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A hike that upped a political cynic’s hope

Jeff Ward

Jeff Ward

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Updated: September 14, 2012 6:08AM

I have to say that’s the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in quite some time.

As previously threatened, this columnist joined the fine folks on the Aug. 1 “Walk With the Mayor” fourth installment which wound its way through the fascinating southwest area neighborhood (SWAN) of Elgin.

As you recall, the city of Elgin, in partnership with Activate Elgin, brought you this innovative six-part series because, as Mayor Kaptain said, “I want to encourage all Elgin residents to exercise regularly, so that they can enjoy the benefits of better health.”

We’ve all heard those ugly rumors about Elgin being the fattest city in Illinois.

So it was gratifying to see those 30-plus eager Elginites ready to roll in that Zion Lutheran Church parking lot. The mayor opened the festivities by briefly discussing the specific issues facing the SWAN neighborhood, not the least of which is the need to replace a 100-year-old connected sewer system.

Apparently, one of the few benefits of our current drought is that section of Elgin has been spared from further flooding. With SWAN president Crysta Anderson leading the way, we headed west double file down the Washburn street sidewalk at a reasonable pace.

As luck would have it, Elgin Kane County Board member Jeanette Mihalec joined the group, which gave me an opportunity to get to know her a little better. Despite attending numerous county board meetings, you really don’t often get to talk with those elected folks when the heat is off.

My favorite SWAN thing were those corner parkway “storm gardens” which they’re heavily promoting as a means of stemming the rainwater runoff tide. I’ve always thought that lawns, which demand an undue amount of effort and resources, are an anachronism that should go the way of the gas guzzler.

Gardens are much more fun, they look better, they’re far more drought resistant, and they don’t require mowing.

As we continued along our widening loop, Crysta and some of her SWAN compatriots pointed out a couple of problem properties that the association and the city of Elgin have been attempting to address. The mayor took notes on every one, but thankfully, they were the exceptions and not the rule.

The vast majority of those homeowners obviously take great pride in their neighborhood and this columnist became rather enamored of it. Though it bore some resemblance to my old south Evanston stomping grounds, as I remarked to the mayor, that area is uniquely Elgin.

We even strolled down a couple of alleys which is a real treat for the average subdivision suburbanite and arrived back at the church an hour later feeling like we’d accomplished something on a number of levels.

After we said our goodbyes, the mayor and few of the walkers headed down to the Metra station to discuss issues with that facility.

Then it hit me. Having covering the political process for seven years, you begin thinking you’ve seen it all. And as the jaded mindset sets in, you start to take that degeneration of the public debate for granted.

Not only was this Elgin endeavor the answer to that shrieking scale syndrome, but it was the antidote to what ails us politically. There was no council dais, no Roberts Rules, no preconceived notions and, to my utter amazement, no rancor.

Though the group included the likes of the mayor, Ms. Mihalec, myself and eminently personable EPD Officer Marcy Kogut, any kind of social ranking quickly faded away. In fact, it was fascinating to watch the group consistently shift so that everyone ended up having a conversation with everyone else.

As the mayor put it, “It was just neighbors talking to each other.”

“The farther you get from your home base, the more you lose touch,” the mayor said. “You’ve got to get out and talk to people.”

Some politicians might think that town hall meetings accomplish the same thing, but they don’t. Unless you’re a particularly adept public speaker, when you stand in front a group you’re still creating separation.

But when you’re sharing a common effort, it becomes a completely different dynamic. I’m actually thinking it wouldn’t be a bad thing to apply this moving logic to city council meetings.

The good news is, you still have two opportunities to Walk With the Mayor. The Aug. 15 iteration leaves from the Providence Subdivision and on Sept. 5 it’s Unity Park. Weather permitting, they start at 6:30 p.m. Give it a shot, you won’t be disappointed.

After that one, I’m actually beginning to believe there’s hope for us yet.

You can reach Ward at

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