Pilsen residents demand viaduct clean up in the area

By Erica Garber

After years of dealing with the dilapidated streets and sidewalks that run under the 16th Street viaducts in Pilsen, community members are banding together to take a stand to better their community.

Following constant calls to 311 City Services and local aldermen, Pilsen resident Michelle Fennessy has started the organization Pilsen Cares and launched a petition for the city to commit to cleaning the viaducts regularly.

“The bottom line is [that] this is health and safety,” Fennessy said. “People just can’t live in squalor like this. It’s unacceptable.”

Pilsen Cares has put sanitation stations into place along the viaducts for community members to help with cleaning if they

wish when they go through the area, according to Fennessy.

Besides local cleaning, Fennessy said the residents involved in Pilsen Cares are also looking at solutions such as making the 311 system more efficient for residents to monitor a maintenance request status and to have problems like the viaducts resolved.

“We didn’t want to be viewed as a group of people who were just crying, ‘Look, this is happening,’ because this has been going on for a long time,” Fennessy said. 

The 311 system is designed for Chicago residents to submit service requests online as well as through texts or calls, according to the city’s website.

Fennessy said she has faced problems with the efficiency of the system when she has placed a service request for the viaducts. Fennessy also said she thinks the 311 services should be more app-based to allow residents to see what the active orders are and what the status of an order is within their area. 

She thinks residents would not have to worry about making multiple calls or arguing with local officials as often.

However, Fennessy and members of Pilsen Cares are not the only residents who are worried about the status of the viaducts. Olga Blyumin, a Pilsen resident, said she has been concerned about safety related to the viaducts’ current disrepair and unpleasant conditions.

“If you go further west [of the Paulina viaduct], there is one on Wolcott [Avenue] with no street lights,” Blyumin said. “That’s where people go to sell drugs, which is unpleasant. Most of them have the lights out most of the time. But the one on Damen [Avenue] is really long, which isn’t safe for cycling

or driving.”

Blyumin’s roommate, Desmond Naranjo, said he was concerned about safety but also about the general upkeep of the streets beneath the viaducts. Both Blyumin and Naranjo said the viaduct over Paulina Street is almost impassable for cars and barely passable for cyclists because of a large pothole full of stagnant water since the snow melted in the spring.

Naranjo said the trash and potholes on the street are also a major problem for cyclists. He said he thinks community members need to follow the Pilsen Cares initiative to actually see a change in the community and communicate with aldermen regarding the real problems they are facing.

Although residents are concerned with the viaducts upkeep and said they think the area needs a lot of work, city officials said the work they have been doing has been helpful in improving these areas.

“Our office works closely with the Department of Streets and Sanitation, the Department of Transportation and the railroads to continually try to improve the state of these viaducts,” said Stacy Raker, spokeswoman for Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward). “In addition to working with the city, we work with community volunteers to clean the areas around and beneath

the viaducts.”

Raker said Solis’ offices have requested services such as power washing and structural reinforcement for the viaducts, and Solis’ office continues to monitor the area and improvements. 

“The Department of Streets and Sanitation does regularly schedule viaduct roadways to be cleaned by street sweepers,” said Molly Poppe, director of public affairs for the Streets and Sanitation Department, in an emailed statement. “Additionally, we work closely with the Department of Water Management to sweep viaducts ahead of heavy rainfall to help alleviate any

draining issues.”

According to the new 2015 ward map, the 25th and 11th wards will share the 16th Street viaducts.

However, Alderman James Balcer (11th Ward) did not respond to press inquiries despite several phone calls.

Although Poppe said the city is involved, residents said they do not seem to be seeing any changes. Fennessy said she founded Pilsen Cares because she wants to see a change in her community.

Laura Chaillie, a Pilsen resident who lives adjacent to the viaducts, agreed with Blyumin and Naranjo about the Paulina Street viaducts.

She also said she is also concerned about the infrastructure and upkeep.

“I know the city has a hard time keeping up with the damages after every winter,” Chaillie said. “But some of these areas just need general upkeep. I just don’t know how the city could afford it.”

Although residents said they are concerned with the health, safety and infrastructure of the viaducts, Chaillie said she thinks there have been some improvements to the viaducts since she moved to Pilsen two years ago, including beautifying the area with murals. She also said she hopes to see more improvements in upcoming years with new community initiatives.

“It’s interesting to see [the murals] going up; I moved here they weren’t there at all,” Chaillie said. “It has definitely been a beautifying process…. It brings an interesting dynamic to the neighborhood.”