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Road Hogs

Why cul-de-sacs and other "traffic calming" devices drive T.J. Greer crazy.



By R.B. Baladad

Last year T.J. Greer's grandmother phoned him with an emergency. His grandfather was ill and needed to get to a hospital quick. Greer jumped in his car and sped south toward his grandparents' house only to find traffic on Stony Island backed up at 71st Street. To avoid the congestion Greer turned east onto 69th Street and cut through Jackson Park Highlands, the South Shore neighborhood that runs from Stony Island to Jeffery, 67th to 71st. Luckily, Greer arrived in time.

Today drivers needing to cut through the neighborhood might not be as fortunate. Cul-de-sacs border the southeast corner of the Highlands--six along 71st and two on Jeffery. Billed as a "traffic calming" and crime-prevention device, cul-de-sacs block a street to through traffic. Typically they are used in residential areas bordered by main thoroughfares. Oscar Newman, an architect who came up with the idea of "defensible space" in the 70s, proposed using cul-de-sacs to help fight crime. Newman suggested that street closures give residents more control over their neighborhood. To outsiders the message is--whether they're lawbreakers or not--to stay out.

Three years ago Mayor Daley envisioned cul-de-sacs formed by waist-high barriers in all 50 wards. Several aldermen and community leaders shared the mayor's vision of crime prevention. The most often heard complaint at the time was that neighborhoods couldn't get cul-de-sacs erected fast enough. Petitions had to be signed by 67 percent of the voters on each block, and aldermen and community residents complained that the process took too long.

But today cul-de-sacs and similar devices are quickly sprouting in Chicago neighborhoods. The city recently erected cul-de-sacs in North Beverly, Marquette Park, Lawndale, Albany Park, and South Shore, and efforts to build them are under way in Rogers Park and Edgewater.

The South Shore cul-de-sacs took Greer completely by surprise. "When the barriers were put up, I thought the city was going to do some type of street construction," he says. "I asked a policeman nearby, and he didn't know what the construction was for."

Greer phoned Fifth Ward alderman Barbara Holt, and her office informed him that the city was installing cul-de-sacs. "I thought if they put one up on 71st, no problem," says Greer. "Then they blocked 68th, then 70th. Then I said, no, I'm not going to tolerate this. I became outraged because I pay taxes to use the city streets. When my grandfather was ill, I was able to rush through the Highlands to get him. Now, you can't do that. People can't use the streets. And they have the right to."

In May 1995, the city erected temporary barriers in Jackson Park Highlands as a one-month test project, and a few community members went to Holt to protest. Holt responded with a letter stating that the matter would be studied further. Greer says he received no information after the letter.

Holt maintains that the cul-de-sac construction process was open to the public. "We had a community meeting on May 4, 1995. Over 300 people showed. As we worked out the details of the plans, we distributed notices to the areas west of Stony Island, east of Jeffery, south of 71st," she says. "There was a neighborhood working group. There was a letter that was sent to the community that detailed the plan and included names of the members of the working group."

Representing himself, Greer sued the city last April to get the barriers removed, citing the part of the Illinois constitution that says "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law nor be denied equal protection of the laws." "They're using this to keep traffic low, but that's part of living in Chicago," Greer says. He argued that because the city could not blockade all streets in Chicago it was denying equal protection for all city residents. He also argued that the blockaded streets were public property and consequently meant for public access and pointed out that the cul-de-sacs hamper traffic flow, cause congestion on other streets, and delay emergency vehicle response.

"Those obstructions on the road have caused numerous accidents," says Greer. Edward Range, superintendent of the Department of Streets and Sanitation in the Fifth Ward, concurs. He says cul-de-sacs have caused car accidents in Jackson Park Highlands "once or twice a week."

Greer also points out that fire trucks must take longer routes to enter the Highlands. Jay Paramore, the captain for the firehouse that services Jackson Park Highlands, says, "Cul-de-sacs are bad for the department. They're a time delay. It comes down to this: that which is beneficial to safety for the police is the inverse for the Fire Department." Paramore gives the example of burglar bars, which stem crime for home owners and police but make it difficult for firefighters to enter a house.

"I'm not against cul-de-sacs completely," says Greer. "However, the purpose of putting up these cul-de-sacs in Jackson Park Highlands is to keep poor people out. It's not to keep crime down. The community of South Shore has been improving. A lot of money has come into the community. A lot of buildings are being rehabilitated."

According to the 1990 census, the average home value is much higher in Jackson Park Highlands than in the areas surrounding it. Over 45 percent of houses in the Highlands are valued at more than $200,000. In the area just south of the Highlands, only one percent of the houses are valued at $200,000 or over. The mean family income in the Highlands is greater as well--$39,000 as opposed to $20,000 for the area immediately south and $32,000 for the area to the east.

"The purpose of the cul-de-sacs is to separate people economically," says Greer.

Paradoxically, South Shore economic improvements may also be a reason for the installation of cul-de-sacs, according to Louise Schiff, president of the Jackson Park Highlands Association, a community group that pushed for cul-de-sac construction.

"The quality of traffic has changed in the last few years," says Schiff. "We've had a big shopping plaza that came through on 71st Street. That's brought in more cars. The quality of people coming through the neighborhood over the years has changed. I guess residents got exasperated."

Schiff maintains that the South Shore cul-de-sac process was well planned and open to the community. In fact, Schiff admits that "for the most part, cul-de-sacs weren't what we envisioned. We started out asking for temporary barricades. At the time, cul-de-sacs didn't seem to fit into an urban view." After temporary barricades were installed, however, residents noticed an appreciable drop in both traffic and crime. "It's much better off than it was," says Schiff. "My neighbors, for the most part, are happy with cul-de-sacs."

Greer's case has been through federal court, where a judge ruled that the matter was for the state to decide. Greer's final hearing in state court was August 29th. He expected to lose, and he did. He recently filed an appeal.

For now Greer is looking at alternative strategies. He feels that Holt was the driving force behind cul-de-sac construction. He wagers that she won't be reelected; many South Shore residents share his cul-de-sac complaints.

"I think my next step is to become more involved in politics," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): T.J. Greer photo by lloyd DeGrane.

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