Life in our own 'Big Dig'

Life in our own 'Big Dig'

Since approximately, oh, mid-May, the main street through our neighborhood has been torn up by a massive storm sewer project.

We live in what is charmingly known as the John Street Watershed (or, as we like to call it during heavy rains, the John Street Whitewatershed). The city has embarked on a $6 million project to replace decades-old storm drains that are apparently the size of a garden hose.

Our particular stretch wasn’t closed off until August, but we had to change our route to work, the store and other destinations to avoid the giant hole down the street. Once the fences went up in our block, life got even more complicated. It took my lab-rat brain several weeks to adapt before I stopped taking the usual route home and then backtracking.

Overall, we’re thrilled to see the work done, as it will help alleviate street (and basement) flooding. But we also won’t be sorry to bid the construction trucks adieu.

We’ve had to dodge barricades, portable toilets, wet concrete and piles of mud and sand on our walk to school.

Our neighbors have had to haul their trash and recycling to the end of the block for pickup and park on side streets, not the most convenient thing for grocery store runs. By comparison we were relatively lucky, as our driveway opens to a side street and wasn’t blocked off.

Except for one morning when my husband had to leave for work and found a cement mixer stationed in front of our driveway. The driver said he’d be taking a break soon but my husband couldn’t wait, so he moved on to Plan B. I looked out the window just in time to see him driving down the sidewalk between our hedge and trees. The construction workers didn’t bat an eye; just another wacky homeowner.

The construction noise reached Kid Cudi concert levels at times, and the vibrating rollers that compact the gravel prior to paving literally shook our house. Often at 7 a.m. On Saturday morning.

Louis Braghini, the city engineering technician in charge of the project, says the timing worked better that way. It’s easier for paving crews to do prep work on weekends, when the sewer crews aren’t around.

And one weekend we had a Sunday morning surprise: several inches of water flooding our basement. Torrents of water from an intense thunderstorm had, ironically, loosened a temporary plug used during the week, and it blocked the new storm drains.

That wasn’t the first time we’d been flooded — the Shop Vac is an old friend — so we didn’t lose anything. The city and construction company were quite responsive, showing up at our door within an hour or two offering to pay for damages.

For the most part, Braghini says, neighbors have been understanding and supportive — and curious. They frequently stop to ask questions and are often “amazed at the stuff we found underground and all the stuff we have to work around.” A maze of pipes, gas lines, phone lines and other utilities run under the intersections.

Early on things moved slowly — some blocks were closed for four months — because the project was just starting up, and it took time to get distance between the sewer crew and paving crew, Braghini says. The Rubik’s Cube of trucks has been a “nightmare” to manage, and the usual construction problems cropped up, including “unknown utilities.” Hmmmm.

Overall, city engineer Roland White says, the project is “on schedule and within budget.”

On the plus side, some residents liked having the street closed off because there was less traffic (anyone for streetball?). To be honest, I enjoyed taking the back roads through our lovely old neighborhood.

All those cranes, backhoes and the biggest drainpipes I’ve ever seen created endless entertainment. Our kids were fascinated (well, mildly interested) to see how it all worked and mark the progress every few days. Once I saw a grandfather and grandson sitting on the lawn across the street, just watching.

And here’s the real plus (because it’s all about me): the work must have stressed out our gingko tree, which dropped far fewer stinky fruit balls this fall. (Apologies to the crews who had to deal with the fallout and sweep them up to pave the corner. I think we have some new advocates in our campaign to rid the world of gingko.)

The construction at our end moved fairly quickly, and once the road was paved, hopes were high that the barricades would come down in time for Halloween. No such luck.

Turns out they were replacing several sections of crumbling sidewalk — also a good thing, but it delayed the reopening a bit longer.

This posed a problem for our trick-or-treaters. The street is darker than usual, with streetlights temporarily out of service, and we envisioned masked children tumbling into the holes in the sidewalk.

Turns out we have resilient trick-or-treaters. We went through six bags of chocolates and had to haul out the backup candy (the Laffy Taffies). No injuries reported.

Liberation came Friday night when the street reopened, at least in one direction. Meanwhile, the project stretches on to Prospect Avenue.

Next spring, the work will continue west on John to Willis Avenue, then south to Daniel Street. The hope is to have it completed by the end of June.

I’m thinking the crews need come back to our block for a little more excavation — right around the gingko tree.


Staff writer Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below or contact her at at 351-5226, or, and visit her blog at

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