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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Will the snowy side streets ever be plowed?

By Dick Hirsch

One of my first regular newspaper assignments was covering City Hall when Grover Cleveland first took office as mayor. He already had a considerable reputation as a lawyer, and was a regular patron at some of the city’s most popular saloons, where he often dined. He was known for enjoying conversation along with a schuper or two of lager with whoever was at the bar, no matter whether it was a bank president or a stevedore.

He had been sheriff years earlier, then concentrated on his law practice until he was urged to run for mayor as a reform candidate. The inauguration was January 1, 1882 and soon thereafter Cleveland was confronted with a major municipal crisis.

There had been a record snowfall and many citizens were agitated, still complaining a week later about the condition of the streets. Many were virtually impassable because of the drifted snow. While the main streets were cleared, many side streets remained clogged with snow.

Duffy, the news editor, shouted across the room to get my attention. I hurried over to his desk. He rarely summoned me in that way, so I knew it must be important.

“Kid,” he said, “the streets are in terrible condition. The horses can’t move very well in the deep snow and they can’t pull the wagons down the streets to make deliveries. I’ve had people calling me to complain. It’s a bad situation.”

Duffy always became excited when his telephone rang. The phone had only been invented six years earlier in 1876. Not many people had a phone so it was a novelty when the phone rang because few people could either make or receive a call. Duffy had one of the few phones at the paper; most of the others were in the advertising department. Should he actually receive a call, he knew it originated with an important person because there were so few phones in operation.

“Kid,” he repeated, “Schultz is snowed in on Altruria Street,” referring to the regular City Hall correspondent. “I want you to go ask Cleveland what the hell he is going to do about cleaning up the snow. Get right over there, kid.”

He always called me kid because he couldn’t remember my name. He had a poor memory for names. He gave me a stub of a pencil and a handful of foolscap and urged me to get the story, stressing its interest and invoking the importance of the people’s right to know.

I quickly turned to leave and just as I was walking toward the stairs leading to the street there was a shocking but timely development: I woke up.

Yes, I had been dreaming. Cleveland was long gone and already well-established in the history books, but, while personalities may come and go, some situations are eternal. Certain problems are apparently so confounding they defy solutions, thwarting the finest minds that can occupy the mayor’s office. Snow blocked streets is one of those problems. Yes, years ago the problem was less vexing because there were fewer cars and fewer streets.

Since the days of Cleveland---and possibly even during the administration of Ebenezer Johnson, the very first mayor----citizens have been rightfully complaining about unplowed streets. It is no different with the incumbent, Mayor Byron Brown. Like Brown, every mayor is frustrated and attempts to investigate and attack the matter as if it were a recent development. The standard approach is to convene a meeting in an attempt to develop a new initiative and solve the problem. Appointees are interrogated and warned of the consequences of the city’s inability to satisfy the public. They seem unprepared each time the city gets a foot or so, even though it is common knowledge that it does snow in Buffalo. The outcome of such planning is a new strategy, most often described as a “blitz.”

It is far from new. The narrative is always the same. You have heard the explanation, the story of how the main streets and bus routes have been cleared, with all the city’s snow fighting equipment thrown into the fray; but the side streets remain a problem because of...SURPRISE...BULLETIN...the parked cars, which make it impossible for the plows to clear the snow. In neighborhoods with no garages or driveways cars are parked at curbside.

Mayoral candidates are well aware of the side street curse before they’re elected. Why do they act so surprised each winter after the first big storm?



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