TRAVERSE CITY — Bill Clark rises at 5 a.m. some weekday mornings and uses a small push plow to clear snow and create a path from his home to his children’s classes at Glenn Loomis Elementary School.
Clark lives on 12th Street in Traverse City and said his early start may be a bit unusual, though his actions aren’t out of the ordinary. He knows at least four other fathers who carry shovels as they walk their children to school, and other city residents who do the same.
And Clark notices almost all of his neighbors along his route clear their own walks these days, up from about half that number last year.
“The last two years we had a lot of thaws and I think people sort of backed off, let the city handle it,” Clark said. “Now we realize it’s everybody’s responsibility, and we are doing it together.”
A week of snow leading up to Thanksgiving caught city officials and many residents off-guard and prompted complaints about snow-laden sidewalks in both residential and downtown commercial areas.
City commissioners and some residents initially criticized city employees’ walk-clearing efforts, but now they’re generally tossing out compliments after a month of nearly constant snow and deep-freeze temperatures.
“We are happy that the city seems to be making an effort,” said Ben Hansen, who lives on State Street and frequently walks around town. He city officials for tweaking their sidewalk priorities and focusing on clearing walks on the busiest streets, such as East Front and Garfield streets.
“If you have to walk in the street you don’t want to walk in those streets, they’re dangerous,” Hansen said.
Hansen also took some time to clear up a misconception that plowing sidewalks is a recent city service. A long-time city resident told him in the 1930s the city used a horse-drawn plow to clear sidewalks. Hansen dug up old Record-Eagle editorials and articles from 1947, 1958, and 1963 that confirmed that contention, along with the city’s continuing efforts to clear sidewalks in those decades and residents’ propensity to complain when it wasn’t done.
But city rules put the onus on property owners to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice.
City Commissioner Gary Howe also carries a shovel on his walks. Howe said he focuses on clearing ridges left at intersections by sidewalk blowers or plow trucks around his neighborhood and along Eighth and Rose streets.
“In general, I think the city has really responded well,” Howe said. “It’s been a noticeable difference, and actually its been kind of nice, because anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of people out clearing walks. I’m not alone.”
Residents appear mostly upbeat about the residential efforts, but downtown merchants receive a mixed review from some. A recent review of downtown streets shows a range of effort along the commercial strip: some shopkeepers ignore the public walk outside their businesses, while others scrape snow and ice down to the concrete.
Grace Joppich uses a walker to get around and said she made one trip downtown before Christmas. At that time most of the walks were slushy but passable, she said. She wouldn’t want to venture downtown now on rock-solid snow that covers most downtown walks.
“The hard-pack is worse than soft snow and slush; it’s like bumpy ice,” she said.
Resident and former city Commissioner Ann Rogers said downtown businesses are doing a better job with sidewalks, but some appear to ignore the city ordinance that requires them to clear the walk outside their establishments.
“There is improvement, but I’d like it to be more,” Rogers said. “I’m looking for a commitment that allows people to go for a whole block without looking down at their feet.”
Phil Anderson, owner of Diversions Hats on Front Street, said it’s important for everyone to stay on top of snow-clearing chores in such a wintry season -- and to have the right equipment for the job. Anderson has a large metal shovel and an ice scraper to clear his walks down to the concrete.
“Customers care, and when we are doing it people always express their appreciation,” Anderson said. “Some businesses don’t seem to make much effort at all. People notice it.”