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Late Night: That Empty Feeling

Forcing Chicago to pay attention to the holes in the skyline:

Today [story from July 6], the Chicago City Council will hear an ordinance that would make banks that own vacant buildings secure their properties and pay up on their delinquent registration fees. That ordinance, supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is a direct result of a Chicago Reporter investigation.

Reporter Angela Caputo uncovered the situation in our May issue, showing that the city lost out on at least $2.2 million as a result of building owners skirting regulations that they register vacant properties with the city and pay for their upkeep. Today’s ordinance wouldn’t allow banks to get around securing the property because it’s in foreclosure.

This is the type of unsexy thing that gets no attention from most big-city media (stories that aren’t sexy enough for the big city media are almost entirely what the excellent Chicago Reporter does, so blogroll them, folks), and yet it’s a huge contributing factor to the health of a community.

Think about what makes you characterize a neighborhood as a “bad” one. Most people probably couldn’t quote the crime stats for place they speed through with their car doors locked down; they think the neighborhood is bad because the sidewalks are broken and the fences are rusted and there’s litter everywhere. Vacant lots are overgrown, rusted out cars are sitting around busted, somebody’s window’s bashed in and it’s not fixed or even covered up. It feels neglected, like nobody cares what happens there.

Taking care of those things requires a coordination of various city and community services. Code enforcement. Street cleaning. Parking rules and uniform application of those rules. Filling in potholes and picking up trash. Making every train stop as nice as the ones the tourists get off at. Emptying the garbage cans near all the bus stops, not just the ones downtown. Holding all property owners, including big banks, to the same standards everywhere. Yes, it’s the responsibility of property owners to keep up their sites, but it’s the city that’s in charge of standing over them with a whip until they do it.

“Increasing building code enforcement in lower-income neighborhoods” and “fixing broken sidewalks and curbs” doesn’t sound nearly as fun as “installing 60 new security cameras and putting 100 more cops on the street to catch scumbags,” but it has an undeniable impact on the lives of those in those neighborhoods. And what do you know, it actually nets a cash-poor city some dough, too.


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Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel is a 10-year veteran of the newspaper business. She publishes First Draft, a writing and politics blog, with her partners Holden, Jude and Scout. She is the author of the books Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs (2011, Arcadia Publishing, with Mike Danahey) and It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal, about a great liberal journalism institution (2007, Heritage Books). She also edited the anthology “Special Plans: The Blogs on Douglas Feith and the Faulty Intelligence That Led to War” (2005, William, James & Co.) Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Daily Southtown, Sirens Magazine, and Alternet. She lives in Chicago with her husband, two ferrets, and approximately 60 tons of books.