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The politics of Chicago's potholes

City Council lapdogs aren't getting their streets fixed any faster than independents.



To test what I call the Chris K. theory of pothole politics, I've taken to the streets, riding my bike up Ravenswood Avenue through Mayor Rahm Emanuel's very own 47th Ward.

Oh, the sacrifices I make for you, my beloved readers! In this case, I'm dodging potholes—here, there, and everywhere.

And not just potholes, but occasional mounds of poorly poured gravel, which, I suppose, were intended to fill potholes. There are also a few stretches where the asphalt mysteriously disappears to expose a bumpy surface of dirt and stone.

I'm dodging and weaving around obstacles, cutting left into traffic as the cars whiz by.

I suppose our streets aren't as bad as some unpaved country roads in an impoverished third world county.

Still, the last I looked, Chicago was supposed to be a world-class city. The mayor is known for promoting it to various NATO summiteers, New York Times columnists, and other tourists. But if they had to bike down Ravenswood, they'd never return.

That's where Chris and his theory come in.

Chris is a great guy. Smart as a whip. If you want to know anything about the Ramones or W.B. Yeats, he's your man.

But the other night he said something that set off alarms for me. We were talking about his ward, the 32nd, and his alderman, Scott Waguespack, one of the leading council independents.

"I love Scott for his independence," Chris said. "But I guess we pay for it."

What do you mean?

"You know—the potholes."

That's when it hit me: like so many other Chicagoans, Chris believes there's a correlation between the voting habits of Chicago aldermen and the services their constituents receive.

In other words, he sees unfilled potholes as Mayor Emanuel's version of the Big Payback—and not merely as a sign of wider dysfunction in the delivery of basic services.

It's time to set this straight. The truth is that the suck-ups aren't able to keep their streets in any better shape than the independents.

Take it from me, a guy who's biked all over the north side on every major thoroughfare: most of our roads are in such crummy shape that they shoot to smithereens the notion that there's a benefit—at least in city services—to having an alderman who's a mayoral lapdog.

Think of it this way: if aldermen X, Y, and Z want to follow the mayor's lead and privatize the parking meters or give tens of millions of property tax dollars to Marriott and DePaul for a hotel and basketball arena, they should go ahead—but they shouldn't claim they're doing it to get better services for their wards.

If you want to see for yourself, take the ride I took just the other day. Start on Damen near Diversey—in Alderman Waguespack's ward—and head north past Irving Park.

Then shoot east to Ravenswood before turning north. You'll be in the 47th Ward—Rahm's ward—which is overseen by Alderman Ameya Pawar. He's pretty much a mayoral loyalist.

As you head north you'll cross into the ward of Alderman Patrick O'Connor. You'd figure that the mayor's freaking floor leader would have the clout to get his streets paved. But man—O'Connor's stretch of Ravenswood is even more pockmarked than Pawar's. Especially after it turns into Ridge.

For your return trip, take Clark from the Evanston border at Howard. That's in the 49th Ward, represented by Alderman Joe Moore, whose allegiance to the mayor is so deep and abiding he recently got an I-love-Rahm tattoo on his left shoulder.

Just kidding, Joe! But what I'm not kidding about is the state of Clark Street, which is even bumpier than Ravenswood.

For the record, Mayor Emanuel insists he loves filling potholes almost as much as dancing at Robin Thicke concerts.

A few weeks ago a city spokesman told WBBM radio that city crews had filled more than 540,000 potholes so far this year, putting them on pace to break the single-year record of 630,000.

Let's have a show of hands to see if anyone out there believes that.

"That's a lot of potholes," deadpans Waguespack. "Maybe they're filling the same pothole three or four times."

What's clear is that there are still gazillions of potholes that haven't been dealt with. For an explanation of why our streets are so ravaged, I turned to Aldermen Waguespack and Pawar.

Both agree that the condition of the streets is deplorable.

"I had a guy come into my office with an oil pan that just got sheared off his car by a pothole," Waguespack says. "It's getting ridiculous out there."

But according to Alderman Pawar, the whole pothole-filling thing is a lot more complicated than anyone might realize.

For one thing, money's tight. So the city has to be strategic about which potholes to fill.

For example, instead of just repaving Ravenswood, officials might ask themselves if there are any water main repairs on the way.

"If you have a project coming up that will tear up the streets, you hold off," says Pawar. "You also have to consider utility repairs. When these work crews have to do an emergency job, the patching job is not always great."

So the city might fix the street only to have a work crew from, say, Peoples Gas mess it up.

Bottom line: it's not the mayor's fault!

As you might imagine, Alderman Waguespack has a slightly different perspective, which pretty much boils down to this: the Emanuel administration's not very good when it comes to basic services.

At least not in comparison with the last one. "Under Mayor Daley, it seemed most of the potholes were filled by April," Waguespack says.

Wow—even the independents are pining for the good old days of Daley.

Pawar and Waguespack agree on one point: the mayor's not selectively filling potholes based on an alderman's loyalty.

"I don't think that's a connection," says Pawar.

Actually, considering the disdain many city workers have for the mayor, I'm not sure he could get away with payback-by-potholes even if he tried.

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