Looking for $30 million to finish thorium cleanup in West Chicago

The decades-long fight over thorium cleanup in West Chicago may be nearing an end – if the federal government provides the needed final $30 million:

After officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory, the environmental response trust overseeing the work is in jeopardy of running out of money because it hasn’t received federal funding since fiscal 2008…

So while bulldozers were moving soil Tuesday on the roughly 60-acre property, part of the site remains contaminated. Officials estimate it will cost $30 million to clean it.

The hope is to get the money from the Department of Energy’s Title X program, which provided reimbursements to West Chicago for previous work…

All that remains is to remediate one residential property and part of the old factory site. The cleanup of the residential property will be completed this year, officials said.

This has been a long saga from the functioning facility that built items in the mid 1900s but then made contaminated dirt available to property owners throughout the city, officially discovering the radioactivity in the 1970s, to extensive cleanup of properties and lots of dirt shipped to Utah. While one could celebrate the persistence of local residents and leaders, it is also a cautionary tale about how many resources it takes to rectify such pollution. It isn’t just about the money but also about the time (several decades involving recognizing the problem, securing funding, and then the time for actual cleanup) and reputation (imagine considering West Chicago as a potential community to move to knowing that there is radioactivity in the community). It is this long view that is often missing in public discussions of the environment – and pollution seems like it has clear consequences, particularlly compared to other topics like the rancor about global warming – though it is admittedly difficult to foresee some of these dangers at the time.

Anachronistic county fair in the midst of urbanized DuPage County?

The DuPage County Fair starts today and offers typical county fair activities:

For five days every July, DuPage County residents get a chance to step into a world dominated by monster trucks, bucking broncos and guys who like to smash their cars into other guys who like to smash their cars…

In addition to the animal exhibits, the carnival rides, the vendors and all sorts of food, this year’s fair offers shows each day, some of which require extra fees. A quick look at some of the best:

• Monster Truck shows at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; free with admission;

• Michael Lynch from TV’s “The Voice” at 8 p.m. Thursday; free with admission;

• Rodeo at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday; $8 admission;

• Demolition Derby at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; $8 admission.

DuPage County does have roots in farming and country living. First settled in the 1830s, the county was relatively unpopulated, the city of Chicago didn’t have that many people, and the railroad didn’t come until the late 1840s. But, much of the rural land disappeared after World War II as the population jumped from over 154,000 in 1950 to over 930,000 today. While the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been active in these decades acquiring land, much of this is green space, not agricultural land.

At the least, the DuPage County Fair reminds residents of the county’s roots even if the county now revolves more around white-collar businesses.

Statistical anomalies show problems with Chicago’s red light cameras

There has been a lot of fallout from the Chicago Tribune‘s report on problems with Chicago’s red light cameras. And the smoking gun was the improbable spikes in tickets handed out on single days or in short stretches:

From April 29 to June 19, 2011, one of the two cameras at Wague’s West Pullman intersection tagged drivers for 1,717 red light violations. That was more violations in 52 days than the camera captured in the previous year and a half…

On the Near West Side, the corner of North Ashland Avenue and West Madison Street generated 949 tickets in a 17-day period beginning June 23, 2013. That is a rate of about 56 tickets per day. In the previous two years, that camera on Ashland averaged 1.3 tickets per day…

City officials insisted the city has not changed its enforcement practices. They also said they have no records indicating camera malfunctions or adjustments that would have affected the volume of tickets.

The lack of records is significant, because Redflex was required to document any time the operation of a camera was disrupted for more than a day, as well as work “that will affect incident volume” — in other words, adjustments or repairs that could increase or decrease the number of violations.

In other words, graphs showing the number of tickets over time show big spikes. Here is one such graph from the intersection of Halsted and 119th Street:

Halstedand119thTickets

http://apps.chicagotribune.com/news/local/red-light-camera-tickets/#intersection/halsted-and-119th

As the article notes, there are a number of these big outliers in the data, outliers that would be difficult to miss if anyone was examining the data like they were supposed to. Given the regularities in traffic, you would expect fairly similar patterns over time but graphs like this suggest something else at work. Outside of someone directly testifying to underhanded activities, it is difficult to imagine more damaging evidence than graphs like these.

“Testing a No-Cellphone Sidewalk Lane”

I’ve always been interested in the walking patterns of people along sidewalks, in public places, or in hallways so this TV test of cellphone lanes on sidewalks looks fascinating:

Sidewalk collisions involving pedestrians engrossed in their electronic devices have become an irritating (and sometimes dangerous) fact of city life. To prevent them, what about just creating a “no cellphones” lane on the sidewalk? Would people follow the signs? That’s what a TV crew decided to find out on a Washington, D.C., street last week as part of a behavioral science experiment for a new National Geographic TV series.

As might be expected, some pedestrians ignored the chalk markings designating a no-cellphones lane and a lane that warned pedestrians to walk “at your own risk.” Others didn’t even see them because they were too busy staring at their phones. But others stopped, took pictures and posted them—from their phones, of course.

Of course, you have to watch the show to find out the complete outcome. But, I would guess most people didn’t pay much attention to the markings. While the experiment targets cell phones, there are lots of ways pedestrians can create problems on sidewalks. Cell phones may be particularly dangerous because people keep moving while not paying attention but other issues abound including people who suddenly stop right in the middle of walking people or others who walk at least three people across and force others to move out of the way.

There are places where such signs or markings do seem to work. It is common in Europe to see signs telling people on escalators or moving walkways to stand to one side to let others pass on the other side. In contrast, Americans tend to clog up such pathways. Similarly, the BART in San Fransisco has markings indicating where to line up for train cars while waiting. This works with a system where the train always stops at the same place but it does create a more orderly system than the free-for-all that is often common around train car doors.

It would be interesting to know why people might or might not follow such directions. Are they not paying attention while walking (this is common amongst drivers who can tune out all of the signs)? Is there a lack of enforcement? Are sidewalks and other walkways seen as more democratic settings (they are public property after all) where people should be able to do what they want?

Residential and commercial properties go up at Cabrini-Green site

A number of new buildings are going up on the site of the former high-rises of Cabrini-Green:

It’s coming together already. A Target store opened north of Gerding’s site last fall, and a developer is negotiating to buy a parcel just northeast of the store and may build apartments there, says Chicago-based Baum Realty Group LLC Vice President Greg Dietz, who’s selling the property. He declines to identify the developer. Chicago-based Structured Development LLC and John Bucksbaum are building 199 apartments and 360,000 square feet of retail space on the former site of the New City YMCA at Clybourn Avenue and Halsted Street. And a 190,000-square-foot retail-and-office development and new store for boating retailer West Marine are in the works at Division and Halsted streets.But the biggest opportunity may be the Cabrini-Green site itself as well as other vacant land in the area controlled by the Chicago Housing Authority, a 28-acre patchwork that stretches from Division up to Blackhawk Avenue. This fall, the CHA plans to seek development proposals for the land, where it wants a mix of subsidized and market-rate residential units and retail space. The push could add thousands of apartments and condominiums to the area, spurring more development between Lincoln Park and River North—and even to the west.

“There’s easy access to jobs and amenities and restaurants . . . and really you’re not that far from the lake,” says David Brint, principal at Northbrook-based Brinshore Development LLC, which is building an 82-unit mixed-income apartment building at Division and Clybourn. “It’s likely you’ll see the continued evolution of development all the way to the highway.”…

Yet the CHA will have the most influence over the neighborhood’s future. The authority has committed to add 1,786 public housing units in the area to replace those demolished at Cabrini-Green, a project that includes the still-standing Frances Cabrini Rowhouses between Chicago Avenue and Oak Street. So far, the CHA has brought back about 610 public housing units, with 221 in the planning stage, says Richard Wheelock, director of advocacy at legal advocacy group LAF in Chicago.

This is valuable property and this contributed to the longer fight – particularly compared to other high-rise public housing projects in Chicago – between residents and the CHA about what would happen to the land. Thus, it is little surprise that developers are pushing residential and commercial construction. The real question has to do with the status of public housing units: will the CHA follow through in providing nearby units? While some have been built in new mixed-income neighborhoods, there is a long way to go in providing public housing and it may only get more difficult as new market-rate residents and businesses move in.

Hypothesis: violence among sports fans related to other social divisions

One sociologist suggests sports violence may not just be about the games but rather other social divisions:

According to a hypothesis put forth by sociologist Eric Dunning in his book Sports Matters, athletic events are realms in which other major issues in society, often related to class, religion, ethnicity, politics, regionalism, historic rivalries, etc. can play out among supporters. Violence, rather than just being about the sport, can be interpreted as an expression of contrasts between populations. That means the conflicts are best studied within the societies where they occur.

“Dunning’s hypothesis is that you can’t separate soccer violence from the wider situation—instead it manifests itself along the fault line in a particular society,” Frosdick said.

And, according to Frosdick, the hypothesis fits when we look at recurring incidents of violence. In Spain, regional tensions help intensify soccer rivalries, hence the divide between Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Italy, where the historic split is between the industrial north and the agricultural rural south, tensions arise when Juventus FC plays SSC Napoli.

“In Scotland, religious sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics represents the biggest fault line in society,” Frosdick said. “The manifestation of football violence therefore is when the Catholic Celtics play the Protestant Rangers in the Old Firm Derby.” In 1980, after the Celtics defeated the Rangers 1-0 at the Scottish Cup final, hundreds of fans rioted on the pitch. The incident led to the banning of alcohol at all Scottish stadiums.

This shouldn’t be too surprising given the importance of factors like social class and race in society. Yet, it would also be interesting to then look at how the sports violence is explained by broadcasters and other media. Based on the sports I’ve watched in my life, I would guess sports broadcasts tend to shy away from conversations about social issues or suggest sports bring healing rather than exacerbate existing conditions. While sports may indeed be “just a game,” it is important to many, interwoven throughout social life, and is big business.

Linking Tea Party support and residential segregation by education

A recent study suggests Tea Party support is higher in counties with higher levels of educational segregation:

McVeigh and coauthors, Kraig Beyerlein, Burrel Vann and Priyamvada Trivedi, examine why certain U.S. counties are conducive to the establishment of Tea Party organizations. Their statistical analyses show that even after accounting for many other factors, Tea Party organizations were much more likely to form in counties with high levels of residential segregation based on education levels, and that college graduates were more likely to indicate support for the Tea Party if they resided in a county characterized by high levels of educational segregation.

“Acceptance or rejection of the Tea Party’s views on the government’s role in redistributing wealth is shaped, to a large degree, by the extent to which those who have benefited from higher education are set apart in their daily lives from those who have not,” says McVeigh, who specializes in inequality, social movements, race and ethnicity.

“As the article explains, the commonly held view that individuals and families who are struggling to get by are undeserving of government assistance is reinforced when the highly educated have limited contact with those who have been less fortunate.”

I noticed this because that sneaky factor of residential segregation proves influential again. The average resident may not think about it much beyond the immediate value of their home or the nearby school district but where one lives can influence a lot about social life, including with whom you interact.

Of course, if your political perspective is that it is preferable to live in more uniform communities – stereotypically, small towns or suburbs – this may not be a problem…

“Conservatives should embrace [New Urbanism] too”

The sprawling suburbs have been associated with Republicans for decades but one writer suggests they should embrace New Urbanism:

“Whenever I start mentioning any kind of New Urbanism items — for conservatives and Republicans who I talk to who don’t know me personally — I’m instantly branded a Communist,” said Decker.

Burgess tells me he came to support New Urbanism after he heard James Howard Kunstler’s 2004 TED Talk. During the presentation, Kunstler showed slides of urban and suburban sprawl, and then declared, “These are places that are not worth caring about [and] when we have enough of them, we’re going to have a nation that’s not worth defending.”…

Ironically, government regulation (the tax code, zoning, a federally financed highway system, and so on) helps explain America’s post-WWII push for sprawl. What is more interesting, though, is that conservatives so readily embraced this modern fad as being tantamount to the American dream.

At what cost, nobody can really quantify. There’s no telling how many marriages were broken up over the stress of suburb-to-city commutes — or how many hours of the day children were deprived of their parents who, after all, were in the car making a big sacrifice so that little Johnny could have a huge yard, live in suburbia, go to a supposedly nice school, and have “rugged individualists” as parents. It’s also hard to quantify the spiritual and psychic cost associated with endlessly frustrating commutes, disconnection from a community, and ugly buildings. And there is certainly an economic cost of taxpayers maintaining low-density areas and infrastructure that yield relatively little revenue.

Interesting argument. Based on what I’ve seen in recent years from conservatives about cities, there seem to be two major concerns:

1. Voting patterns in the United States have broken down generally with cities serving as Democratic strongholds, exurbs as Republican bases, and contention over middle suburbs. Thus, cities are simply viewed as homes to Democrats.

2. There is fear that liberals want to take away the suburban way of life (your own land, space between you and your neighbors, a private life) and make conservatives conform in cities.

But, New Urbanism emphasizes the importance of community life, the ability (which may not work as well as advertised) to design a place in such a way to encourage social interaction. This does sound somewhat like the idyllic small towns conservatives talk about, places where people work together and share common values (but generally have less diversity of ideas, peoples, etc.).

Perhaps the real issue here is the “true” definition of being a conservative: is it being more libertarian where people leave each other alone or about creating moral, tight-knit communities?

“We must kill the McMansion!”

Henry Grabar argues Americans should focus on getting rid of the embarrassing McMansion:

This surfeit of space is a potent symbol of the American way of life; it speaks to our priorities, our prosperity and our tendency to take more than we need. But the superlative size of our houses isn’t just a foam finger America can hold up to the world. It’s correlated with land use patterns and population density, which in turn determine the environmental impact and personal health of communities, and whether they can support a diverse range of businesses, facilities and transportation choices. It’s no coincidence that a modern American suburb like Weston, Florida, has just one-third the population density of Levittown…

But American homes dwarf those in nearly every other country on Earth. Our new houses are twice the size of those in Germany, and you could fit three new U.K. houses inside one of ours. (For what it’s worth, the houses in the U.K. are rather cramped.) Even in spacious Canada, our neighbors are building homes three-quarters the size of their U.S. equivalents. Only Australia, which has the lowest population density in the world after Mongolia and Namibia, can rival the U.S.A. for big houses.

As it turns out, though, the U.S. housing puzzle is more complex than many critics perceive. For the past few decades, single-family homes have dominated new construction. During most of the early-aughts housing boom, too, more than four of five new units were single-family homes. But that huge discrepancy has been vanquished by a surge in apartment construction. These days, the rate of new starts in multi-family buildings has been hovering, nationwide, near 40 percent — a level not seen in decades…

That raises a number of questions. Are these new residents trading the space of suburbia for the vibrancy of a city? Are they downsizing their living quarters to spend money on other things? Or can they simply not afford to rent a bigger apartment or purchase a house?

Provocative headlines involving McMansions are popular these days – “Kill the McMansions” is a pretty strong statement. Yet, the article doesn’t talk as much about the negative impacts of McMansions. The gist of the article goes more this direction: even as new American homes have grown larger in recent years, apartment construction is up, and it is unclear what direction housing will trend in the coming years. Answering this open question could go a long way in determining not just what the American landscape looks like in coming decades but, more importantly, what underlies American social life.

More on “showhome managers” living in Florida houses

The story of a Tampa area family reveals more about “showhome managers” serving as “human props” to help sell homes:

Filling vacant houses with stuff, the firm said, “enhances the focal points, softens age and minimizes flaws.” But adding in fake homeowners adds something else entirely, Saavedra said, turning quasi-spiritual: “There’s an energy there. You can feel it. There’s something. There’s life.”…

Showhomes pays moving costs but the Muellers pay the firm about $1,200 in rent, plus all household bills. Showhomes decorators decide where things should go, and managers are responsible for faultless precision, enforced by rigorous, random inspections.

All surfaces must be regularly cleaned; weeds eradicated, car oil spots removed. Clothes in closets are to be organized by color, and contestable items — heavily religious books, personal photos — must be removed or neutralized. Every item has a rule, and everything must be exact: the rotation of pillows, the fold of towels, the positioning of toothbrushes. Even the stacks of novels casually left on the bookshelf are placed and angled with pinpoint detail.

Gatherings of more than 10 people require approval, and managers must always be prepared for surprises. Dareda has raced across town to get the home “show ready”: lights on, soft music playing, Febreze Fluffy Vanilla subtly spritzed. She said, “You just think … by golly, we’re going to just go do what it takes.” A training manual states, “Our motto is ‘A SHOWING IS NEVER REFUSED.’ ”

Serving as the unseen caretakers for a wealthier couple they’ll never meet doesn’t bug Dareda, she said, because “when I live in somebody else’s home it feels like I already know them.” She points to one of the sellers’ last vestiges, the drapes that puddle at the floor, which she calls an old-style display of wealth.

This helps fill in some details I asked for a while back though I still want to know how much added value such managers add. How much does this lived-in energy increase the value of the home?

It will be interesting to see if this catches on more widely. It requires households willing to live scripted, temporary lives in homes as well as homebuyers who want to see a sort of neutral, upscale decor.