By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
I had a choice. Either pay a $75 parking ticket or sue the city and risk paying a lot more to resolve a dispute that has been going on for almost a year.
Like many Chicago residents, I was tempted to take the easy way out and pay the fine, but at exactly 3 p.m. Monday, July 31, I did the unthinkable: I filed a lawsuit against the city. To many, it may be a dumb decision that defies logic and makes no sense whatsoever.
But after taking a closer look at the poor and neglected condition of the neighborhoods of Woodlawn and South Shore, I realized it was time to buck logic and take the city and two departments to court for ignoring a problem that affects underserved neighborhoods in the Black community.
Make that grossly underserved.
After a string of unanswered questions and some digging, I discovered that the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) has a growing multi-million dollar budget to trim trees, but has little to show for it on the South Side. And despite the city’s claim of trimming thousands upon thousands of trees in Chicago, neighborhoods throughout the South Side are buried in a forest.
It’s a jungle out there, literally. On a Saturday afternoon, I drove around and found numerous street signs obscured by overgrown trees and bushes. Bundles of big, leafy tree branches cover electric power lines. In some areas, grass that hasn’t been cut in months stands as high as two feet. I have lived on the South Side for just over two years, but from the look of things, this problem has gone on for much longer.
They are problems that should be corrected by Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, but for the longest time, the urban landscape of Woodlawn and South Shore have been sorely neglected and left to deteriorate.
The mayor and many of the city’s aldermen have passed through these neighborhoods to get to splashy press conferences and other events, but day after day, month after month, no one has spoken up or taken any action on the vast public real estate and street signs that are being taken over by Mother Nature. Despite the city’s neglect, I and perhaps many other residents, are held accountable even if tickets are written for signs that you can’t see because of overgrown foliage.
They want my money, but I refuse to pay up because the city won’t clean up its mess.
This all started on October 1, 2016 on Vernon Avenue. It’s the block where Chicago historian Herman Roberts lives. He didn’t know it, but the aging Chicago icon was going to have a street named after him the following week; I was there to interview him for a story in the Chicago Crusader.
While I was enjoying an enriching conversation with Roberts, a Chicago police officer came and slapped a ticket on my car’s windshield. I didn’t actually see it happen, but realized it when the interview was over. The ticket said I didn’t have a residential decal, but I didn’t see a street sign indicating a parking decal was required. Turns out, the street sign was blocked by branches from a 10-foot tree. The pole supporting the sign was visible, but that pole was blocked by a SUV when I first arrived. I couldn’t see anything relating to a sign. In addition, there was no decal sign behind my vehicle.
The city wanted $75 to resolve the alleged parking violation.
I figured this ticket would be very easy to dispute. I took a picture of my vehicle near the obscured sign. By this time, the SUV had gone, leaving the pole visible, but still, the sign remained covered up by the tree branches. I contested the ticket by mail and didn’t hear from the city for eight months. On June 29, I received a letter from the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings, which stated, “An Administrative Law Judge has reviewed all the evidence submitted. It is the finding that the information submitted supports a determination that the violation occurred.”
The letter did not give the reasons behind the ruling. After providing evidence of the obscured sign and waiting eight months, I was looking for an explanation for the decision, but was shocked when I didn’t get one. I also had believed that the sign had since been cleared. I got in my Chrysler and drove to the same location where I received the ticket. On June 29, 2017—exactly 271 days later—the decal street sign was still obscured. It had not been touched. The same SUV that had obscured the pole when I parked was once again there.
As it turned out, another “no parking” sign just across the street was also obscured by overgrown tree branches. I took a picture of it, and thus began a two-week project where I drove around in the community photographing and documenting obscured signs in Woodlawn and South Shore. I found 26 of them. It was bad.
In South Shore at 77th and Chappel, a stop sign was obscured by a wall of tree branches and was not visible until several feet away forcing this driver to slam on the brakes. In Woodlawn, at the corner of 64th and St. Lawrence, tree branches block a one-way sign at an intersection. In South Shore at the corner of 77th and Euclid, two opposite one-way signs remain.
For a response to this story, the Crusader emailed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press office on July 26. Later that day, Sara McGann, director of public affairs for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, called asking for the list of obscured signs and overgrown trees. The Crusader provided her with the list, and on July 31, DSS workers were busy clearing the signs and trimming overgrown trees from power lines.
The decal sign that this Crusader reporter received a ticket for was also finally cleared.
“We are inspecting these areas and will trim as needed. We work diligently to provide our services to all areas, citywide,” said McGann.
Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation is big, with over 2,000 employees cleaning streets, removing snow and trimming some 500,000 trees in Chicago—a figure that’s given in the city’s 2017 budget.
With a 2017 operating budget of over $257 million, the DSS is made up of five bureaus with each performing specific citywide services. The one responsible for trimming trees is the Bureau of Forestry. The division’s annual budget has steadily climbed since Emanuel took office in 2011, from nearly $13 million to nearly $19 million.
In 2013, DSS hired 15 additional employees and trimmed or removed over 13,520 trees, according to that year’s budget report. In 2014, the city trimmed 15,000 trees.
That’s where facts end and questions begin.
With numerous overgrown trees neglected in Woodlawn and South Shore, questions remain about whether the city is really serving the South Side. Many neighborhoods in the North Side are well-kept, a fact confirmed by visits by this reporter. There is also the question of whether work logs are kept to show what areas DSS has serviced? Then there is the question about why it took so long for the city to take action on cleaning up its mess?
McGann said, “DSS is generally complaint-driven, but we also have ward superintendents in every ward to help identify outstanding issues and problems. We encourage residents to call 311 for services, or to call their ward office to seek assistance from their ward superintendent.”
McGann promised to email the Crusader data her department keeps on 311 calls from residents, but after several requests, no information was given as of the Crusader press time on Wednesday.
Then there are also questions of whether city workers simply ignore or fail to report badly obscured signs or overgrown trees when they are cleaning the streets while in the area. One thing is certain: the city should crack down on this neglect with the aggression they use to issue parking tickets.
Many of the obscured signs are in Ald. Willie Cochran’s 20th Ward. Cochran did not return messages left by the Crusader; although some of the trees have been trimmed since the Crusader notified his office.
The Crusader has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for parking tickets written in Woodlawn and South Shore in the past year. Since the deadline to pay the ticket has expired, the cost is now $150.
On July 31, this the Crusader reporter filed a lawsuit at the Daley Center. The cost of the filing was just $84, but if the ticket is upheld, this reporter must pay $234 or maybe even more.
Fed up, it’s a risk worth taking. Woodlawn, South Shore and all underserved communities deserve better, but instead get much less.