PHotos shows damage to a sidewalk apron in Jenkintown.

Walking the walk: government reporter explores the reasons for Fort Worth’s crumbling sidewalks

This article is republished by permission. 

During the holiday season, Fort Worth Report journalists are remembering their favorite stories of 2022. Click here to read more essays.

Fort Worth residents have been responsible for shouldering the full cost of sidewalk repairs in front of their homes and businesses, or face misdemeanor citations, for more than 60 years. Now, the city is considering a 50-50 cost share program with a particular emphasis on low-income homes, seniors and disabled residents.

I first learned about the plight of Cowtown’s cracked sidewalks when I moved into a home in 76104 and started taking daily walks. In some parts of my neighborhood, the path was smooth and fresh; in others, the concrete had cracked and disintegrated so much I hardly recognized it as a sidewalk.

Sidewalks in front of rentals, in particular, were often littered with large fractures and divots, the rentals’ owners far away from the realities of the area. A renter myself, I couldn’t help but notice the sidewalk beside my home didn’t look as polished as my home-owning neighbors.

So I hit the stacks like any good government reporter would. What I found surprised me: Fort Worth has required private homeowners to maintain sidewalks since the 1960s, but stopped enforcing the penalties included in that ordinance several decades ago. What’s resulted is a patchwork of sidewalks in various states of disrepair across the city, with little recourse for owners with lower incomes or disabilities.

I spoke to a disabled activist about the problem in June, who told me it shocked her how much worse Fort Worth’s sidewalks were compared to where she went to college in Austin. Our conversation prompted me to research what other Texas cities do and present their policies in a June article on the subject.

It came as a pleasant surprise when, four months after publication, city staff presented a proposal to city council to establish a cost-sharing program similar to Dallas. Under the proposal, the city would use a portion of the fiscal year 2023 PayGo funding, totaling $2.6 million, to develop the program.

The best part of being a local journalist is seeing the impact your reporting has in your own community. I can imagine a future where, 10 years from now, my walks through my neighborhood will be on new, secure concrete, without a crack in sight. Until then, I’ll keep walking on these uneven paths and reporting on the issues that matter most to the city I love.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Examples of poor sidewalk construction on Greenwood Ave, Jenkintown

Poor construction on Jenkintown’s Greenwood Ave

We missed a few examples on Greenwood that show Jenkintown needs a more pedestrian-first policy.

greenwoodsidewalks-006
And the point of this is? Yes, as we have already established, the Borough gives slate curbs a pass, but apparently the original developers of this street lined the entire road with slate. We still have a few quaint remnants of that construction, but a wholesale approach would have removed this once and for all, allowing for unified curbs designed to last at least a generation or more. This just looks sloppy.
greenwoodsidewalks-008
Just six feet away, weeds have taken up residence in the cracks in that slate. More Jenkintown sloppiness. We deserve better.
greenwoodsidewalks-010
It didn’t take long for that new sidewalk block to crack, and the patch has already crumbled away. Water will seep in, turn to ice, and destroy that block in short order. If the Borough itself contracted to do the entire street at the same time it paved it, everything you see here would look nice and clean, and last much, much longer.
greenwoodsidewalks-011
Another shoddy, apathetic example of Jenkintown borough’s inspection process. Who cares if the sidewalks look like a stretch in North Philadelphia? The street is nice and smooth. Don’t blame the abutting property owner: They only need do what the Borough requires.

 

Walking Away

We have made our case. Either the citizens of Jenkintown will accept and embrace the concept of public responsibility for public assets, or it will continue to allow the status quo to molder on and degrade our walkable environment.

The facts are these:

  1. The public financing of roads but not of sidewalks amounts to a subsidy for automobile usage. In an age of climate change and an obesity epidemic, it shows a misguided priority for machines over man.
  2. The borough claims facetiously that it cannot afford to take on this responsibility. Actually, it has the money, but it chooses to spend it elsewhere, and often on things where it should not. (For instance, we have more police cars per capita than New York City.)
  3. The borough does not choose to lead the way. It can if it wants, but an element on the Council sees no reason to change its ways or to even discuss it. Such attitudes speaks not only of ignorance, but it leads to dangerous long-term consequences for the viability of the community.
  4. The current sidewalk policy has resulted in an unsightly hodge-podge of substandard construction that will degrade far faster and cost more than a unified, single-payer approach. The process has proven arbitrary and subject to political manipulation. In other words, it helps to know someone.
  5. The current process currently does not accommodate hardship. You either pay up or you will go to court, face a fine, and ultimately find a lien slapped on your house. The borough shows no interest whatsoever in working with families that for reasons beyond their control cannot afford to maintain what is public space.

This situation will not change without public pressure. I have done my best to enlist the help of my neighbors, some of whom have urged me to draft a petition to get this changed. In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with about this issue tend to agree with me, but what they will do to further this remains an open question.  I would happily help in this effort, but I cannot and should not do it by myself.

I stand ready to press on, but I will need your help. If you would like to meet to discuss what more we can do, let me know. Velvet Sky makes for a perfect meeting spot, and its one of those places that I’ll miss when my family and I can finally move away — which we will if this borough — and commonwealth — continues its oppressive policies against working class homeowners.

Bunker’s Mentality on Better Sidewalks

I attended the Council’s Administration and Finance Committee hearing meeting last Monday to discuss the budget, PennDOT’s Multi-Modal Fund, and to present this blog’s $25 Sidewalk proposal.

First, the committee’s explanation as to why the projected 2014 $2.2 million budget carryover didn’t necessarily constitute a “surplus” did not clarify things much. As it was explained  to me, Council budgets money so that they need to buy stuff for the next year.

“So the money is earmarked?”

Well, no, but we may need to buy a fire engine.

“So, the money is discretionary?”

Not exactly.

I will leave this issue for a discussion with an accountant with no ties to the Borough and plenty of patience. And I will take the Council up on their invitation to attend the budget planning meetings.

Second, I asked whether or not the Borough applied for — or at least considered applying for — the state’s Multi-Modal fund as  a possible source of money to pay for repairs to our sidewalks. The committee and Borough Manager George Locke expressed awareness of the fund, but didn’t seem to think that it applied to Jenkintown’s needs.

Mostly, my sense was that no one even considered the fund for this project. George Locke asserted that with regards to sidewalks, the state intends  the fund to go to commercial districts that feed to transit. Given that the Jenkintown train station sits in a mostly residential section of town, one might reasonably assume that PennDOT would make an exception if indeed one needed to be made. Besides, I have a list of applicants from the PennDOT website that would belie this assertion.

rick bunker
Councilor Rick Bunker says, “No better sidewalks for you!”

Finally, after presenting my $25 Sidewalk plan to the committee, Councilor Rick Bunker showed that he continues to labor under the false assumption that the Borough does not own the sidewalks. I pointed out to him that in fact, according to my property markers and the county’s website, the sidewalks are indeed part of the public right-of-way.

Then, he flat out told me, with hand pounding on the desk, that he didn’t see any reason why Jenkintown should break with the rest of the state and take on the maintenance of sidewalks, despite the fact that it’ll be cheaper and produce better sidewalks. In his own words, “This is the we’ve always done it, and it’s the way the rest of the state does it. I see no reason to support this change. No one is complaining about the way we’re doing this.”

In the words of Admiral Grace Hopper, “The most dangerous words in the language are ‘It’s always been done that way.'”

Much to her credit, Councilor Laurie Durkin interrupted Bunker’s tirade, saying, “I do think this is worth considering. I think we should look into it further.”

After all, this is all I’m asking.