No one walks on the hillside. Only a skinny curb separates it from the road. Thrill-seekers use the street. Skateboarders pick up speed as they slice down the asphalt curves. Most everyone else takes the dirt path alongside the canyon. In some spots, the path stretches no wider than your shoe before giving way to scraggly brush and trash below.

Many San Ysidro High School students begin and end their days here.

Sidewalks don’t exist for a winding half-mile between the high school and San Ysidro Middle School. Neither do street lights. But kids are there. The road connects the high school to the border community of San Ysidro. If you’re a teenager in San Ysidro and want to walk home from school, this is the only way to go.

“It’s an obvious problem,” said Jorge Rivas while walking down the hill after school Friday. “You can just fall off and die.”

Rivas, a senior, has traversed the path often in the two years he’s lived in San Ysidro. He doesn’t like to admit it, but he was scared at first. The sliver of dirt that divides street from canyon has snake holes, too. Rivas has learned to be aware.

San Ysidro High officials realized the danger to students even before the school opened a decade ago. They’ve coped by offering free bus rides to the entire student body. It hasn’t fixed things, as the bus drivers well know. They radio the school to report skateboarders zipping down the road.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Alternative routes present problems of their own. Wild dogs roam a second path, students and teachers said.

The solution to all this — a sidewalk — is obvious. The money to pay for it is what’s unclear.

The sidewalk will cost $6.8 million, the city says, a price tag that demonstrates the perilousness of the situation. The road is so narrow that road crews will have to cut into the hillside to make room for a sidewalk. The dirt path by the canyon where students walk today isn’t wide enough.

The city hopes to start building the sidewalk next year, but folks in San Ysidro have heard that before. A 5-year-old newspaper column said the project would be finished by 2011. The city still doesn’t know where it will find more than half the money it needs to build it.

San Ysidro’s missing sidewalk reveals more opacity in the city’s sidewalk policies. It’s rarely clear whose job it is to build sidewalks, and evolving responsibilities and neighborhood characters have created illogical and dangerous conditions.

Typically, developers pay to put in sidewalks as part of their deal with the city. In San Ysidro, sidewalks surround the high school and middle school, both near new homes. The trouble comes along the stretch of road that cuts through hillside and canyon. No one could build homes there.

The city installs sidewalks, too. It will do the job as part of drainage projects, when putting in curb ramps or when the Water Department fixes pipes.

“It’s wildly complex depending on the circumstances,” said Bill Harris, a spokesman for the Transportation and Storm Water Department.

The city’s rules can leave out neighborhoods that developed over time. In Paradise Hills, a southeastern community bordering National City, an intersection with a bus stop, apartment complex, convenience store and car wash has sidewalks leading up to a couple corners, but they end abruptly at another.

Piecemeal sidewalks mark the neighborhood, which the city annexed more than 80 years ago. The community’s character has changed from rural to urban, but sidewalks haven’t kept pace.

Recently, the city asked neighborhood planning groups to identify the most-needed projects in their communities. Guy Preuss, who heads the Paradise Hills Village Council, tried to fire up his old Intel 386 computer. The city had asked for a similar list in 1995, Preuss said, and hadn’t done much with it. He planned to resubmit the same projects.

“I couldn’t get the damn thing out,” Preuss said. “It was on a floppy disk.”

Preuss eventually accessed the list. The village council requested the same 48 new sidewalks it had wanted the first time.

For years, Preuss has seen the city fixing cracked sidewalks in Paradise Hills. He thinks it should take the money and build new ones. He’d rather have a broken sidewalk than none at all.

Less than a tenth of a mile from Kate Sessions Elementary in Pacific Beach, Michael Anderson has a similar problem. He owns a home on Academy Street, which has no sidewalks for a two-block stretch approaching the school.

An island breaks up the road and signs direct pedestrians around to the school. But the route is circuitous and doesn’t slow cars barreling down a hill on nearby Beryl Street.

“You’re smoking something if you think they’re going to stop for you,” Anderson said. “Some real funny stuff.”

Anderson grew up in the Academy Street house, but his daughter lives there now. If she decides to have a child who will go to the elementary school, Anderson plans to pay to put in a sidewalk himself.

Back outside San Ysidro High, Denise Arias, a freshman, ambled down the hill with five others. She’s from San Ysidro so she walks the stretch regularly to get home from school.

One of her friends once slipped into the canyon, she said. Another almost got hit by a car.

“It’s hard because it’s dirt,” Arias said. “You get scared.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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