Aug. 25 2010 09:19 AM

Somali community grapples with dangerous stretch of road in City Heights

Two girls cross mid-block on University Avenue between Winona Avenue and 50th Street before Friday prayers, one of the busiest times of the week for pedestrians.
Photo by David Rolland

For years, the short stretch of University Avenue between Winona Avenue and 52nd Street has been the site of dozens of car accidents and injuries. But locals keep jaywalking.

“If you stand right here and count, it's gonna be a lot,” says 20-year-old Mohamed Abdi as he stood on University outside Muna Halal Market, his father's shop, one recent Tuesday afternoon.

As if on cue, a thin man in a white dress shirt steps into the street halfway between Winona and 50th, waits for an opening in traffic and strolls across the street.

“See?” Abdi says.

With shops and apartment complexes lining University, it's second nature to cross mid-block, skipping a brief walk to a signalized crosswalk at either Winona or 52nd. With a curve blocking a clear view of cars barreling by at upwards of 30 mph, however, this time-saver poses an obvious safety hazard.

“All of a sudden, a car that's going really fast might come right out in front of you,” Abdi says, adding that he braves the zooming cars “all the time.”

When it comes to traffic accidents, this length of City Heights is one of the most dangerous street segments in the city. Since January 2005, there have been 67 accidents between Winona and 52nd, according to the city's Transportation Engineering Operations Division. During the past two years, according to police data, 28 accidents that happened around the 4900 and 5000 blocks of University have resulted in injuries, one of them fatal—averaging out to more than one injury a month. Gary Pence, a senior traffic engineer, says the stretch currently sits on the city's high-accident list.

City and police officials and members of the Somali community have been working to make this notorious stretch safer. But it's one conundrum of many in the predominantly lower-income community of City Heights, where a large pedestrian population has seen a number of improvements throughout the years but still wrangles with inefficient or nonexistent infrastructure.

“The reality is that we have poor pedestrian infrastructure throughout City Heights,” Todd Gloria, a City Councilmember whose district covers the community's 16 neighborhoods, told CityBeat.

Locals call the area around 50th and University “Little Mogadishu,” taking its name from the capital of Somalia, the East African country many residents here used to call home. In the years since the Somali government collapsed in 1991, thousands of Somali refugees have flocked to San Diego. Today, this stretch of University serves as a downtown for a good portion of the city's Somali community.

On the south side of University, Muna Halal deals in staples like milk and produce while a clothing store sells colorful sarongs and white prayer gowns (Somalis are predominantly Muslim). Across the street, Somalis buy groceries at Minnehaha Market and hang out at Safari Grill, where they eat goat meat and spaghetti, drink spiced tea and talk politics.

Five times a day, locals walk to two mosques—one at the northwest corner of Winona and University, the other a short walk away on 50th—for their daily prayers.

But drivers also hit their stride here. Up the street at Euclid Avenue, the speed limit rises to 35 mph. The lanes widen as cars dip into a long hill and hit a curve just past Winona.

By all accounts, this convergence of pedestrian and auto traffic is a recipe for danger.

“I'm surprised we don't have more problems over there,” Sgt. Patti Clayton, who oversees the police department's Multi Cultural Storefront, said at a recent meeting with members of City Heights' East African community.

“The problem is that hill,” she added. “Officers were guilty of it, too. When we're responding to a call, we drive fast and fly over that hill and it's too late.”

Times of prayer bring about the most pedestrian traffic. And, in a tragic twist, it once brought about an accident.

Early one Saturday morning in February 2009, a Somali elder was killed as he was walking to his mosque on the way to Fajr, the pre-dawn prayer. According to a traffic collision report filed by the police, he was crossing University outside of the crosswalk west of Winona, against a red light, when he was hit by a vehicle heading westbound at 30 to 35 mph. He died at the hospital.

Police don't stop pedestrians who cross mid-block, residents say, probably because they're not breaking the law. Pence, the engineer, says it's illegal only if a pedestrian crosses between two signalized intersections; there's no light at 50th and University.

Setting up a crosswalk at 50th with bright yellow lines wouldn't make the street any safer, Pence says.

“Particularly on multi-lane roadways, crosswalks can make conditions worse than they are without a crosswalk,” he said. “Some people gain a false sense of security within a crosswalk. They think that those lines will magically stop the cars and they tend to use less caution and step out in front of traffic.”

Asad Mohamed, a community service officer with the police department who works with the East African community, has come up with what seems to be the simplest solution. Last year, he got the city's approval to put up a fence at the median divider on University, which would effectively force pedestrians to cross at the light at Winona or 52nd.

An opportunity to fund construction of the fence seems to have opened up last month, when the City Council awarded a tax-allocation bond to the City Heights Redevelopment Project Area Committee (PAC), which would allot about $5 million for construction of public improvements like sidewalks and streetlights in City Heights.

But there's no promise that Mohamed's gate will go up.

Fred Lindahl, a volunteer who chairs the agency's infrastructure subcommittee, says the bond money will likely go toward areas like Colina Park, a neighborhood northwest of Little Mogadishu that's in dire need of infrastructure.

In Colina Park and Chollas Creek, another City Heights neighborhood east of Euclid Avenue, children walk to school on roads without sidewalks. Broken or nonexistent streetlights leave streets eerily dark at night.

Where the city has built high-visibility crosswalks, sidewalk ramps or “pop outs” (sections of sidewalk that bulge into the street), which increase pedestrian visibility and cut the time it takes to cross the street, there are often crumbling sidewalks nearby—or patches of weeds where sidewalks should be.

The City Heights PAC is currently trying to figure out what can be accomplished with the funds. “We don't know exactly how far that money will go,” Lindahl said.

If the fence at University goes up, some observers say it might not be a solution. People could still cross in the gap at 50th and University. And accidents could still happen at the intersection at Winona, which itself has been the site of a number of serious mishaps.

By all accounts, though, preventing jaywalking is a step in the right direction.

Outside Muna Halal Market, Abdi watches as a young man in a football jersey jogs across University during a lull in traffic. Asked if people crossing mid-block realize what they're doing is dangerous, he shrugs.

“They know,” he says. “Sometimes you wonder why they do it.”

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