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Infrastructure Repair

Twitter comes to the rescue for fixing a wheelchair-hostile sidewalk

It's fine to shout from the rooftops about an infrastructure problem via Twitter like John did. But it's also a good idea to file a request via the 311 app.

The “Mayor of Sheridan Park” detours around the sidewalk cut by rolling his wheelchair through the street yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

File this one under "Think locally and act globally."

There's an older gentleman who stays at a healthcare center located near the Streetsblog Chicago headquarters in Uptown. He's a friendly, dapper person who often spends time outside in a wheelchair on the sidewalk on the south side of Wilson Avenue when the weather's nice. He likely interacts with many other neighbors and serves as "eyes on the street" to help keep the neighborhood safe. My nickname for him is "The Mayor of Sheridan Park." That's the Uptown enclave basically located between St. Boniface and Graceland cemeteries, Clark Street, and the Red and Purple lines, where I've lived for a decade.

Image: Google Maps

A few times recently I've noticed the senior having challenges navigating around a sidewalk cut on the 1300 west block of Wilson that's been been there for weeks. I should have spoken up sooner when I saw him rolling over the patch of dirt, or wheeling into the grassy parkway to avoid it.

But yesterday I noticed the man had gotten into the habit of detouring into the street. I then realized action was needed to prevent a driver from injuring him or another wheelchair user. I told him I would contact the office of new local alderperson Angela Clay (46th) and ask for the sidewalk to be fixed. He indicated that he approved of that strategy.

I wrote to the general email address for the 46th Ward office requesting help. I got an automatic reply soon afterwards, promising my request would "be assigned to the appropriate staff member who will follow up with next steps." 

This being the 21st Century, I also tweeted about the problem, tagging Clay and the Chicago Department of Transportation, which handles sidewalk matters. I also cc-ed the local disability rights group Access Living, and the grassroots sustainable transportation advocacy group Better Streets Chicago, which often helps out with mobility justice issues.

The response was immediate. Publicist Clint W. Sabin, an ex-city of Chicago worker, noticed gas pipes in the photo I posted. "I'm just guessing here, but it looks like a Peoples Gas issue," he replied, tagging the utility company. A person behind the firm's Twitter account responded 28 minutes later, promising to have a field crew investigate the matter.

(Yes, I'm aware Elon Musk recently renamed the social media platform after a Los Angeles rockabilly-punk band, I think. But I don't refer to 233 S. Wacker Drive as the Willis Tower either.)

The only person on Twitter who wasn't pleased with this outcome was former 46th Ward alderperson James Cappleman, who wan't tagged in the discussion but chimed in anyway. (I know many Streetsblog readers have major problems with his responses to traffic safety, housing, and homelessness issues. But ex-alders often have inside info on city policy, so I'm willing to listen to them.)

"The reason why it's better to use the 311 app [than Twitter] is that it allows the constituent to track progress," Cappleman tweeted. "Also, consistent use of this more transparent process pressures CDOT to be more timely in their responses to constituents."

"When I was the alder, constituents wanted me to bump up their requests ahead of others (and ahead of other alders), but CDOT is required to take on requests by priority," Cappleman added. "If 311 is not fast enough, [it's] better to fix the system than workaround it by going through the alder."

Of course, Cappleman was right that it would have made sense for me to submit a 311 request yesterday, in addition to highlighting the issue on the bird app. The automatic email response from Clay's office also suggested using 311.

During curb-and-gutter repair work this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

Nonetheless, as I was out walking my partner's dog this morning, I was pleased to see some contractors getting ready to fill the sidewalk cut with concrete. One of the workers was very helpful in explaining what they were doing, which also included curb-and-gutter work.

The situation this afternoon after the repairs and snowstorm. Photo: John Greenfield

When I stopped by during this afternoon's bizarre Halloween snowstorm, the missing sidewalk block was replaced with fresh concrete. It was covered with burlap to protect it from the flakes, but I took a quick peek.

The new concrete. Photo: John Greenfield

There was general rejoicing from my Twitter colleagues when I shared the news. There was only one person who scolded me for my conduct.

In fairness, Clint W. Sabin and another person or two tweeted that the 311 app really is very good nowadays. "Ten years ago 311 was a joke, but in my experience it actually is pretty awesome now," said Sabin. "Especially when you use the app and upload photos because the city employee may notice things not obvious to the general public (like the Peoples Gas pipes next to the broken sidewalk)."

Sure, I've made 311 requests by phone, and even filled them myself during my old job as CDOT's bike parking program manager. But I hadn't gotten around to downloading the app before. However, this afternoon I used it to ask CDOT to stop by and check out the contractor's work. After filing the request I responded to Cappleman, "My conscience is clear!"

Screenshot of Chicago's 311 app.

So there you have it, Streetsblog readers. If you notice a Chicago transportation infrastructure problem that needs to be fixed, it's fine to shout it from the rooftops via Twitter like I did, tagging CDOT, the local alderman, and any related companies or advocacy organizations. It may actually be one of the most effective ways to get a problem solved. But it's also a good idea to file a request via the 311 app.

As of Thursday morning, about 48 hours after Peoples Gas was notified about the problem on Twitter, the sidewalk is ready to roll. Photo: John Greenfield

As for The Mayor of Sheridan Park's reaction to the sidewalk fix, I didn't encounter him on Wilson today. But if he shares an opinion on the improvement now that it's ready to roll across, I'll be sure to add an update.

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