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How I Got a New Sidewalk in Worcester, MA

City government is an interesting machine.  And by interesting, I mean, hard to figure out.  Here’s the photo- and video-tale of how I got a new sidewalk in Worcester, MA.  It took three and a half years.  If you have something similar in need of doing, you might learn from my experience.

It began in 2010.  One of the maple trees for which the street was named was dying.  It would loft large pieces of itself into the air every time the wind blew.  Some of them were large enough to hurt someone, or to crush a car like in an All State commercial.  Here are two of the evidence shots I submitted to my city councilor, who at the time was Bill Eddy.  (These were taken on different days.)

tree_tbSidewalk in need of repair in Worcester, MA 2010.

The City of Worcester owns all the trees in the sidewalk.  When I asked a city representative if I could pay for my own arborist to come and prune the dead out, she told me that if I so much as rubbed a piece of bark off it, they would be lawfully entitled to fine me for destruction of the entire tree according to the circumference of the trunk.   It was something prohibitive like $50 per inch of circumference.

I asked Bill Eddy if the city could assemble a list of “certified arborists” so that I could hire one and prune the tree legally.  I offered this to help with the tremendous backlog of arbor work that had resulted from the asian long-horned beetle disaster.

The official work order was entered May 24, 2010.  What you see below is real.  I edited it only to remove my address, phone number, and email address.  Look at how it ends, where it says “CLOSED”:


The only reasonable interpretation of this otherwise senseless remark, “no city tree at this location,” was that Councilor Eddy had done some back room dealings and given me a free hand to prune the tree myself.  The city had disowned it.  Perfect!  I started getting quotes from arborists to prune it.  This was September 8, 2010.

The night of September 21 I drove home thinking about which arborist to hire.  I pulled onto my street and lo! the tree was gone.  Nothing remained but the stump and the upheaved sidewalk.

I called Billy Eddy to ask whether it would have been better just to prune the dead.  I also asked about the stump and the sidewalk.  I couldn’t get through to him, so I asked these questions in a voicemail.  I would not hear from him again for two years.

On November 27, 2011, one year after the removal, the stump was ground down to a dusty pile.  Now all that remained was the badly damaged sidewalk.

I waited.  And waited.  I called the city and asked what would be done about the sidewalk.  Twice I was told someone would be out to repair it.  The third time I was told, “Oh, that requires a petition!”

Shortly afterward, on March 20, 2013, I went to some lengths to post a sign out front inviting neighbors to sign a petition to City Council.  I collected seven signatures with this passive device.  I wanted to leave it out for two weeks.  Then one night the petition blew away, carrying all of its signatures with it, never to be seen again.

I submitted the petition anyway on March 29, 2013, indicating all that had happened.  It included the following imagery, juxtaposing the awful crater with my otherwise scenic front yard:


You can see how I encouraged neighborhood support by tying the petition text to my fence.  When it was finally scheduled, I also tied up notice of the hearing, which was to be on June 19, 2013.

At the hearing I brought one neighbor, also a member of the Worcester Property Owners Association, and a prepared speech.  I was one of the last petitions to be heard, after several hours of very tedious repetition of questions about how street paving was to be assessed.  When I finally had my chance at the podium, I asked if I should read my speech or if there was no objection to fixing the sidewalk.  Councilor Toomey apologized and said the sidewalk should have been fixed as part of the tree removal, and that it would be done before winter. No speech was required.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Privately I was advised by someone else to notify Bill Eddy about this successful hearing, otherwise the process might stall.  So I notified him via email on July 10.  He said it couldn’t possibly be done before next summer.  I explained what had been said at the hearing and he said he’d look into it.  On October 18, without any other notice, they came to dig out the stump.  They posted the no-parking signs around 8a.  I protested that it wasn’t fair to give no notice, and that I’d have to interrupt the neighbor’s morning routines to get them to move their cars.  The man said, “If the sign is up, I can tow.”

I recorded some of the work:

On October 29, after leaving the “no parking” signs up for a week, they came and paved over the smoothed bed at 7 in the morning.

That’s 1,254 days and many, many follow-ups since the request was first made.

New Sidewalk in Worcester, MA

Suggestions for Improvement

I think these small changes would make things a little bit better here in Worcester:

  1. Recognize certain independent contractors as “city approved” and allow property owners with the means to hire them to work on city projects, especially trees, but perhaps also including sidewalks.
  2. Notify customers when work orders have been closed.
  3. Streamline the petition process by giving 30 minute hearing windows and cutting people off if they take more than so many minutes to explain their case.
  4. Treat “no parking” signs with more seriousness.  Put them up the day before, write the word “tomorrow” on them, and take them down when work is going to be paused the next day, or week.

There certainly must be big changes required, as well.  I hear the average time to fix a sidewalk isn’t as long as mine, but it’s still two years.  If the city were a factory, I’d say their sales department needs to follow up better on orders, and I’d say their operations teams have too much going on in parallel.  I’d also look into whether “squeaky wheels” weren’t constantly cutting in line.  Probably city management could learn a lot by comparing Worcester’s performance to that of other cities.

What do you think?  Leave a comment below!

Locked Out of Our Connected World

A week or two ago I was locked out of my house.  Here’s the story of what happened and what I did, in case any of you find yourselves in a similar situation.

I was outside digging an underground pipe and dry well for my new gutters.  The ditch was out-of-sight of the back door and on the way from the back door toward the street.  My back door is always locked except when I’m working outside, when I leave my keys, wallet, and phone inside.  I leave those inside because when I’m using power tools, like the diamond saw I used to cut through my patio, I don’t want things in my pockets making it hard to move or squat.

My brother, who lives with me, and his fiancé, who was visiting, came out of the house.  They walked into view and we chatted about the ditch, then they left to get on with their day.  Normally, the conversational ritual is like this:

My brother: “I left the door unlocked.”

Me: “Okay.”

That day, however, his fiancé left the house first.  She opened the back door — the fact of it being already unlocked indicating no special procedure to her — and my brother’s muscle memory led him to lock it as if that’s how he had found it.

Two shovelfuls after they left I realized the frightening truth.  The door was locked and I didn’t know when they’d be back.  I ran into the street looking for their car, saying “Shoot shoot shoot” (equivalent).  But they were gone.

Shovel digging in dirt.

Traveling Salesman 101

“Hi there,” I said to the neighbor as I walked up her driveway.  “I’ve been locked out and I was wondering if I could borrow your cell phone to look up a number.”  I should remember my brother’s number, but he’s on speed dial, so I’ve never had to remember it.  I tried to think of the hundred or so other numbers I have saved in my Contacts, but none of them came to mind, either.  Panic causes amnesia.

My neighbor was not impressed.  I offered $10 to refund the 411 fee.  “Is 411 like the operator,” she asked?

Cell phones are generally unlisted, so we tried Labcorp in Westborough, MA.  A friend of my brother works there and would have his cell number.  The 411 computer suggested some car dealerships.  I dialed 411 again, thinking it had misheard me.  We got the same result.  I stood in silence thinking about my options, and then the computer offered an operator, to which I said yes.  The operator found Labcorp’s number and dialed it for me.  On the other end of the line, a fax machine picked up the phone and started making all those noises.  I hung up and thanked the neighbor.  I said I’d pay her back.  Then I wandered searchingly back into the street.

I started to walk towards downtown Worcester.  I thought if I could find Sandra Katz, she would have a computer and a phone I could use to look up and find some number that would get me to my brother.  I thought it was more than a mile to her office (it’s actually 1.5 miles).  That didn’t seem as close as NU Cafe, which was seven minutes in the other direction, so I went there instead.  I’m there regularly, so I figured they’d let me use the store computer.

It was lunch time when I walked through the door.  I was unshaven, covered in dirt, and looking pretty wild.  A concerned looking patron glanced up at me from his table.  I saw him and thought it would be better to talk to him, who obviously had a computer right there, than it would be to wait in line for the cashier, who might not be allowed to let me use the store computer.  So I started walking towards him.  He concentrated very hard on his laptop, trying to make me disappear.  But I introduced myself, and before long he was less afraid than when I had first burst onto the scene.  I sat down across from him.

He helpfully Googled and dialed some numbers for me but we couldn’t get anywhere.  Cell phone numbers really aren’t listed, and we confirmed that Labcorp’s listed number was definitely a fax number.  I really needed some time to work at a computer, but to ask the man to quietly eat his panini while I spread dirt all over his keyboard was too much to ask.  So we pulled up qpmservices.com and dialed Sandra Katz.  Before long I was in Sandra’s car heading to her office.

(It’s worth mentioning that I keep all of my phone numbers in Google contacts.  In principle, I should have been able to access these from the man’s laptop in NU Cafe.  The problem is, I use Google’s two factor authentication.  So when I tried to log in from an unrecognized computer, Google treated it like a criminal enterprise and sent a text message to my cell phone.  I needed to use the content of the message to log in from the man’s computer.  Without my cell phone, I couldn’t log in.)

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

As it turns out, a great many phone numbers are available online.  When you’re locked out of your home, most of them are not helpful.  You can, in certain circumstances, find office numbers or other work numbers for people who know the person you need to reach.  I left a couple voicemails like this.  “Hi, this is Doug, can you call my brother and tell him he needs to go to 90 Madison St, 4th floor…”

What eventually broke the logjam was a little bit of an exaggeration.  I found a corporate headquarters’ number for the workplace of someone I knew who knew my brother.  I used a deep, measured voice and told the person who picked up that I had a family emergency to report and that I believed the message needed to go to an employee in that building.  Could she use an internal company directory to look him up?  She connected me right away.

From there it was all quickly resolved.

“Locked Out” Lessons Learned

  1. Digging ditches, like everything else it seems, now requires that you have your cell phone with you.
  2. A winning smile and deferential tone of voice get you access to other people’s phones and computers, even when covered in dirt.  People are basically good.
  3. It pays to know local folks who can come give you a ride.
  4. In an age of concern over privacy and security, a great many things really are private and secure.