A lot of pedestrians hurry through viaducts holding their noses and trying to avoid stepping into a mess.
Yet, the deplorable conditions have been so ingrained in urban life, few of us even know who is responsible for maintaining the viaducts.
That’s about to change if Michelle Fennessy has her way.
Fennessy may be the city’s only viaduct activist.
“I actually have a data analyst mapping out the ZIP codes where viaducts are,” she said.
Last year, the Pilsen resident launched a petition to bring attention to the city’s filthy underpasses. So far the site has attracted hundreds of commenters and dozens of volunteers willing to pitch in and help with the cleanup.
But Fennessy, an associate professor at the Ohio State University-College of Nursing who holds a Ph.D., found out that solving this problem won’t be as simple as rounding up a few volunteers to do a nasty job.
“Viaducts are in neighborhoods all over, particularly on the South Side,” Fennessy told me.
“I heard from people who wanted to help, but they didn’t really have the resources and the intellectual capital to create that change,” she said.
On Monday, her crusade got a big boost. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson brought together Fennessy and representatives of the BNSF and UP railroads for an informal bus tour of the viaducts in the 11th Ward.
There are about 300 viaducts in the city, and more than 10 percent of them are in the 11th Ward.
Thompson, who is a grandson of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, is running against 26-year-old John Kozlar in the April 7 runoff election.
I’m usually tempted to dismiss these kinds of events as the usual politicking that you see during election season. But there wasn’t an effort on Thompson’s part to get any press coverage.
Instead, the tour gave Fennessy a rare opportunity to query railroad officials face-to-face about crumbling infrastructure.
“One of our residents who was holding her baby girl slipped and fell, and so it is a problem, it’s a safety concern and now that we have both railroads here I want to know how can we coordinate this so that both UP and BNSF are addressing both concerns?” Fennessy asked U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., who serves on the transportation committee and toured the viaducts today.
“Some are maybe a century old, so it’s an issue from a safety perspective and also from the community wanting to have something there for function,” Lipinski said.
The congressman pointed out that there are limited funds on the government level.
Thompson suggested creating an “Adopt A Viaduct Program,” in which local businesses would adopt a viaduct near their businesses. Community groups also could partner with local artists to address the aesthetics.
“I think there is a lot of other cheap work that has to be done . . . We can be a good economic short-term gain with long-term benefits,” he said.
“It was huge to get people together like that,” Fennessy said afterward.
“I would like to see more action not because of politics, but because it is the right thing to do.”