Street Fight | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Street Fight 

If the Villa is already a haven, why bother sealing it off?

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By Ben Joravsky

Residents in the Villa weren't looking to cul-de-sac their already secluded northwest-side neighborhood, but as long as Mayor Daley was dishing out the money, a few of them figured what the hell.

Their resulting cul-de-sac plan would cost city taxpayers $100,000 and make the Villa virtually inaccessible to outsiders. It's also ignited a noisy neighborhood spat similar to battles that have been breaking out all over the city since Daley set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars for cul-de-sac construction, arguing that the barriers would reduce crime and traffic congestion. You've probably heard about the clash in Beverly, where cul-de-sacs are seen as an attempt to keep minorities out of the predominantly white community. And you might have read last week's story about the resident who sued the city to have South Shore cul-de-sacs removed.

But race plays no part in the Villa debate. Indeed, the Villa seems remarkably devoid of great urban conflicts. Conceived years ago as a village within the city, it's a peaceful triangular refuge of 126 single-family homes wedged between Addison and Pulaski west of the Kennedy expressway. Some of the north-south streets have grassy medians on which children and dogs frequently frolic. The local community group, the Villa Improvement League, keeps careful watch on everything from real estate prices to crime, while organizing summer block parties and get-togethers. "When I drove through the Villa for the first time, I said to myself, 'This is where I want to live,'" says Jerry Harlan Jr., who moved there almost two years ago. "I thought this is a perfect little place, a haven within the city."

It seemed there were no problems for cul-de-sacs to cure--until a meeting last spring with Alderman Mike Wojcik. As Wojcik tells the story, he asked Villa residents if they wanted a piece of the money the city had earmarked for traffic-safety projects in their ward. "I said, 'Look, guys, tell me what you want,' says Wojcik, who happens to live in the Villa. "It doesn't have to be cul-de-sacs. It could be a smaller traffic-calming device, like a big planter in the middle of the road. It doesn't even have to be anything; we can just keep things the way they are."

After the meeting with Wojcik, the Villa Improvement League appointed a traffic-safety committee to study the situation. And the more they studied the more many of them concluded that a few cul-de-sacs might not be so bad.

Their biggest complaint has to do with cut-through traffic along Avondale--a two-way street that runs parallel to the expressway between Addison and Pulaski--and along Avers and Harding, two north-south streets that intersect with Addison. "You know how drivers are. If they get frustrated with a traffic jam they try to get out any way they can," says Harlan, who as secretary of the traffic committee sends residents letters endorsing the cul-de-sac proposal. "They'll cut through Avondale to get off of Pulaski. Or they'll cut down Avers to get off Addison. That may be convenient for those drivers, but it's dangerous for our kids who might be playing on the sidewalk or riding their bikes on the street."

So the traffic committee proposed to erect cul-de-sacs at Avers and Harding at Addison, while planting trees down the middle of Avondale, which would narrow the road and force motorists to drive more slowly. In addition they proposed to turn two-way streets into one-way streets or to reverse the direction of one-way streets.

It's difficult to understand the consequences of their proposals without a map, but under them, outsiders could only enter the Villa from Addison or Pulaski at Avondale. And once inside, they'd be reduced to madness by a bewildering array of one-way streets.

"We thought the plan would make the streets safer and keep would-be criminals out," says Harlan. "It would increase property values. You'd think everyone would want it."

On the contrary, there were immediate objections. "This is not a simple thing where you have a wand and all your problems are solved," says Janet Weeks, a Villa resident. "Every change you make here has a consequence somewhere else. If you make it harder to drive along the main streets more people will drive through the alleys. The more cars in the alleys, the harder it will be to back out of garages. You think you're making things simpler, and you're only making them more confusing."

Like Weeks, other residents wondered what the need was for such sweeping change. According to the plan's critics, the neighborhood faces no drastic crime or congestion problems. In fact, the Villa's cut-through traffic isn't nearly as bad as it is in similar communities, like Ravenswood Manor. And though high property values have their advantages--most homes in the Villa fetch at least $300,000--they also raise property taxes.

"It seems like such a stupid waste of money. It's like fixing something that's not a problem and maybe creating a new problem at the same time," says Judy Cole, a resident. "I'm not saying that cul-de-sacs are not appropriate for other locations. But why waste money to put them where they're not needed or even wanted?"

A few weeks ago some residents sent a five-page letter to their neighbors listing some of the plan's unforeseen problems. "Any stranger who wanders into the Villa enclave will seem reasonable when claiming to be lost and asking for directions to get out," the letter reads. "Will we and our children let down our guard to be taken advantage of by strangers who are only pretending to be lost?...Many in nearby communities already think we are 'Villa Snobs.' Cul-de-sacing will only make us look more elitist."

Harlan and his allies have gone on the attack, dismissing their opposition as a band of hysterical naysayers. "They say people will think we're snobs. But I don't think putting in a couple of cul-de-sacs will make the Villa inaccessible," says Harlan. "I can give anyone who wants to get in here directions how to get here. We're not trying to create a gated community. We're trying to say if you come here, it's because you want to come here, not because you want to go through here to get somewhere else."

For the moment city officials are staying clear of the fracas, although some worry that cul-de-sacs are part of an insidious trend toward isolation. "It's like permit parking: you allow one neighborhood to have it and suddenly every neighborhood wants it--it's almost a status thing," says a city official. "Sure, people in the Villa will say we're only a little neighborhood, what difference does it make? But what happens when Ravenswood Manor or Lakeview wants the same thing? It will be a traffic nightmare."

At the very least city officials wonder why Chicagoans should foot the cul-de-sac bill if there's no pressing safety issue at stake. Why don't Villa residents finance their cul-de-sacs with a self-tax, as residents of Marquette Park did when they hired private security guards to patrol against crime? "If they had to pay for it, I don't think so many of these people in the Villa would be for it," one planning official says.

The dispute has forced Wojcik into a corner. Originally, he may have figured the idea would win him gratitude. He now stands to alienate a sizeable number of his constituents no matter what he does.

"Whatever the community wants, that's what I'll do," says Wojcik. "It's not up to me, it's up to them. I never push anything on anybody. I just take the expertise of the people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Mike Wojcik by Jon Randolph.

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