Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Building monuments to Maya Hirsch

Lincoln Park will soon stop buzzing about the death of beautiful 4-year-old Maya Hirsch, killed by a hit-and-run driver May 20. Abraham and I cross that intersection all the time.

I've been to too many funerals and memorials for pedestrians and cyclists in this city. We see accidents like these every few weeks and nothing's ever done to transform the culture of the automobile. Officials aren't callous, but they do react only briefly and inadequately to matters like this instead of taking things out of the box and to a higher level. It's not enough to install a stoplight at one intersection, nor to momentarily discuss traffic calming concepts, nor to call for increased enforcement. The problem is too severe to believe that vehicle deaths in Chicago would be reduced significantly, even if the city were to implement all that's been proposed in the past week.

Today, officials pay lip-service to alternative modes of travel but still prefer to cater to internal combustion. They closed down Queen's Crossing at Grant Park to pedestrians last summer (you now must take a half-mile detour to cross from the lake to Buckingham Fountain, so traffic can speed along). They told bicyclists along Sheridan that they'd be ticketed if they rode on the sidewalks and police are seriously cracking down on things cyclists do that are illegal but not dangerous. They're installing more "pushbutton" crosswalks all over the city (when does a car ever have to push a button to get through an intersection?). The last thing you ever see are permanent crackdowns on car lanes, speed limits, parking entitlement, and a downtown flooded with cars.

I'd like to see some radical thinking on these problems. I remember having some long conversations years ago about this, with Tom Samuels, just after he arrived in Chicago. Samuels, formerly of Toronto, now an aide to Ald. Smith (48th), brought Chicago into the 20th century in traffic planning. In his Canadian life he was a transportation radical. He brought the "bulb-out" streetcorner and other modern traffic planning concepts to Chicago when he was working for CDOT. Tom immediately responded to Maya's death by showing a design for an improvement to that corner. There are other bright thinkers who have great ideas about how to really fix things in this city. But it won't do just to fix one intersection at a time or to make yet another ordinance that can't be enforced. We have to make radical changes to how Chicagoans think about transportation. Let's start by putting Tom Samuels' bulb-outs at every intersection near areas of high pedestrian traffic, and speed bumps galore. How to fund it? Let's start by telling Cong. Rahm Emanuel that the trolleys are nice, but what really makes federal funding work for us are more lasting and transformative monuments to challenge the culture of the car.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ad-hoc neighborhood organizations

During 2001 and 2002, the Lincoln Park Improvement Task Force came and went, without much ceremony, over the development of the Columbus Hospital site by American INVSCO. Jim Bidwill of 2626 Lakeview had to build a community group from scratch for his concerns to be heard, and it served as a check and balance against the powerful Park West Neighborhood Association and the Diversey Harbor Lakeview Association. In a related move, another anti-downzoning fighter, developer Al Hanna, singlehandedly fought PWNA's move to downzone the area northwest of Clark and Fullerton.

(History: Columbus Hospital exits Lincoln Park after 97 years Daley pushes downzoning for hospital site, developer moves ahead Lincoln Park association PWNA under fire in downzoning lawsuit Lincoln Park downzoning comes under attack Invsco presentation strikes out Agreement on condos for Columbus Hospital site Lincoln Park Improvement Task Force looks ahead)

You can see the similarities in the Lincoln Avenue SSA debate, where the five community groups skirting the tax area paid little attention, allowing the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce to have its way with the property tax increase. The only choice was to rise up angry and form another "ad hoc" organization, the Alliance of Lincoln Avenue Residents and Merchants (ALARM). You can also see similarities in the recent Sheffield landmarking issue.

All that effort by LPITF - "all pulled together by the will of one man" - and now it's vanished. Jim Bidwill said, "Our goal is to become the largest organization representing businesses and residents in Lincoln Park." Inside wrote, "The Task Force represents residents and local merchants, and Bidwell emphasizes that the group is not a mouthpiece for larger players or a fleeting ad hoc voice." But in fact it was fleeting.

My aim in this entry is to point up the anguish our "nonideological" city officials create among neighbors when they let policy be driven by community groups alone. Angry, frustrated outsiders are forced to rise up and give legitimacy to their unheard concerns. In my opinion, one dissenting voice, unincorporated as it may be, should be enough to raise concern about any proposal. That is what the deliberative process is about: any rational objection must be debated. A wise alderman would anticipate the concerns, notify, bring in the stakeholders, moderate, and find compromise.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lincoln Avenue SSA commissioners

Last week, Alderman Daley gave me the names of her slate of commissioners for SSA #35: Sam Sanchez, Cary Stamp, Joseph Quartana, Susan Keegan, and Neer Patel. It appears Mrs. Daley has eroded the effect our input was supposed to have. ALARM's proposed slate may look very similar — the only difference being that we preferred independent Lincoln Park native Joe Vartanian (MaxBar, Crobar) over Sam Sanchez (John Barleycorn) and wanted Don Reidelberger over Joseph Quartana — but the subtle changes Mrs. Daley has made would shift control squarely into the hands of the chamber's adherents: three of the five nominees are chamber members; furthermore, Sam Sanchez was the chamber's biggest booster for the tax and Joe Quartana is also gung ho on it. There is no non-chamber business owner and there is no residential renter, and these together comprise the largest constituency on the strip. This is a profound shame. Keep in mind that our original agenda was to have this SSA commission use its power to spend its first year reviewing the premise of the tax and its source, and spending only a minimum on necessities. I have questioned the lack of community process from the very beginning (see, e.g., Ben Joravsky, "Are You Taxing Yourself?", Chicago Reader, Nov. 4, 2005, p. 8, "Stop Lincoln Ave. SSA," Inside, Nov. 2-8, 2005, p. 9-10, and "Lincoln Avenue SSA gets tentative approval," Inside, Nov. 23-29, 2005) and I am afraid this is more of the same blind boosterism.

Chinese at Alcott School

Today, WBEZ featured Alcott School's Chinese program (see their May 11 schedule; also a widely cited New York Times article). Principal David Domovic told me the good news: CPS has funded one terrific (certified) Chinese teacher, Ms. Hong Wei Yu, but they really need a second one. He says budget constraints and federal law make it very difficult to meet the demand for a good idea like this one. No Child Left Behind forces CPS to use only state-certified teachers, while there are many great Chinese teaching candidates who aren't.

Now, I love Chinese. When I worked in China, I had to use it every day. I use it only infrequently here. I recognize the benefits of language learning and would love to get my son into LaSalle Language Academy this fall. Yet, while Chinese will be increasingly important in American business and culture, Spanish already is important and is likely to remain far more useful than Chinese, particularly for Chicago. If given a choice, I'd rather my son learn Spanish first, Chinese later. Yet, according to the NYT article, Lincoln Park parents may disagree with me: "At Alcott, 160 students from kindergarten to fifth grade are studying Spanish, compared with 242 taking Chinese, although not without occasional frustration." Was Chinese chosen over Spanish by the parents, or the children?


Well, I've finally gone and started a blog. I've worked on the Internet and its predecessors continuously for 30 years, and I never thought I'd see the day that I would want to use something like this. Having been inundated with technology since childhood, I'm a little bit conservative: I still feel print journalism is more useful and relevant than the Web and that we should focus on local media. While I see the benefits, I have tended to look down on blogs. But here I am. I want to talk about issues in the 43rd Ward.

Relevant trivia: Naturally, I know that the BBS was born in Chicago. (I personally got Mayor Daley to issue a proclamation for the 25th anniversary of the BBS.) Dozens of other innovations that are used every day online were developed here and at nearby universities. But I only recently learned that blogging was invented by my old friend Jorn Barger, an ancient fixture in Chicago computer circles and an expert in artificial intelligence theory. He had what he called a web log for his notes on AI, and someone shortened the name to 'blog. Jorn really gets around, so I wasn't too surprised that I didn't know. But I was surprised when I mentioned this to his ex-roommate last night and he didn't know!