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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Hairston Used Infrastructure Funds to Pay for Free Parking

posted by chicago pop

Leslie Hairston's letter to the editor of this week's Hyde Park Herald discloses a little-known fact about the Fifth Ward's magical bookkeeping: it's possible to spend aldermanic menu funds dedicated to infrastructure on non-infrastructure items like parking give-aways, while using the same money to make capital improvements on the South Shore Cultural Center!

It's a 2-for-1 deal! Impossible, but true! Vote for Leslie!

Right. Now let's take a minute to sort through just what's going on with Hairston's 2010 summer parking give-aways at the 55th and 63rd lakefront lots.

In her letter, Alderman Hairston offers an accounting of how she spent the money.

Approximately $42,000 went towards maintaining the traditionally free parking lot at 63rd St. Beach...I allocated another $52,000 towards the lot at 55th Street and South Shore Drive to cover nearby residents from June through December 2010 who traditionally park there at night.

And: "The Park District agreed the money my office paid for the meters would be used for capital projects at the South Shore Cultural Center."

As the Herald previously reported:

Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) is touting a deal she arranged to provide 100 free parking spaces at 63rd Street beach this summer, but she is providing few details about how she is planning to pay for her largesse...

She plans to pay the Park District for its lost parking revenue out of her aldermanic menu, a $1.32 million fund given to each alderman for infrastructure improvements throughout their wards -- projects such as road resurfacing or streetlights [italics added] ...

But she declined to provide any further information about how much of her aldermanic menu she will spend on the free parking.

("Hairston gets free parking at 63rd St. Beach -- at what cost?" by Kate Hawley, Hyde Park Herald, 24 June 2009)
The Herald went on to estimate that this would cost the citizens of Chicago $77,000, a figure which HPP blogger Elizabeth Fama added to the Tribune's reported $52,000 subsidy for free overnight parking at the 55th and South Shore Drive lot, to come up with a grand total of $129,000 in one-time parking giveaways. In her letter to the editor, Hairston claims that paying for the 63rd Street lot cost $35,000 less than the Herald's estimate, or $42,000.

Even so, that still means Hairston spent $94,000 of public money on parking freebies that 1) weren't means tested, and 2) at 63rd Street, were available on a first come, first served basis -- hardly an equitable or rational form of "monetary relief."

But here we come to the most interesting thing in Hairston's letter, which is her claim, repeating the Herald's statement of June 2009, that the parking subsidies came out of funds dedicated for infrastructure.

How is a parking subsidy classifiable as an infrastructure expense?


No wonder Hairston didn't want to talk about it. It turns out, according to her letter, that the money to pay for the spots at 63rd was given to the Park District with the understanding that it be used to make repairs at the South Shore Cultural Center.

So then who paid for the spaces? Would Standard Parking, the concessionaire responsible for installing and maintaining pay boxes for the Park District, agree give Leslie a free ride for the summer, just because she has great hair? Unlikely. The best interpretation I can come up with for this rather opaque arrangement is that the Park District ate the $42,000 due to Standard Parking for 63rd Street beach, in exchange for Hariston's funding of work on the Cultural Center.

Very creative bookkeeping, indeed. But the Park District still paid for those spots, which means ultimately Chicago taxpayers gave them away with no foreseeable benefit other than helping Leslie Hairston get reelected. It still amounts to a publicly funded parking spots - for votes program.

And we haven't even mentioned the question of Hairston's use of 63rd Street as a VIP parking lot over the 2010 July 4th weekend.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Newsflash: (unconfirmed) Employee Buys Out Istria, Cafe will Remain Open

The Groove Store on 55th

posted by chicago pop

Since it was a swamp, only little more than a century ago, Hyde Park has gone on to host many things which might strike a casual visitor as unlikely: over there, they more or less invented the atomic bomb; across the way, major strides are occurring in the translation of Demotic Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian; while over on 55th, next to a couple of hair salons, is --- the new vinyl store. The ending of the previous sentence is not meant to be deflationary, or at least, it will only sound that way to the unenlightened, which is what I was only week ago. Because Chicago -- and Hyde Park -- are world centers in the trade of old vinyl LPs.

Hence, Groove Store. There is a reason it's here.

You can get the skinny on Groove Store from an excellent piece in Chicago Weekly. The store's owner, a Frenchman, started shopping for vinyl in Chicago back in the 90s, around the time Chicago's Mecca for vinyl enthusiasts, Dusty Groove, first opened. Alexis Bouteville seems to have been part of the same trend, and opened the first Groove Store back in France.

“I’ve been coming to Chicago almost 20 years to buy records,” Bouteville says. It was shortly after his first trip in the early ’90s that he opened the first Groove Store in Paris. “In France nobody wants to buy CDs, everybody’s downloading,” Bouteville observes, and the Groove Store there sells vinyl almost exclusively. The new Hyde Park shop is the stateside extension of the Paris location.

Groove Store's Paris Location

Perhaps it's Hyde Park's ambiance as a cultural attic, where things generally forgotten elsewhere (like Demotic Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian, or change ringing) are kept track of and cultivated in proud defiance of prevailing trends. The neighborhood itself is a bit of an improbable relic, a geographical reality which seems to have infused the aesthetics of the U of C undergrads who, after working at campus radio station WHPK, went on to found Dusty Groove back in 1996. And Chicago's vast South Side musical heritage provides aficionados with almost as much research material as the tablets and shards at the Oriental Institute.

Rolling Stone describes Dusty Groove thusly: "Funk, soul, African, Brazilian, Latin, hip-hop, jazz, and disco are the specialties of this Chicago powerhouse — easily the finest shop of its kind in the United States." And its concept was born in Hyde Park. Add to that the local legacy of Dr. Wax, the ongoing concern of Hyde Park Records, and Groove Store seems much less of an oddity and much more of a new chapter in a vinyl tradition with deep roots, and continuing vitality, in Hyde Park and the South Side.

The Groove Store
1703 E. 55th. Street
Monday-Saturday, 11am-8pm
Sunday noon-6pm
(773) 938-0073

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hyde Park's Shovel Slackers

posted by chicago pop

Slacker Address: 5515 S. Dorchester (12/07/2010)

It's that time of year again when we highlight slacker property owners who don't shovel their sidewalks, letting trampled snow freeze into icy sheets that can make treacherous going for pedestrians, dogs, and strollers.

Slacker Address: 5517 S. Blackstone (12/07/2010)

As always, the problem areas are in the charmed area blessed with I.M. Pei's warren of brick boxes, which seem to have the architectural property of subconsciously deterring their owners from complying with city ordinances. After this first December snowfall, the south stretch of sidewalk along 55th has again been conspicuously neglected by its neighbors.

Slacker Address: 5517 S. Blackstone (12/07/2010)

Call 311 to report an address adjoining unshoveled sidewalks. From the Chicago Department of Transportation:

Chicago Municipal Code 4-4-310 and 10-8-180 require property owners to remove snow and ice from the sidewalks in front of their properties.

Addressing sidewalk snow removal is a top priority of the MPAC, composed of representatives of government, health care, and business and community organizations.

Citizens can call 311 to report a location where sidewalks have not been cleared of snow.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Istria on 57th Likely To Close Soon

posted by chicago pop

Multiple sources have informed us of somewhat shocking news: Istria on 57th may close very soon, perhaps as early as December 20th.

Many people have said that this one cafe made life much more tolerable in retail/social gathering spot/bohemian culture--deprived Hyde park.

If this keeps up, it's going to be harder for realtors (or realtor, singular, meaning MetroPro) to make the pitch that, when it comes to Hyde Park, it's either "the golden rectangle" or the wilderness. With the rare exception of the new Z&H location, what little action there is in the area is either well to the north -- Istria's second, Cornell location at the Hyde Park Art Center is doing very well -- or south, where Robust Coffee Lounge is taking on Woodlawn. With Florian already gone, an empty space under the Metra tracks at 57th and Lake Park Avenue will make two conspicuous holes in one prominent block in the heart of Hyde Park.

[Source: Eric Allix Rogers' Flickr photostream --]

We'd love to know what went wrong. Streams of people pour out of the Metra station at regular intervals all day long, walking right past Istria's front doors. Neighborhood folks go out of their way to grab a seat. Was it poor management? Bad luck? Or simply not enough traffic?

Perhaps locals may find consolation in the fact that Morsbach's Medici Bakery, ever the trend-setter, is now offering cupcakes.


Postscript from Istria received in response to this post:

With respect to closing our original Istria Cafe on 57th Street, several factors let to this difficult decision. Chief among them include a multitude of inflationary pressures and operational constraints. In order to be a going concern, we need to make adjustments to our menu offerings and business model - changes that we plan to roll out over the next several weeks at our other location on 5030 South Cornell in the Hyde Park Art Center. Unfortunately, the economic model and real estate associated with our original 57th Street location are not compatible at this time. We are saddened that we need to close the doors of our original store, but remain optimistic that the improvements that we have planned will be well received by our customers. We have served many wonderful loyal patrons at 57th Street over the past five and half years and hope to continue to serve them going forward.
Marc Pribaz
Istria Cafe

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Robust Coffee Lounge: Caffeine in an Urban Fastness

posted by chicago pop

One of Hyde Park - Kenwood - Woodlawn's newest cool things is in the lower left-hand corner of the above building: Robust Coffee Lounge. We've been flagrantly remiss in not heralding its arrival much, much sooner. Chicago Weekly has a very nice write-up of Robust here. Neighbor blogger Woodlawn Wonder gives her personal take on it here.

So, after several friendly proddings from readers, we finally made it down to their corner location on 63rd and Woodlawn -- where, as a rosy-cheeked youth I walked in days of yore, neath the dappled sunlight of a cacophonous elevated rail spur, in search of Harold's Chicken -- to find that we weren't the only ones retracing our footsteps.

For the most interesting thing about Robust Coffee Lounge-- where, despite the name, it is hoped they do not brew robusta coffee beans -- is actually the owner Jake Sapstein's backstory. In opening up Robust, Sapstein is retracing footsteps of his own. Talk to him for a little bit and you'll quickly realize that he knows the South Side. The reason is that his family owned a chain of pharmacies throughout the area, back in the day when Walgreens was not the only game in town.

It's clear that running a small business, and entrepreneurial spirit, are in his blood; so is running a store on the South Side of Chicago.

I mention all of this because I couldn't help but wonder, approaching the building in this photograph from the north, surrounded as it is by enormous tracts of empty land, who would have the guts to open up here. Not just because it's kind of scary at night (ask Jake, he'll tell you), but because commercially it's deserted, and business loves company. The whole story has a sort of poetry: the old threads of social fabric, torn for over half a century, have been stitched together again on one particular street corner. With any luck, so we are told, Sapstein and his business partner may open up a restaurant next door.

And the coffee? Well, if you've gotten used to Z&H, you may be a little let down. Then again, Sapstein's aim is not to be a solo foodie boutique, but to grow and make money -- full-disclosure to Old-Guard Hyde Park anti-capitalists. But the baked goods are all locally sourced, and everything on the deli menu -- which is substantial, and includes staples that you can't get in Hyde Park anymore, like chicken salad -- is made in-house. "We want to be a curator for local vendors," Jake told me.

Seems to be working so far. Go check it out, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Carol Moseley Braun's Kitchen is Atrocious, or, How Hyde Parkers Expect to Sell High in Down Markets

posted by chicago pop

No one is going to vote for her anyway, but one look at the interior design job in her $1.7 million brownstone, and voters have every right to ask some serious questions. Like, how can you expect to ask 11% or $200 K more ($1.9 million) than you paid for it, if that's what you did to the kitchen? What's with all the jarring Christmas tree green? And what happened to the soul, amidst all the whitewashed box-rooms, of what must have at one time been a beautiful old brownstone?

It is often remarked that Hyde Park residential real estate operates in a kind of Bermuda Triangle, in which home prices seem to go in the opposite direction of prevailing trends, exempting themselves from the rules of economics that apply to most everyone else. "I'm not into 'buy high, sell low,'" Braun told Chicago Magazine.

The piece confirms a few other things about the Twilight Zone real estate market in Hyde Park that have been widely rumored for ages: 1) To be successful, you must be like a humanities PhD candidate who expects to get a job, and pretend that you are an exception. List for above what comparables in the neighborhood are going for, and pray.

Chicago Magazine
's Dennis Rodkin reports that "Hyde Park’s current average sale price for single-family homes is in the 2004-2005 range." Braun bought her home in 2006. 2) Don't list unless you're willing to die in the home before lowering the price. Quoth Braun: “The market is so soft. Until it turns around, I’ll stay here."