Icy Sidewalks 2012-2013 Edition

This morning I attempted to go for a short neighborhood walk to get some fresh air. I made it half a block, before deciding it was too dangerous, and it was better to follow my wife's example and exercise indoors, luckily an option we have. I know other people who walk or jog for exercise who, after years of falling on the ice, have given up and stick to indoor exercise for winter. I still, as much as possible, take my life in my hands trying to make it to campus, where they do a conscientious, if imperfect, job keeping ice off the sidewalks, including "salt for safety" buckets at building doors. Dog walkers and those walking to work or classes have no choice, and there are elderly people who are rightfully afraid to venture forth, even to get milk or a newspaper at the QD. Any of the "blaming the victim" types who think "yak-tracks" are a solution, when there is a mix of ice and clear pavement to navigate, are full of it. Walking in the street through the neighborhoods can sometimes substitute for walking on sidewalks, but not only is this dangerous because of traffic, there are always places, even when salted by the city (which has yet to happen in my neighborhood this time), that become extra-treacherous, with melt and freeze.

Two winters ago, my neighborhood was not-walkable for most of December, January, and February. Last year was better, but it had nothing to do with revising the ordinance -- the existing ordinance had been fine, except a little outdated wording. Mother Nature was kind. There was no change in behavior. The ordinance requiring ice be removed within 12-hours (unchanged) is unenforceable, even if City Hall wanted to enforce it. There is no way for PACE, without on-the-ground knowledge, to differentiate non-compliance out of ignorance, laziness, or incapacity from willful non-compliance, mostly by negligent landlords, commercial property owners, and developers, some of whose connections lead to suspicion of non-enforcement being politically motivated, as with other well-documented examples of preferential treatment.

As I have said in the past, icy sidewalks are a matter for community problem solving with multi-faceted solutions. The city can no longer afford to be Big Brother and solve problems without active community participation.

Under the Staton-regime, community problem solving was impossible, because the community was a threat to his power and agenda -- community input was closely controlled. George Lahanas is not a dictatorial personality bent on power and self-aggrandizement. But so far, he has not shown the leadership in community problem solving of which he is capable, and those of us in the community who would rather engage positively with city government in this regard have continued to be trapped fighting the leftover Staton-era development and special interest agenda.

Based on the ten-day forecast and current conditions, it looks like we may be in for too many icy sidewalks for safe walking at least until the new year. Unless citizens and government work together, this could go on most of winter, depending on Mother Nature.

Part of this is using the bully-pulpit, which is really the job of the Mayor, with the City Manager working behind the scenes. Somebody has to have the courage to say: you need to be good citizens and worry about your neighbors and neighborhood, while also making it clear that those who cannot keep ice off their sidewalks due to age or disability or other legitimate reasons, will get help. This is not about threats of ordinance enforcement, which really should be limited to obstinate offenders. This is about appealing to good citizenship.

I will repeat some parts of a solution to the icy sidewalks problem:

1) A concerted PR campaign explaining the real problem (ice removal not snow removal) and appealing to good citizenship, combined with practical tips for keeping the ice off (which could be posted on the city's website).

2) City assumes responsibility for salting sidewalks on main streets with heavy pedestrian traffic -- Michigan, Grand River, Harrison between the two, perhaps parts of Hagadorn -- with aim to find some future way of making property owners pay.

3) Work with landlords who farm out chores to tenants to make sure these chores are done, especially during winter break when students are away -- one idea is to hire high school students looking to fund extra-curricular activities.

4) Work with neighborhood activists to identify those in need of help, as well as perpetual non-compliers, and get them help or apply pressure, with such possibilities as the city supplying salt (or making arrangements with local hardware stores) and neighbors or volunteer organizations (including fraternities and sororities) providing the labor.

Icy sidewalks harm our community, in which being able to walk, including to public transit, should be a selling point. This should be a solvable problem, but it takes leadership from City Hall, and leadership is not passing an updated ordinance and making a feeble attempt to let the public know, without adequate explanation -- the problem is ice not snow, folks!.

Here is an opportunity for Diane Goddeeris, who has been a very quiet Mayor, to speak up and very politely say, please make sure you keep your sidewalks clear of ice so your neighbors can walk safely and please help your neighbors who can't do it themselves.

Community policing or PACE could work with block captains, coordinated through neighborhood associations, to identify problem properties where an appeal to good citizenship does not suffice, and possible explanations. (Just from my block and short stretch of Michigan Ave., I can identify one essentially abandoned for sale property, a couple of homes owned by disabled or elderly for which neighbors provide help when needed, a couple of homeowners who are oblivious, a student rental now with good-kid tenants but no arrangement for winter break, and Michigan Ave., where everyone -- homeowners, landlords, commercial property owners -- seems to believe the city is responsible, though the city says it is not.)

Tips:

1) Even if you don't need to shovel your driveway to get in and out, you still need to make sure your public sidewalk and passage from sidewalk to street is free of ice. This is neither time consuming nor expensive.

2) After snow or sleet or rain or melts that might freeze, inspect your sidewalk for icy spots. Seeing people walking by is no substitute for inspection, since some people are willing to risk falling on the ice or have no choice.

3) Apply salt, or preferably eco-friendly salt-substitute, to icy spots as needed.

4) If you clear as much snow off sidewalk as possible after even a light snow, it will get less packed down, and the sun and evaporation will take care of much of it, allowing for just some strategic salting of difficult spots.

5) Shady spots, low spots that accumulate meltwater, and where driveways cross sidewalks tend to need the most salting, and it is sometimes useful to salt these in anticipation of a freeze (pay attention to weather forecasts).

6) Keep an ample supply of salt or substitute on hand.

7) Help neighbors who need help.
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