Fallen tree shines spotlight on ‘phantom’ stretch of Thatcher road
by JASON MEREL
For nearly two weeks a large downed tree has been blocking an access road in the 4300 block of Thatcher Avenue next to Westlawn Cemetery, 7801 W. Montrose Ave., and it seems no agency wants to remedy the situation because it is unclear to whom the “phantom” road belongs.
Thatcher runs along the eastern edge of the Schiller Playfield forest preserve, between West Montrose and Berteau Avenues and it has been impassable since July 24 when it fell due to a heavy storm.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said the road has been an issue for years for a variety of reasons but his hands are tied because it’s not a Chicago right-of-way and therefore it is ineligible for maintenance.
The one-way road connects Chicago to the Village of Norridge, however the road itself lies within a small section of unincorporated Cook County, according to a plat of survey supplied by the Chicago Department of Transportation in a July 19 memo to Sposato, which specified that the road is not a city right-of-way.
The plat notes that the city limit is the west edge of Thatcher and continues west to Cumberland Avenue.
“It’s always been a road that nobody really claims,” Sposato said. “We occasionally service it because people use it as a dumping ground.”
He said he once asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation to remove tires dumped along the road since many Chicago residents in the adjacent neighborhood use the one-way street as a thoroughfare.
A recent visit to the blocked road revealed a discarded television set, mini-fridge and the smashed glass tubing of a former neon sign, all within 50 feet of the downed tree.
Sposato said he met with residents on July 7 to discuss what could be done about the tree because it looked like it would fall. He said that the conversation then turned to repaving the aging roadway.
“When I fix streets, I like to fix streets people actually live on,” Sposato said. “The maintenance budget is limited. We can’t always do a full block on streets people live on. The bottom line is it’s not a part of Chicago and no one lives on it. It’s a road to nowhere.”
However, some residents don’t think so.
“We live here, we use that road every day,” 38th Ward resident Mary Hobaugh said. “That’s an access for us and our tax dollars should go to fix that.”
Hobaugh said she attended the July 7 meeting and was disappointed nothing was done to prevent the tree from falling after contacting both Sposato’s ward office and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
“We knew about this tree,” Sposato said. “I had my tree guy come out and he said, ‘Alderman, we can’t take it down, it’s not ours.'”
“Although the now-fallen tree had been growing near our property, it was not in the forest preserve,” Forest Preserve District of Cook County director of communications Carl Vogel said. “We have a policy against expending our limited resources for removal of downed trees that are not our responsibility.”
Vogel said geographic information systems showed the tree was standing in the right-of-way of Thatcher Avenue but he was unsure who was responsible for it.
He said FPDCC reported the tree to the Chicago Bureau of Forestry on July 21, three days before it fell.
Confusion for some of residents appears to be whether the edge of the right-of-way west of Thatcher Avenue is still within the designated city limits, since that is where the tree stood.
“Apparently this road is just a phantom. Nobody claims responsibility for it because of the insurance liability,” Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-9) said.
All this confusion about the road may stem, in part, from the history of what is now known as Schiller Playfield that was a temporary residential housing complex called Thatcher Homes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, according to historical documents and reports by WTTW.
Congress authorized the Federal Housing Administration to build temporary residential homes for veterans and their families following World War II.
Local authorities such as the Chicago Housing Authority contracted to lease the land from the Forest Preserve District and approximately 184 Quonset huts were initially constructed, according to reports.
Though the temporary neighborhood was demolished between late 1954 and early 1955, Schiller Playfield forest preserve is still dotted with Chicago fire hydrants that are connected to the city’s water supply.
Thatcher Avenue served as an access road, though the city limits end at the west edge of the roadway, documents show. When the land lease expired, FPDCC resumed maintenance of the forest preserve to the edge of the right-of-way, which is a designated setback from the actual roadway.
Police and fire service overlay maps do not show that Thatcher is a serviced road, but the departments will go out there if needed.
The Chicago Police Department, for example, investigated a man found stabbed to death in the 4300 block of Thatcher on March 29, 2010, published reports show.
“The bottom line is that this issue needs to be resolved. If we don’t resolve it now, it will never be resolved,” Silvestri said.
He said he has contacted the county’s superintendent of highways and will discuss solutions with Sposato, Norridge village president Daniel Tannhauser, the forest preserve district and cemetery staff.