Mark Hayward's City Matters: Sidewalk to nowhere
Beside the massive Wal-Mart store on Keller Street, there is a lost sidewalk about 40 feet long.
It starts on the curve of the Wal-Mart driveway, and then bends down Keller Street to a sheltered city bus stop, where it abruptly ends.
I describe the sidewalk as lost because when I think of a sidewalk, I think of block after block of concrete that leads me somewhere. Forty feet takes me nowhere.
How did it get lost? My guess is it happened years ago. It was a cocksure glob of adolescent concrete, all wet behind the ears, and ran off as workers laid sidewalks nearby. It reached Keller Street and hardened, eternally stranded, far from its conjoined walkway kin.
Rachel Dumont wants someone to take responsibility for it.
About a month ago, Dumont was walking along the sidewalk. Like a lot of the sidewalks in this city (even the normal ones), it held a winter's worth of snow and ice — melted, refrozen and walked on. It was slippery, bumpy and hard.
Dumont, who lives on Social Security and a small teacher pension, inched along the ice, aiming for a cleared portion in front of the bus shelter (more on that later). One step. Another. Then SLAM. She fell on her face. A friend drove her to the hospital.
Dumont, who is 74, needed a CT brain scan, antibiotic ointment, gauze wrap and four sutures. The Elliot Hospital emergency room bill came to $3,276, charges before Medicare pays its share.
"Mainly, it makes me mad," Dumont said about the ordeal.
What upended Dumont on March 14 was New Hampshire's absurd sidewalk law. Thanks to a whacky 1898 state Supreme Court ruling, no city or town can force property owners to clear their sidewalks.
Some homeowners and landlords — the respectable ones — do so. But many others figure it's the city's responsibility and wait for the city sidewalk plow. The plow makes it to residential areas about three or four days after a snowstorm, if you're lucky.
Of course, you'd expect that retail businesses would shovel sidewalks outside their property. Don't.
"The whole season, it was terrible here," said Leatha Potter, who works at the Service Credit Union inside the Wal-Mart. She spoke as she got off the bus to go to work. She knows Dumont and was shocked to see her with a black eye last month.
"They don't shovel up here. Wal-Mart doesn't care about our bus stop," Potter said.
In a statement emailed to me, Wal-Mart basically agreed.
"Wal-Mart works to create a safe shopping environment, and this includes removing ice and snow from our property. We were sorry to learn that Ms. Dumont was injured near our store, although we understand it was not on our property," wrote spokesman Betsey Harden.
So who should shovel the lost sidewalk?Some of it does get shoveled. The 10 feet of sidewalk in front of the bus shelter gets cleared within a day after a snowstorm, said Mike Whitten, executive director of the Manchester Transit Authority.
Whitten said the Florida-based advertising company Signal Outdoors owns the shelter, and MTA requires Signal to clear the sidewalk directly in front of the shelter. As for the other 30 feet? "We don't own any of the land," Whitten said. Meanwhile, Dumont wants someone to man up and pay the co-pay of her emergency room bill.
You can guess the runaround she has gotten. Wal-Mart's insurance company said it would get back to her in 30 days.
Her alderman, Pat Long, said the sidewalk is city property. He told Dumont to make a claim with the city's Risk Management office."The bottom line is, I think we ought to pay," Long said. "From what she said, there was 4 inches of ice, and it hadn't been cleared forever."
Long said he thinks the city should clear the Wal-Mart sidewalk on a regular basis. But he demurred when I pointed out that it's only 40 feet in length and lost out there in Wally's World. Twice this winter I've written about New Hampshire's constitutional right to not shovel your sidewalk. But winter is subsiding, and the more I preach, the more I tempt fate and lure a spring snowstorm to southern New Hampshire.
So I'll close with Dumont.
She lives on about $24,000 a year. She lives in a rooming house and lacks a car, a predicament she attributes to a stalker. She gets around town two ways — by bus and on foot.
The city should force property owners to shovel their sidewalks, she said. As for the lost sidewalk? "Wal-Mart's got the manpower," she said. "They've got people right there. Wal-Mart benefits from it."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.