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On Monday evening, six teenagers carrying sports bags and soccer balls turned onto Island Avenue off 22nd Street in Sherman Heights. They walked up to a tall chain link fence surrounding a grassy field on the campus of Sherman Elementary School. It was after school hours and the field should have been open to the public, but the gate was locked.

So the teenagers pried open a loose section of the fence, tossed their soccer balls and bags through the opening, then wiggled underneath and slipped into the park. They were ready to start their game.

The grassy field on the elementary school campus is supposed to become a public park once the school day is over, reverting to school control the next morning. But since early 2010 the school has kept the gates locked after class ends, leaving it accessible only by residents nimble and slim enough to crawl under the fence.

It’s supposed to serve as a public park under an agreement between the city of San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District. The school district opens school sports fields up to the public, and in return, city crews maintain them, mowing and watering the grass, relieving the school district of those expenses. The city spends an annual average of $7,175 per acre to maintain joint-use fields, not including the cost of water and utilities.

But for almost a year, the city of San Diego continued maintaining the 1.4-acre field at Sherman Elementary even though it was closed to the public. The city said it didn’t know the gates were staying locked until contacted by voiceofsandiego.org.

Edward Caballero, the school’s principal, said he stopped opening the field early last year because of security and vandalism concerns. Custodians had found locks missing, graffiti on a retaining wall and litter on the grass.

“We’re more than happy to open up the gate,” Caballero said in the school’s office Monday afternoon. “But if locks are being taken or the gate is being left open, that is our responsibility come 8 o’clock the next morning.”

Both sides said it was the other’s responsibility to lock the gates.

David Monroe, the city’s deputy director of community parks, said his department didn’t know the field had been closed to the public, even though city crews had to unlock the gates in the early morning several times a week to perform maintenance.

He said crews assumed the school had already closed the gates, which were secured with several padlocks engraved with “City of San Diego.”

“No one ever came forward with a request and said the gates were locked,” Monroe said. Leaving them open after school and locking them the next morning is the school’s responsibility, he said.

San Diego has more than 80 joint-use agreements citywide, and they’re generally considered innovative partnerships that benefit both schools and surrounding communities, especially high-density, low-income ones like Sherman Heights, where the scarcity of parkland is acute.

A recent report by the San Diego Foundation found that low-income communities south of Interstate 8 have fewer parks than most other parts of the county, and that those communities also suffer from the highest obesity rates.

The city of San Diego’s General Plan recommends at least 2.8 acres of usable community park space per 1,000 residents, but citywide, the average is just 1.2 acres. The city’s budget cuts have made it increasingly difficult to close that gap, and in dense communities like Sherman Heights there is little available land.

“There’s a conversation about the need for new parks, but in some communities it’s difficult because land is scarce,” said Kathleen Ferrier, acting director of Walk San Diego, a local nonprofit that promotes walkable communities. “So you look at the resources that are available and maximize the use of those, and that’s really the answer to park space in the city.”

Jim Winter, who administers joint-use agreements for the city, said the agreements are one way it tries to make up for the shortage. Ten more agreements are in the works across the city.

But at Sherman Elementary the community got locked out of its joint-use field, suggesting that in at least one instance, an agreement didn’t guarantee the public had access.

Stacey LoMedico, the city’s park and recreation director, said joint-use agreements are violated from time to time, and her department usually hears about them from resident complaints and addresses them then.

“Obviously that did not happen here. Staff told me they didn’t receive any complaints,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.”

On Tuesday, a city parks department employee, Francisco
Castruita, came to unlock the fence to the park, which has
blocked off easy access for a year.

By Tuesday morning, city staff had spoken with custodians at Sherman Elementary, who acknowledged that they had been keeping the gate to the joint-use field locked after school. Monroe said access would be restored that very day.

Despite the locked gates, teenagers kept coming, because in this neighborhood, they have few other options. They couldn’t play soccer at a park in nearby Grant Hill because the field’s slope is too steep, and Sherman Elementary’s joint-use field is close to home.

Chris Guzman, a 19-year-old with a subtle Mohawk, said when the gate was locked, some of the soccer players peeled away a strip of metal that reinforces the bottom of the chain link fence, making it easier to push it in and crawl under. When the fence was repaired, they did it again. He and most of the others could get in and out without much trouble.

But not everyone could. A few months ago, an overweight friend of Guzman’s wanted to play soccer and got into the park the same way as everyone else, but he couldn’t get out.

Local soccer player William de la Cruz walks through the
freshly opened gates to meet friends for a pickup game.

Guzman and his friends had to help him jump the tall fence. “He was crying,” Guzman said. The boy hasn’t been back to the park since. The story illustrates a point that advocates often make about the importance of parks for improving health in communities like Sherman Heights, where child obesity rates are among the highest in the county.

But the boy could soon come back. At 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, Francisco Castruita, park department area manager, walked up to the fence of the Sherman Elementary School field, and after making a call on his cell phone, removed the locks and swung open its tall gates.

About 30 minutes later, Chris Guzman descended the concrete steps onto the field for the first time in almost a year.

“We always figured it was just the school,” he said, “but we didn’t know who to ask.”

Within minutes, his friends started trickling through the gates.

Reporting this story revived Adrian Florido’s long-standing dreams to learn to play soccer. On occasion, you’ll find him at Sherman Elementary School’s field. Otherwise, please contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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