CARBONDALE — It’s been seven months since Lee Hughes said this: “I think they heard us tonight.”
On Aug. 28, 2018, he presented to the Carbondale City Council a petition from residents of Carbondale’s northeast side asking for speed bumps along Wall Street, where a 5-year-old boy had been struck and killed two weeks before.
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The petition was the product of a meeting of concerned citizens, who gathered after the boy's death in Arnette’s Barber Shop — Hughes is a co-owner of the shop, which sits within view of where the child died. There, they talked about what to do and decided on their request: They wanted the city to put in speed bumps.
Hughes said in the months since he presented the petition, all the city's promises of action and communication amounted to little.
“We heard nothing else about it,” Hughes said.
Hughes was cutting hair while he spoke to The Southern. He took a moment to point toward the shop’s front windows. Outside, crews worked to install new sewer infrastructure to accommodate a nearby development by Southern Illinois Healthcare and to better serve those along the new stretch of pipe.
“But we can’t get no damn speed bumps,” Hughes said. He questioned why that could happen before speed control devices could be put in the street.
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City Manager Gary Williams said that SIH project has been in planning for about three years.
Despite calls from City Council and city administrators for communication and action, Hughes said he had to go to a recent City Council meeting to be given an update on the 200-signature petition he turned in last year.
It may have been radio silence for Hughes, but the city has been working on the request, and that’s what he was told at the meeting.
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In an email, Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams said the city is hoping to get a grant to make updates along Wall Street, making it safer for pedestrians.
“We submitted a ‘safe routes to school’ grant in November which would add 6 pedestrian crossings with pedestrian actuated signals on Wall Street. These additions would calm traffic and achieve the goal of speed bumps of reducing speed,” Williams wrote in an email.
Williams said his office has been waiting until they knew whether the grant was awarded to present the petition and a speed study conducted there to City Council.
When asked if he had communicated any of this progress with the petition’s organizers, he said Carl Flowers was given an update, but only because he called. This didn’t sit well with Hughes.
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“Carl hasn’t said s--- to me about it,” Hughes said, adding that Flowers was in the barber shop when the plan was hatched to start a petition and helped with the verbiage.
Later, Hughes said he was upset, but not with Flowers. He felt that he should have been contacted directly instead of possibly getting updates second-hand.
Mayor Mike Henry said he was not aware that city officials had not communicated with Hughes, but said it was unfortunate and should have happened. But he said he knew that Williams had asked city officials to begin working on a solution to the speeding along Wall Street.
Speaking about his decision to wait to release information, Williams said he didn’t want to put unverified information out until plans were shored up.
“My thinking was just until we got all options available we didn’t want to be premature with any information we present,” Williams said.
As it stands, Williams said the city is hoping for word soon about whether the grant will go through. He said that will determine what city staff will recommend to the council.
The entire situation for Hughes and many of the others in the barbershop while he spoke to The Southern was emblematic of a broader, historic issue.
“The problem is bigger than speed bumps,” Hughes said. It’s a city-neighborhood relations problem. Collective memories are very much alive of systemic and institutional racism, Hughes said.
“It’s all been the same for many years,” he said. Something as small as not getting a call back about progress for speed control after a child dies feeds into that.
Hughes said many on the northeast side feel like citizens apart from the rest of Carbondale, and this history is a part of it.
Mayoral candidate Nathan Colombo agreed with the sentiment Hughes shared.
“This goes back to the issue of having topical discussions in the communities we serve throughout Carbondale and a need to take the conversation directly to folks when there are bigger issues like the threats posed by the speeds on North Wall,” Colombo said Friday.
He said the scope of the problem is broader than speed control.
“It’s great that we are working toward the grant,” he said. However, he added that “to folks in the black community in Carbondale this no doubt feels like too little, too late.”
Williams and Henry both steered the conversation toward the progress the city has made on the specific request, but were relatively quiet on the broader question of city relations with northeast side residents. Henry recognized the history of racism in Carbondale’s historically black neighborhood.
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“We are certainly not doing that now. We just aren’t,” he said.
Williams declined to comment on issue.
Thinking back to the day the child died last summer, Hughes was honest.
“My heart bled out for the family,” Hughes said. “I thought about my own kids.”
And pivoting to the city, he had simple advice.
“They need to start paying attention to the heartbreaks on the east side."
Gary Starks earlier this month was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of reckless homicide resulting from the crash that killed the boy. He has pleaded not guilty.
— Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify a quote by Lee Hughes.