Monthly Archives: February 2013

Eyes on the streets: Chatham needs to get its neighborliness back


Even good neighborhoods can change with the times.

The middle-class, South Side neighborhood of Chatham has long been considered one of the safer family neighborhoods.  But more recently, residents have been challenged by an aging population and a generational divide, says Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, not to mention a tragic increase in crime in recent months that has received state-wide attention.

Though the increase in troubling episodes probably has many causes, says Lyle, one reason may be that the community’s fabric of strong neighbor connections has deteriorated in recent years.

When Lyle was growing up in Chatham, the neighborhood had a vital system of block clubs and all the children went to the same school.

Residents on blocks that shared an alley would work together to keep it clean and to take care of one another, she says, but over the years, the aging residents no longer had the ability to do some of the things they used to do. Previously if an elderly resident had trouble changing the battery in her smoke detector another neighbor would help, but when none of them can climb a ladder, those little favors dribble away. And many of the remaining elderly don’t want to ask for help.

“We have less workers and fewer young legs,” Lyle said. “Many are single women who have outlived their husbands, and don’t have the resiliency to head off some of these problems. When I became alderman we had the second largest population of seniors in the city.”

Almost all of her peers have moved to other neighborhoods or suburbs, she said, but those who have come back don’t seem to have time for neighborhood events.

“Their children have homework and dance lessons and karate lessons, and we haven’t been able to get that group to understand the value of CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy),” she said.

“And we have trouble getting our young back because the seniors didn’t leave, and because of the schools. If you move back here, you might have to put your child in private school. You cannot have a vibrant community without the schools.”

She thinks that the proliferation of magnet schools has put neighborhoods like Chatham at a disadvantage. When she was growing up, all the children on the block went to the same school, but now they are dispersed among many schools. That means their parents don’t meet at school functions, nor do they identify with the neighborhood school.

“We have to become involved in the schools in our community,” she added. When she was growing up, she could walk to school, and so could everyone else. They all knew each other. “If you were somewhere else and were threatened, even the bad kids would protect you because you were from their school. Now we have children on one block who go to five different schools and they don’t even know each other. Schools are so important to the community because they instill a sense of community in those children. If you send your child to a school on the north side, then you don’t care about the neighborhood school. But you should.”

Still there are some things that can be done and are being done.

For one thing, neighbors in Chatham have planted flowers on the corners of King Drive between 87th and 92nd  every year, which shows everyone who passes by that neighbors care about their community. 

“We all say it takes a village to raise a child,” Lyle added. “There is some truth to that, but in urban America, the ‘village’ is the block. We stress that through block clubs. We have to get the blocks talking to each other, and connecting. If you have a house with children out of control, the other 39 houses on that block can adopt that family and mentor the children. One burglar told us he would not go where people were outside watering the grass.  And we have to become involved in the schools in our community.”

Two different areas of her ward are trying to start a neighborhood watch, and others are lobbying for increased security and programming at Cole Park, which was the site of two recent drive-by shootings and is across the street from where Wortham was killed.

“That’s a spark,” said Lyle, “to get people thinking about the question, ‘If this neighborhood is going to survive, what is it going to need?’”


Here’s a conversation starter: Where are you really from?


You may have a place to live, but is it home? Is it really the place you are from, the home of your heart?

A new Pew Research Center survey has found that a majority of us don’t feel as though the place we are living now is really home.

That’s because so many Americans are mobile; they grew up in a place where they no longer live.

Pew calls this perceived real home the “heart home.”

That might not make any sense to you if you are one of the 40 percent of Americans who have never moved from the town or neighborhood of your childhood.

In fact Chicago is full of people who consider anything outside of Cook County as a foreign land. Many of my husband’s lifelong friends always have lived within a couple of miles of the South Side neighborhood of Beverly.

Some seem reluctant to visit us in the western suburbs, since the Land Beyond the Tri-State would be too far to travel without an overnight stay.

But for the rest of us, we might not live anywhere near where our hearts live. Pew found that people tend to define their true home in different ways.

For some, it is where their family of origin is; for others, it is where they went to high school or where they lived for the longest period of time.

My parents have lived in downstate Macomb for 46 years, but they might still say they are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, even though they have not lived there since 1951. And even though my husband has not lived there since he was 18, he still considers himself a South Sider.

“Did you know so and so is from St. Sabina’s?” he asked me just the other day. (If you are a Catholic Chicagoan, there is really no other way to describe your neighborhood than by parish.) He was as happy as if he had found a long-lost friend while hiking the Himalayas — a fellow traveler from the heart home.

The Pew survey asked questions about American mobility and in one of the most surprising results, it found that fewer Americans have moved in the past year or so than at any other time since the Census Bureau began collecting data in the 1940s.

In a year spanning 2007 and 2008, only 11.9 percent of the population changed residences. Until the mid-1980s, it was more common for around 20 percent of Americans to move every year, but that number has been slowly declining since around 1985.

Most Americans say they have moved for job-related reasons, and have stayed for family reasons. College graduates are more likely to move; those with less education are more likely to stay put. Region-wise, the Midwest has more stay-putters than every other region of the U.S., and rural areas tend to keep their residents more than urban areas. And, the younger you are, the more likely you are to be mobile.

At a recent meeting, when I brought up this topic, the room exploded as everyone had to tell a story about where they had lived.

So if you need a conversation starter, try this one: Where are you really from?


Eyes on the streets: One secret to safer neighborhoods


Not so long ago or far away, in a presumably “safe” neighborhood where children frolic in the middle of the streets and neighbors don’t always lock their homes or cars, a McMansion started, then went into foreclosure, its bare Tyvek exterior surrounded by high weeds. Down the street, a drug dealer has moved in, and on another street, a pedophile.

Due to road construction elsewhere, one street has become a cut-through, bringing hundreds of commuters through at rush hour. In several homes bought in better times for investment, renters come and go, sometimes skipping out on the rent, sometimes damaging the property on their way out.

With apologies to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for good neighborhoods to go bad is for good neighbors to do nothing. That might sound like an empty statement this summer, with the wave of shootings across some Chicago neighborhoods. In such places, a different strategy may be needed, even in those we think of as traditionally “good” neighborhoods. Just ask Chatham, still reeling from a series of shootings and cold-blooded murders. Long considered a “good” neighborhood with active neighbors, things have changed and Chatham is now dealing with different issues than just a few years ago.

Still, in many places, a vigilant neighborhood attitude can work, especially in places where residents think they don’t need to worry about excessive crime. Those neighborhoods become — or stay — safe because the residents work at it.

Activist neighbors and the “eyes on the street” philosophy are branches of the now-classic “Broken Window” ( theory of neighborhood decline. Comparing a neighborhood to an abandoned building, the researchers noted that if a building has no broken windows, it is far less likely that one will be broken by vandals. But if it has one broken window that does not get fixed, in short order vandals shatter more windows because it seems as though the owners don’t care.

Similarly, if nearly every home in a neighborhood is cared for and its residents are engaged, it is more likely that the neighborhood will stay that way. But if one home or building becomes unkempt, abandoned, or inhabited by miscreants, it is far more likely that others will follow. After all, no one cares.

For burglars and other criminals, ”the best deterrent to crime is a nosy neighbor,” says Beverly neighborhood court watcher Roberta Kleinman, “They look for neighborhoods where people don’t know each other. If they don’t make eye contact, that’s a good sign they don’t talk to each other.”

But neighborhood problems can start with something less serious than a burglary. Neglected property, blight, loud music and lots of late night parties, are examples of early “broken windows.”

Our first response when hearing about a neighborhood problem is usually – “I can’t do anything about it.”  If the activity or issue is not actually illegal, we have no options, right? So we get mad, we despise the neighbors and we gossip about them. If we have never met them, we have no interest in meeting them now.

Or, maybe we screw up our nerve and confront them. If we have never had a relationship with them before, this is not exactly the best way to introduce ourselves. If we do know them, maybe the discussion will bear fruit – or maybe you’ll never speak again

Maybe you call the cops or the local officials. In the case of drugs or other illegal activity, this might help if the perps are caught in the act.

While these may be the appropriate responses, something about them doesn’t feel right. Muttering, calling the authorities or getting pushback from the neighbor make us still feel helpless, like the old codger yelling “get off of my lawn,” at kids who mock him. That’s why neighborhood watch groups and their cousins, such as “positive loitering,” are getting such a good reception in some parts of the city, such as parts of the 48th Ward. As an example, in Andersonville and Edgewater you can find residents actively working to keep their streets safer.

Positive loitering, neighborhood nights, neighborhood watches and vigilance regarding abandoned properties are just a few of the constructive efforts throughout the ward, says Dana Fritz, aide to Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th).

“Positive loitering is just going out on the street and maintaining a positive presence to counteract the negative loitering,” Fritz said.  As an offshoot of that effort, “Neighborhood Nights,” were started last year by resident Dan Kleinman and the Edgewater Community Council. Those events occur regularly on weeknights and include games and activities for children while giving adults something to do while they loiter.

Other positive loiterers bring their dogs, shoot the breeze with neighbors, or go on small missions, such as to find and record locations of graffiti or poor night lighting, he said. The addition a few years ago of the Uptown Puptown dog park in a corner of Lincoln Park has had the unexpected benefit of curtailing problems with homeless people in that area, Fritz said. “Mary Ann (Smith) is a big proponent of dog parks as an anti-crime initiative,” he said. “They bring people out into the streets.”

Loitering with your neighbors is just one way to connect and make sure a strong sense of community binds the stakeholders in a neighborhood. When we are busy and disconnected we tend to isolate, and then we are less likely to care about those around us.

“Unfortunately, our society is becoming less dependent on one another,” says Sgt. Gregg Bell, a suburban policeman. “Now you can do everything with a cell phone. Some people even mount cameras outside their house instead of meeting the neighbors. But if you do have a block party, and get all your neighbors out, that’s a good venue to bring things up.”

Neighborhood watch programs are another way to keep vigilant. The original program was started in the 1970s by the National Sheriff’s Association, which still administers

Typically, neighborhood groups get started when there is a sudden problem, said Chris Tutko, director of the national program. Once the problem dissipates, the groups tend to disband if members aren’t feeling useful.

“People don’t want to come to a meeting to have a cookie and go home,” he said. But USAOnWatch offers a toolkit of information and topics that can help neighbors address bullying, domestic violence, internet problems, burglaries and more.

While early organizations focused on gang issues or drugs, today the program includes those basics and more – including terrorist awareness and pandemic issues, he said.

Ed Kuske, the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) facilitator of beat 2024 has developed a robust summer neighborhood watch program. Pulling at least 30 members from three area block clubs, the neighborhood watch patrols during the summer along Sheridan Road.

Though less of an issue in dense neighborhoods of high rises, foreclosures and distressed properties have added to the list of concerns in recent years, Tutko noted. “In places like Vegas, we have whole subdivisions with nobody in ‘em. They can have meth labs, all kinds of criminal activities because no one is there to look at them.”

Even neighborhoods with just one or a handful of vacant properties can suffer the consequences, particularly if the home’s windows are boarded up or if the lawn is not tended.

While some Neighborhood Watch members patrol their neighborhoods in fluorescent vests and carrying flashlights, not all watches include patrolling, he said. In fact, just posting some signs can help.

“If you put up Neighborhood Watch signs, the guy selling drugs thinks, ‘now there is some stupid citizen staring at me, maybe taking my picture, but in essence, he’s going to go somewhere else,” Tutko said.

And if you have a block party or a Neighborhood Night, you will pull everyone together for fun that has a secret purpose:  Good friends will help friends. Good neighbors will help neighbors stay good. And nosy neighbors – they have their purpose, too.


Accessible homes can be beautiful, too


A friend of mine is in a wheelchair now. Her home was built more than 40 years ago for an active, able-bodied family. I doubt the designers ever wondered if a wheelchair would fit through the kitchen door. So here is the answer – with difficulty.

Their architect also gave no thought to how one might roll a wheelchair from the car through the front door. A series of level changes – a concrete porch here, a step-up doorway there – act like little Mt. Everests for the disabled.

The notion of “universal design,” which promotes a built environment that everyone can live in comfortably, has been around for awhile now, but a new book, “The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities,” (Taunton Press, $27.95) gives readers page after page of color visuals to go with the ideas and instructions. It’s also full of information for the able bodied.

For instance, did you know that people with spinal cord injuries often have trouble regulating their body temperature? Several of the homes pictured in the book have heated floors and additional heating and cooling equipment to provide a cozy environment. The wheelchair-bound often cannot see out of windows as well as those who are standing, so lower windows offer a better view.

The book and its focus are well-timed, since the Census Bureau reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability. According to a report, “Americans with Disabilities 2010,” the total number of people with a disability increased by 2.2 million since 2005 and there are more now reporting severe disabilities.

Accessible homes have much more than just grab bars in the bathroom. They start, says author Deborah Pierce, with the path to the door. Instead of steps, accessible homes have entryways that are level with the adjoining sidewalk. Walkway materials can be differentiated by color and texture that make them easier to navigate for those with low vision.

Better design enables residents to perform normal activities. A low stove or sink with no cabinet underneath let a wheelchair slide close enough to work and foster independence. My friend used to love to cook, but now she cannot reach across her countertops or stove.

Other basics: Place electrical outlets higher on the wall within easy reach; roll-in showers are easier for those who can walk, too; consider adding lower windows or a glass front door so that those with a lower point of view can see. Have at least one mirror tilted or lower on the wall.

A common problem in the homes of many elderly is clutter, but too much furniture, piles of magazines and so forth make a disabled person’s life even more confining. Shoes on the floor, shopping bags that need to be emptied, an extra chair in the kitchen –these types of things keep a disabled person trapped and unable to even navigate his own home.

The book also addresses the outdoors. It can be very difficult to roll an adult over grass, which means that they rarely get off the pavement. In one back yard, the ground was carefully leveled and covered with artificial turf. In another case, permeable pavers were planted with grass. The pavers keep the ground solid under the wheels, and the grass appears to have filled in completely.

Gardening is much easier for the disabled with raised beds. You see them outside nursing homes, but they can be built around homes as well.

Retrofitting an older home, such as my friend’s, can be costly, but some grants and insurance moneys are available.

  • Disabled veterans should start with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Chicago and Illinois residents will find a list of local and state resources at
  • Home modification and repair programs may be available in your area. For information, contact your local Area Agency on Aging or call 800-252-8966 or 888-206-1327 (TTY). Email:

Other resources include:

The big move-up house – giant spaces between us?


A growing family needs room. That’s the thinking behind the move-up house. At first we buy what we can barely afford, then the family grows. Equity builds. OK, used to build.

But still we need more space. The eat-in kitchen has no counter space. We need a fourth bedroom, a home office, a third garage space. We think we need these things and we go looking at the big move-up homes.

If we can make the dollars work, we find one or build one, and we make the move. But bigger is not always the answer to our space needs. And sometimes I wonder what all that space does to family dynamics. Perhaps someday, sociologists will study this and tell us what we already instinctively know – humongous houses can make families remote and disconnected from each other.

When our family of five lived in a 1,200-square-foot split level, I always knew what the kids were doing. If they weren’t right underfoot, I could hear them, and with a little dancing around, I could usually see them, too. But the kitchen was impossible and the neighbors were troublesome, so off we went to a bigger house with a nice, big remodeled kitchen.

And in the new house, which was actually a rather ordinary 2,200 square feet, I seldom saw the kids. Teenagers now, they could burrow in their rooms up on the second floor, while cooking and other chores kept me downstairs. More than once, I called them to dinner on their cell phones. Oh, yes, you’ve done it, too.

And more than once, I have emailed my husband in his upstairs office – from the family room. Oh, what have we done!?

Gale C. Steves, author of a new book, “Right-Sizing Your Home: How to Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle,” might say we could do with a little less space between us. We just need to make better use of the space we already have.

“I have been looking at this for a long time, even in the mid-eighties, when people started building ego homes,” she explained when she was in town for the Kitchen and Bath Show. “More space doesn’t mean you live better. You need to have rooms that function.”

With the economic downturn, many people are finding they just can’t finance a larger home, and have to make do with what they already have. Instead of complaining about your home, Steves suggests a carefully laid plan, each step illustrated with color photos.

Among her ideas:

* Do a space audit by measuring your rooms. Then think about what the rooms are used for, and what they could be used for. Instead of calling a room by its traditional name, (i.e. living room) call it what you actually use it for, or could use it for. (i.e. actual use: furniture museum; possible use: music room.)

* What kinds of space do you actually need? Could the seldom-used dining room double as a home office with different lighting and furniture? Could a wide hallway double as a study hall if it had a desk and a kid’s computer? If your kitchen had more usable cupboards could you get by with less square footage? Steves recommends getting a good friend to help you sort out what you want from what you need.

* Can the clutter. I cannot count how many times I have seen people move because they needed room, not for themselves, but for their stuff. In places where domiciles are very small, people have to constantly reclaim their limited space from their stuff. When I interviewed a New York City author last year about how she found an 800-square-foot condo for her family, she said she now has room for 10 pairs of shoes. When she buys an 11th pair, one old pair has to go.

* Use the space you have very well. Look for existing wasted space, such as that triangle of storage possibilities underneath a staircase, or the space between wall studs behind a bathroom door.  If you are going to remodel the kitchen, consider changing the heights of things. Why can’t the dishwasher be elbow height? The oven, too. If you are tall or short, countertops can be of different heights to accommodate your comfort.

* Steves offers a know-thyself room analysis for each part of a home, and helps readers know their own user style. She also offers diagrams that explain how much space different kinds of furniture need. You need a minimum of 36 inches between a kitchen island and the cupboards across from it, preferably 48 inches. You’ll need 42 inches of clearance between a door and the nearest piece of furniture.

Thinking spring: Rain barrels, gardens are easy ways to start greening your gardens


February, meh.

Wouldn’t you rather ignore the snow outside and dream of spring and summer, landscaping and gardening? Maybe even take it another step and plan to do something green and good for the environment.

Here’s an idea, that’s relatively easy on the budget, brain and back: Add a rain barrel under one of your downspouts or a rain garden, which captures rain run-off and can keep water out of your basement.

Conservation enthusiasts point out that, if you live in an average suburban house, a short, ½-inch rainstorm deposits 500 gallons of water on your roof.  All that water funnels through your gutters and downspouts and out into the storm water system. Multiply that times every home in your area, and that’s a lot of extra water that dumps into the overloaded system, all too often flooding streets and basements in the process.

Rooftops are one of the impermeable surfaces that, along with streets and parking lots, are causing metropolitan areas to suffer more flooding after heavy rains. That’s especially a problem since the Chicago area is having 40 percent more heavy rainstorms than it did from the 1940s to the 1980s, according to the Journal of American Water Resources Association.

Yet, with a little effort, homeowners could recapture some of that rainwater, use it on their plants, and keep a percentage of that floodwater out of the system. Proponents of rainwater management and harvesting, such as Jack Pizzo, owner of Pizzo & Associates, an environment restoration company based in Leland, try to educate homeowners about the advantages of keeping your water to yourself.

At The Old House New House Home Show, scheduled for Feb. 12-14 at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Pizzo will be sharing the basics of rainwater capturing and explaining how you can get started.

“A good first step is a rain barrel,” he said, “and some native perennials.” Rain barrels, which typically  hold about 55 gallons of water, are enclosed at the top, but attached to the home’s downspout. A spigot drilled near the base lets you attach a hose or pour out water to fill a watering can.

A half-inch rain will fill a rain barrel in a heartbeat, he said, but you can also hook the barrel up to another one to catch the overflow, or you could add one at another corner of your house. The Conservation Foundation ( based in Naperville sells recycled barrels already outfitted with the funnel and spigots starting at $85.

Some come in colors and can be painted or decorated to add interest to your garden. In fact, my guess is that within five years, rain barrels, perhaps painted with daisies, butterflies or pop art, will be the hot new lawn accessory. And, whether or not they really add value to a home, rain gardens will start getting listed with other features on a home for sale listing.

It’s a fairly new phenomenon, says Karla Lynch, horticultural education manager for the Morton Arboretum. “Two or three years ago when I started researching this, I only found companies in Texas and (other southwestern states). You didn’t used to be able to find rain barrels. Now every big box store and catalog sells them.”

It’s a line of products that business partners Mark Moxley and Andrew Clauson have found profitable at Lake Street Landscape Supply in Chicago. They opened four years ago selling mainstream landscaping materials, but soon realized that there was no local supplier of eco-friendly landscaping supplies.

“We started carrying a variety of sustainable products because we felt the need to do something that would make a difference,” said Moxley. “There weren’t suppliers that were focused on that, especially in the city. Rain barrels are ubiquitous now, but we go way beyond rain barrels.”

Rainwater harvesting systems, such as underground cisterns, can be installed for homes, but will tend to cost $3 per gallon stored, or more. A 1,000-gallon cistern, therefore, will be base priced around $3,000, not a small purchase for many homeowners. Add in an irrigation system, an aeration system and other components, and it can go higher.

“Right now, water is cheap and in 2010,” admitted Clauson, “ and (the cost of a cistern) is prohibitive for many people if they are not doing another project at the same time. But if you need to do something to keep water away from the basement and keep the yard dry, then this is an easy, smart and common sense solution for managing rainwater.”

For beginners, these experts say, a good place to start is with a rain garden.

Start by finding a damp spot in the yard, probably where water runs out of a downspout. It should be at least 10 feet from the house. Excavate a shallow flat depression just a few inches deep. Add perennials that are water loving, particularly Illinois natives, such as, Pizzo says, sun-lovers like Northern Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose), which offers showy clusters of orange flowers in June and, as the name suggests, attracts butterflies, and white heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), which has a deep root system and white flowers. For shady areas, try figleaf aster, Virginia bluebells and tufted hairgrass.

“You want to keep all the rain that falls on your site if you can,” adds Lynch. “We have compromised our watershed so much with pavement and rooftops we no longer have water sinking into the soil and replenishing our aquifers. It’s nice to be able to harvest your rainfall and keep it from going into the storm sewer. I have a feeling this is here to stay. If everybody did just one thing, there would be a lot of change.”