For more than a week, Crawford High School classmates and neighbors of Jonathan Cortez gathered at the intersection of 54th and Lea streets to call for justice.
Jonathan, 15, died there Oct. 9 after being hit by multiple drivers who fled the scene, investigators now believe. One driver turned himself in a couple of days later. Those who were holding signs at the intersection want justice in the form of criminal charges against the man — something police said likely wouldn’t happen for several weeks, until the investigation closes.
But residents in the area have been calling for a different kind of justice there for some time. They want safer streets.
“It’s an extremely dangerous place for people to walk, bike, access transit and drive,” said Randy Van Vleck, an advocate for safe streets with the City Heights Community Development Corp. He compared the high-speed, four-lane road to a highway. “There’s lots of people walking, there’s kids trying to get to school, there’s parks, there’s stores, there’s bus stops. The design of those streets is not compatible with the neighborhood.”
Police don’t yet know why Jonathan was in the roadway, but friends and community members believe he was riding his skateboard in the street because there was no sidewalk or bike lane.
The dozens of candles sat on cracked asphalt where smooth concrete would normally go. Their flames flickered as cars sped past just feet away.
It’s a makeshift memorial on a makeshift sidewalk.
In 2011, Anastasia Brewster, a nearby resident and Van Vleck’s colleague, submitted a request through the city’s website asking it to repair a similar patch of asphalt directly across the street. Brewster said the city’s street services division told her they couldn’t do any maintenance because the asphalt is not technically a sidewalk.
A city-led audit of sidewalk conditions earlier this year revealed there are 620 miles of road in San Diego where no formal sidewalks exist.
There is also no bike lane on the east side of the street where Jonathan was found. In 2013, Van Vleck urged the city to narrow the traffic lanes there to accommodate one.
Between 2004 and 2013, there were 38 pedestrian and cyclist-involved accidents on 54th Street from El Cajon Boulevard to state Route 94, according to UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System.
Such accidents increased 20 percent citywide between 2012 and 2014, according to nonprofit Circulate San Diego. It advocates for pedestrian- and bike-friendly roadways.
City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who represents the district where the accident took place, said in a statement that she is aware of the problem.
“I have worked with many community leaders and organizations who deeply care about pedestrian safety for everyone in this neighborhood and throughout the city,” Emerald said. “Together, we have made progress. In this particular part of the district we have added additional colored bike lanes, approved amendments to the Mid-City Community Plan, and have done mobility studies. Future region-wide public transportation plans will also impact this part of the district — and I hope to continue to work with the community to continue to advocate for safer streets for pedestrians when these opportunities come before me.”
Indeed, the city painted some of its first green bike lanes a couple of blocks north of Lea Street. The paint is meant to be a stronger visual cue to drivers that they are sharing the road with cyclists. There are also long-term plans to make additional safety improvements there through the University Avenue Mobility Plan and the Mid-City Bike Corridor.
And there are projects in the pipeline that could indirectly calm traffic along 54th Street.
Earlier this year, the city approved a community plan amendment that will let developers reconfigure Lea Street and nearby Chollas Parkway to make room for a park, housing and commercial space. The project likely would bring sidewalks and other infrastructure to 54th Street, but the project has no funding.
And the San Diego Association of Governments’ regional plan includes funding for a new rapid bus line along 54th Street, which could result in better street infrastructure. Community members urged the planning agency to fast-track the project. In a compromise, SANDAG moved it up to 2025.
“These are good projects that are in the pipeline,” Van Vleck said. “The sooner we can get those built and onto the streets, the better and safer community we can have for all people.”
Attention to street safety does seem to be increasing throughout the city.
Though it’s a drop in the bucket to fund the 78,000 sidewalk problems identified, the city has budgeted $6.4 million to address the problem, including $2.7 million for missing sidewalks. During summer, the city signed on to an initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2025. The plan focuses efforts on eight corridors that see the most collisions — 54th Street is not one of them.
And the need for safe streets is not lost on Jonathan’s classmates. Though their efforts in the week after the accident are aimed mostly at remembering Jonathan and finding answers and “justice for Johnny,” which they’ve been shouting from the roadside, some said they plan to ask the city to improve lighting in the area.
“You have to be careful around here because there’s a lot of crazy drivers,” said Kevin Pacheco, 17. He said Jonathan always had a smile on his face and had a bright future.
“He was a happy kid, always trying to make other people happy,” added Pacheco’s friend, Romeo De La Cruz, 18.