By Ben Joravsky

The proposed pedestrian bridge where Monticello Avenue meets the North Branch of the Chicago River seems like one of those charming little projects city officials and environmentalists like to call win-win propositions.

“It’s a good idea,” says Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “It’s an important link in the creation of a Chicago River bike trail. This is just a piece of a bigger vision of a great idea–having a trail system up and down the river.”

There’s only one problem: many of the locals don’t want the bridge built. “It’s an incredibly stupid idea–a big waste of money,” says Marilyn Dollar, who lives near where the bridge will cross the river. “I’ve talked to a lot of neighbors. I can’t find anyone who wants it.”

The Monticello bridge was the brainchild of river lovers, naturalists, Park District officials, bicyclists, city officials (Mayor Daley’s a big booster), the local alderman, and members of the North River Commission, the area’s largest civic group. Back in the early 1990s they all got together to devise ways to make the North Branch, which winds through the north end of Albany Park, more enjoyable and accessible. “This is part of the North Branch river walk plan,” says Luann Hamilton, director of planning for the Department of Transportation. “We want to improve the access along the river. The North Branch has some areas where there are private houses up on the banks, so you can’t have total access. But there are places where they have local parks and the idea is to connect them for a more continuous path.”

The city intends to construct a bike trail that as much as possible hugs the river as it winds through Ronan Park, East River Park, West River Park, the Kiwanis Playground Park, Eugene Field Park, and Gompers Park. The bridge at Monticello would enable cyclists to zip west along the north side of the river and then cross to an existing path that leads to Field Park. Right now there is no real path along the river in the area; cyclists hoping to follow the river are frequently detoured to residential streets throbbing with traffic.

“The river goes through these parks all the way through the La Bagh Woods to the Caldwell Woods and onto a trail that takes you all the way to the Botanic Garden [in Glencoe],” says von Klan. “We already have bits and pieces of a trail. But right now we’re a little behind in the city as far as a continuous route that follows the river.”

Despite the planning and meetings, many residents of the area didn’t learn of the plan until earlier this year. Part of the problem has to do with demographic change. Many of the locals when planning started have since moved. Others weren’t paying attention when the matter was written about in the local papers.

Thus, when Dollar and her neighbors finally got wind of the project they were upset, if only because it seemed as though the city were trying to sneak something by them.

“They say they were planning this for years, but they got started before a lot of people moved here,” says Zoraida June, who lives near the proposed bridge. “We didn’t know about it. They are making something without asking us.”

In January, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council (a newly formed group affiliated with the North River Commission), held a meeting on the matter. Of the 250 or so people in attendance, only two or three expressed support for the bridge. “People were very vocal–they erupted,” says Dollar, who chaired the meeting. “They made it clear they didn’t want the bridge.”

For one thing, it did seem like a big waste of money, particularly when there were so many more pressing park and recreational needs. It seemed like another case of disjointed city planning. While Mayor Daley bemoaned the fate of all those trees infested by the Asian long-horned beetle, the city was gratuitously cutting down trees for pet projects. Just last year, for instance, the city paved over a perfectly good park along the river near Albany Avenue (killing dozens of trees in the process) to make way for an artificial-turf soccer field that’s by and large controlled by North Park University.

“They keep saying they want to save trees, and then they cut down more,” says Dollar. “The thing is, we can use the money for other things. The money could be used to improve Field Park. It’s crazy crowded now. You can never get a swing. You can never play without having to pick up glass. We need more lighting, more programs at the field house. I can’t believe they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bridge.”

The river’s greatest problem along this stretch isn’t a lack of biking paths but drainage, says Dollar. Almost every spring brings more flooding, in part because the city has allowed developers to build new complexes and shopping malls along the river. “They shouldn’t be adding concrete to the banks of the river,” says Dollar. “As it is, every spring they have to bring out sandbags. That bridge will be under water half the year.”

Besides, there’s already a bridge that lets cyclists cross the river; it’s in Field Park, not far from where the Monticello bridge will go. “We don’t need the bridge, no one wants it–it’s a waste of money,” says Dollar. “I called Alderman Margaret Laurino to ask her about it. And she said she was in full support. I said, ‘Even though you know residents don’t want it?’ She said, ‘I’m in full support of Mayor Daley’s initiative to have bike paths in the city of Chicago.’ So I get it–the mayor wants bike paths. So we’ll build this bridge–whether or not it makes sense.”

(I tried to reach Laurino for comment, but she did not respond.)

Though Hamilton, von Klan, and other officials express sympathy for the residents, they say their concerns are overblown and that they have overstated the price tag. Residents have a copy of a city budget that shows $531,843 has been allocated for the project, but Hamilton says it will actually cost about $360,000.

These officials also say it’s odd that members of a group affiliated with the North River Commission would be objecting. “When I first met with this particular group of residents I pointed out that there was some irony in that the plan had been approved by the North River Commission,” says Hamilton. “I also pointed out that was the tenth public meeting I’d been to about this bridge. I mean we were very diligent about this. We went out of our way to work with residents and community groups. We went through all the proper procedures.”

Local opposition is common whenever bike paths are proposed, bridge boosters note. They call it a knee-jerk “not in my backyard” reaction, the sort of impulse that leads people to view any new path, road, or train route as an invitation to criminals and other dangerous intruders.

“We have to deal with some of the same issues on the south side–the people are afraid that the bike path lets outsiders get too close to their backyards,” says Hamilton. “That’s how it’s perceived–as some sort of highway to crime that will bring criminals right past your window. In fact, we discovered that the people who benefit the most from these paths–the people who tend to use them the most–are the people who live nearby.”

But why build a bridge for bikers if there’s already one a couple of blocks to the north and west?

“The idea was to keep people as far away from the car traffic as possible,” Hamilton says. “You have to look at this bridge in that light. We wouldn’t be doing this bridge just for itself. We’re doing it for a whole network of paths along the river.”

In any event, the bridge is pretty much a done deal. Not long ago construction crews came in and cut down about 100 trees on both sides of the river near Monticello. An earthmover’s been brought in, shrubbery’s been cleared, the bridge’s foundation has been cut. The bridge will probably be built in a few weeks. “We should have all the basic work done by around Thanksgiving,” says Hamilton.

Many of the closest neighbors still register disbelief. One night last week, Tony Thuan, who lives about 15 feet from where the bridge will go, stood on the sidewalk outside his home and stared at the excavation site in disbelief.

“Look at this–it’s right outside my window,” he said. “I can’t believe they’re doing this.”

He pointed to the houses on the other side of the river. “It used to be that I couldn’t see those houses because of all the trees,” said Thuan. “Now we can have a conversation with someone standing on the banks. They cut down 100 trees. Why? You tell me. They already have a bridge in Field Park. Why do they need another? Everyone who sees this says it’s crazy.”

As if on cue, a man rode up on a bicycle. “What’s this?” he asked in a heavy Spanish accent.

“They’re building a bridge,” said Thuan.

“A bridge?” said the man. “Why?”

“For you and your bicycle to get across,” said Thuan.

“But why would they build a bridge here? There’s already a bridge over there.”

“You see,” said Thuan. “You see–even people on bicycles think it’s crazy.”

A few kids heading home from Field Park walked by dribbling a basketball. The bicyclist slapped at a mosquito. He and Thuan stared at the earthmover, then the excavation, then the tree stumps.

“Well, you see it all after a while,” said the man on the bicycle. He mounted his bike and prepared to ride off. “You know, they’re gonna do it if they want to. They can do whatever they want as long as they’ve got the money.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.