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Neighborhoods restricting crime, traffic, or just access?

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Should city neighborhoods have walls around them? Should they exclude outsiders from their streets, or would that be antithetical to the very nature and vitality of the city?

Mayor Daley, who lives in high-security Dearborn Park, evidently has no problem with the concept, and the city has come up with $2 million to fund something called the Community Safety Infrastructure Program, a pilot project intended to make five city neighborhoods essentially inaccessible to nonresidents. If the idea catches on, it's easy to imagine other areas--those with residents-only permit parking, for instance--marking off their turf with culs-de-sac as well: can the Great Wall of Wrigleyville be far behind?

The first of the five neighborhoods to turn its back on Chicago is North Beverly, which the city on November 1 will begin transforming into a veritable festival of culs-de-sac, diverters, and traffic circles. A map distributed to residents shows an almost solid string of culs-de-sac cutting off access to 95th Street to the south, walls at 92nd Place and 90th Street, and an entire road removed, among other features. The local Metra station is to lose a parking lot, and several alleys are to be closed. All of this is to be implemented with a minimum of public comment: the first public meeting on the topic wasn't held until Monday night.

The justification for these measures is a study that 19th Ward alderman Ginger Rugai, who lives in the neighborhood, commissioned last spring; it showed 4,000 nonneighborhood cars zipping through North Beverly (a portion of Beverly-Morgan Park) every day. Much of this traffic is generated by the Evergreen Plaza Shopping Center at 95th and Western. Departing cars can go only north or east, and to avoid long waits and stoplights some inevitably cut down side streets. North Beverly has responded in recent years with more stop signs and one-way streets and some culs-de-sac. These steps were not nearly enough for Rugai.

Some people think that questioning is something Rugai has assiduously avoided. She avoided this reporter, and in general has dodged the press. Jerry Moore, editor of the Beverly Review, laughs when told about multiple endeavors to interview the alderman: "I've attempted to reach her for the past week and have been unable to; I was talking to a reporter [from the Daily Southtown], and he hasn't been able to reach her either. I certainly don't remember, in the past year, the alderman's office coming to us and saying, 'Here's this plan we're working on--could you publish this?'"

"People have to make choices," says Themis Karnezis, a criminal court judge and North Beverly resident. "I think the good points outweigh the bad. Everybody is going to be inconvenienced; I'm going to be inconvenienced. But we've got a lot of young children in the community. If someone is inconvenienced to save a life, or save a bad injury, then I vote for inconvenience, and I think the vast majority of people here will vote for inconvenience, too."

Karnezis, whose name was given to me as a member of Rugai's select committee, says he's not aware of being formally on it, but he supports the plan. A sincere and gentlemanly fellow, he stresses the traffic-safety aspects and discounts the crime-prevention possibilities. "I view this as a safety thing, not a crime thing. I am very, very familiar with crime, and I do not think an attempt to separate ourselves in this way is going to end crime. But there are an awful lot of people coming into this community, just passing through, and there are probably a certain number of crimes of opportunity." As for the Metra station, "This community is not without influence. I don't think it will close."

Adds Collins Fitzpatrick of the Beverly Improvement Association, a supporter of the plan and someone who has friends who lost a child to a reckless driver, "Our neighborhood is less than a square mile. According to the traffic study, we've got 4,000 cars coming through that don't belong here. The purpose of the plan is to try to find something that would reduce that."

Although a number of local residents are happy to speak vehemently against Rugai's plan off the record, few are willing to be quoted by name. In some cases they--or family members--have city jobs, and they fear Rugai's wrath. They believe that crime--one of Rugai's professed concerns--will be largely unaffected, and that residents will suffer far more from the restrictions on traffic than outsiders.

Chris Berghoff, a third-generation Beverly resident and a lawyer in his second year on the board of directors of the Beverly Improvement Association, believes that the plan reflects Rugai's wishes more than those of the neighborhood. According to Berghoff, the alderman carefully selected a committee to make up a formal plan, but didn't solicit input from the general public. Adds his father Robert, also a lawyer, "The committee choices were political; they certainly weren't random. She picked people she knew were in favor of the plan, and the committee was created without notice to people outside the group."

Chris Berghoff, who observes that most of the crime cited by proponents of the plan is committed by offenders who enter the neighborhood on foot and thus would be unhindered by traffic barriers, thinks that "the long-term effects are not going to be that positive. If people from outside the neighborhood can't park at the train station, it will lose ridership and it'll probably be closed down. That's not going to help us."

The plan was presented as a no-compromises-considered deal at the BIA's September 25 meeting; it would permit only three entrances into the neighborhood, with gates--to be locked overnight--at two of them. "I think it's an overkill, but people who have experienced crime will probably be for it," says Joseph Kelly, also a director of the BIA, who notes the trauma quotient of crimes like carjackings. Kelly objected to the tubular steel gates (tubular steel was designated instead of wrought iron because a fire truck could break through them in an emergency) on grounds that they'd soon be dented and sagging. "[Rugai] said, 'This is the plan, no changes,' but she changed it. In [the next version of] the plan the gates are gone. It shows you what effect one person questioning something can have."

But Kelly points out that with churches and two elementary schools in the neighborhood and a growing number of the self-employed working from home, there may be more legitimate trips in and out of the neighborhood than the consultants assumed. "Someone brings her child to school in the morning--that's one round trip. Maybe she comes back to see him at noon--that's another round trip. Then she comes in the afternoon to pick him up--that's three round trips. With all the self-employed people here, we have UPS and Federal Express in and out all day. They have to be able to get around. People have to go to the store, they have to go to the doctor; people drive here to the train station. I don't think the consultants really figured the numbers of legitimate trips out right. So maybe some people are going through too fast. How about putting up some signs asking them to slow down? How about trying some other things first?"

Kelly--who says he favors a scaled-down version of the plan--also wonders about the cost of the project. "I asked Rugai about that and she had no idea. No idea." However, it reportedly costs $25,000 just to turn one street into a dead end, and this plan calls for a slew of them.

Dead ends make problems for emergency vehicles. North Beverly would not be a full-service walled city. The nearest police and fire stations stand without. Police commander Joseph Logue of the 22nd District says he's waiting for the final version of Rugai's plan, but observes, "I absolutely could not go along with the original plan at all, with the gates. [The traffic plan] will have a negative effect on response time, no question."

Some opponents believe the plan will have a negative effect on their property values, a fear that is dismissed by local realtor Joe Thouvenell: "I think it's going to raise property values. Gated communities across the United States are considered very prestigious. It gives you an increased feeling of safety; it cuts down on traffic. I would certainly like it on my street." Lois Weber, the executive director of the 95th Street Business Association, thinks that increased traffic on the main drag will be good for business; her primary concern was that delivery vehicles maintain access to alleys.

But Phil Hansen, president of the Beverly Area Planning Association, another civic group, opposes the plan. "It's a little too restrictive. I worry about access for emergency vehicles; I worry about access to the schools. If you restrict traffic from one neighborhood it will probably increase in another area. The whole thing seems too rushed to me."

A number of people interviewed for this article, whichever side of the fence they're on, wondered why the plan couldn't have been introduced in phases, with less drastic measures taken first. And even supporters questioned why so little publicity was given to a matter that will have so large an impact on the 1,600 households in the neighborhood. They wonder what traffic will be like on the few streets that do provide access in and out. They wonder what the big rush is, and why discussion can't come first. Chris Berghoff has elderly relatives on a street that's about to become extremely isolated; he worries about their safety once there's virtually no traffic--and fewer people to notice if something is amiss. Their house recently suffered major damage from a gas explosion; if the Fire Department had been delayed in arriving the house could have been lost entirely.

After Monday's meeting, a spokesman for Mayor Daley said City Hall wants to see a "community consensus" in North Beverly before getting behind the pilot project. "We haven't committed to going ahead with this," he said. But the alderman may be defining consensus as simply the lack of an organized opposition.

Robert Berghoff attended the meeting and reported an almost evenly divided overflow crowd--far too many people for the hall. He said Rugai presented no final plan and no cost estimates, and was rude to her opponents. "Ginger said that unless there is significant, organized opposition to the plan, it's going ahead as scheduled on November 1. Well, it's hard to put opposition together in that short a time that she'll listen to. I would like to delay the process at least long enough for the community to discuss the plan. The representative from the Fire Department said the plan would slow response time, but that it was still 'acceptable.' I don't see how making responses any slower can possibly be acceptable.

"One young man stood up and said that he'd moved here about a year ago--and that he'd moved into 'the village in the city.' He said that he understood that there is traffic in the city, and there is crime in the city, and he is willing to live with a certain amount of that for the advantages of city life. I just wish more people could see things from his perspective."

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

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