By Ben Joravsky
It's one o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon at the intersection of 36th Street and California, and traffic's backed up in all directions. Three to four cars are waiting in line behind each stop sign of the four-way intersection, the drivers restless, itching to move. A young woman standing on the southwest corner and heading for the hot dog stand across the street steps into the street. A truck blasts its horn. In a panic, the woman retreats, and the truck plows through the intersection. What this intersection clearly needs is a stoplight.
Generally aldermen, looking for easy ways to please the public, hand out stoplights like candy. But the alderman in this case, the 12th Ward's Rafael "Ray" Frias, refuses to get a stoplight for 36th and California. "I can't figure this one out at all," says Kathleen McNamara Gudziunas, a neighborhood resident. "You'd think we were asking for a million dollars, but all we want is a stoplight. What are they waiting for--someone to get killed?"
Actually there already have been fatalities at the intersection, which according to local lore is among the most dangerous in the neighborhood, Brighton Park. Gudziunas, who has lived in the area most of her life, recalls that years ago an 11-year-old friend was hit and killed by a car at that intersection. About 20 years ago her younger brother, Michael, was killed in a motorcycle accident there. And last summer she herself was hit by a car. "I was crossing the street from the hot dog stand, and this guy bumped me," she says. "My shakes and fries went flying. He just backed up and went around me. The jerk didn't even stop to see if I was all right. It's a huge danger out there."
The problem is that the intersection is two blocks south of a Stevenson Expressway exit in a neighborhood that's a mix of residential and industrial properties. Trucks rumble in off the Stevenson at all hours of the day and night, and lots of other motorists zip through the streets.
The residents are particularly concerned because Burroughs Elementary School is just one block to the east, at Washtenaw and 36th. "In the morning and afternoon you have a whole bunch of kids trying to cross California," says Kimberly Blancas, whose children attend Burroughs. "You do have a crossing guard there, but half the time she's scared out of her mind by all that traffic."
Last spring Blancas finally decided to do something about the hazard. She went door-to-door, collecting signatures on a petition asking the city to put in a stoplight. "I got 300 signatures and turned them in to our alderman's office on April 24, 2000," she says. "They told me the alderman would get right back to me."
Within a few days she received a letter from Frias thanking her for "taking the time to circulate" the petition and assuring her that he would "introduce an Ordinance into City Council which authorizes the installation of traffic signals at the intersection." He also explained that according to an existing ordinance, a traffic signal can't be installed until after the city's Department of Transportation studies the traffic flow. "While I am confident that the Department of Transportation will ultimately concur, voluntarily or otherwise, with the installation I must advise you that funding will be difficult to find," he wrote. "I currently have two similar traffic signal ordinances pending which are awaiting funding. I will, however, do what I can to secure funds and I will keep you informed of my progress."
At that point Blancas was satisfied that she had Frias's support to help navigate the city's bureaucracy. But days and weeks passed, and she heard nothing from him. He wouldn't even return her phone calls.
Early last summer the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, an aggressive grassroots community organization that both Blancas and Gudziunas are members of, got involved, which might have had something to do with Frias's lack of response. The council's boundaries fall mainly within two wards--the 12th and the 14th, which is represented by Alderman Ed Burke. Council members say Burke has been cordial and helpful to their organization, attending their meetings and promptly delivering basic services. But they say Frias has been openly hostile, accusing them of attempting to build a base for a potential rival candidate for his office, an accusation the council denies. He's so hostile that when the council sent him a letter by registered mail last year his office had the post office send it back marked "refused." The council has been hostile in turn.
June passed without a resolution, and the issue began to heat up. On July 19 the council scheduled a meeting and asked Frias to attend and to discuss the stoplight. He didn't respond and he didn't attend. During the meeting a dummy sat on the stage with a sign around its neck that said "Alderman Frias."
On July 26 the council led a march of about 40 residents bearing signs calling for the traffic light to Frias's Archer Avenue office. They were met by a contingent of Frias backers. "They were big and intimidating, and they were cursing and yelling at us, calling us white racists and telling us stuff like 'You're not from this F'in' neighborhood,'" says Gudziunas. "I don't know what they were talking about. Most of our protesters were Latino, and all of us live around here."
After covering the march, a television crew from Channel 44 interviewed Frias at his home, which isn't far away. The alderman told the reporter that he was in fact working hard to get the light installed and that the council was just a bunch of outside agitators looking to stir up trouble.
Three more months passed, and still a traffic light hadn't been installed. But there had been several accidents. On October 30 the residents decided to take the matter directly to City Hall, with or without Frias's backing. The neighborhood council organized a contingent of about 40 people, boarded school buses, and went downtown for a meeting of the City Council's Traffic Control and Safety Committee.
"When we first got to the City Council, Frias was there," says Blancas. "But when he saw us he got up and left." The residents sat through about half an hour of other business before the committee's chairman, 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus, asked why they were there. "One of our members, Gloria Sandoval, stood up and said, 'We're here to talk about the traffic light at 36th Street,'" says Gudziunas. "Natarus said, 'You have to talk to your alderman.' We said, 'We have tried, but he won't listen to us--he won't talk to us.'"
According to residents who were there, Natarus promised to look into the matter. He also placed the documents they'd brought into a folder that he marked with a big red sticker. Patrick Brosnan, an organizer for the neighborhood council, says, "He told us that the red dot meant it was very important and he would get right on it--that sort of thing."
Two weeks after that meeting the committee, the City Council, and the Department of Transportation had all signed off on a Frias solution. The residents found out what it was when they saw flashing lights appear on top of the stop signs at the intersection and one-way signs sprout on 36th Street, which had been two-way. When you drive down California now you can't turn right or left on 36th Street, because it's one-way coming from the west and one-way coming from the east--although less than a block east of California it becomes two-way again.
Apparently the idea was to cut down on traffic at the intersection by limiting the number of vehicles that travel on 36th Street. But since the source of most of the traffic has always been California, the changes on 36th Street haven't made the intersection any safer for schoolchildren trying to cross the street. And now many of the big trucks that used to go down 36th Street instead roar along 36th Place, which has annoyed residents on that street. "The problem is that 36th Place is an old WPA road which has not been fixed in years," says Gudziunas, who lives there. "It's narrower than 36th Street and in far worse condition. Our stairs are falling down there's so much traffic. This street wasn't made for that kind of heavy traffic."
Of course the changes did please some of the people who live on 36th Street. They're happy that fewer buses and trucks are going up and down their street. "So now people are divided on the one-way issue," says Gudziunas. "It's divide and conquer. Because the most important problem is not fixed--we still need a traffic light at the intersection."
Natarus says he's now staying out of the matter. "It's between the residents and their alderman," he insists. "You have to understand, we get many such requests, and we rely a great deal on the local alderman."
Department of Transportation officials say they're looking into the matter and continuing their studies. Essentially, they can't install a stoplight until the City Council approves it, and the City Council almost certainly won't approve it unless Frias gives it the OK. "A traffic signal has to have an ordinance introduced and passed--there has to be some sort of aldermanic action," says Craig Wolf, the department's spokesman. "A traffic signal is somewhat expensive--in the ballpark neighborhood of, I want to say, about $150,000. So we rely a great deal on the local alderman."
And that's how the matter still stands.
Frias didn't return repeated calls for comment. But he recently told Channel 44 that he's now leaning against installing a light because it would create added congestion on California.
"So what's worse?" asks Blancas. "Congestion on California or kids getting hit by cars?" She and other residents are beginning to suspect that Frias opposes the traffic light just because the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council is in favor of it. "I don't understand his thinking--it's very bizarre," she says. "He could just have it installed and make himself a big hero, but he won't even talk to us about it anymore."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.