grew up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood, said it was an increase in crime citywide that prompted him to enter local politics.

“Crimes were happening in neighborhoods outside of Eden Gardens,” Kellejian said. “Homes were being broken into and a lot of things were taken down to that area and being fenced for drugs.

“It may have been outside people taking advantage of the situation,” he added. “But that was not the only place where we had problems with drugs in the ’80s. There were a lot of reports of drug activity in the beach area and at Fletcher Cove.”

Pinpointing the exact extent of gang and drug activity in Eden Gardens more than two decades ago is difficult. A spokesman from the Encinitas sheriff’s station said officers from that time are retired and he was unsure about records from the era.

The problems were the subject of at least two Los Angeles Times articles, and Aguilar recalls a year in which some unknown Mexican teenagers moved into Eden Gardens and began selling drugs.

“They sort of sprang up overnight,” he said. “Wealthy people from other communities were coming here to buy drugs. That was the nexus for Eden Gardens Against Drugs (EGAD), and that’s what drove those people out.”

EGAD was a group of residents who took a not-on-my-watch attitude in late 1980. They worked with law enforcement, city officials and other organizations and did whatever was necessary to take control of their neighborhood.

Many people credit Bob Apostolos, the sheriff’s captain at the time, for working cooperatively with the community.

“We recorded all the activities,” Granados said. “We had meetings to learn how to get rid of the undesirables. We had to do what (law enforcement) told us to do or it wasn’t going to work. Everyone in Eden Gardens is somehow related. So that meant reporting cousins (and other relatives).”

Their efforts paid off. Eden Gardens is not currently “high on the list” of problem neighborhoods,” sheriff’s Lt. Mario Zermeno said. “It’s a pleasant area and there are not a lot of issues like in some other cities.”

Zermeno said he has “no knowledge of what happened back then” when asked about officers harassing Eden Gardens residents.

“Our working relationship with that community is very good,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider it a problem area.”

Past reports acknowledge the existence of at least one Eden Gardens gang, but Zermeno said he couldn’t confirm or deny current gang activity.

Before disbanding, EGAD completed a list of improvements to the area other than driving out gangs and drugs. Aguilar’s foundation is working to ensure safety in the community and provide opportunities for the youth.

Next week the final story in this series will focus on those efforts.