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Voice of San Diego: Braving Hillcrest's sidewalks in a wheelchair

(This article originally appeared HERE in Voice of San Diego.)

SAN DIEGO -- About once a week, 77-year-old William Ballard pushes himself out of his Jazzy Select electric wheelchair onto his Merits Cypress 4 model to buy groceries. The Cypress has better shock absorbers.

Ballard lives alone in a Hillcrest apartment, a little more than a half-mile from a shopping center with a Ralphs and Trader Joe’s. Three years ago, he lost his left leg after a severe fall in his home. He’s been in an electric wheelchair since.

Recently, Ballard started sending me emails and letters with photos of sidewalks and curb ramps that he takes on trips around his neighborhood. He enclosed a letter about Hillcrest’s sidewalks he sent to the city last fall: “The alley behind Rite Aid at 5th is impassible — well, I could go on and on — not to mention just playing dodgem with the cracks and holes and general disrepair throughout the neighborhood. Borrow a friends chair and go ride around in this area — you’ll see what I mean.”

Photographer Sam Hodgson and I took Ballard up on his offer — we went by foot — and accompanied him on his trip to the grocery stores. Here’s a map of the route we took, which included a few detours so Ballard could show us some of the worst sidewalks he deals with regularly. We cut through California Bank & Trust’s parking lot on Fifth Avenue. “Often the parking lots are smoother than the streets and sidewalks,” Ballard said.

Ballard first took us up Fifth Avenue to see a wide crack in the sidewalk along the 3700 block. (We previously posted a photo Ballard took on our busted sidewalks blog, The Stumblr.)

The crack’s widened over the last few months, he said.

From there, we doubled back, crossing the bank parking lot to Sixth Avenue toward Robinson Avenue. Ballard moved his head along with the bumps along the sidewalk to soften their blow. If we wanted to see how bad things were, he said, we should watch his chair’s rumbling wheels.

It soon became clear that sidewalks and curb ramps that seemed OK on first glance had lips, bumps and asphalt that jostled his chair. Activists in City Heights documented a similarly rough experience last year when they videoed a 2 ½ mile trip along University Avenue in a wheelchair.

Ballard avoided a particularly rough curb ramp at Seventh and Robinson and instead traveled in the street toward Whole Foods Market.

We turned right on University Avenue and Ballard maneuvered around raised sections of the sidewalk.

During the whole trip, Ballard zoomed along the sidewalk quicker than we walked. He also barreled out in the road before we did. People moved out of the way.

“I know I take advantage of things because I’m in a wheelchair,” he said with a smile. “It’s shameful.”

One time, Ballard recalled, a car hit him while making a right turn onto Fifth Avenue. Ballard wasn’t hurt and his wheelchair didn’t fall over. He’s had several other close calls. Ballard once ran over the foot of a man who was coming out of Whole Foods. The man cursed at him.

After stops at a mail store, Ralphs and Trader Joe’s, we headed back to Ballard’s home.

Ballard also has back pain. Toward the end of the trip, he was laboring. Ballard met almost every bump up a curb ramp with a grimace and an “Oof.”

A couple blocks from his house, Ballard couldn’t wait to arrive.

“I will think about lots of different kinds of pain pills,” he said. “I will make a glass of pain juice. I will try to relax.”

Sure enough, back inside his apartment, Ballard mixed himself a vodka tonic.

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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.