Cleaning up after you: Steve Jensen protects the 32nd ward

March 21, 2012

The election is over. The candidates have won and lost. The volunteers have gone home. But wait guys...what about all the signs you put up on the fences? What about the litter of stickers and fliers strewn about the public walkway? Don't even get me started about the medians by the polling places.

Listen to Steve Jensen on Afternoon Shift

Who cleans that up? If you live in the 32nd Ward, you can thank Mr. Steve Jensen.

I met Steve Jensen at 7 a.m. on a cold Sunday morning in Bucktown. Steve had offered to let me "ride-a-long" for his morning check-in of the 32nd Ward. He's the main man for the "Alderman Waguespack Street Team." It's a volunteer position, almost like the neighborhood watch.

What does Steve actually do? His job is to serve as a neighborhood janitor. It's much more complex than sweeping floors, but essentially Steve cleans up after wild weekend partying. That entails picking up trash, taking down signs and painting.


The 32nd Ward (for the time being) consists of several North Side neighborhoods. It awkwardly connects Bucktown, Wicker Park, Clybourn Corridor, Roscoe Village and a swath of Lakeview. It includes areas like the North, Milwaukee & Damen intersection, which houses several 4 a.m. bars. With a robust night life and a young party scene brings substantial criminal activity. Steve's not a cop, so he doesn't arrest people. But on his morning route, he shoos away prostitutes and other suspicious looking activity with a police-like bravado. He also has created relationships with the homeless, helping them with coffee runs and asking for information on any activity he should be aware of. For instance, Steve took me over to the underpass of the Kennedy expressway at Armitage. After receiving a tip that someone was doing heroin, Steve went to investigate. Sure enough, we found syringes, but the user was long gone. What does Jensen do? He does nothing. Cleans up the syringes so nobody stumbles upon them.

But the job isn't all about community policing, or trying to clean up after party-goers. Most of the job is about signs. Yep, it turns out Friday and Saturday nights are prime time for people putting up signs on public property. This isn't your "My cat is missing" sign, but more of the "vote for me/buy cheap furniture" variety, stuck in the ground or taped to a telephone poll.

We've all seen the signs. Usually near the expressway entrances, or taped or tied to a fence. And during the election season, everywhere.

Steve's job is not political. It's to follow the law of the city. So if you put up a sign on the public way or even on abandoned property, you will get it taken down. It's actually against the law. But according to Jensen, it's rarely enforced. It's not something the city is equipped to handle, due to the lack of inspectors available. So unless you go way over the line, all you are going to get is your sign being thrown in the recycling bin (yes, Jensen recycles it for you). But some companies do go over the line. And Jensen reports them to the city.

And the sign companies are catching on. Jensen says they are evolving, moving from conventional signs to sticker signs that they paste to newspaper boxes. It's an assault on Jensen's neighborhood and he isn't standing for it anymore.

So besides being the cleaning crew for the hood, Jensen also takes to the internet to defend his turf. He posts on Everyblock all the signs he takes down (or at least the interesting ones). That's where I first heard of his work. And he calls out the companies and warns them to stop before he reports them.

His job isn't just about signs, either. Tagging is a big problem in some areas of the 32nd. And if a tagger leaves his or her mark on public property, well Steve has a can of green and a can of black in the back of his truck. And two roller paintbrushes. He erases the tags before you even walk out your door to get your morning coffee. He also has box cutters, knives and scissors at the ready.

It's a thankless job. And one without pay. But Steve seems to believe in community service. He also estimates that there are only a handful of people like him in Chicago, leaving some wards to the whim of city services, which will attempt to pick up the routine trash and services today, but can't do it every week.

So the 32nd ward sleeps well, knowing Steve Jensen roams the early morning readying their neighborhood for another weekend.