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Over the phone, Terry Forshey sounded like a man defeated.
“You can probably tell from my voice,” he said. “I would really like to forget about it.”
Forshey finally threw in the towel on the issue that has consumed almost a decade of his retired life. For years, the Mira Mesa resident tried, without avail, to rid his neighborhood of its most unrelenting scourge: abandoned shopping carts.
They’re everywhere: abandoned next to bus stops, on residential corners, in empty lots and in parks, behind bushes and shrubs.
“We had them piled 10 deep on some corners,” said Forshey, who until recently led San Diegans Against Abandoned Shopping Carts, a resident group with members from several San Diego communities.
In Mira Mesa, the push against abandoned shopping carts has been an important cause for residents who have long tried to address the eyesores that have contributed to the feeling that they’re looked at as a second-class neighborhood, less than equal to nearby, more affluent north San Diego communities.
Things weren’t always this grim for Forshey.
In 2008, his group was on the verge of success. City Councilman Brian Maienschein had drafted a citywide ordinance that would have penalized stores that failed to control their shopping cart inventory.
But Maienschein was termed out of office before the ordinance could be brought before the council, and his successor, Carl DeMaio, has said the ordinance would not be effective because the city lacks the financial means to enforce it.
Abandoned carts have long been a problem in the sprawling, 10,000 acre neighborhood bound by Interstates 805 and 15 on the west and east, Los Peñasquitos Canyon on the north and the Miramar air station on the south.
The neighborhood boasts two major shopping centers on Mira Mesa Boulevard, but its residential sprawl makes the trip there a long one for residents without cars. Many of Mira Mesa’s Asian and Latino immigrant families who can walk more than two miles to the stores use shopping carts to get their groceries to the nearest bus stop, or all the way home.
That’s often where the trip ends for the shopping cart, and where headaches begin for the handful of residents who, for years, have tried to wipe out the eyesores.
On some corners, the carts from stores like Target, Vons or Home Depot commingle, tipped over, overturned, or teetering at curb’s edge. They create bursts of color against Mira Mesa’s drab suburban landscape. But active residents find it less than charming.
They don’t know how many shopping carts are abandoned each year, but the problem is so bad that a private company, the appropriately named California Shopping Cart Retrieval Corp., canvasses the neighborhood collecting and returning them to stores. According to the Mira Mesa Town Council, in 2008 the company collected 6,331 abandoned carts across the neighborhood.
That number represents only a fraction of all the carts abandoned because the company only retrieves shopping carts owned by businesses that contract with it, but most stores in Mira Mesa do not. The rest are left up to stores to collect themselves, usually after residents have called the stores to complain.
That is frustrating for people like Mike Davis. He has taken up the reins of Forshey’s group since Forshey stepped down out of frustration over the lack of cooperation by local store owners to control their carts and the ordinance’s failure.
“There’ll be six carts on a corner, and they’ll only pick up two owned by the stores they have contracts with,” Davis said. “It still looks like shit.”
When they first organized their group, Davis, Forshey, and its other members tried direct discussions with store owners. They encouraged them to install electronic containment systems that lock a cart’s wheels when it is taken out of a store’s parking lot. They asked stores to station employees in their parking lots to prevent customers from taking the carts.
The stores were hardly receptive, not wanting to upset customers, residents said.
They looked to other cities with shopping cart ordinances, like Escondido, for guidance.
But since DeMaio’s office has said it was unwilling to pursue the ordinance, the group has thought up other ways to curb the problem.
Davis plans to present cart control as an economic boon for stores that would otherwise pay to have them retrieved at a cost of $1 to $5 each.
He wants stores to offer a free shuttle service for residents.
He wants them to buy collapsible wire pushcarts that stores could offer to their customers free of charge.
“We want to show them it’s cheaper to buy a $10 granny cart for a person who’s going to take a cart every week than to pay to get that cart back every week,” he said.
For Forshey, the shopping cart problem has always been a fundamental quality of life issue.
“If you live in an area and you’re trying to maintain your neighborhood in a good operating order, where people enjoy life, shopping carts do not have a place in it away from the shops,” he said. “They have a use, but they don’t need to be in front of your driveway when you’re on your way to work, on the sidewalk when you’re handicapped, freewheeling under the force of gravity into the streets.”
“I was thinking one of these days, as the kids in Mira Mesa were growing up and showing their own kids the park and the trees and the birds, they’d have to show them the shopping carts. That’s part of the scene.”
The proliferation of abandoned carts, Davis said, has only perpetuated an association with Mira Mesa as a “second-class” community surrounded by more affluent ones like Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch.
He recalled a quote in the newspaper that was enough to make him cringe.
David Cohn, head of San Diego’s Cohn Restaurant Group, was asked in January how he picked locations for his new restaurants.
“When we get that call to do a restaurant in a strip center in Mira Mesa, we’re not interested,” Cohn told the newspaper. “We’re interested in neighborhoods.”
Disbelief is still in the retired Navy officer’s voice as he recalls reading the interview.
“He said that! They put that in the paper!” Davis said. “We were all like, ‘What’s he saying?’ That’s the sort of shit that goes on.”
Last time Davis checked, Mira Mesa was still a neighborhood.
The city’s largest, in fact, with roughly 80,000 residents. Davis takes his neighborhood’s reputation seriously, and comments like Cohn’s reflect a Mira Mesa stigma that Davis and a core group of its residents have long tried to overcome: that it is sprawling, lacks a sense of community, is pedestrian unfriendly, its main thoroughfares are congested and its flat surfaces have been known to attract graffiti.
All true, Davis admits, but he and other residents have tried, with an attitude of vigilante volunteerism, to ditch that reputation. The community’s success depends on it, he said.
Davis zips around Mira Mesa in his Ford Mustang, classic rock blaring from the radio, pointing out all the projects that his four-year-old nonprofit group, HEROES — Hometown Efforts to Rescue Our Endangered Society — has completed. Volunteers have painted dozens of walls, fences, and buildings across Mira Mesa.
He wants the large tech firms at Mira Mesa’s western edge to realize the impact their employees’ cars have on Mira Mesa Boulevard and partner with the city to improve the condition of the pothole-pocked thoroughfare. He is frustrated by outsiders’ perceptions of the neighborhood, but also has a vision for the future.
“We paint all these walls and clear out all these shopping carts, and when someone hits a pothole driving down the street, all they can think is ‘Damn Mira Mesa Boulevard!’” Davis said. “You think they’ll want to come back? That’s a big detraction.”
“We just want to undo some of the second-class attitudes about Mira Mesa,” he said.