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Residents Decry Viaducts on 16th St.: 'Our Front Yard Looks Like a Toilet'

By Stephanie Lulay | September 17, 2014 5:50am | Updated on September 17, 2014 12:17pm
 University residents are concerned with the condition of the 16th Street viaducts, which serve as a gateway to Pilsen.
16th Street Viaducts
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UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — A group of University Village residents wants the city to fix the “abysmal” streets and sidewalks that run under the 16th Street viaducts once and for all.

After years of frustration and constant calls to 311, University Commons resident Michelle Fennessy has launched a petition calling on the city’s Streets and Sanitation department to commit to cleaning the viaducts on a monthly basis. Fennessy, a 40-year-old nurse and Ohio State University professor, said the conditions of the viaducts — which serve as a pathway to local businesses and Pilsen — are embarrassing to the neighborhood.

“The conditions are really horrible — our own front yard looks like a toilet,” she said while picking up dead pigeons and dog food out of the 16th and Morgan Street viaduct this past weekend. “This is not a trash issue at this point. This is a health and safety issue.”

Stephanie Lulay says that neighbors are doing most of the work, but want the city to help:

Fennessy, who lives near the viaduct at 16th and Racine Avenue, has recruited a group of concerned residents. Calling themselves Pilsen Cares, the neighbors have dedicated themselves to picking up what they can around the viaducts.

Besides trash, Pilsen Cares also wants the city to develop a long-term plan to deal with chipping paint, water leaks, pigeon droppings and dim lighting in the turn-of-the-century viaducts. The group is using Twitter and YouTube to encourage neighbors to share their stories — and pressure Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen to take action.

The proximity of University Commons to “popping” Pilsen is a selling point, until potential condo buyers see the viaducts, said Jason Webb, a Realtor with City Point Realty CPR who lives near the Morgan Street viaduct.

“It’s precarious to talk about Pilsen,” said Webb, 45. “Anybody who is considering buying, when they walk around a little bit, they’re going to come to these grungy viaducts and they’re an eyesore. There’s definitely the potential to be turned off by that.”

Nancy Plax, director of community outreach the neighborhood group Connecting 4 Communities, said the condition of the viaducts affects the health and safety of both neighborhoods.

People could contract "Histoplasmosis from a fungus from pigeon droppings. These are serious health concerns,” she said.

Fennessy, who owns a health and safety consulting company, is currently having sludge she collected from neighborhood viaducts collected and tested.

“There are pets, children, families with strollers, wheelchairs bringing that sludge inside our homes,” she said.

The viaduct issue is not a new one, Ald. James Balcer (11th Ward), said this week. He’s fielded complaints about the condition of viaducts “for years.”

About a year ago, University Village residents told DNAinfo Chicago they were fed up with the “dark and dirty” 16th Street viaducts.

In an effort to tackle recent complaints, Balcer said he took the issue up directly with Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams. On Friday, crews collected trash and power-washed sidewalks under the Racine viaduct, Balcer said.

Under the 2015 ward map, the 16th Street viaducts will be located in the 11th Ward and border Ald. Danny Solis’ 25th Ward. After 18 years in office, Balcer plans to retire from his seat next spring.

The ability to give Pilsen Cares what they want — a routine cleaning schedule — would depend on the resources the city’s Streets and Sanitation department can commit to cleaning the hundreds of viaducts across the city.

“If [the department has] the capability of doing that, yes,” he would push for it, Balcer said. “But there’s a question of do they have the manpower to do that?”

City crews regularly street-sweep viaduct streets, Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Molly Poppe said Tuesday. But beyond street sweeping, city crews clean city-owned viaducts “as resources allow,” she said.

BNSF Railway spokesman Andy Williams said the city, not the railway, is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks, streets and lighting under the viaducts. The viaduct s are “routinely inspected and structurally safe,” he said.

Poppe said residents with concerns should continue to request additional cleaning under viaducts by calling 311.  

Fennessy said this week that the temporary call-and-complain fixes aren’t addressing the root of the problem.

“Residents can push to get these cleaned, but only after several calls and multiple explanations by officials to put off the responsibility for safety and sanitation,” Fennessy wrote in the petition addressed to Emanuel. “The result is often inaction by tax-paid, city services unless a resident is tenacious enough to deal with ongoing excuses and continues to push despite the barriers.”

For now, the group has taken to cleaning the viaducts themselves. Fennessy has chained trash cans to the viaducts and neighbors take turns emptying them, she said.

While the viaducts are a concern for University Village homeowners, the condition of the physical gateways has a negative impact on businesses to the south, too. Alex Esparza, executive director of the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, said that the “poorly managed and dirty” viaducts keep residents in nearby neighborhoods from patronizing businesses in Pilsen.

“The viaducts should be seen as a connection between this community and the next. Instead, it sets a boundary between University Village and Pilsen,” he said Wednesday. “They are not very well lit or safe for walkers, bikers, families and the elderly.”

A representative for Solis said the 25th Ward office has worked closely with the streets and S\sanitation and transportation departments, the railroads and community volunteers to improve the state of the viaducts.

“Our office has requested a number of services including power washing and structural reinforcement at various viaducts and continues to monitor the progress of improvements of the viaducts,” Solis spokeswoman Stacy Raker said.

Plax said that the neighbors’ complaints aren’t going away anytime soon.

Cleaning the viaducts "is not just something you do once and be done with it,” she said. This is just the first step in an ongoing effort.”

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