It’s not a stretch of the imagination to envision someone eating it on this sidewalk. (Photo Credit: Liam Dillon)
A bunch of pictures of cracked up sidewalks probably doesn’t sound like the makings of an endearing yet informative photoblog, but credit Voice of San Diego for thinking outside the box. The Tumblr, cleverly titled The Stumblr, is the investigative journalism non-profit’s way of highlighting the state of disrepair of San Diego’s sidewalks as well as the bizarre allocation of ownership and responsibility for fixing them.
The Voice’s Liam Dillon first took a look at the sidewalk problem in mid-January of this year, and the The Stumblr followed soon after. “It was collaboration between three of us in the office,” Dillon said. “It was my idea to track sidewalk issues.”
The idea is a few years in the making. “I got here in August 2009. I was assigned to a regular city hall beat,” Dillon said. “Starting this past January, I switched to covering politics at a neighborhood level: infrastructure, police, emergency response times, that kind of thing. While I was on the city hall beat, I came across a legal memo put out in 2010 about responsibility for sidewalks.”
The memo spelled out the way in which sidewalk repair responsibility is treated. The owner of the property is responsible for the sidewalk, but liability should someone injure themselves due to a cracked sidewalk lies with the city of San Diego. This means the city doesn’t repair the sidewalk because it doesn’t have to, and the owner doesn’t repair it because they aren’t even legally liable should something happen. “I thought that was a completely nonsensical way of doing things,” Dillon said. No kidding.
The results of this San Diego sidewalk limbo are countless crumbling sidewalks throughout the city – enough that in the two months that the Stumblr has been running, the San Diego Voice has been able to post one user-submitted photo per day. That’s about 72 blocks of cracks and crumbling, and the number grows by the day.
That’s not to say no sidewalks are getting repairs, however. The city has a policy of taking on the costs of the repairs 50/50 with the owner, but if that isn’t possible, San Diego opts for a less visually appealing solution. “What the city does is they tend to put asphalt over the worst cracks, because that protects them from legal liability,” Dillon said. “It’s helpful that it smoothes over the sidewalk and makes it safer, but it looks terrible.”
Terrible, but at least functional. Dillon spoke to one senior citizen that once walked the six blocks to the grocery store, until she tripped on the broken sidewalk on the way there. In just a few days after her photos of the perpetrating sidewalk were posted to The Stumblr, asphalt was applied to fill in and smooth over the cracks. “Now that the sidewalk has been smoothed over, she’s walking to the grocery store again,” Dillon said. And she’s walking without fear. “I, for one, can now resume shopping there without the fear of a catastrophe,” the woman told Dillon.
As for a reforming of the way sidewalk repairs are handled, the San Diego city council is in the beginning stages of a sidewalk survey of the city. “That’s seen as a prelude,” Dillon said. “Are we talking about a $10 million problem, a $100 million problem, or a $500 million problem?”
With any luck, San Diego may stumble into a solution.