The words “SLOW DOWN!” are emblazoned across the front of Juana Chavez’s bright yellow T-shirt, which she wore as she and her son Javier walked home from school last week. They walked in a single file, Javier resembling a duckling at her heels.
That’s because on this stretch of 52nd Street in the Chollas Creek neighborhood of City Heights, there are no sidewalks. Chavez and her son walked in the street. They hugged the curb as the cars that zoom by hugged the curve.
This stretch of her route is especially nerve-wracking. “If you’re walking, the cars don’t always see you around the curve,” she said. “And they don’t slow down.” Thus the appeal on her T-shirt.
When there are cars parked in the street, she maneuvers around them, leaning in close each time a passing car comes within inches. “When it rains, the cars soak us,” she said of the 30 or 40 other families she knows who make the daily trip up and down 52nd Street.
The 52nd street curve is on one of the main neighborhood routes to Marshall Elementary School. A majority of parents, many of whom lack cars, have no choice but to walk their children to and from school.
That would seem to make the neighborhood a paragon for healthy living. Except that in parts of Chollas Creek, as in much of City Heights, the infrastructure does not support it. So walking’s potential to promote good health is often tempered by the task’s physical risks.
City Heights has the highest rate of pedestrian accidents in San Diego. Between 2002 and 2007, there were five pedestrian crashes for every 1,000 residents, compared to fewer than three per 1,000 citywide, according to city crash data.
Much of that may be due to the community’s high residential density and high traffic volume along its two major thoroughfares, El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.
But community residents and activists say there’s more to it than that.
The lack of sidewalks in Chollas Creek and elsewhere make that daily task at least laborious and at worst downright dangerous as residents walk in the street for blocks at a time. Where there are sidewalks, many lack curb ramps at intersections.
“Everyone in the neighborhood knows this as a dangerous section,” Michelle Luellen, a coordinator at the City Heights Development Corp., said of the 52nd Street Curve.
Luellen runs the organization’s City Heights Walks to School program, where she and others are working to improve access to walkable infrastructure in a community where so many depend on it.
“In a lot of ways City Heights is a model community,” she said. At some schools as many as 90 percent of parents walk their children to school. “Principals in other communities would love to have that many parents walk their kids. But even though they’re doing all these things right, people are risking getting hit by a car.”
The deficiencies along many of what are today City Heights’ main walking routes reflect the community’s earlier, more affluent history, when residents were less dependent on walking to get around.
City Heights demographics changed quickly beginning in the 1970s, when it started becoming the largely immigrant and refugee community it is today. But its physical infrastructure did not keep up with its new residents’ needs. Today, local organizations are trying to bridge the gap between density and accessibility.
In parts of the community, clean new sidewalks and bright yellow paint catch the eye among the more worn infrastructure nearby.
Along Wightman Street in the Cherokee Point neighborhood, new curb ramps along a stretch of several blocks have transformed what was once a virtual obstacle course.
“The parents were so happy when they installed them,” said Godwin Higa, principal of nearby Cherokee Point Elementary School. “The moms were really excited. Before, they were trying to push the baby carriage and it was going ‘boom, boom, boom.’”
Now, mothers with strollers or pushcarts practically glide along the street.
The curb ramps were installed at the urging of the City Heights CDC, which has used local and federal money to find infrastructure deficiencies that make walking dangerous.
Because daily walks to and from school generate some of greatest foot traffic in the community, they have focused on the areas most heavily traveled by children and their parents each day.
In collaboration with Walk San Diego, a local nonprofit that promotes walkable communities, they presented a study of all of City Heights to the city’s traffic engineering department with recommendations for addressing the community’s infrastructure deficiencies.
They’ve recommended crosswalks, intersection pop-outs that extend pedestrians into the line of sight of approaching cars, and concrete islands that break up the crossing at wider intersections.
Because of budget cuts, the city, Luellen said, has increasingly depended on the group’s recommendations to learn which sites present the greatest hazards to casual pedestrians. The CDC and Walk San Diego have worked with the city to have them installed.
Curb ramps, which must be installed to conform to ADA regulations, have been among the quickest improvements. Others, like more visible ladder crosswalks and curb pop-outs, have required more persistence, she said.
But slowly, Luellen said, a walk through City Heights is getting easier. Even though, she said, “these things should have been built in the first place.”