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No Problem

In its drive to spruce things up, the city's fixing things that aren't even broken.

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Last month the city sent a work c crew over to rip up the sidewalks and curbs on the 2100 block of West Wilson and replace them with new ones. The thing is, say some of the block's residents, the old ones were in perfectly fine shape. Now the new ones are already cracking. To make matters worse, the city also destroyed Dan Miller and Celeste Januszewski's parkway garden.

"I know in the total scheme of things what they did to our garden, like the money they wasted on our sidewalks and curbs, are all minor," says Miller. "But after a while the minor things add up."

The garden-killing business was part of a city-financed effort called the Model Block Program, which is either the greatest public works scheme ever invented or a colossal waste of cash, depending on who's talking. According to the city it's "a win-win program," designed to replace dilapidated sidewalks at no cost to the people who live there. In the process, the city also plants new sod along the parkways, which are inevitably mangled by the construction. "It's a very popular program," says Brian Steele, spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation, which oversees the effort. "So far, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive all over the city."

Part of what makes the program so successful, says Steele, is that it's locally controlled. Last year the city set aside more than a million dollars--Steele's not sure exactly how much--to be divided equally among the city's 50 wards, then left it up to each alderman to determine where it would be used. Each ward got enough money to replace the sidewalks and curbs along both sides of two city blocks, says Steele. The aldermen "typically work with community residents to determine the criteria for the program."

Only no one worked with anyone on the 2100 block of Wilson. Folks there are still trying to figure out why their block was targeted for the program in the first place.

"I don't want to sound ungrateful, but there was nothing wrong with our sidewalks," says Miller. About ten feet of sidewalk on the other side of the street was crumbling, he concedes. "But other than that there were no discernible buckling or cracks," he says. "We roller-skated and biked on the sidewalk all the time. There was no reason to replace our curbs or sidewalks."

Yet in early August residents on the block, which is in the 47th Ward, received a letter from their alderman, Eugene Schulter, telling them that they were the fortunate recipients of Model Block Program money. "It was one of the letters that says, 'Guess what--you've won!'" says Januszewski. "And meanwhile no one knows what the Model Block Program is. And no one knows why we got it. No one's complaining. I mean, they're giving us something. But the city didn't ask for our opinions."

On August 20, No Parking signs were posted on the block. A few days later work crews started tearing up the concrete. "They had the big equipment to get the job done fast, but you know how these things go," says Miller. "They'd work one day and then we wouldn't see them for three days or whatever. Where they went no one knew."

From the start of the project, Miller and Januszewski say, they were concerned about their garden. "The parkway outside our house was never filled with grass," says Miller. "You see, I have this lifelong goal of never having to mow grass. I grew up in the country with a big yard that my brothers and I had to mow. So I didn't want to mow anymore."

Instead he and his wife planted flowers. "It was a small garden, but it was beautiful," says Januszewski. "We worked hard on it. We watered it and weeded it. It was ringed with hostas. We had tulips that we had brought from Holland ten years ago. We had lilies that we brought in from my mother's garden after she died--my mother kept a garden for years at her home on the southwest side. We grew bleeding hearts and foxgloves and Siberian irises. We had white irises that were about three feet high. It really was a beautiful garden. People passing by would compliment us on it."

A few of the sidewalk workers trampled some of the plants. "We were upset, but we said to ourselves, 'It's OK, they'll grow back,'" says Januszewski. "We wanted to be reasonable. We had no reason to think there would be permanent destruction."

Then on September 24, Miller came home from work to discover a crew had just finished destroying the garden. "I saw a couple of guys standing there and I said, 'What are you doing? You ripped up all of our plants!' They looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'We spent ten years on those plants.' They said, 'Our boss is down the street. Talk to him.'"

So Miller went over to the boss. "I told him what had happened, and he said, 'See that sign on the pole? Call the number and talk to whoever answers the phone.'"

Miller made the call. "I talked to a person who said you have to talk to another person. I called that person, but he wasn't in." The next day he got a call from a transportation department official named Len. "He wanted to know what was up," says Miller. "I told him about our garden. And Len said, 'This program is about beautifying the city by making everything look uniform and green, so that all the sod's the same and all the sidewalks are the same.' I said, 'Well, what if we don't want sod?' He said, 'For liability reasons, sod's all you can get.' I guess he meant that it has to be sod because someone might trip on a tulip. I asked him why didn't they work with us? And he said, 'I'm talking to you right now.'"

Januszewski and Miller called Schulter's office to complain. "I talked to an aide who said, 'Well, you know, your garden was on city property,'" says Januszewski. "I said, 'True, but that's not the issue.' Don't you think they would look at the parkway and say, 'Hmm, this is a garden.' Don't you think someone would have thought, 'I wonder if these people might want to keep this garden? Maybe we should ask them if they want it to be saved.' How much would it take to send a guy to survey the situation and keep track of things?"

Miller's anger has not faded over time. "Look, I realize it's just a garden, and no one's really going to care about our garden. But think of the bigger issue. Think of the money they wasted. They tore up sidewalks that didn't need replacing. Does that make sense? I know there are plenty of sidewalks in other parts of the city that are buckling. Why didn't they fix them?"

Miller is an architect by profession. "I know what it's like to work on a tight budget. We don't replace things that don't need replacing. It just doesn't make sense. The city's talking about budget cuts and tight budgets and laying people off and yet they're replacing things that don't need replacing. Wouldn't it be nice if they exercised common sense?"

Steele says he can understand how Miller and Januszewski might be upset. But, like the aide in Schulter's office, he quickly points out that the parkway's public property, and the city reserves the right to destroy whatever is planted there. Furthermore, he says, the city gave ample warning about the construction. "Prior to the start of the project [we] posted signs in the project area indicating that Model Block improvements are coming and that anybody with questions should call the department," says Steele. "Additionally, prior to the start of the project, the alderman's office passed out a letter to all the residents on the block indicating that the improvements are coming. There's a line there that some plantings on the public way would have to be removed in order for the sidewalks to be repaired."

But why would the city replace sidewalks that didn't need replacing?

That's a subject of much debate among Wilson Avenue residents, most of whom don't want their names used for fear of alienating Schulter. "[Miller and Januszewski] are absolutely right--that sidewalk didn't need replacing," says a developer who lives nearby. "Why did Schulter do it? Good question. It could be that some powerful property owner on Lincoln Avenue asked him. But personally I think it's based on money. The way these aldermen get their power in City Hall is in direct proportion to their tax base. The more taxes their wards generate, the more power they have. This is a gentrified community. There's a sense of prosperity on this block--manicured lawns and renovated houses. I think the alderman wants to feed this sense of prosperity and build the tax base by giving us new sidewalks even though we don't need them."

An aide who answered the phone at Schulter's neighborhood office directed questions to another aide, Carl Erickson, who works in the alderman's City Hall office. "Carl knows all about that program," she said.

But Erickson directed all questions to Schulter. "I'll have the alderman call you," he said. Schulter returned my call when I was out. Three messages from me later, he still hadn't called back for comment.

In the meantime, Miller says, "the carriage walk outside the house [down the street] is already cracked pretty bad. Our curb has a minor crack in it." He suspects that the concrete was damaged by the work crew that destroyed his garden. "In the process of destroying my garden they damaged the curb that they didn't have to replace in the first place--how's that for our city at work?"

Januszewski says most observers--including city workers--have been sympathetic. "We have a neighbor who works at the Sulzer Library, and she walks by our home every day on her way to work. She said, 'This is just ridiculous.' I called my precinct captain. He was very nice about things. He said, 'What do you want for what happened?' I said, 'Just give us an apology--have the appropriate person tell us, sorry, we messed up.' He said, 'That's hard to come by.' I guess that's just the way the bureaucracy works. They won't concede any mistakes. Unfortunately, that means they'll probably make those mistakes again."

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

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