Thursday, December 21, 2006

Titled: "I'd rather not join the rat race" or "I smell an aldermanic campaign"

All of a sudden, 43rd Ward candidates are scurrying around, trying to snag some media cheese. Carol Marin shared her own Lincoln Park rat experience December 6, and then all hell broke loose:

Clout or no clout, rats a real problem

Michele Smith got some cheese a week later, in Inside, and she's so thrilled to have an actual issue that she says she's totally "changed the priorities in her campaign" because of it! As if rats just began popping up here two weeks ago. Where have you all been? My block on Lincoln Avenue is one of the densest restaurant and bar venues in the city. Rats are a fact of life here. Last winter, I trapped almost two dozen of them.

Lincoln Avenue is packed with young people on the weekend who throw around their pizzas and trash. When I met with Vi Daley in August 2005, asking her to put several more trash cans on Lincoln Avenue, she shrugged her shoulders and ignored me. When a concerned citizen approaches an elected official with a good idea and gets ignored, it's a good reason to run against her.

Rats are sort of cute, like squirrels. The adults may look disgusting to you, but they are fat now because they are pigged out for the winter. The recent warm spell has had them out foraging again. Look at the squirrels, they're fat now too, but nobody's screaming about that. It's an interesting prejudice.

Rats are not the problem, people are the problem. Increasing baiting will not solve things as much as good alley maintenance and reliable trash pickup. We don't have enough bins in many of the alleys and on the streets, and that leads to overflowing. Overflowing trash cans is the absolute main source of food for rats. We need to boost enforcement of this in certain parts of the ward. That's easy, and it's part of an alderman's job.

The Oz Park playground is also an ideal home for rats. They are safe in their cozy nests underneath the wood structures. Abraham and I head over there after dark and count dozens of them scooting around, picking up food that kids have dropped. That's going to be fixed next year.

This is a good thing. Although leptospirosis has not been identified in the Chicago area, that playground would be the ideal place for kids to pick it up. Leptospirosis -- which shows fever symptoms and is occasionally serious -- is transmitted through rat urine and can infect through cuts and mucous membranes. If you've seen our cute little toddlers playing in the wood chips in the playground, and then putting their hands to their faces, you can see where the problem lies.

Our Norway rat was originally from Asia, later crossing into Europe and hitching rides to New England on ships in colonial times. They are commensal with humans, meaning that the species evolved specifically in coexistence with us in our villages and cities.

Heather Hastings, formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (she grew up on Larrabee, in Walpole Point), told me last year that according to CDC's rat specialist there are no known diseases in Chicago transmitted through rats. Diseases that rats have been known to carry include plague (last seen in L.A. in 1927) and hantavirus (seen recently in New Mexico). Rats don't easily travel from city to city, so outbreaks of leptospirosis a few years ago in Baltimore wouldn't easily spread to Chicago.

Look. Living in a densely populated neighborhood is a profound experience. I loved growing up in Lincoln Park and Abraham loves it too. There is so much more to experience here. But there are also increased risks that we take. We can't live in constant fear of the dangers. We can only mitigate them as best we can.

Again, the single best way to deal with the rat problem is not to boost baiting. It is to manage the waste situation more carefully. Let's communicate with dog owners and building managers and raise some awareness. We also should have enforcement stickers for Ward Superintendent Mike Restivo to have his staff put on every trash bin, pointedly warning people that they can be ticketed for overflowing bins. If a bin is full, use a neighbor's bin, don't drop the bag on the ground. Such a step will reduce the rat population significantly.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Phallus envy: Finkl Steel acquired

Well! After a 127-year legacy in the area, Finkl Steel, located in the 43rd Ward, is closing its doors and is now poised to unload its valuable property to the highest bidder.

Children's Memorial Hospital is doing the same as we speak. Lincoln Park Hospital was just sold once again. New City YMCA just announced this year that it's moving. And of course there's the Columbus deal in Diversey Harbor.

There are 350 workers employed at Finkl's plant. Most or all will be out of a job when they move. Jobs were an important reason for keeping Finkl local and why it received enormous subsidies, tax advantages, aldermanic indulgences, zoning boosts, and other incentives in the past 25 years from 43rd Ward and city powers. Many influential personages are interwoven into the Finkl story, including several North Side politicians and the governor.

The Finkl gerrymander is a one-block-high, half-mile-wide notch of the 43rd Ward that juts like a phallus to the west, deep into the 32nd Ward. This has been much to the annoyance and confusion of folks who happen to live between Armitage and Dickens west of Sheffield. This kind of political tomfoolery greatly affects how reliably people receive services.

I understand this is connected with Marty Oberman's tenure as alderman (1975-1987), Oberman having become Finkl's very richly compensated attorney and lobbyist after leaving office. (It's known as "entering politics after leaving politics.") I would welcome him to respond to this point, since details are somewhat vague and it now becomes as "salient" as the Finkl phallus.

After all, Oberman appears to have almost as many hats as Imelda Marcos has shoes. He is now quietly working behind the scenes in his capacity as campaign manager for attorney and 43rd Ward aldermanic candidate Michele Smith, and I am increasingly concerned whether his role as Smith's eminence grise could create various conflicts of interest should she take office. (By the way, Smith is attempting a similar politics-to-politics move, though she is reverse-commuting: she was a longtime lobbyist and general counsel for International Harvester just before entering the aldermanic race.)

One of my intentions was to put the Finkl property back into the 32nd Ward - where it logically belongs - in the 2010 redistricting, so that constituents in the connected area may be served more efficiently. However, now that the property will go up for sale, I cannot redistrict it unless and until I have firm understandings in place, regarding planning for the land, with whichever candidate wins the 32nd Ward aldermanic seat. Just for starters, the several streets (such as Southport) that were domained over the years as political favors to Finkl and Labkon now need to revert back to public use. This has been very frustrating to residents and businesses in the area.

We also need to ensure that this area remains manufacturing, per the recommendations of the LEED Council. We need to find at least 350 new jobs to fill the void. Given the relatively large footprint-per-employee for something like a steel mill, I think the space could provide jobs for thousands more, with some lighter-industry applications.

The 43rd Ward has been home to numerous speculative land deals lately. Children's, Finkl, Columbus Hospital, and New City YMCA are just a few of the entities that have opted to pull up stakes very recently, at least partly motivated by the windfalls they will reap. These institutions can leave Lincoln Park in the lurch when they move to greener pastures. While we must consider the needs of the seller, profitability takes a second seat to preserving the health of our community. Vigilance is paramount: As I promised before, I intend to form an interim Ward Assembly the day I take office that will help guide me in this process. I also will not hesitate to institute ad hoc land-use controls that will guarantee us a strong position at the negotiating tables.

Anyone who knows me should be well aware that it is impossible to buy me, and although some have tried, nobody has ever controlled me politically.

Related stories:

"Finkl acquired, to move North Side base," Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 7, 2006
"Chicago plan aims to curb factory loss," New York Times, Dec. 10, 1987