Monday, December 20, 2010

A Bone-Rattling Tale of Christmas Present: or, How to Get Something Fixed in a Chicago Ward

posted by richard gill

The Rattling Plate on 57th and HP Boulevard

This is a story about wretched municipal response to a serious, yet simple, problem. What should have taken a few hours took a week. It was a genuine City of Chicago Screwup.

In early December 2010, a persistent, frequent banging started coming from 57th Drive at Hyde Park Boulevard, in front of the Museum of Science and Industry. It was loud enough to disturb anyone living on or near 56th Street from Lake Shore Drive to Cornell. A heavy steel plate had been placed in the 57th Drive curb lane to cover a hole. Either the plate was not placed correctly, or it moved, because it rocked and banged whenever a car rolled over it at about 20 mph or more (every few seconds most of the day). People told me it was interfering with their sleep, and some (as far away as Kenwood Avenue) at first thought it was gunfire.

"The Chicago system of placing the Alderman between the resident and the city is abominable."

Ok, so there’s a big hole in the street and the city put a temporary lid on it, to keep the traffic lane open. It’ll get taken care of in a day or so, right? Wrong. It went on through the week, so on Thursday, December 9, I registered a complaint with Alderman Hairston’s 5th Ward service office. In Chicago, the local Alderman’s office is the go-to place for remediating problems and obtaining city services. Even the 311 website, an all-purpose non-emergency reporting venue, suggests contacting the Alderman. As a backup measure, I made the same complaint on the 311 website and received a prompt email acknowledgment. Saturday, I received an email from the Alderman’s office saying the plate was gone. It was still there, hammering away.

So I emailed the Alderman’s office again, to say the information they provided was incorrect. The office checked and then replied that a crew had indeed been dispatched to the site and had returned without fixing it because of weather and furlough days (city budget crisis). I believe this meant that they wanted to fix the underlying problem, but they had insufficient crew and/or equipment. Whatever the case, the thing remained and kept making noise, by then sounding like cymbals. I again informed the Alderman’s office.

On Tuesday the 14th, a solo operator with a front-end loader arrived and repositioned the plate to be square with the curb. The operator even dismounted and inspected how the plate sat. Then he immediately departed. Now the noise was (1) worse and (2) happened even at very slow vehicle speed. Motorists tried to drive around it. I notified the 5th Ward office. I also phoned 311, to again report the problem and I added that the rocking plate might not be safe to drive over. On Wednesday the 15th, between about 6 and 8 pm, a crew arrived and put up temporary barriers to keep traffic out of the curb lane. The quiet was delicious.

Thursday morning, December 16, I went out to take pictures and noticed red spray paint—the color code for “electrical utility”—on top of the snow, leading to an electrical manhole near the curb. I guessed that the hole under the city’s plate might be for Commonwealth Edison work. I called Edison, to find out what they might know. The rep informed me that they could not know what was taking place in the field, and suggested I call 311.

Then, around 11am, an operator and equipment arrived—this time accompanied by a foreman. The plate was shoved off the roadway, to the curb inside the museum driveway. The hole was filled with some hard-pack material, which may be a temporary measure, because as of this writing (11 am, Saturday, December 18) the barriers are still up.

That’s the chronicle. What have we learned from it?

First: the Chicago system of placing the Alderman between the resident and the city is abominable. This system inserts a third party simply to relay a request. It is time-consuming and it invites errors in communication. It also makes a citizen dependent upon (and grateful to?) a politician, and that invites real problems. If 311 really functions as it should, why is the aldermanic intermediary necessary?

I believe the Alderman’s 5th Ward office did relay my initial request to the city in a timely manner, but then the city went back through the Alderman who then got back to me. Since the plate wasn’t gone, something got miscommunicated or the ward office, having called the city, assumed the plate was removed. Then, it took time for me to tell the Alderman’s office that their information was wrong, so they could tell the city. I really don’t know whether it was communication with 311 or the ward office that finally led to results. Also, it’s hard to imagine that other people weren’t calling.

Second: It was the city’s fault that this horrible disturbance happened in the first place. Furthermore, the city’s initial “fix” only exacerbated the problem. They sent out an unsupervised employee, who pushed the plate a bit, then didn’t bother to hang around for a minute to listen to the results. The job was so simple, perhaps a supervisor wasn’t deemed necessary. Finally, when traffic was diverted around the plate, it was nighttime (rhymes with overtime?)

Third: assuming the claimed furloughs were factual, we now have a direct example of the consequences of a bullying mayor, an ineffectual city council, and patronage hiring.

Fourth: The city just blew it. It took three tries over a full week to move a plate and fill a hole. And that was after the problem had gone on for days.

We are about to have what I hope will be a huge change in city government. There will be a brand new Mayor and a lot of fresh faces in the City Council. Assuming they must be better than what we have now, they should unzip the whole governmental fabric and shake it out. A makeover is needed.


Anonymous said...

After blowing her infrastructure funds on subsidized parking for a privileged few, Leslie probably didn't have enough left over to bribe Streets and San or the local Union to take care of it sooner.

Richard Gill said...

"After blowing her infrastructure funds on subsidized parking..."

Greg is right - Alderman Hairston blew the money away. What galls me even further is that the money was "her infrastructure funds." It's a political control mechanism at the ward level.

Some time ago, at a 5th Ward community meeting, the subject of street repairs arose. Alderman Hairston mentioned the menu money (that was the first I learned of its existence). I asked if the Chicago Department of Transportation routinely inspected and made needed repairs. The answer was, no they don't. Requests and money go through the ward office where money may, or may not, get allocated.

This confirms what the Chicago Tribune's story "Financial fright awaits next mayor" said on Sunday, December 19:

"The city's 50 aldermen tend to be feudal in outlook...Even some reform-minded aldermen openly bristled recently at a number of ideas...that would have chipped away at the [city's] deficit but weakened their individual authority — for example, making garbage pickup more efficient..."

Read the whole article. It's terrifying.

Otto said...

Thank G-d we have a World-Class Grocery Store to supply cheese to go with this. Cupcake?

froboy said...

"Over a week"!?!

Wow, standards must be high in the 5th Ward. Have your heard about your unfortunate neighbors to the south in the 20th? It took us two years to get the potholes on 60th St fixed, and 62nd is still under heavy construction for a decent portion.

I definitely agree: putting politicians in between citizens and the city for basic city work is just adding a layer of error to the equation.