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Original Issue

An Unfair Fight

CARLOS BARRAGAN and his son Carlos Jr. don't torture dogs, don't inject 'roids and don't bet on sporting events they ref. They've never run from the law or the tax man or a grand jury.

What they do run is a little boxing gym for kids in National City, Calif., between the Mexican border and the San Diego barrios.

So why is the city trying to shut them down?

Luxury condos, that's why.

The city wants to knock down the Barragans' Community Youth Athletic Center and four neighboring businesses so a developer can put up 24 stories of condos and stores. Turns out National City gets a load more tax dollars out of building condos than building kids.

There's a giant billboard with a rendering of the condos next door to the gym, and it says COMING SOON, which was a shock to the Barragans because, see, they aren't selling. Not to anybody. They've been giving kids free boxing lessons for 16 years, the last five in this spot. At best they turn out nationally ranked boxers. At worst they give kids a couple of hours a day of sweat and skills and self-worth.

The way the Barragans see it, the kids who need the help are here. Why would they move? "This is our home," says Carlos, 59, who works in water reclamation.

And this is where it starts to stink like a garlic mouthpiece.

The city is threatening to seize their property through the right of eminent domain, which is bureaucratese for "we take your land and you watch." This power was originally intended for areas of public use, to build highways and railways and such. But now, since a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2005, it means that strong-arm tactics are being used so rich businessmen can get richer. Here's how it works:

Step 1: Declare the gym and its surroundings "blighted."

O.K., I went to see how blighted it is. Well, if that gym's blighted, my house is in big trouble. It's a clean, one-story operation, with fresh-looking paint and roof and drywall and showers (all done free by good neighbors), a beautiful ring and a row of computers for the academic tutoring program all the young boxers are required to take. And to think this used to be a gun shop.

Step 2: Write a letter to the property owners, advising them to take your "fair" offer or you'll see them in court, where they'll lose.

Three of the gym's neighbors ended up in court, apparently not convinced that the city's offer was all that "fair," but they have since agreed to take the settlement.

Step 3: Start the bulldozers.

What's twisted is that because people like the Barragans opened businesses that helped make the neighborhood better and safer, property values went up, which brought in profit-hungry developers. And next thing you know, the Barragans are looking at a letter about "friendly condemnation."

"Me and my son, all we want to do is help the kids," says Carlos, "and the city comes at me with words I don't even know what they mean?"

What the words mean is that unless there's a miracle, the little boxing gym will soon be flatter than a manhole cover.

"We're not giving up," says Barragan, who is being helped, pro bono, by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit. "We're boxers. We are like Julio Cesar Chavez. We stand in and fight. If we go down, we go down swinging."

The mayor of National City, Ron Morrison, isn't buying it. He says the city has offered to find a new location for the gym but the offer has been refused. "I can't tell if they're trying to hold us up for a better price or if it's just ego," says Morrison, whose name, by the way, is on that billboard. "Look, these are the adult leaders of kids. The kids get in the ring, and if they win, a ref holds their hand up. But nobody holds [the Barragans'] hands up. So maybe this is their chance to take us to court and to do battle and hope somebody holds their hands up."

Belittling the Barragans? Dumb move in National City, where the Barragans are nearly as popular as the Chargers.

You know what, Mayor? National City doesn't need more luxury condos. It needs good men like the Barragans teaching kids respect for neighbors and property, manners you could use a little of yourself.

And if you kick the Barragans out so some slick in Armani can buy a bigger yacht, I hope your car stereo gets jacked—weekly—by a kid who would've otherwise been lovingly coached on their jabs and their math and their lives.

Question: Can you declare politicians blighted?

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National City wants to knock down a youth boxing club and put up condos. Turns out the city gets more tax dollars out of building condos than building kids.