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.

The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

Taco Bell tolls for Jenkintown’s fiscal mismanagement

Is Council about to sell us out to cover for an impending financial crisis?

We seem to have a Borough Council that relishes controversy — or is perhaps clueless about how they cause it. The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

My experience has taken me down dozens and dozens of main streets across this country. I’ve sat down and spoken with many from those communities and discussed the challenges that they’ve faced. Towns go into decline and stay there because of gutless or ignorant leadership eager to make any deal, no matter how Faustian.

When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, the city had just completed a magnificent $60 million restoration of its Union Station. Eager to spark more development around it, the city almost offered up a lot across the square to Days Inn for one dollar! This signaled to the business community and to the community at large how little City Hall actually valued the city it governed.

Jenkintown today finds itself at a similar crossroads. Old York Road, which traditionally served as our borough’s commercial heart and soul, has become blighted thanks both to PennDOT’s intransigence and the Borough’s inability to challenge it.

We’ve run out of band-aids.

I’ve lived here now for 15 years, and I’ve long heard all the heartfelt and colorful stories about how vibrant Jenkintown used to be. Like many traditional towns that could not adapt to the automobile age, it lost its way. It has since applied many band-aid fixes with mixed results at best.

People like to point to our Town Square and all the new restaurants, but the restaurants are here because of our demographics and improving economy, not because of any Borough policy. The Town Square, though not without its charms, is really a poor excuse for a public space. Frankly, it’s a back-alley consolation prize given to Jenkintown by the county and really provides little to no tangible benefit to the community or the businesses around it, as evidenced by how our school taxes keep going up to compensate for the declining assessments.

Doylestown, Hatboro, Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Media, and West Chester have no such town square, and yet you would never mistake their economy with Jenkintown’s. What they do have are pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares — streets that they can actually close off when necessary and have a parade. Thanks to Jenkintown’s failure to convey to PennDOT or our governor that Route 611 is killing this town, we must funnel our festivals and parades onto side streets. In 1974, Jenkintown staged its centennial parade on Old York Road.

No standards. Lax enforcement. And soon, no plan.

So, yes, let’s bring a Taco Bell here and grant them a variance for their drive-through window. Then we can finally state the obvious and just declare that we’ve given up. We have no standards, and we need the cash. Sorry for the time you wasted helping us develop the Jenkintown 2035 plan.

The Borough needs the money to pay for a parking lot that doesn’t pay for itself, for leaves they have to pick up from private property, for a theater and library and other community programs that are not fully supported by the residents who use them, for the maintenance of six police vehicles, and for a pocket park that looks more and more like a holding yard for borough trucks and less like a bird sanctuary with every month.

Why should the Borough care about its own building codes and zoning? It has for years ignored ADA laws by willfully allowing cars to park on Walnut Street sidewalks, by failing to cite crumbling properties for health code violations, by ignoring pedestrian safety on disintegrating slate and brick sidewalks, and by gathering revenue from illegal stop signs placed throughout the borough.

When you remember that Council granted George Locke a 23% pay raise without a performance review, it recalls George W. Bush commending his FEMA director after Katrina destroyed New Orleans.

For the record, I have no issue with any business setting up shop providing that they adhere to our established rules. However, this Taco Bell idea smacks of desperation, especially when Michael Golden puts lipstick on this pig by saying “At least we’ll get a traffic light out of it.”

And that there strikes to the heart of exactly the problem with this proposal. Old York Road makes it impossible to develop foot-traffic and the types of businesses that would cater to it. Instead, we get more sprawl, with Taco Bell planting that flag. Before long, we will become another traffic-choked Willow Grove instead of another New Hope, or any town with a business district we can point to with pride.

We can and should do better, but we won’t if we continue to be led by the same tone-deaf Council and the machine that puts it there.

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.

13th heaviest property tax burden and no trash pickup (or sidewalks)

This is the average amount of residential property tax actually paid, expressed as a percentage of home value. Some states with high property taxes, like New Hampshire and Texas, rely heavily on property taxes in lieu of other major tax categories; others, like New Jersey and Illinois, impose high property taxes alongside high rates in the other major tax categories.

Source: How High Are Property Taxes in Your State? | Tax Foundation