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As City Agencies Pass the Buck on Pigeon Poop Problem, Girl Scouts Step Up

By Patty Wetli | May 22, 2015 5:48am | Updated on June 12, 2015 10:31am

OLD IRVING PARK — It crunches underfoot like gravel, but that layer of whitish-gray pebbles pedestrians encounter on the sidewalks beneath Old Irving Park's viaducts isn't stone.

It's pigeon poop.

Pigeon droppings under the viaduct at Keeler Avenue. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

"I'm afraid to look at the bottom of my shoes," Gabriella Rivera said.

Gabriella's route to school at Disney II Magnet Elementary takes the eighth-grader and her friends under the Pulaski Road viaduct every day. As the Kennedy Expy. and CTA Blue Line roar overhead, the tweens keep their eyes firmly fixed on the ground, dodging minefields of fresh and ossified droppings.

"We try to jump around to avoid it," said Gelsy Garcia, Gabriella's classmate. "Especially after it rains, it's really gross. It's slippery."

Disgusted by their daily slog through feces and the litter that attracts the birds in the first place, Gabriella, Gelsy and fellow members of Girl Scout Troop 21326 organized a cleanup of the viaduct last Sunday.

They approached local community organizations and elected officials for funds and cleaning supplies, and they even got the CTA to bring out a power washer.

"We're trying to show there's so much more they can do than sell cookies," said Linda Graziano, co-leader of the troop. "What they're learning is they can make things happen."

Girl Scouts, clockwise from top left: Savannah Graziano, Gelsy Garcia, Gabriella Rivera, Samantha Berger, Sophia Rivera.

Bless the Girl Scouts, but resident Dee Barrett said she's worried that the youngsters' efforts send the wrong message.

"It's very admirable, but it sets the precedent that this is our responsibility," she said. "That's what the city does — it pisses people off to the point they do it themselves."

As Barrett pushed her 3-year-old daughter's stroller under the viaduct at Kostner Avenue, she pointed out a sloped sidewalk that drains so poorly it creates pools of mud and oily slicks of pigeon poo goo that linger for days after a rain.

Patty Wetli discusses the pigeon poop problem:

Drainage is another problem at the Kostner Avenue viaduct.

"It just sits there and stagnates," Barrett said of the water. "In the summer, when it gets to 90 [degrees], the stench is obscene. Why not take a street sweeper under the viaduct?"

Who's responsible for this sloping sidewalk, which causes puddles of mud and pigeon poop?

And then there are the fallen couplings from the Kennedy overhead and the expressway's deteriorating support columns — issues far beyond the scope of Troop 21326.

"Litter pickup is one thing. But when I see crumbling pylons, that's what starts to scare me," said Barrett. "I think this battle has been put off long enough."

Crumbling support pillars under the Kennedy are another cause for concern. Note: That's not gravel at the base of the column.

Old Irving Park, part of the greater Irving Park community area, is bounded by Montrose, Addison, Pulaski and Cicero.

Its quiet tree-lined streets, gracious lawns and Victorian homes hark back to the neighborhood's beginnings as a suburb before the land was annexed by Chicago in 1889.

Aside from its excrement-encrusted viaducts, the rest of Old Irving Park is quite pretty.

Ever since the community's founding, it's been bisected by the Northwest Railroad (now Union Pacific's Northwest Metra line). The Kennedy Expy., which opened in 1960, was built parallel to the existing train tracks, and the Blue Line was added to the highway's median in the 1980s.

Those passing through and above, on their way to and from somewhere else, can be forgiven for thinking of the neighborhood as a means to some other end.

Despite outsiders' perceptions, residents say Old Irving Park is eminently walkable.

Schools, shops, restaurants and transit stations are all accessible on foot, and neighbors are making a conscious effort to use their cars less, according to Anna Sobor, president of the Old Irving Park Association.

Trouble is, folks have to navigate excrement-encrusted viaducts to get wherever they're going, she said.

"If we're worried about obesity, pollution and energy consumption, if we want to advocate walking and public transit, I find it incomprehensible that we force tens of thousands of pedestrians to walk through this every day," Sobor said. "We're creating a toxic environment for them to walk through."

Old Irving Park residents were excited for Divvy to come to their 'hood. Then this happened.

Sobor can only wonder what visitors think when they exit the Blue Line Irving Park station, maybe on their way to a Cubs game.

"Here we are, trying to lure people to Chicago and this why they say, 'Oh my god, I'm glad I live in the suburbs,'" she said.

The neighborhood association has funded the creation of scores of murals to make the viaducts more welcome and attractive, but dressing up the underpass walls only goes so far when the sidewalks are heel-deep in bird droppings.

Artist Tony Passero has created a number of viaduct murals and provides ongoing touchups.

"All we're asking for is a sanitary environment," she said. "That should not be something we have to beg for."

That the public walkways fall under infrastructure associated with the CTA, Metra, Union Pacific, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation — not to mention are split among multiple wards — has made it challenging to get anyone to take responsibility for ongoing cleanup and maintenance, Sobor said.

"It's a total pass-the-buck no-man's land," she said.

IDOT didn't respond to DNAinfo Chicago's request for comment. Metra referred queries to Union Pacific, and Union Pacific, in turn, pointed DNAinfo Chicago to the city.

The city's Streets and Sanitation and the Transportation departments regularly address sanitation and lighting issues and work with the railroad to coordinate maintenance at and under viaducts, according to Molly Poppe, Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman.

Streets and Sanitation "performs hand cleaning, power washing of walls and sidewalks, and graffiti removal services in viaducts in response to residential requests for service," Poppe said via email.

CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry said the agency power washes areas around stations and bus stops "at least once a month, but oftentimes more frequently in areas of need and in high-traffic areas."

But while CTA cleans outside its station entrances, the entire viaduct, "which is very large," spans the width of the Kennedy (i.e., not CTA), Mayberry noted.

CTA cleans up around its stations, but not entire viaducts.

Artist Tony Passero, who's designed and painted numerous viaduct murals, has witnessed CTA's cleaning crews in action.

And then the very next day, he's seen people dump seeds or baked goods to feed the pigeons, and the sidewalks are instantly as filthy as they were before their scrubbing.

Litter, particularly in the form of food, is a huge attraction for pigeons.

"There's a few individuals, it's their tradition to care and feed birds," Passero said.

"The fundamental problem is, the pigeons are there because they're getting fed," said Owen Brugh, chief of staff for Ald. John Arena (45th).

"We have a half-dozen to a dozen people" who feed the birds, and "they frankly need to knock it off," Brugh said.

A handful of people who persist in feeding pigeons have created a problem affecting an entire neighborhood.

Not only is the pigeon waste "gross" and "nasty," its corrosive nature also poses a threat to infrastructure, Brugh said.

Several "don't feed the pigeons" signs have failed to alter human behavior, Brugh said, and consultation with his counterparts in similarly pigeon-plagued wards suggests that printing the signs in languages other than English would have zero impact.

Signs and the threat of fines have done little to deter people from feeding pigeons. Birds in previous photo were noshing on seed directly below this warning.

Short of posting watchmen 24/7 or arranging for police stakeouts, the scofflaws aren't likely to be caught, he said.

"We share the community's frustration," Brugh said.

Since gaining a portion of Old Irving Park in the ward remap, Arena's office has prioritized pigeon abatement, which has been a top vote-getter in the alderman's annual participatory budget process.

Trouble is, techniques like spikes and netting have been ineffective, Brugh said.

Pigeon abatement techniques, like netting, have been ineffective, particularly when improperly installed.

He's currently investigating a spray — Bird-B-Gone — that Metra deployed, seemingly successfully, at its Forest Glen station.

"It's not 100 percent pigeon-free," Brugh said of the station, "but it's pretty close."

At issue: Who picks up the tab for the spray, which costs a couple hundred bucks per gallon and needs to be reapplied every few years, and possibly even more frequently.

Ward budget money can't pay for the spray — those dollars are strictly allocated for infrastructure projects or repairs, Brugh said, adding that he hopes to have identified an alternative source of funds by June.

"One way or another we've got to get our head around this problem," he said. "I would like for this to be the last summer it's a problem."

Of course, getting rid of pigeons and their poop doesn't solve larger problems like those identified by Barrett. Remember the sloping sidewalk and crumbling pylons?

"That's kind of the big meta-question," Brugh said. "What are our priorities as a society?"

There always seems to be money to build bridges, highways and railroads, noted Dee Barrett.

"Then who takes care of it?" she asked.

The answer, so far: a bunch of Girl Scouts.

End note: Just a typical stroll through Old Irving Park....

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