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Are Chicago streets swept frequently so the city can collect more fines?
September 23, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm relatively new to living in Chicago, and something that has struck me is that while all other city services seem to be lacking a bit, the street cleaning is very thorough. Although it's only halfway through the summer, my local street has already been swept three times. This is much more street sweeping than other cities I've lived in. Is there something about Chicago streets that requires that they be swept regularly? Or is regular street sweeping just an attempt to get more fines out of inattentive car owners? (I've noticed that the signs go up at most two days before the sweeping begins.)

— Wheat, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

How cynical we are! What is it about living in Chicago, home of urban virtue, that could possibly have given you this attitude? However, let's face it, you've got a lot of company. In the conversation on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board that your post provoked, the following comments were offered:

  • It's all about illicit profits for local politicians.

  • Street sweeping is a boondoggle to keep the snowplow operators on the payroll all year.

  • They don't sweep often everywhere in town. They do it more in Wrigleyville because Cubs fans are pigs.

  • What makes you think street sweeping in Chicago is so great? Here in San Francisco, we get sweeping twice a week, each side, and afterward the sanitation workers put chocolates on our doorsteps.

We'll ignore those effete Frisconians — indeed all the above-cited fonts of negativity. I mean, come on. Here we've got one city service that's a model of efficiency, and the public's reaction is: there must be a catch. Well, there is a catch, in a manner of speaking, and you won't be surprised to learn it involves the aldermen and a deal. However, this one's less wicked than some aldermanic bargains. Here are the terms: you get your street cleaned; your alderman hopes s/he gets your vote.

For more about street cleaning and city services in general, I visited the office of Eugene Schulter, alderman of the 47th Ward. I did this for three reasons. First, it's the ward I live in. Second, it's in Ravenswood, the hot center of all that's good and admirable about Chicago, which cynics will say is like being the best rebounder on the Seven Dwarves. Please. We recycle! We create cutting-edge businesses! Plus — this is the third reason I went to Schulter's office — we have public ways so spotless you could eat off them, although we don't, for fear we'd mess things up. 

A word needs to be said about aldermen and ward offices. Chicago is one of those places where the official responsibilities of public officials bear minimal relationship to what they actually do. What their official responsibilities are, it must be said, isn't given to ordinary folk to know. The subject, so far as I can determine, is covered in the Illinois Municipal Code, but this document might be better termed the Lifetime Employment for Lawyers Act, because nobody else can understand it. Be that as it may, expert authority advises me that the City Council is, in theory, a legislative body. We see evidence of this from time to time, when the council votes on weighty matters such as budgets and parking meter deals. However, few Chicago aldermen expect to be remembered for these legislative accomplishments, and I imagine there are some they'd just as soon you forgot. 

The real job of an alderman is something quite different: interceding on behalf of his or her constituents in their dealings with the wider world.

 The place where most of this happens is the ward office, a homely Chicago institution little appreciated in the age of the Internet, until you happen to need it. Sometimes the alderman is there in person — ward night is a longstanding Chicago tradition, in which citizens with issues can make their plea directly to their elected representative. More commonly, however, they deal with the staff.

Schulter's office is an interesting place to watch in action — no doubt most ward offices are. It's risky to speak in complimentary terms about anything having to do with Chicago politics — you say something nice about somebody, the next week he gets indicted. Still, having spent a while listening to the people behind the counter at the 47th Ward trying to get a fix on one guy's incomprehensible bureaucratic problem, I have to say: these folks are doing the Lord's work.

I spoke with Schulter's chief of staff, Dan Luna, who explained how the ward office operated. Here we need to delve into the mechanics of dealing with City Hall. In Chicago you have two choices when requesting city services, such as getting a parkway tree trimmed or a burned-out streetlight fixed. First, you can call 311. This connects you to a functionary in some remote office, presumably in Chicago although these days one never knows, who enters your information into the Big Database. In due course your request will rise to the top of the heap, whereupon a crew in one or more blue vehicles will arrive at your house, look things over, and possibly do what you asked. This can happen at any point between now and the end of time. You receive no prior notice; they just show up.

Alternatively you can call the ward office. In the case of Schulter's office your details are filled out on a charmingly retro triplicate form, but eventually it all winds up in the Big Database. This may not seem like much of an improvement over 311, but it has its advantages. One is that if your problem is a genuine emergency, the ward office often will send somebody over to check things out, and if they agree with your assessment of the situation, they'll convey this to the right party at City Hall in a suitably emphatic manner. Another, which is more useful for routine matters, is that the staff can look at the ward's subset of the Big Database and determine whether your request is advancing, however slowly, or has fallen into a black hole. Dan showed me the electronic trail for somebody who wanted in on a program to go halvsies with the city to get his sidewalk rebuilt. He'd been approved, then nothing. Turned out he was supposed to receive a postcard stating the terms, to which he needed to give his assent, but it had gone to the wrong address. He was out of luck for this year, but Schulter's office would get him in for next.

The limitation of these efforts is that the most the ward office can do usually is beef on your behalf — the crews who do the work are dispatched from a central office. The exception is street sweeping, which brings us, Wheat, to your question at last. 

Street sweeping is one of the few city services controlled directly by the aldermen. Until recently each ward had its own permanently assigned sweeping machine. But earlier this year, in an effort to save money, City Hall proposed reducing the number of sweepers from 50 to 40 and assigning them on a grid basis rather than to specific wards, many of which have odd shapes not conducive to efficient sanitation.

The aldermen balked, arguing that they'd be unable to respond to the needs of their constituents. Acrimonious discussion ensued; the microphones of dissenters were peremptorily shut off. Schulter cut short a Florida vacation to attend a special City Council meeting called to discuss the subject. In the end a compromise solution was announced: the number of sweepers would be reduced to 40 but ward assignments would remain, with each ward having the use of its own sweeper four days a week rather than five.

The idea, needless to say, is to clean the streets, not generate fines, although having gotten caught parking on the wrong side myself a couple times I agree it's an easy mistake to make. To make it a little less easy, the city last year replaced its old street sweeping signs with new ones having big letters (M, T, W … ) to indicate the day. Still, in most wards you get just 24 hours advance notice (in the 47th Ward it's 48 hours).  A schedule is available for those who'd rather not be surprised.

Dan Luna seemed content with the current street sweeping arrangement, which  among other things continues to give the ward flexibility to deal with special situations like accident debris. I have to admit I sympathized, notwithstanding my general preference for the scientific approach. There's nothing like direct action to keep the citizens happy, and happy citizens are less inclined to throw the bastards out. Is this political? Sure, in the sense that any business between elected officials and their constituents is political. How else would you expect it to work? I'm sure the grid system of street sweeping offers benefits from a dollars-and-cents standpoint, and it's not like street sweeping would immediately go to the dogs if it were taken out of the hands of the aldermen. On the other hand, there's something to be said for local control, and as you can testify, Wheat, street sweeping is Chicago's standout city service. Why fool with what works?

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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