Monday, September 15, 2014

Sidewalks: Problems and Solutions

This is the post I was intending to write before my attention was necessarily focused on the extremely dangerous gang problem happening in my neighborhood.

First, a brief explanation for the handful of people who don't understand the importance of sidewalks. Sidewalks are a vital component of city life. Out in the suburbs, most people drive to wherever they are going. In the city, even a small city like Waterbury, most people walk. We walk to the park, to the playground, to the bus stop, to school, to the store, to a friend's house. On most Waterbury roads, no matter what the speed limit might be, cars typically go at least 40 mph, often faster. Sidewalks reduce the amount of stress pedestrians have when they are trying to get somewhere. Sidewalks keep pedestrians safe.

Sidewalks aren't just about safety. Studies have shown that pedestrian-friendly cities are healthier, have lower crime rates, increased pride, and are more likely to see higher income residents move in.


Waterbury has two large sidewalk problems, and one small problem.

The big problems:
1. Not enough sidewalks;
2. Sidewalks that are falling apart.

The small problem:
3. New sidewalks are not ADA compliant.


Problem number one is pretty straight-forward: not enough sidewalks. I once tried walking to Lakewood Park from my house. Walking on North Walnut Street, which has no sidewalks, wasn't too bad, since there were very few cars driving by. I felt like I was walking on a rural road. It was nice. Then I got to Lakewood Road, where I felt like I was risking my life. Traffic on Lakewood Road goes 40-60 miles an hour (even though the posted limit is 25). The south side of Lakewood Road, from Massachusetts Avenue to the park, has no sidewalks. I had to choose between running across the road (jaywalking) to the sidewalk on the other side, or walking in the shoulder facing traffic (technically legal and correct, but scary!). There is a sort-of path on the side of the road, but it's on a slope, so if you stumble, you could fall into the road. Now imagine if I were a kid trying to do this. It's just not safe.

There are countless areas of Waterbury where there are no sidewalks, but there should be. In addition to needing more sidewalks, we need more crosswalks. And they need to be real crosswalks, where pedestrians can get a walk signal, not the half-hearted crosswalks where pedestrians are always crossing against traffic, hoping they don't get run down.

Problem number two, sidewalks that are falling apart, is a layered problem. First, sidewalks in severe disrepair are dangerous. Depending on how they are crumbling, cracked, or broken, pedestrians risk twisting an ankle or falling down and breaking a leg. If the condition of the sidewalk is truly terrible, pedestrians will choose to walk in the street. Seriously, some of Waterbury's sidewalks are so bad, pedestrians would rather risk getting hit by a car than try to walk on the sidewalk.

Another major problem with crumbling sidewalks is the issue of blight. A crumbling sidewalk is a form of blight. While the City of Waterbury is trying to crack down on blighted buildings, they are neglecting their own blighted properties (sidewalks). When sidewalks are blighted, property values go down, outsiders think poorly of the neighborhood (which can cause blight and crime to increase), and community morale goes down.

Problem number three addresses the new sidewalks that the City of Waterbury has installed in the past few years. The first time I saw the city putting in a new sidewalk, I was pleased--until I realized that the utility poles and sign posts were placed smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, making the sidewalk completely useless for anyone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller. There are places where you have to turn sideways to get around the utility pole in the middle of the sidewalk. It's absurd!


While the City of Waterbury recognizes the first two problems, it has failed to implement a plan for solving them. It's probably safe to assume that every neighborhood complains about their sidewalks, and every neighborhood has been told that there is no money to do anything about it. Every year, however, a few small stretches of sidewalk get installed. Sometimes the funding comes from Federal grants. Most recently, the Mayor used his discretionary power to siphon money from the city's road budget to have a new sidewalk installed on Oronoke Road in Town Plot.

When I first read about the new sidewalk being installed on Oronoke Road, I was annoyed and offended. According to the article in the Rep-Am, the Mayor was responding to a complaint from one taxpayer in Town Plot. Well, dozens of people from my neighborhood have been trying to get new sidewalks for more than a decade. We've tried complaining to every mayor, we've tried complaining to the Board of Aldermen, we've tried applying for a CDBG grant, all with no success. Apparently, Mayor O'Leary promised taxpayers in Town Plot to give them a new sidewalk if he got re-elected. So what about his promise to taxpayers in the Scovill Homes to give us new sidewalks if he got elected?

To be fair, we did get a little bit of new sidewalk on Walnut Street recently. Waterbury Development Corporation built two new houses on the corner of Walnut and Wood Streets, replacing the sidewalks in front of the houses. But they didn't bother doing the sidewalk on Wood Street, which was in far worse condition. If I were paranoid, I would take it personally. Wood Street residents have been begging for new sidewalks for years, and when we finally get a chance to see improvement, we're snubbed. (Fortunately, I'm not paranoid!)

Wood Street sidewalk deemed acceptable (apparently) by WDC and the City of Waterbury.


The real issue is not political favoritism. The real issue is that the City of Waterbury does not have a comprehensive plan for improving the pedestrian experience.

I don't want mayoral candidates promising new sidewalks to specific neighborhoods. I want a solid plan guaranteeing new sidewalks to every neighborhood. People understand that it's expensive and can't happen over night. What they want is to understand how the decisions are made, and to feel confident that decisions are made in a fair, equitable, and logical way.

Here's what I propose: budget a minimum of $10 million per year for sidewalks; supplement that budget with grant funding wherever possible; draft a construction plan that starts with making sure there are usable sidewalks on both sides of the busiest streets first, with the streets near parks and schools first, with the streets on bus routes first. It might take 20 years to get to every street, but we will know when it will be done. The plan could even specify what year to expect a certain sidewalk to be worked on, easing everyone's minds about the topic.

The first step in the process is to create an inventory of the sidewalks. This doesn't have to be done by city employees. Main Street Waterbury has a template for exactly this process, which could easily be tweaked for my proposed plan. Once the template is prepared in an Excel spreadsheet, the inventory can be done by volunteers. Each of the various neighborhood organizations could take responsibility for inventorying the sidewalk situation in their neighborhood. Stretches of road would be categorized based on the condition of the sidewalk (or lack of sidewalk). The inventory would then be compiled by the city's Public Works department.

The second step would be to prioritize streets and to create a list of which stretches of sidewalk would be done each year, from now until project completion. The final schedule of construction would then be publicly distributed, with the understanding that construction will go faster if grant funds are obtained. Getting the grant funds will be a lot easier if there is a solid construction plan.

Now, given that Waterbury is full of pessimists, I'm sure someone will be quick to tell me that my idea is unrealistic or too ambitious. For a significantly more modest proposal, check out the City of Corvallis, Oregon's sidewalk policy, which clearly defines how the city chooses which sidewalks to improve. Among the highlights:

The City will maintain an ongoing annual program to identify hazardous sidewalk conditions and will determine the priority within which repairs for these hazardous sidewalk condition may be completed....

The City will prioritize repairs on the basis of highest risk to public heath and safety. The City may elect to mitigate sidewalk hazards until repairs can be made. Sidewalk repairs will be performed within the available funds generated by the Sidewalk Maintenance Fee....

As far as I can tell (from the 2013 Code of Ordinances), Waterbury does not have any sidewalk policy, other than to hold property owners responsible for snow and ice removal in the winter, and other usage policies. This is why, term after term, our Mayors are left floundering at neighborhood meetings when residents demand sidewalk improvements. This is why new sidewalks are a perennial campaign promise that is rarely kept. This is why so many Waterbury residents are frustrated over sidewalks.

Believe it or not, the City of Waterbury has a Sidewalk Construction Fund. No, really! It was established in 1945 and is still in the Charter. According to the Charter, it's a revolving working capital fund for the construction and repair of sidewalks. Whether or not it still exists, or how much money is in the fund, is unknown to me.

While I'd like to see my sidewalk budget proposal implemented, I'd be happy if we could just adopt a formal sidewalk policy to eliminate the chaos that currently exists.

For more information about urban sidewalks, visit the Walk Friendly Communities website.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Walnut Street

I live on Wood Street, between Oak and Walnut. For the most part, this is a working class neighborhood. Most of the people who live here struggle to make ends meet. We have seniors who worked all their lives and are trying to enjoy retirement; young parents raising families; and mid-life adults who are underpaid and overworked. This is a classic Waterbury neighborhood, where everyone knows one another, where there are children playing in the front yards while grown-ups watch them from the porch. 

My neighborhood has just suffered the third fatal shooting this year. The rising tide of danger in the neighborhood seems to be coming from the corner stores on Walnut Street, but it could just as easily happen at the one on Oak Street. These stores have been magnets for illicit activity for years, from drug dealing to dog fighting, but whenever neighborhood residents have complained, nothing seems to be done. Oh, except that one time when  I blogged about getting into an argument with an officer who insisted that all poor people are no good. 

There are dozens of young children who live here. The school bus stops are right next to the places where the shootings have occurred. Walsh School is only a few blocks from the shootings. How much worse does it have to get before the City of Waterbury helps us? Every politician in the city should be speaking out about this.

I was going to write a post about sidewalks. About how my neighborhood has been asking for new sidewalks for years to no avail, but as soon as someone in the affluent Country Club neighborhood asks for a sidewalk, they get one. I will probably still write about the sidewalk issue, but right now I'm reduced to begging the City of Waterbury to do something, anything, so I'm not afraid to leave my house. 

Set aside the politics. I don't care whose ego is injured. Three fatal shootings within a block of each other in one year is outrageous. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

AT&T Alert

If you have combined billing from AT&T for your cell phone and house phone, internet, or U-Verse, this post is for you.

Back in July, AT&T in Connecticut separated its billing departments for cell phones, internet, or whatever. As a consequence, all hell has broken loose with their billing.

The first hint of the problem came this morning, when I received an email from AT&T, asking me to call them regarding my wireless account. Odd. They've never done that before.

When I called the number in the email, I wound up in the regular AT&T menu. In a surprisingly short amount of time, I was able to reach a live person. The live person proceeded to inform me that I was delinquent on my bill. I immediately pulled up my account to confirm that I had, in fact, paid my bill in full on August 10, as I do every month. The live person insisted that I had not paid my bill since July 3. Considering that I had paid my bill on time since that date, on July 9 and August 10, this made me a little cranky.

The live person then explained that the billing has been separated, and that I would have to call a different AT&T number to find out where my money went, that he couldn't help me any further, but if I wanted to pay the money that the computer said I owe, I could do that now. I declared somewhat loudly that I had already paid the bill, that AT&T was double-billing me, and that I absolutely would not pay the bill twice. The live person again stated that I would have to talk to someone else. When I asked if he could possibly give me the number of that someone else, he asked me to wait a few minutes while he looked up the number.

After hanging up the phone, I spent a few minutes downloading and examining my new separated bills. Sure enough, the bill I paid on August 10 included the amount I owed for cell phone service from July 2 to August 1. The new wireless bill on which I am supposedly delinquent is for cell phone service from July 2 to August 1.

Here's the billing cycle information from my new, separated wireless bill, which was due August 28 (for which I never received any notification).

And here's the wireless service dates for the combined bill I paid on August 10.


Next I calmed myself down and called the number the extraordinarily unhelpful live person had given me. I eventually was patched through to a new live person. The new live person was much more helpful than the old one. New Live Person informed me that I'm not the first person to call with this problem, and that I would have to call the Combined Billing Department when they open on Tuesday. In the meantime, he would do something or other to my account, presumably so I won't have my service disconnected.

New Live Person also assured me that I shouldn't worry about my ebill having my old address, from eight years ago, as my billing address. He said their computers have my current address, and it's just a little weird thing I could ignore.

So, if you're like me, and you're being double-billed by AT&T in the wake of their billing separation, call the Combined Billing Department during their regular office hours. I've been told they can help.

Combined Billing Department: 888-757-6500
9 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

Update (9/2/14, 3:15 p.m.): It took fifteen minutes, but I finally got through to someone who could figure out what was going on. It turns out I'm not being double-billed, it's just that they decided to change when I pay the bill. Instead of paying for a month of service after that month is done, I now have to pay for a month of service while it's still happening. In other words, the bill for wireless service from July 2 to August 1 was due on August 10; the bill for wireless service from August 2 to September 1 was due on August 28.

This is a real pain in the rear for anyone on a tight budget. While AT&T is not double billing, they are requiring everyone to pay their bill twice in August, or suffer a late fee. As with most things in U.S. life, the poor get penalized for being poor.

In my case, I can afford to pay the extra bill for August, but because AT&T's computer screwed up and sent the notice about the bill to an address I haven't used in seven years, I got hit with a late fee. When I explained the situation, they agreed to remove the fee, so at least there's that.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Harmon Estate Sale, Part 2

Because my life wasn't busy enough already.... I am currently immersed in preparing for the second round of my father's estate sale. This time, we're tackling the trailers. What trailers, you ask? Funny story: my grandparents loaded up two trailers and a moving van full of antiques and personal possessions back in 1984. They parked the trailers and van behind my dad's shop, planning to retrieve them once they had found a new place to live. For various reasons, the trailers were never retrieved. They sat for 30 years as a small forest grew up around them, and as they sank into the ground up to their axles.

This past winter, we unloaded the trailers and relocated the contents to the Old Pin Shop in Oakville. The contents of the trailers, as well as the contents of my dad's house, comprise the next round of the Harmon Estate Sale, starting Saturday, August 9.

The sale includes something for everyone, at reasonable prices. There is a TON of stuff, taking up 7,000 square feet of storage space. Because there is so much stuff, the sale will be ongoing through the month of August, from August 9 to Labor Day. We'll be open every weekend, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and every Wednesday and Thursday, 12 to 6 p.m.

Directional signs will be posted outside the Pin Shop on the days we are open. I'll add the specific address to this post on Friday, August 8 (no early birds!).

For more on the saga of the trailers, and photos from when we were unloading them, visit my other blog, The Horologist's Daughter.

Here are some sample photos of what we are selling:






















Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Neighborhood Housing Services


Full disclosure: I am Secretary of the Board of Directors for Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury, so you could argue that I'm biased about the organization. However, serving on their board has made me aware of and appreciative of the good work they do. Here's an overview.







Homebuyer Education and Counseling

For most people, it's not easy to transition from being a renter to being a buyer. It took me a couple of tries before I finally landed a mortgage. I understood the basic concept of home ownership, partly because my parents went from renting to owning when I was a kid, and partly because some of my friends had become homeowners, but the hard logistics of what you have to do to qualify for a mortgage and how to make sure you don't lose your home to foreclosure are things I learned as I went through the process. I can't imagine what it must be like for someone whose parents and grandparents and friends are all renters, who have no frame of reference at all for what is involved with a mortgage.

Neighborhood Housing Services, 161 North Main Street, Waterbury.
Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.



Because property values in Waterbury are so low right now, it's a very affordable time to buy a house, perfect for first-time home buyers. Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) offers programs to help renters become buyers. The classes they offer teach would-be buyers about how the mortgage process works, how to qualify for a mortgage, and how to manage your finances after you become a homeowner. The class is offered in English and in Spanish.


NHS marching in The Gathering parade, May 2014.



Landlord Education

I've noticed that a lot of people become landlords because they think that it's an easy way to make money. Buy a house, rent it out, and watch the money flow in! The reality is a lot more complicated. Anyone who is thinking of becoming a landlord, or is a new landlord, or is finding the business to be a lot harder than they expected, should enroll in the landlord class offered by NHS.


One of several different types of classes offered by NHS.
Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.



Foreclosure Assistance

Foreclosure Assistance, fortunately, is less in demand than it was a couple of years ago, but it is still a vital service offered by NHS. If you're having trouble making your mortgage payments, NHS can help.

Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.


Financial Literacy

This is another important life skill that most people learn the hard way--or never learn at all. If your credit rating has been wrecked, or if you're just starting out and want to know how to build a good credit score, NHS can help. If you need help figuring out how to save up for a home or other major expense, NHS can help.

Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.



Affordable Housing

NHS has recently ramped up its activities with developing affordable housing. Their new Executive Director, Kevin Taylor, is an architect who previously worked at Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC) overseeing various construction and rehab projects. Taylor is one of those Waterburians who loves this city and is dedicated to making it a great place to live. He is also a firm believer that everyone, no matter what their income level, deserves good housing.

Last month, NHS completed a new ten-unit affordable housing project (Mascoli Manor) on North Main Street, near Reed School. The apartments are attractive townhouses with ample off-street parking and a small field for gardens or for kids to play.

Mascoli Manor during the final stages of construction.
Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.

NHS is preparing for its next development project, which will be even more impressive and beneficial to Waterbury. I can't tell you anything more right now, but I am very excited about it. Good things are happening!



Community Building and Engagement

This is a new activity for NHS, focused on building healthier and stronger communities by increasing resident engagement, developing resident leaders, strengthening resident-led associations, and sponsoring community activities. As part of this activity, NHS hosted a neighborhood block party after the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Mascoli Manor and is hosting an outdoor movie night at Reed School this Friday.

Booths at the Mascoli Manor block party.
Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Industrial Estate Sale, Day One

9 Town Line Road, Wolcott, CT


 The estate sale has begun! Buyers from Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, and, of course, Connecticut, made the first purchases this morning. Someone in Switzerland sent me an email last night letting me know he wanted to come, but can't make it, and inquired about a few machines.

The sale runs daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Sunday.



Publicity for the sale has been great. The Rep-Am ran a really nice article in Sunday's paper, and Radiolab has just now done a blog post, with photos, on their website.






Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Industrial Estate Sale

My father passed away last year. The sale of the contents of his business, on Town Line Road in Wolcott, is being held next week, June 11 - 15. For full details regarding the sale, visit mechanicalcurios.com.

Here are some sample photographs of the variety of items being sold. See something you like? Come buy it!

Antique surveyor's tool

Raw sapphires


Vintage cameras

Fully equipped darkroom installed during the mid-1980s

Antique and vintage electronics

Waltham Watch Company shares from the 1940s and '50s

Files

Machinery for metal working

Metal working tools

Forge and soldering supplies

Soldering supplies

Chemistry supplies

Antique clock dials

Shellac sticks

Rosin

Glass domes

Antique cameras

Woodworking tools

Woodworking tools (there's some lumber too, including mahogany)

Gauges

Nuts and bolts, including hard-to-find sizes

8-track cassettes and players

Motors

Delta-Milwaukee scroll saw

Oil cans

Ferrogel crucibles

Saws, signs, and clocks

Vintage paints, cement, velocite oil

Antique Raytheon light bulb

Engraving tools

Gauges

Scovill Bank Pins

Vintage copper

Watches and other small items

Optical equipment, machinery, books

Vintage military: Air Corps, U.S. Army

Hewlett-Packard Electron Tubes

GE and Amperex tubes