They sat around a dinner table on a recent September evening, voices animated and faces beaming with pride. These members of the Union Boulevard Citizens Committee had quelled the wave of concrete that threatened to engulf their lawns and endanger their children.
They'd also done what some neighbors thought impossible. They'd stood up to City Council and the city's Department of Public Works and won.
And along the way they also probably made friends that would last a lifetime. Together they told how it happened.
It all came together when the Public Works Department hosted a meeting in July to announce long-awaited plans for the refurbishment of Union Boulevard. For years the street had fallen into disrepair, while traffic mounted. Curbs and gutters on the east side resembled weed-infested ruins and at least 12 cars had plowed off the street into yards or even living rooms. Steel, wood and cinder block walls now lined the street to protect homes.
But the announced plan to improve things felt more like a slap in the face. Instead of primarily a roadside improvement project, the city's plans grew to include an 8-foot road expansion on five blocks of the east side between Dale Street and Hillcrest Avenue. This would, city engineer Gerald Banks said, improve safety and traffic flow. At one point during the process, Banks, the neighbors say, told a crowd of concerned neighbors that he'd secured more than $750,000 in federal grant money and the offer stood non-negotiable. If they didn't accept the plan, the neighborhood would have to pay for road improvements itself.
"We called it financial blackmail," said Jim Ciletti, who that night began organizing the committee. Several nights later, on July 13, the organized neighbors stood before City Council with a list of grievances. Council agreed to a public hearing, which occurred this month.
Ciletti began working 12 hours a day to organize the campaign to defeat the plan. He and fellow committee members gathered more than a 100 signatures, scoured over piles of city documents and began crafting their case.
When he, along with other neighborhood activists, finally appeared before Council on Sept. 14, Ciletti took apart, piece by piece, the city's rationale for the expansion of Union Boulevard through their residential neighborhood.
Banks maintained that the widening would improve safety; however Ciletti used the city's own records to show other, wider, city intersections experienced more accidents. If anything, Ciletti said, the plan would make their street even more dangerous.
"We never looked at it that we were fighting City Hall," Ciletti said. "We wanted to get them to listen."
And listen they did. In the end, Council rejected the city's expansion plan and instructed Banks to work with the neighborhood group to rework a solution. "We have power now," Ciletti said.
Longtime neighborhood office resident and committee vice-president John Barry agreed. "Union Boulevard has been neglected for years and we all want to see improvement," he said. "We just don't want it shoved down our throats."
-- Dan Wilcock