Sunday, September 6, 2020

Public works works for you



   This was so much fun. My editor at the Northbrook Voice suggested I write something about their public works department. She didn't have to ask twice. I had a busy and fascinating morning with director of public works Kelly Hamill, who organized such a varied schedule that conveying it was more an act of stenography than writing. The men I met are obviously great at what they do, good guys and proud to show off their realm. I loved learning that drips are located, in essence, by putting your ear to a fire hydrant and listening.

     A water tower needs filling, having been empty for months during repainting. A parking lot, torn up to fix a ruptured main, must be resurfaced. There’s a leak somewhere in a water line turning a resident’s front lawn sodden. A storm sewer inlet must be reconstructed over in Normandy Hills. Coolant is leaking at Fire Station 11, and another balky air conditioning system waits at Fire Station 12. 
     Not to forget the constant quiet invasion of roots into hundreds of miles of storm sewers. There are trees to be trimmed and others cut down— five of the Village’s full-time maintenance workers are certified arborists. Plus there are 150 vehicles from tower ladder firetrucks to police cars that must be kept running. 
     In other words, a typical Wednesday for Northbrook’s Public Works Department. 
     “That’s the short list,” said Paul Risinger, General Operations Superintendent. 
     Also on the list is the Village’s water plant, which functions by bringing water in or sending it out. Unlike many suburbs, Northbrook doesn’t buy water from Chicago.

To continue reading, click here and turn to page five.



12 comments:

  1. Neil, I'm curious about the business behind a story like this works. If you wouldn't mind answering, even in general terms: do you get paid for a story like this? What if they don't like what you write, or if you uncover corruption or something, how does that work? (I realize that's unlikely in this case, but it got me wondering.) Do they get to edit you? etc. Thanks for considering.

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  2. Happily. Yes, I get paid, by the Village of Northbrook. If they don't like what I write—which has happened, when I interviewed a subject they did not want included in a story—they cut that part out and I write something different. As for uncovering corruption, I suppose I'd hand it over to the Sun-Times, were it significant enough. But this is a for-hire piece. The standard Poynter Institute view is that now I'm somehow corrupted by my association with the village and can no longer write about Northbrook because they've handed me coin. As if living in a place doesn't influence your attitude plenty already. My rule is that bias is on the page. I despised Ronald Reagan, yet I wrote a fair obituary of him. If the Village of Northbrook starts poisoning the water, I'm putting that in the paper. Even though I know the water department guys. If anything, it would add to the depth of my poisoned-water story because I've learned how the system works, doing this. To me, I'm protected by an armor of ingratitude. Does that make sense?

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    1. My guess is you'll still be writing when Mr. Trump passes away as you're much younger and in better health. I'll be paying attention.

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  3. Having lived much of my life in leafy suburbs like yours, I'm sure the Northbrook residents appreciate the "complain more" attitude put forth by the village. Shines a light on less affluent jurisdictions with far less resources that would not encourage such a bold challenge. Believe that's the primary takeaway from your deconstruction of public works.

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  4. Seeing the photo reminds me of how impressed we were in how fast street repairs are done in Chicago (and probably Northbrook too). What would take months to complete in Melbourne, FL would take only days in the Chicago. Naturally there is plenty of motivation to get the job done as quickly as possible in a big city. But still.

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    1. Not all big cities are as efficient as Chicago when it comes to street repairs. When I moved to Cleveland 28 years ago, I was amazed at the condition of the streets here. They were in pretty good shape, compared to Chicago's. Not even all that many potholes, despite the snowy winters (60-70 inches, on average).

      Then we had a long series of extremely tough winters in the Nineties and early Aughts...eight of the twelve all-time snowiest (almost ten feet one season, and double that amount in the higher terrain to the east). I live on a corner. One street was pristine concrete, the other, busier one was asphalt.I watched them crumble and disintegrate over the ensuing years. Now they are just patches on patches. The asphalt pavement has been resurfaced exactly twice...1998 and 2011. Potholes are now as ubiquitous in the spring as mushrooms after the rain.

      The streets of Cleveland were fine, back in the day. Today? They suck. And our four-term mayor just keeps on sleepwalking through City Hall. It is what it is, he says. And he was saying that years before Trump stole it from him.

      The quality of public works, and other city services, varies a great deal...mostly depending where you live and what clowns are running the circus. The Daleys had their priorities straight, and it paid off for them handsomely at election time.

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  5. Interesting story. Interesting backstory. Akin, in my view, to the Chicago Symphony playing the halftime show at a high school football game.

    Did you take the photos, as well? That cover photo is exceptional.

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    1. That's kind of you. I took these photos—the one on the cover of Northbrook Voice someone else took. To continue your CSO metaphor, of course members of the symphony DO show up at schools and perform. Maybe not at half time, but in classrooms and such. I like freelancing, and in this case I do it for a variety of reasons, in descending order of significance: 1) because it's fun and I learn stuff; 2) because it helps get me out of the house and ground me in the community; 3) for the money.

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    2. Those reasons would each be valid and sufficient by themselves. Together, they make a compelling trio. Credit to you and the person at the publication who realized they had a unique and accomplished contributor there in the leafy suburban paradise. You may have mentioned this before, but did you approach them, originally, or vice versa?

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  6. "And I dream of the days when work was scrappy,
    And rare in our pockets was the mark of the Mint.
    When we were angry, and poor and happy,
    And proud of seeing our names in print." G. K. Chesterton

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