Tom's #Mailbag, April 21, 2017

Tom's #Mailbag, April 21, 2017

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It only took me 40-plus years, but now I know why a quiet little neighborhood in northeast Urbana is called Criminal Hill.

Also in this week's mailbag: MCORE, campus bells, News-Gazette deadlines, that grand Challenger League fundraiser, the reason for a big fire department responses, the reason for an unusual highway alignment, Walmart's debut in C-U, an ill-fated Campustown strip club, a suspended toffee business, why local gasoline prices seem so volatile and Robert McCormick's revolutionary spelling idea.

The origin of Criminal Hill

"For as long as I can remember, that area of East University in Urbana, beyond the Armory, was known as 'Criminal Hill.' Why?"

Great question, because this one was fun to research.

I've heard the area — now north of the MTD garage on East University — referred to as Criminal Hill too. It's obviously no less lawful than any other part of Champaign-Urbana nowadays, but at one time it was a problem.

In a 2008 News-Gazette story a resident of the small neighborhood said she believed the name originated during Prohibition when there were distilleries in the neighborhood and a lookout was posted on University Avenue to warn if cops or revenue agents were around.

But the name actually goes back more than 100 years. In a 1915 newspaper story it was reported that Sheriff Harry Evans and two Urbana police officers went to the Criminal Hill section to recover sacks of flour that had been stolen from a nearby grain elevator.

A 1916 Urbana Courier story said that police and two members of the Urbana City Council raided Criminal Hill on a Saturday night and found everything quiet except for a man and a woman who "were found misbehaving and were arrested." That's a euphemism for something, I think.

There was a time in 1915 that the residents of Criminal Hill became upset about the lawlessness of the area and appealed to the sheriff.

Here's how the Courier handled the story ...

"As nearly everyone knows Criminal Hill is that portion of the city lying north of the Big Four (Railroad) shops, so dubbed by the police because a big majority of their calls come from its inhabitants. There are some law-abiding people living in that neighborhood whose property values have depreciated because of the unsavory reputation of the hill since a general influx of the lawless element a year or two back."

An unsigned letter to the sheriff from a resident asked for him to "please take some interest in this part of town."

"There are from 15 to 20 barrels of beer taken out this way every week. When the police are notified they send word they are coming so they can have time to get their goods out of sight," the letter read. "There are seven bootlegging joints on Hudson Street and two on Park Street. Some keep their goods in attics and chicken house and barns. Beer is hauled from 5 o'clock in the evening until midnight and drunks are rather numerous at all times, especially nighttime."

It should be noted that Urbana and Champaign both were "dry" in 1915, having enacted local Prohibition in 1907.

Later that year State's Attorney Louis Busch, at the urging of some neighborhood residents, appealed to the local newspapers to stop referring to the area as Criminal Hill.

"Criminal Hill is no more," reported the Courier in December 1915. "It was wiped out of existence today and will be heard of no more, not by violence but by William Jennings Bryan's doctrine of brotherly love tat served to bring about an agreement between the better class of people living on the hill and the Twin City newspaper men. The writers were readily made to see that allusion to the neighborhood as Criminal Hill was unjust to the many respectable families living there, in that it injured their reputations and caused their property values to depreciate."

The Courier suggested that the area might be called Piety Hill.

Soon the papers were again calling it Criminal Hill.

And in 1921, D.W. Stevick, then the publisher of The News-Gazette, sponsored a contest to rename the area, and offered $10 to the winner.

An anonymous writer to the Courier was displeased. He (or she) said that the term Criminal Hill had begun with a former Urbana police officer "whose conduct while on the force was a disgrace to the city." He said the former cop borrowed the name from a town "where he had lived before coming to Urbana.

"The undeserved name was forgotten until the Champaign paper now comes out with an offer as $10 as a prize to the person submitting the best substitute for 'Criminal Hill,'" the distressed letter writer wrote. "There is no such place as 'Criminal Hill' and there never was excepting in the imagination of an irresponsible police man who could neither read nor write.

"It is all right to start a contest for naming our district, but why dig up a long buried skeleton and disgrace us again by flouting that despised name before the public?"

The writers suggested the neighborhood be called Cavalry.

I don't think it caught on, but Criminal Hill endures.

Baseball fundraiser

"I attended the fundraiser for the Kiwanis Tom Jones Challenger League on January 27. It was great event. I was curious if organizers have released how much money was raised that night."

Event organizer Mike Namoff said the fundraiser at the Wyndham Hotel yielded about $25,000 for the Challenger League, a local baseball league for children with physical or mental challenges.

"The night was tremendous. Our goal was $20,000 and I think the check ended up being $25,000," he said of the night the featured Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg along with members of last year's World Series team, David Ross and Kyle Schwarber.

The three were paid between $30,000 and $20,000 apiece. In his time, Namoff said, the only athletes who donated money back to the local charity being recognized were Pete Rose and Walter Payton.

Last year's event was "the perfect storm. We used the Cubs' success to create awareness. We threw a party where there was a lot of happiness, and there were a lot of people there who didn't even know what the Challenger League was. Everything went beautiful. There wasn't a single glitch.

"But I also realize that we had a moment in time here for Cubs fans. There were 8-year-olds to 90-year-olds here who were in tears. It was an awesome night."

Namoff hopes to get Cubs stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for next winter's fundraiser.

"If we get that done it would be unbelievable. So far Rizzo has said yes and I'm waiting on Bryant," he said.

After that he hopes to bring White Sox stars to Champaign-Urbana.

"I'm a White Sox guy who threw a Cubs party to be honest with you. I'm a South Sider White Sox guy," he said. "Cross your fingers so we get Rizzo and Bryant in town and then my Cubs run is done."

Volatile gasoline prices

"This is probably a question from out of left field, but it has been bothering me since I moved to the C-U area a number of years ago.

"I've lived in nearly every part of the country and I can't recall ever seeing the pattern of price changes for gasoline that we see here. Specifically, in the C-U area the price of gas seems to often make very dramatic overnight jumps to higher prices, and then, over a period of days or a week or two, to gradually decrease to something close to a price from which the initial increase was made. For example, yesterday (April 5), gas prices in the area seemed to be hovering around $2.05/gal. Today (April 6), gas prices are uniformly around $2.49/gal. If this will mirror past patterns, I expect gas prices to gradually decline over the next week or two, until we get back to the lower $2/gal range. I understand that oil prices have risen in the last week or so, but only by about 2 percent or so. What can possibly explain the more than 20 percent overnight increase in gas prices here? And why does the pattern always seem to be a very steep overnight increase, followed by a much more gradual decrease over a period of days/weeks?"

You were correct with your prediction that gas prices would drop in a week or so.

I put your question to Professor Don Fullerton, the Gutgsell Professor of Finance at the University of Illinois and also a member of the UI's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Here's what he had to say:

"Unfortunately, any attempt to understand gas price fluctuations is pretty much a lost cause. Because markets are all connected to each other, even for different commodities in different places, the price of gasoline can be affected by virtually anything going on in the world — not just by worldwide oil prices but also by changes in interest rates and investment, changes in automobile purchases and use, or changes in federal or any state's regulations of pipelines, oil companies, refineries, retailing, or Leaky Underground Storage Tanks (LUST).

"To make matters worse, gas prices are affected not just by any actual change in this list, but even by changes in consumer expectations about possible future changes in this list. If some blog suggests that President Trump is going to allow a certain pipeline, or disallow a certain pipeline, then changes in expectations will affect the current price of gasoline. I once had a parrot who could answer any question in all of economics. The only thing that parrot ever said is 'It's all a matter of supply and demand.'

"It's also extremely hard to make comparisons, because we have no controlled experiment. For example, your reader notices that gas prices are more volatile here in Illinois than he or she noticed when living in other parts of the country. But of course those observations were not only in other parts of the country but also in different years, so we can't really know if we are now observing more volatility in Illinois compared to other parts of the country, or, more volatility this year everywhere compared to earlier years."

Campustown strip club

"Someone once told me that many years ago the old owners of the bar that is know today as Brothers on Green Street wanted to convert the space into a strip club. Supposedly, the local regulations were altered so as to stop such a business from being established so close to campus. Did this actually happen or is it a tall tale?"

Yes, it really happened and it wasn't that long ago, at least in my ancient mind.

In March 2000 the Champaign City Council, by a vote of 9-0, adopted measures to restrict nude dancing.

"It's not a choice I have. It's a responsibility I have to protect the safety of individuals in that environment," Mayor Jerry Schweighart said at the time.

The owner of Mabel's, a second floor Campustown nightclub at 613 E. Green St. that for years featured live music acts, begun hosting strippers that month in what owners said was an attempt to compete for business.

Co-owner Paul Faber told News-Gazette reporter Phil Bloomer that he decided to go with strippers because the band business wasn't attracting people as it used to and he wasn't inclined to run a conventional campus bar operation catering to 19- and 20-year-old drinkers.

But former Champaign Police Chief Donald Carter spoke of the exploitative nature of the activity and the likelihood of strippers at Mabel's leading other bar owners to follow suit.

The city can make a stand for the common good, he said. Not doing so in the name of political correctness can lead to a "race to the basement."

The ordinance approved 17 years ago banned the sale of alcohol on days when adult entertainment is provided, banned complete nudity, prohibited employees or patrons from being nude or semi-nude, prohibited straddle dancing or any touching between entertainers or patrons, required a 5-foot distance between entertainers and patrons, and restricted tipping to a receptacle on stage.

Thanks to News-Gazette librarian Carolyn Vance for her help digging up that history.

Noisy bells

"The chimes on campus. Do they ring thru the night? I could see that becoming bothersome to some."

Yes, both the Altgeld Hall chimes and the bells of the McFarland Carillon on the South Quad ring every 15 minutes, said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

And it sometimes is an annoyance to guests at the Illini Union Hotel, she said.

CORRECTION: Recently retired chimesmaster Sue Wood writes that for many years the chimes in Altgeld Hall have been shut down at 11 p.m. and turned back on at 7 a.m.

"This resulted from a complaint by a Board of Trustees member who stayed in residence at the Illini Union the night before a Board meeting and was awakened by those 'damn bells' at 3 AM," she said.

When the carillion at McFarland Tower came in to being (which Wood said is the correct term for the South Quad carillon) it followed the same schedule.

Incidentally I notice your spelling of through as thru. Just wondering if you are a disciple of Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune in its heyday from the 1920s thru the 1950s. McCormick, in an effort to simplify spelling, ordered his writers and editors to practice "Sane Spelling."

At one time there were as many as 80 words that the Tribune spelled differently than the dictionary: thru, tho, clew, burocracy, crum, jocky and missil, among them.

And I have noticed in old copies of The News-Gazette that some of McCormick's spellings were adopted here as well. But not anymor.

Unusual highway curve

"I've wondered why the curve on Route 49 near Allerton/Broadlands (where the accident this week was at) was designed the way it is. Unlike the normal curve, it is in a fishhook shape. Do you know the history behind it?"

Like a lot of street and highway features around here, it's because of the railroad.

Construction for the original pavement section for the area in question was completed in 1929, said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"Since that point in time IDOT has performed resurfacing, patching and microsurfacing projects on this area of pavement," he said. "The Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railway was active at the time of the original design of the project and Illinois Route 49 follows the section lines exactly in this area which would be the reason for the curves. The radii for the curves are small (500 feet and 1000 feet respectively) and that is the reason for the posted speed limit of 30 mph for them."

Newspaper deadlines

"Re; John Reed's column on shifting printing to Peoria. How much will that affect deadlines? The paper will arrive on our doorsteps at the usual time, Reed assures us, but what will be the impact on the timeliness of the news and the pressures under which reporters and editors operate?"

"Normal deadlines will advance by approximately 15 minutes," said Publisher John Reed, who also is CEO of News-Gazette Media. "Our arrangement allows for some flexibility in this regard to accommodate those occasions where we have a late breaking story."

Overdone fire response?

"Tom, it's 4 a.m. on Sunday and I was just jolted awake by a barking pup and flashing lights and beeps coming into my window from outside. I looked out the window and saw 2 fire trucks at the corner of Bluegrass Lane and Sandstone Drive, with another a block down on Bluegrass and Mattis. I'm thinking that many in the neighborhood were awakened by the lights and racket. It didn't appear anyone got out of any of the trucks. I hate to be a complainer, but since my tax dollars did pay for this little 4 a.m. wake-up, I'm curious what the emergency was that required such a brigade?"

Here's your reply from Randy Smith, deputy fire marshal of the Champaign Fire Department:

"This is a great question. While I won't provide the exact address, I will say that in the early morning hours of April 16th, we responded to an automatic fire alarm in the 3800 block of Sandstone Drive. What does that really mean? The fire department gets notified of an emergency through METCAD, better known as a 911 dispatching center. Most people think about the actual person experiencing an emergency getting on the phone and calling 911 for assistance, but many commercial and residential buildings have a fire alarm system that transmits an alarm to a call center which receives the alarm and calls METCAD. This is what happened on the 16th.

"METCAD 'tones' or dispatches fire department units based upon pre-determined running procedures. An automatic alarm to the Champaign Fire Department receives two engines, one ladder truck, one squad and one command car, all with three firefighters except the command car arriving with the shift commander. So on this morning, a total of six fire department units began to respond to this call. Had an actual fire been discovered, at least an additional two engines would have responded. Why so many? I've spoken to those that have had the unfortunate experience of a fire in their home, some of which described what they saw as looking 'chaotic.' It is actually a regularly trained choreographed scene, with arriving units knowing exactly what to do based upon the order of their arrival on scene. First and foremost, the priority is always life safety, rescuing those that may be trapped. Many things are done in coordination with this, pulling fire attack lines, establishing a water supply to support the attack, forcible entry, ventilation, the list goes on. One crew is even dedicated as the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) in case something happens to one of us in the building.

"So looking back at the 16th. The first-arriving fire department unit arrived on scene and went into the residence to determine what had activated the fire alarm. As each additional unit arrived on scene and staged in their trucks, they were ready to react based upon that initial 'size-up.' Since this was an automatic alarm transmitted by an alarm system, crews needed to fully walk the home confirming nothing was wrong. Fortunately on this morning, nothing was found and all crews were able to clear the scene and return to their station. The Champaign Fire Department takes pride in their response time, four minutes wheel-start to wheel-stop anywhere in the city, but having those additional units on scene are critical, as seconds can make a difference between life and death."

Walmart's local debut

"What year did Sam's Club and Walmart come into Champaign, IL?"

Both debuted in Champaign, at a site north of Interstate 74 and west of Prospect Avenue, in late 1991.

Sam's Club actually opened first by about two weeks in early December. The Walmart opened on Dec. 31, 1991.

Walmart took its time coming to Champaign-Urbana; it opened stores earlier in Rantoul (1988) Mattoon, Charleston, Clinton and Watseka before coming here.

One more thing: There's a clipping in The News-Gazette files from 1991 with the headline, "Wal-Mart emerges as real competition for Sears, Roebuck."

Part of the story said, "Wal-Mart may indeed come closer these days to being what Sears once was: a store with almost everything for everyone at the most attractive prices. That is no doubt the reason that the Arkansas-based discount chain is poised to overtake Sears as America's biggest retailer."

MCORE project

"I have a couple questions regarding the MCORE project at the University of Illinois. Is each part of the project expected to be completed on time? What are the chances the project will go over the proposed $44M? Thank you!"

For background MCORE is the Multimodal Corridor Enhancement Project aimed at improving transportation systems in the core of Champaign-Urbana, around the UI. Construction on the first segment of the project began along Green Street last month.

I asked Karl Gnadt, managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District for his comments since the MTD is the lead agency on the project and was awarded the big federal grant to get it done.

"With a project scheduled five years to complete, it's extremely difficult to accurately forecast all the individual elements of the project. Plus, we just started," said Gnadt. "Having said that, the federal TIGER grant has very strict deadlines associated with it so the early, front-end elements that are being federally funded will be completed on time. The contractor (Duce Construction) is very aware of those funding deadlines and is prepared to work extra hours and days to accommodate the schedule.

"As far as the cost goes, again this is a five-year project and we haven't even bid the last half of the work yet, so I don't think anyone would be willing to put Vegas odds out there for cost overruns."

CORRECTION: The MTD was the original lead agency on the project but when it was determined that the project involved constructing roads, it switched from the FTA (transportation) to FHWA (highway), said Kris Koester of Champaign Public Works.

Since the majority of dollars were for Champaign streets, it was decided that the city of Champaign would be the grantee, he said.

Tasty toffee

"What happened to A Toffee Tale, supplier of delicious toffee that people around here had loved, and paid dearly for? The Toffee Tale Facebook page has no update, and local businesses are sold out."

It is temporarily closed, due to major roof problems and some personal health issues, said Jodi Prosser-Muller of A Toffee Tale.

"We had not posted an update, as we were hoping this would be much shorter in duration," she said. "Our goal is to be up and running by September. We thank everyone for their concern and patience."

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pattsi wrote on April 21, 2017 at 4:04 pm

The response to gas price volitility is most disappointing. There is a direct correlation between what will be occurring in the community on any particular weekend and the gas price jump. For example the price jumped during the day from $1.97 to $2.39. Oh, yes, the marathon, Ebertfest, science games at the Children's Museum along with a science march. The last jump of 42 cents happened over spring break, followed by a tripartite holiday season--Easter, Passover, and Greek Easter. Just do a historic search and put this on a timeline. After these magnificent jumps, the gas prices drop pennies per day, never by the same jump in price. Safest days to buy gas are Monday or Tuesday. And when the price jump happens it is like falling dominoes across town. If one checks Illinois gas prices.com on the same day as here, one will note in other communities at a minimum there is a gas price spread. I only argue correlation, not causation.  :-)

Orbiter wrote on April 24, 2017 at 1:04 pm

I agree, our community has the craziest, most price-gouging, fuel sales I've ever experienced, from California to New York.  There can be zero doubt that prices jump 35 cents before any major event at the U of I or in town. And that they all rise in unison is clear evidence of collusion.  This not supply and demand, the parrot would be wrong.