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Can the Net Catch Scofflaws?

Frustrated by the city's indifference to dangerous building sites, one family takes its case to the Web.

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By Ted Kleine

The World Wide Web can fill niches that print won't touch. There are sites for Australians who think the earth is flat, sites for fans of the movie Cabin Boy, sites for entomologists who want to order millipedes through the mail.

The Web is an "electronic soapbox," says DePaul sociology professor Roberta Garner, a platform for cranks, grumps, flakes, and fanatics who "often have the sense that the regular media is closed to them, and they can express themselves more freely--there's less gatekeeping."

And then there are people who have serious problems. Retired adman Harry Jell and his son William live a few blocks apart in Ukrainian Village, a neighborhood that was, until recently, a dozy ethnic enclave of churches and corner grocery stores. But a few years ago developers started filling in the gaps between houses with tall, skinny brick-and-cinderblock condominiums. The construction damaged the foundations of adjoining houses. Sandblasting spewed lead-filled dust across lawns. One developer dug a foundation, then left it open for eight months to collect rusty water and leaves.

"We've been fighting an uphill battle," Harry Jell says. "The city's not that interested, the police aren't interested." Slipshod construction crews stay several steps ahead of building inspectors by working on weekends, "when they know the city's not watching."

Harry Jell tried exposing some of the dirty work in "Our Village Voice," the newsletter of the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association (Jell's wife, Jeane, is the group's president). The newsletter has a circulation of 1,000; most copies are picked up from

stacks in local stores and churches. But nobody's paid attention.

"We tried the other media," he says. "It was like a voice in the wilderness. We've tried our newsletter. We've tried to communicate with officials, but they just kiss us off."

Frustrated by the indifference of civic leaders, the Jells decided to expose unsavory developers on the Internet, which reaches far beyond Ukrainian Village. Three months ago, William built a Web site and named it www.corruptchicago.com. Maybe, he thought, the city would act once they realized the whole Web was watching.

The site features photographs of building sites accompanied by essays on their awfulness. For example, there's a picture of a construction site on the 2200 block of West Augusta Street, followed by this condemnation:

"POTENTIAL DEATH TRAP FOR CHILDREN OF NEIGHBORING SCHOOL. Surrounded by a flimsy, falling down plastic fence, this wide open construction site is less than 150 yards from Columbus Elementary School. Young children pass this attractive hazard every day on the way to school and back. Will it take injury or death of a youngster to finally get the city to make the developer adequately secure this site? Once again, the City and the Mayor put CHILDREN AT RISK to protect developers."

As a first-time Web pamphleteer, William Jell finds the medium "a fantastic means of disseminating information, and one of the last vestiges of freedom available to ordinary people."

Before the Internet, "I probably would have written my flyers and petitions and certified letters and reached a finite audience," says William, a computer engineer. "Everybody's not the best orator or the best writer or the best photographer, but on the Net you can be all three."

Yet making information available to everyone is no guarantee that anyone will find it. William Jell says the site's hit count is still in the "low hundreds." Google.com, a search engine that can find you information on subjects as esoteric as licking toads to get high, doesn't turn up the site, even when you type in "corrupt + chicago."

Garner, the DePaul professor, says Web activists may "derive...some satisfaction from being able to express themselves," but they can't depend on Web sites to bring about the changes they want.

"If you want to influence public policy, government policy, having a Web site is something you might want to do, but in the long run, you have to influence people, you have to work within the political parties, you have to have an organization," she says.

Though Harry Jell insists the city is giving him the kiss-off, the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association's lobbying has been much more effective than his Web site. The neighbors have been vigilant in reporting illegal work to the city, and as a result some construction sites have been temporarily shut down. On April 10, the association sent a list of all the problem sites to the 13th Police District. Since then, officers have done a much better job of enforcing stop-work orders, Harry Jell says.

He mentioned the Web site to Jim Thompson, an aide in Alderman Ted Matlak's office. Thompson said last week he had "heard of the site but never looked at it." (The alderman did not return a phone call for comment.) And a Building Department official who was told about the site explained that inspectors don't have time to surf the Web looking for code violations. "There could be 100 Web sites, and we could not monitor them," says Harold Olin, managing deputy commissioner for codes and standards.

Anyone who wants to bring a problem to the department's attention should write a letter, send an E-mail through its Web site, or make a phone call, Olin says. The city has "hundreds" of inspectors. "They can't stop every bad builder," any more than a state trooper can stop every speeder, but, he adds, "we catch a lot of scofflaws, and we issue a stop-work order pending review of their case in the courts or the administrative hearing department."

Harry Jell says he's written the letters and made the phone calls, but they've failed to conjure up a building inspector. "We've called the Building Department a number of times, and they never send anyone," he says. "It's not that we haven't tried." He calls the Web site the court of last resort. "It's sheer frustration at the inability to get anywhere with the city." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Harry and William Jell photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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