The Rusty Lamppost Theory 

Alderman Bob Fioretti takes on the Second Ward's problems one streetlight, one mailbox, and one pile of dog poop at a time.

Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti was driving through the South Loop, admiring the streetlight poles he'd just had painted, when he spotted a woman crouched over in the small park on the corner. She appeared to be collecting her dog's poop in a plastic bag while the dog waited patiently at the end of its leash. Fioretti came to a stop. For the sake of the ward, he had to see what happened next.

"Hopefully she's not just hiding it and moving it over," he said. "Really I should get out and see if they have a license for their dogs—most of them don't. Maybe one out of every four in this area... and one last one, Sam: we didn't think anything about the green boxes to replace with the post office. We should get those green boxes replaced too."

Fioretti had seemingly forgotten about the dog; he now pointed to the other corner, where the offending postal storage box sat, its once-green paint now faded to a gray brown. In the backseat of Fioretti's Mercedes SUV, Sam Strain, one of Fioretti's aides, was taking notes. He'd been on enough of Fioretti's block-by-block ward tours to know what to expect—ongoing commentary about modern urban life worked around a spontaneously generated list of new chores.

"If you've got a good sense of clean communities and no broken windows and you get rid of all these," Fioretti said, gesturing toward another sign of disorder: newspaper honor boxes. "I'm trying to get rid of as many of these news boxes and combining them—then people can have a fresh outlook, they feel good about their community, they take part in it, they invest, they clean up themselves, they don't allow people to throw trash as kids are coming off buses and dumping it."

It's not easy conquering the forces of chaos in the Second Ward, an L-shaped collection of neighborhoods on the near south and near west sides. But Fioretti was convinced that it had to be done, and last year he ousted incumbent Daley ally Madeline Haithcock with the brazen promise that he, a prosperous white trial attorney with a perpetual tan and imperturbable hair, would do it better than she could—one postal box and pile of dog shit at a time.

Strain pointed to a light pole that was so black it shone in the sun. "These streetlight poles on the right were brown—gross brown."

"Gross!" echoed Fioretti. "Yeah, we had them all painted. And now we're starting to get to other—I mean, people shouldn't have overhanging weeds, you know. We've just put these stop signs in here recently. We've had about 25, maybe 30 locations where we've put in stop signs where people were asking for them for years—and not just a few years. And see these signs, these tow-zone signs? We're getting all these replaced. Hundreds of signs are being replaced throughout the ward, and you'll see the difference it makes."

He shifted his attention to Dunbar Vocational Career Academy up the street. "I had this press conference on Wednesday over here at Dunbar with Bill Daley and Arne Duncan, and I said, 'I need these couple things at your schools, at these parks you, CPS, own,' and Duncan started getting them to do what they need to do in some of these parks. I mean, Dunbar had some of the ugliest... now, that's the Fourth Ward over there." Fioretti waved toward the east. "It cuts in and out over here. We get blamed by some of the citizens for some of the vacant lots that aren't being cleaned along our border that are in other wards, and we have to clean them up. And I don't mind cleaning them up—don't get me wrong."

Why not just talk to Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle? "They take forever sometimes. They settle for second best....You see all these poles have been painted. We did all these just recently."

Still, there were troubles all over the place. On South Calumet Fioretti launched into a home-by-home analysis: "We've got one drug house on this block. Right here. There are always people going in and going out.... Now you see we've replaced all these street signs here for the first time in probably 20 years....Now this is where Bobby Rush lives....We have a bunch of people registered at this address, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It's a Park District property....Now this is Howard Brookins's cousin who runs this church. He's probably in there; we don't need to go in there or we'll be there for 25 minutes. He's a good guy."

Fioretti slowed the car and shook his head as he approached several low-rise public housing apartment buildings. The properties were run-down and litter was strewn across their dirt yards. A boy shot baskets at a leaning hoop set up on the concrete open space in the courtyard. When Fioretti jumped out of the car, several young men nearby watched him skeptically.

"I mean, look at this," Fioretti said. "Who ultimately wants to live here? I just sat down with Lewis Jordan"—CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority—"and I told him, 'You've got to do something.' The congressman lives right next to this—does he tolerate this? He must. All these years. They've got to clean up this—oh god. I'm calling him right now." He pulled out his cell phone. "You know, the people here have been pushed around so long, they accept it. I'm going to leave a message. But if people don't know another mind-set and don't know what's best, they'll always accept another level.... Lewis, it's the alderman of the Second Ward. I'm over here at 35th and Giles, and they've got all sorts of trash over here. The overflowing trash cans in the back here, if you can have your folks pick it up, thank you. Bye."

On Indiana Avenue back near Dunbar, Fioretti brightened at the sight of still more shiny black lampposts. "We got $1.2 million for this park, and it's going to do all kinds of things," he said, "and my part of the agreement was to paint the poles."

A man who looked to be in his 40s standing outside an apartment building across the street began shouting and waving his arms. "Hey, what's up, man?" he called out.

Fioretti grinned, stopped the car, and rolled down his window. "Hey, what time's the barbecue?" he asked.

"Waiting on y'all!"

"Don't give me that! We're ready to eat! I thought you were going to have one last week!"

"Call me Saturday and come right over here."

"OK! Sam, will you take his number? And how's your wife?"

"Oh, my wife's beautiful."

Fioretti drove through parts of the 3rd and 25th Wards before reentering his own on the west side. At 15th and Loomis he noted proudly that despite a wave of thefts citywide, the nearby fire hydrant wasn't missing any of the brass rings covering its water valves. "The fire department arrives and sees the brass ring is gone—it takes ten minutes for them to hook up the hose," he said. "Ten minutes! People can die in that time. The fire hydrant problem is so big in the city that they don't have a handle on it. But they respond within 24 hours in the Second Ward because they know I'm furious about it."

Next to the Eisenhower Expressway Fioretti pointed to a worn brown streetlight pole. He noted that it was just over the ward boundary. "You see how bad these look? What an embarrassment. This is what they all looked like... now here's this guy. He stole all that stuff."

The man who'd caught Fioretti's attention was walking down the street with several long copper pipes over his shoulder. Fioretti told Strain to call the nearby scrap dealers later and see if they've been getting the identification of their clients, as they're required to.

Fioretti drove into the development of brown, boxy new condominiums just west of Western. What used to be the Rockwell Gardens public housing complex is being turned into a mixed-income development called Jackson Square. Fioretti doesn't have much faith in the plan. "We're going to have lots of problems here," he said. "They're not going to be able to sell them. These things look—they're cookie cutters. They're terrible. Now who in this market is going to pay $400,000 for those? I said, in the next phase we need real bricks, we need real things in here. All of the houses that were sold in the last year in this area are back on the market again. What is this? I mean, who in their infinite wisdom allowed this kind of garbage to go through?"

He headed back east into the West Haven neighborhood, block after block of new townhomes and row houses built on the former site of the CHA's notorious Henry Horner Homes. On one corner the fire hydrant was missing a brass ring, and fast-food wrappers had been jammed into it. Fioretti stopped the car. "Oh, look at that one, Sam!" he cried out. "Look at all that trash they've stuffed inside. And I wonder if they've put drugs in there too. See, they hide their drugs in there for the sales."

The drug trade, he said, is one reason some people who bought market-rate homes in the neighborhood are thinking about moving out. He's asked Lewis Jordan to attend the area's next community policing meeting so the CHA chief can hear about it firsthand. "They feel that the CHA abandoned them," he said. "And if they start walking away we're really in trouble, because then we're left with all these abandoned buildings. We just got all these poles painted, all these new signs up, but it's all scattered-site housing, so what do you do?"

Fioretti went north a few blocks and stopped next to a vacant lot. On one side was a former industrial building; on the other the lone occupied house on the block. "One day I'm here and I've got three of the widest dump trucks I've ever seen, a backhoe over here," he said. "I said to the guy, 'Where's your permits? Where's your permits?' He gave me this look—"

"Mr. Fioretti!" A tall man with wire-rimmed glasses hurried toward the car from the house next door.

"Yes?" Fioretti rolled down his window.

"You're just the man I'm looking for!"

"Oh, shit."

"This lot here. I think it's city-owned. We've been taking care of it for about nine years now. And I was told you were the man to speak with about that."

"You're the house right over here?"

"The only one, right here. We maintain both lots. Now this one, one day this guy with the rocks, he had about five dump trucks—"

"We were just talking about that," said Fioretti. "I know, I know—we had them all ticketed. We almost had them in jail."

The man nodded but kept going. "I came out here and I says, 'Are you with the city?' And he says, 'Well, no.' And I says, 'Well, you can't dump that here.' And he says, 'Well, it's my property.' OK—911. The police wrote him a stack of tickets."

"I know—I was here," Fioretti said. "We got it all done."

"Good," the neighbor said. "Well, when are things changing over here?"

Fioretti appeared to be lost in thought.


"Well, I don't know," Fioretti said. "Every day it's changing."


Fioretti said the city was requesting proposals to do something with the industrial building.

"This guy here?" the neighbor said. "Well, last week they had gotten a ladder. They went out on his roof. They cut out all the copper. So we called the police. Twenty-five minutes before the police can get over here. And that is unacceptable. Twenty-five minutes!"

"I know, I agree with you."

"And after they leave, the police pull up. 'What did you need us for?'"

"I know," Fioretti said. "Well, thanks."

Strain asked for the man's address and promised to get back in touch.

"Thank you," said the man. He smiled at Fioretti. "And you had my vote too."

"Thank you," Fioretti said.

"And you'll get my next one."

"Thank you!"v

Care to comment? Find this story at And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.




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