Fiftieth Ward alderman Debra Silverstein and CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, third and fourth from left, break ground on the new bike bridge. Credit: CITY OF CHICAGO

When 50th Ward alderman Debra Silverstein and other city officials broke ground on a new bike and pedestrian bridge in the ward on February 15, they were metaphorically shoveling dirt onto a particularly perplexing aspect of former alderman Berny Stone’s legacy: his inexplicable effort to kill the project some 14 years ago.

Officially called the Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bicycle Bridge, the $3.4 million, 16-foot-wide, 180-foot-long span will provide the final missing link in the North Shore Channel Trail, which runs nearly seven miles from Albany Park to Evanston. Most of the path’s Chicago portion hugs the east bank of the channel, but north of Lincoln Avenue the trail shifts to the west bank. As it stands, people strolling, running, and biking are forced to make the crossing via Lincoln or Devon, busy four-lane highways.

By 2005, the Chicago Department of Transportation had designed a bridge near this location and secured funding for it. Stone—who ruled the far-north West Ridge neighborhood from 1973 until being beaten by Silverstein in a runoff in 2011—originally endorsed the project. But he pulled his support after funding was secured, forcing the department to put the initiative on ice. (I was working as CDOT’s bike parking program manager at the time but wasn’t involved in bikeways planning.)

At a 2005 meeting with bike advocates, Stone claimed he was concerned that cyclists coming off the bridge might be struck by drivers in the Lincoln Village Shopping Center’s parking lot, according to attendee Bob Kastigar. But Kastigar said that explanation didn’t hold water because the bike path was a significant distance from the lot.

During the 2007 municipal election, 50th Ward challenger Naisy Dolar used the bridge as a campaign issue. At the time, Stone told Time Out Chicago that he had vetoed the bridge because the eight-story Lincoln Village Senior Apartments building was being constructed just west of the trail near the proposed span site. “There’s just no place to put a bridge,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

However, in 2017, CDOT deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton, who worked on the bridge back in the day, said Stone told the department his opposition was based on feedback from neighbors east of Kedzie, which parallels the east bank. He reportedly told her that residents were worried about people parking on their streets and using the bridge to access the Lincoln Village Shopping Center, west of the channel. But Hamilton says the alderman provided no documentation to support this claim.

Also in 2017, former Active Transportation Alliance executive director Rob Sadowsky, now living in Portland, Oregon, told me that there was a racial element to the bridge opposition. Sadowsky said that at a community meeting he attended in 2001, Stone referred to African-American and Latino youths as “little blacks and browns.” The alderman implied, according to Sadowsky, that the ward should avoid measures that would bring more young people of color to the neighborhood.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Stone, who died in 2014 at age 87, was implicated in racially motivated machinations. As longtime Chicagoans may remember, he was a member of City Council’s Vrdolyak 29, a nearly all-white aldermanic bloc that tried to thwart Mayor Harold Washington’s every move during the racially charged Council Wars of the 1980s.

During his tenure, Stone reportedly relished the many shouting matches he got into at City Hall, and he once erected a nearly three-foot guardrail, nicknamed “Berny’s Wall,” in the center of Howard Street between Kedzie and California to block drivers from crossing between the suburbs and the city.

When I brought up Sadowsky’s claim, Stone’s children vehemently denied it. “That infuriates me,” responded his daughter Ilana Stone Feketitsch. “Never did he ever dismiss anyone of any race, color, and creed. He was a great man who lived his life for his community, including people of every race and religion.”

By the time Stone was voted out in 2011 and Silverstein gave CDOT the OK to build the bridge, the funding had been used for other projects and a canoe launch had been built at the planned bridge site, forcing the department to go back to the drawing board.

Rendering of the Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bicycle BridgeCredit: CHICAGO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Six years later, in 2017, the city announced it was moving forward with construction of the weathered-steel structure just north of the canoe launch. Work was slated to begin in early 2018 and wrap up in early 2019, but the groundbreaking was delayed yet another year because of red tape, according to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey. “It was due to time needed to line up all of the required permits,” he said. “Working on the waterway is . . . complicated in terms of permits.” The bridge is currently expected to be in place this fall.

CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld joined Silverstein at the bridge groundbreaking to shovel the black soil under sapphire skies.

“Residents . . . will finally have a beautiful and fully connected bike path,” the alderman said in a statement.

Kastigar told me last week that whatever the real reason for Stone’s decision to kibosh the span, it’s all water under the bridge at this point. “I don’t think anyone knows what his motivations were, so it’s one of life’s great mysteries,” he said. “It took a long time, but the important thing is that we’re finally getting our bridge.”  v