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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005 01:54 am

Tear down this barricade

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To Ted Smith, East Jackson Street is more than a street -- it's the backbone of the neighborhood he's lived in for 57 years. Abraham Lincoln lived on Jackson, 20 blocks west of here, so it's the backbone of America, too. And the barricade that blocks cars from using the street east of Livingston is a limit to the freedom Smith fought for in World War II. It's his Berlin Wall. "I believe in free roads and a free
country," he says.

This sounds far-fetched until you see the junk piled on the right-of-way where traffic should be. Drive by and take a look -- it's about a block north on Livingston Street from Channel 20's offices on Cook Street. The blocked street gets used as a parking lot for the King of Kings Apostolic Temple, which occupies the former juvenile-detention center. On the east side of the barricade, abandoned race cars are piled one on top of the other, right next to what ought to be a road but isn't. Often opening up closed streets is a way to get rid of eyesores by introducing life and movement to stagnant urban sloughs. Opening Washington Street downtown removed a hangout for transients and prostitutes on what was until then the North Old State Capitol Plaza. Opening Jackson Street might not work miracles, but it could bring hope and needed attention to a dying neighborhood -- or the barricade could just remain standing as a monument to government apathy and lethargy.

Little has changed since 1993, when Illinois Times first covered Ted Smith's obsession with removing the barricade to open East Jackson. "Turning the gravel path into a paved street is no easy task," wrote reporter Wendy Stasell. "The project is complex because of the location of the road: The land east of the barricade belongs to Springfield Township, while the land to the west is under the City of Springfield's jurisdiction." At that time, the city and the township each said the other should take the lead in opening the street, but by now it's clear that Springfield Township is the roadblock.

Rich Berning, the former Springfield city engineer who retired in April, says the street ought to be opened: "It's the right thing to do. From an urban-planning viewpoint, through streets make for better neighborhoods," he says. "I have a belief that streets ought to be opened. If everybody didn't want traffic on their road, nobody could go anywhere."

Ted Smith hasn't been getting anywhere. Once he gathered 238 signatures of people asking to have the street opened, but then he was told that the petitions weren't valid because the signers lived in Springfield, not Springfield Township. During Mayor Karen Hasara's administration, her chief of staff, Brian McFadden, called Smith to say that the city would pave its part of the road if he could get the township to remove the barricade. But he couldn't. For three or four years Smith attended every meeting of the Springfield Township board, but he stopped going a couple of years ago, he says: "I'd make my case and they just sat there, and when the meeting was over, they were gone." A year ago, Smith came to a Unity for the Community meeting and handed out copies of the 11-year-old Illinois Times article, but he couldn't arouse much interest. Some of his neighbors who used to help him on the issue have died, and the houses around his have changed from owner-occupied to rental. "I'm 79 years old. I had a heart attack last year," Smith says. "I don't know how much longer I can be doing this."

He's slowing down. But just tell Smith you'll call a few people to ask why the road isn't open, and his old fire comes back: "That road belongs to everybody, not just a few. I want it opened." A public official with some imagination and creativity could use the opening of Jackson Street as a catalyst to clean up a forgotten corner of Springfield, perhaps to organize a neighborhood association. The barricade is on an abandoned railroad bed, which could become a linear park or a walking trail. A lot of good could come of it. And it would make one old man very happy.

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