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Heavy traffic: cutting through the problem in Ravenswood Manor



It's a normal rush-hour afternoon in the small northwest-side community called Ravenswood Manor. A van, speeding over the bumpy Wilson Avenue bridge, spins out of control. Kids on bicycles dodge the cars that drift through the stop signs. Intersections of residential tree-lined streets are jammed with traffic.

After more than a decade of such aggravation, residents said enough. "The problem is what we call cut-through traffic," says John Friedman, president of the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association. "That means motorists--who don't live here and don't plan to stop here--cut through the side streets of our neighborhood to avoid traffic on the major arteries. We felt it was time to get the situation under control."

The association appointed a traffic committee, which, after about a year of study, has devised a plan to block off alleys or make streets one way in an effort to make the area so bewildering that outside motorists will stay away.

Unfortunately for the committee, their plan is so confusing and disruptive that it has split residents into hostile factions instead of uniting them against the exhaust-spewing invaders. "The traffic committee devised its plan on the premise that complicated roads will alter human behavior, and that's not necessarily true," says Thomas Weaver, a Ravenswood Manor resident. "People will still cut through the Manor. We'd only be making life more difficult for people who live here."

Both factions in the dispute agree that there is something special about Ravenswood Manor. Roughly, its boundaries on the south and north are Montrose and Lawrence avenues, and on the west and east Sacramento Avenue and the north branch of the Chicago River. It's more suburban than nearby neighborhoods; there are fewer apartment buildings and more large single-family homes. "Many of these homes were built in the teens and early 20s," says Holly Birnbaum, a Manor resident. "They were built for the doctors and lawyers of their time."

The profile of the residents hasn't changed much over the years. "For many, the Manor is the halfway point between leaving the city and moving to the suburbs," says Friedman, who happens to be a lawyer. "A lot of people here are professionals who used to live in the DePaul area or downtown. They moved here after they got married or were priced out of Lincoln Park. Now that they're having children, they're thinking of moving to the suburbs."

To stem that tide the association became less of a social group and more of an activist community organization, says Friedman. Under his reign, committees were formed to examine larger problems such as schools, crime, and traffic. "Traffic has always been a big issue here because cars are always cutting through," he says. "It's a situation that touches everyone in much the same way as the Vietnam war. You might not have had a relative killed in that war, but you knew someone who did. Well, maybe your car wasn't sideswiped, but your neighbor's was."

In a nutshell the problem is that the closest main thoroughfares aren't large enough to handle all of their traffic. A motorist heading southeast, say, from Albany Park to the Loop, is not likely to go east on Lawrence and then south on Western. There are too many stoplights along the way, too many cars, trucks, and vans. "What they do is they improvise," says Birnbaum. "My husband, Mark, says that traffic flows like water--if it gets obstructed it finds another way."

So motorists cut through the Manor. They head down residential streets such as Sacramento or Manor Avenue or even "Riverside Drive," which is what locals call the alley that runs along the river. "People take pride in their ability to figure out a system," says Weaver. "They might not get to where they're going any faster. But at least they're not behind a truck. At least they're not stuck in traffic. At least they're moving."

The side streets in the Manor, however, were not built for so much traffic. There are too many kids playing on the sidewalks--and, perhaps, darting into the street--and too many cars parked along the sides. "After a while motorists start disobeying the rules," says Friedman. "They think they're still on Kedzie, so they drive too fast. Or they drift through stop signs instead of coming to a full stop. Or they'll whiz down an alley at speeds as high as 40 miles an hour."

Perhaps the biggest danger is the east-west straightaway that runs for about a half mile along Wilson Avenue from Rockwell over the Chicago River bridge to Manor Avenue. "There are no stop signs on that stretch, so cars can pick up speed," says Friedman. "By the time they reach the peak of the bridge that crosses the river, some cars are practically airborne, they're going so fast. When their wheels come down, they're not hitting a smooth surface--they're hitting a bumpy surface. Some cars can't handle it so well. We've had cars sliding out of control, sideswiping parked cars or crashing into houses."

It was to tackle problems like this that the traffic committee was formed at a 1988 meeting attended by more than 100 people. Any resident could join (15 signed up), and John LaMotte--not coincidentally, an urban planner--was made its chair. For more than a year they studied traffic patterns, before devising a plan that, among other things, would block off Wilson between Sacramento and the river, block off Manor Avenue at Wilson, block off "Riverside Drive" at Montrose, and make some two-way streets one way.

The committee hoped to win widespread community approval, which would enable them to pass the plan over to 40th Ward Alderman Patrick O'Connor, who would attempt to have it approved by the City Council. With this goal in mind, the traffic committee sent intricate plans to every resident in the Manor, along with a flier announcing a meeting on April 25. That's when the opposition emerged.

"You have all sorts of factions in this dispute," says Birnbaum, who is not yet aligned. "You have people who want to get rid of all the traffic. You have people who want some alterations here and there. And then you have what I call the 'get real' crowd. They're the people saying, 'Hey, get real. This is a city. What do you expect--no traffic?'"

Complicating matters is the fact that the Manor features among its residents an inordinately high number of experts--including traffic planners. "I was very surprised when I saw the intersection decisions that didn't make sense," says Weaver, a traffic planner for the state. "There are one-way patterns that are dangerous. Frankly, I was shocked that a process that took so long would produce this."

As an example, Weaver points to the proposal to ease traffic congestion at the intersection of Sunnyside and Sacramento. Under the traffic-committee proposal, Sacramento would become one way going south between Wilson and Sunnyside, and one way going north between Montrose and Sunnyside. "With their change, a car heading west on Sunnyside would come to the intersection at Sacramento and find himself facing three do-not-enter signs. What do you do then? I suppose you can do a U-turn. But if there are cars behind you, that's dangerous.

"Then you have the intersection of Francisco and Sunnyside. Right now Francisco is one way going south from Wilson to Sunnyside. They propose to make it one way going north from Montrose to Sunnyside. That means we would have 16 signs at the intersection of Francisco and Sunnyside. I counted it out. There would be four stop signs, four international do-not-enter signs, four no-parking signs--the city requires no-parking signs in front of stop signs because you don't want tall cars obstructing your view of the do-not-enter signs, although, of course, cars park there anyway, which says something about human behavior--and a minimum of four one-way signs. That's 16 signs. I did not move to this community to look at 16 signs."

Armed with his objections, Weaver headed over to the Horner Park field house for the April 25 meeting. He was joined by more than 300 residents, who filled almost every folding chair in the hot basement meeting room. Many members of the crowd were hostile and ready to jeer the plan from the start. To their credit, Friedman and LaMotte kept their cool.

"Think globally," Friedman reminded the crowd. "You have to think about not what's best just for your own street, but what's best for all of the Manor."

"Remember--this is only a proposal," added LaMotte. "Nothing is set in stone."

After that, residents lined up at the microphone to speak, often illustrating their arguments by pointing to one of three maps that hung on the wall. One woman reminisced about the good old days when the Manor was so peaceful her children could play in the street. Another woman scolded parents for letting their children play in the street.

Someone argued that without the plan increased traffic would force residents to move to the suburbs. Someone else accused plan backers of attempting to aggravate elderly residents to the point where they would leave "and you could buy their houses."

Others worried that ambulances would not be able to find their way through the maze of one-way streets. "If someone asks me how to get to my house," one man lamented, "I don't know what I will tell them." Most folks in attendance got a good chuckle out of that one.

"We're going to have to go back to the drawing board, taking a look at some of the problems people pointed out," says Friedman, ever the optimist. "What happened at the meeting was good in that people got a lot of things off their chest. We don't have a permanent solution, but at least it's a start."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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