The six-way intersection of Grace, Bernard, and Elston in the Irving Park community is a tricky junction. Located just west of the Abbey Pub, it’s a relatively wide roadway where the two residential streets meet up with a busy northwest-southeast thoroughfare.
Since there’s no stoplight, crossing Elston can be challenging for anybody on foot. But it’s especially hazardous for students from John B. Murphy Elementary School, a block west, and Chicago International Charter School, about two blocks east.
The city has taken some steps, however, to address this. A few years ago the Department of Transportation installed buffered bike lanes on Elston, which shortened pedestrian crossing distances, and a few months ago workers put a refuge island in the northwest leg of the intersection, where the kids traverse the street.
But the most important safety feature of this intersection is Ana the crossing guard (she asked that we use her first name only)—a petite firebrand of a woman who’s been protecting youngsters here for more than eight years.
Observing her afternoon shift last week, I was impressed by Ana’s grit as she marched into the street with her handheld stop sign, taking no guff from drivers who failed to halt. But I saw several motorists ignore her orders and even shout at her as they sped by, which shows that, despite infrastructure improvements and the best efforts of city workers like Ana, we need to do more to ensure that the rights and safety of pedestrians are respected, especially at tricky junctures like this one.
Ana, who marked her 14th anniversary as a crossing guard this month, spoke glowingly about the job, which pays Chicagoans between $17,000 and $22,600 a year for morning and afternoon shifts. “I love it,” she said. “The same people pass by you every day, and you become acquaintances. The biggest kick is watching the kids grow up. I see them when they’re little, and before I know it they’re graduating. It’s like, where has the time gone?”
Ana was just a kid herself in 1965 when at age seven she immigrated to Chicago with her family from Porto Alegre, a city of 1.5 million in southern Brazil. Her father, a machinist and upholsterer, brought his wife and seven children to the north side in hopes of finding a better life. “That was a great thing he did for us,” Ana said.
After working as a file clerk as a young woman, Ana got married and became a stay-at-home mom. When her son went to high school she started the crossing guard position, and she currently splits her time between protecting students and planting annuals and pulling weeds at her home garden, around the corner from the intersection.
—Ana the crossing guard
While she says her job is rewarding, it has its share of challenges. “There’s no respect for us out here from drivers,” she said. “They don’t understand that we are sacrificing ourselves to go into the middle of the street and stop a moving car. People think I’m doing a lot of yelling, but I’m trying to get their attention, like, ‘Hey, please wake up.’ So many people are on their phone nowadays.”
Fortunately, neither Ana nor any of her charges has been struck while she’s been stationed at Grace, Bernard, and Elston, but the intersection has seen its share of crashes. A few months ago, she says, a northbound motorist coming from Bernard struck another vehicle and wound up crashing into a pole on the west side of the junction. “Both of the cars were totaled, and one of them lost a couple of wheels that bounced and rolled up Grace,” she said. Luckily this happened around 11 AM on a weekday, when no children were present.
As I talked with Ana, there was a slow trickle of pedestrians she helped across the street.
A little before three, parents began crossing west to pick up their kids from Murphy Elementary. Anabel Quito, pushing a tiny BMX bike for her son, who attends pre-K there, walked with her young daughter, who was also on two wheels. Quito’s husband and other parents, along with the school’s principal, successfully lobbied 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to use ward money for the pedestrian island. “It was much harder to cross before they put it in,” she said.
After 3 PM, students began filtering out from Murphy, ranging from toddlers in brightly colored outfits to middle-schoolers wearing a uniform of tan pants and maroon tops. Many of them greeted Ana by name, and she reciprocated.
“Murphy’s a great school, and I really like the kids,” Ana told me. “They are very respectful, which is important. They know that if they get out of line and cross when they’re not supposed to, I’m going to confront them—and I may tell the principal.”
Unfortunately, not all of the drivers passing by on Elston were so cooperative. As Ana strode across the first half of the avenue holding up her sign, motorists in the opposite lane would often fail to hit the brakes. “Can you stop?” she yelled at one motorist. “Guys, you gotta stop,” she hollered at a couple others.
On more than one occasion drivers yelled back at her, claiming that they were in a hurry. “Drivers get angry that I keep them from moving,” she told me. “They hit the horn and tell me to get out of the way but I say, ‘Sorry, if you’re running late, I guess you should have left a little earlier.’ ”
The CPD occasionally conducts crosswalk stings, ticketing drivers who fail to yield. Perhaps stationing an officer at tough intersections like Ana’s to issue citations on a weekly basis would be good way to educate drivers that they have to stop and not risk running over kids and other commuters.
Tom Canty, walking his daughter home as she ate an ice cream and pushed a scooter, praised Ana as a black belt at traffic safety. “She’s great,” he said. “My son is 13, so we’ve been crossing here for ten years. I know someone would be dead if Ana was not here helping people cross the street, because people have no respect for pedestrians, even with kids.”
Soon thereafter, a family approached Ana. The kids offered her a bunch of dandelions they’d picked, which resulted in a group hug. “Now I gotta go put these in my scrapbook,” she said. “Kids give me little gifts, valentines and things. It makes me feel good that people appreciate me.”
Ana and other hardworking crossing guards certainly deserve our gratitude for putting themselves in harm’s way to keep children and other pedestrians safe. It would be great if all Chicagoans, including people speeding by in cars, gave them the respect they merit. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.