The Gang That Couldn't Salt Straight | Letters | Chicago Reader

The Gang That Couldn't Salt Straight 

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In case the readers of the July 29 Letters column didn't understand Terry Levin's extended comments about Bob Wulkowicz as the "lone 'environmentalist,'" or my alleged public gaffe, I will try to explain his job function:

In Joravsky's story, Madeline Kanner is everycitizen who one day sees something that concerns her and properly calls her government to task. (Here it's scorched trees, but it doesn't matter what the issue might be. The skirmish usually plays out the same way.)

She is bounced around from dismissive to indifferent employee and discovers the new public anesthetic of voice mail--"We'll get back to you as soon as we can." Well, no one does. Madeline waits and worries and finally writes to her mayor. She also tries to be heard on talk radio, misses that chance to raise her important questions, and she is left to sit at the bottom of her stairs and quietly brush her cat.

So far, Madeline Kanner is of no real interest to the bureaucracy or Levin. But when Joravsky puts it on a Reader page for public display, where it might offer some political embarrassment, Terry's word processor leaps into action. Spokesman, spin doctor, flak catcher, fly swatter, he must neutralize the now-threatening Madeline in the Letters column. Whack, whack, whack. She is a misinformed tree hugger in need of correction and she is taught a lesson about speaking up.

Those extra shots I received in the same letter, and his claim of my dubious credibility, were my continued correction and lesson for writing to the Sun-Times a few months ago. I said the tunnel vision of the bureaucracy, particularly the Department of Streets and Sanitation, killed the trees in the Lake Shore Drive median by salting them to death. In a response to that letter, Terry boasted he caught me with my facts down. Everything I wrote should be negated because his department used calcium chloride in a pilot program last winter.

Expectedly, Terry avoided the real points. My interagency report on the new medians, circulated in December of 1990, warned them to change their salt practices to keep the new landscapes alive. Terry's bosses had more than two years to practice and learn about calcium chloride and proportional control. Instead, they presalted the new median before its spring planting. For the new trees' first winter, hummocks of salt doubled as speed bumps.

The subsequent tree losses were tragic. According to a professional study done by the Morton Arboretum for that year, maximum salt deposition rates were "as much as 100 times greater than other deicing salt studies have recorded for the Chicago Metro area."

His department then had a deathbed conversion, the deathbed of trees. Only after the damage became publicly and politically significant--and a topic of press discussion--did Streets and San produce the "calcium chloride solution" (Sun-Times, Sept. 26, 1993). Apparently, a new assistant commissioner came on board and responsibly took on the problems. Before that however, we wasted the staff time and skills of many good people, more than a million dollars of public money spent on trees, and much citizen goodwill--all because of the gang that couldn't salt straight.

That's a big picture, viewed through the large end of the telescope. The bureaucracy undercut the mayor's vision. But just as important is the other end of the telescope, in Joravsky's story, where we look at everycitizen Madeline, the little person who gets swatted for questioning the system outside her circle of concerned friends.

Mayor Daley, from his position of remarkable power, is given the trust of the people to be a visionary and make this city better. Madeline simply started her campaign from her heart, and she has every right to pursue her concerns. I have devoted the last seven years of my professional life as a public employee to issues including honest tree care, and there are many finished public projects that prove the value of my efforts. Our common disappointment, the Mayor's, Madeline's, and my own, is that the bureaucracy still hasn't quite caught on to the fundamental biological rules of "being green and staying alive."

Mr. Levin should be very careful about fabricating the impression that I "disparage Mayor Daley's tree-planting efforts." It's flat wrong and is an obviously contrived cheap shot. I will wear with some pride Terry's characterization of me as the "lone environmentalist" if it means that I stand against the many wasteful hypocrisies in this city with the twiddlely bureaucratic exercises of ass-covering masquerading as the pious correction of concerned or questioning citizens.

The only real measure of success for Daley's foresight will be the hundreds of thousands of healthy mature trees left for our great-grandchildren to enjoy. That's what really counts.

Bob Wulkowicz

Formerly of the Chicago Park District

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