Columns » Outsider




Got woken up the other morning at 3:30 by the riveting sound of jackhammers ripping up the pavement a couple of hundred feet from our bedroom window. Looked indignantly out the window -- flashing lights, barricades, water rushing down 21st Street. Burst water main.

City crews worked on it throughout the night, and well into the next day. By mid-morning, the torrent had slowed to a trickle.

Throughout the Victorian neighborhoods of the West Side, the city infrastructure is in pretty sad shape. Electricity, telephone and cable services are delivered via old-fashioned overhead lines, as they have been for generations. Sidewalks are cracked and broken, curbs are crumbling, and many streets are crisscrossed with old repairs.

Let's compare the modest neighborhoods of the West Side with old Broadmoor, which was developed at about the same time.

The avenues and side streets in the Broadmoor neighborhood are generally in much better shape, and the sidewalks ... wait a minute, there aren't any sidewalks!! And therein lies a tale.

When the Broadmoor area was first developed, it consisted of vast estates, and it didn't occur to any of the richies that sidewalks were either necessary or desirable. Who walked? Just the servants.

Everyone else rode; on horseback, in carriages, or in one of those newfangled automobiles. Besides, you didn't want to make it easy for the shiftless townie rabble to walk around your neighborhood and gawk at their betters.

On the West Side, sidewalks were absolutely necessary. Most people walked -- to the grocery, to school, to the trolley stop, to work.

Sidewalks linked neighbors to each other, and to the greater world. Sidewalks symbolized a settled, orderly prosperity, to which each property owner voluntarily contributed.

Nowadays, sidewalks still serve the same purpose, that of pedestrian transport. The city provides and maintains roads for motor vehicles, but individual property owners are responsible for providing and maintaining sidewalks. City ordinances explicitly require you to maintain your sidewalks in good order and remove snow in the winter.

That can be a pretty expensive proposition. There are a lot of retirees on small fixed incomes living in modest West Side bungalows.

If you've got a corner lot, you might have 150 feet of sidewalk, which would cost many thousands to rip up and replace.

Beneath the streets, much of the utility infrastructure is superannuated. A few months ago, I replaced the water supply line that leads from the main to my house.

That line, which was almost completely closed by corrosion and deposition, was my responsibility. From the city shutoff to the main, it's the city's responsibility. When the contractor started to remove my line from the city shut off, the valve simply disintegrated -- last replaced, my contractor guessed, in the 1940s. And from the shut off valve to the main, the city had installed lead piping.

As you can imagine, lead is no longer approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in municipal water systems.

So what's the point? Just this: As the city has grown, and as new neighborhoods have been created, successive city councils have adopted and continued policies that discriminate against older, poorer neighborhoods.

Utility resources went to expanding delivery systems -- for water, for gas, for electricity -- not to system maintenance and service upgrades. In the last few years, Utilities has done some work in these areas, but basic policy remains the same: Wait 'til something breaks, then fix it.

So as the city has grown and prospered, folks on the West Side find themselves in the curious position of paying periodic utility rate increases, while often seeing their services deteriorate. Along with the rest of the city's historic neighborhoods, the West Side has been the cash cow that allowed the city, and its utility system, to charge absurdly low tap fees to new construction.

After all, if you defer maintenance indefinitely, you've got cash flow to support system expansion, and you don't have to collect as much from new hookups.

As a West Sider, I guess I'd like to see some of those dollars, both from the city and from the utilities, put back into our neighborhoods. I'd like to see electric lines underground, and our dirt alleys paved, and our busted curbs fixed.

And maybe the city could partner with folks who can't afford a new sidewalk, or provide better financing to those who can.

But I know that's not going to happen. Maybe I should just pretend that we live in the Broadmoor, and tear up the sidewalk, and to hell with the school kids and the neighbors.

Besides, think what it'd do for my property values ...


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