The woman who lives up the street never clears her walk. I mean never. The snow falls. The snow stays. People trudge through it and pack it down. The snow turns to ice. The sidewalk becomes as slippery as a skating rink, treacherous for anyone who passes on foot.
It has been this way for years. It is a wonder no one has fallen and broken a limb. Maybe someone has. I used to worry every time my mother came over and had to negotiate that icy sidewalk on her way from the streetcar stop. I worry still about the elderly ladies wrapped in black who make their way up the street to the Portuguese butcher or grocery store.
Every time I cross that patch of ice I grind my teeth. Doesn't she care about the hazard she has created? Has she no regard for her neighbours? Does she think it is someone else's job to clear her snow?
I am Toronto-born and raised, so not very assertive. If I had been more so, I might have rapped on her door and asked her to clear her damned ice. Instead, I phoned the city and ratted her out.
I called 311, the city's 24-hour service line. A polite service rep took the address and said they would send an inspector around to check it out within three weeks. That was on Jan. 11. When I called back on Jan. 24, another polite service rep said that they had no record of anyone following up on my complaint, but that the three weeks were not up so I should be patient. The ice is still there, hardened to the consistency of granite by the bitter cold.
The city has clear and simple rules about clearing your snow. In the suburbs, the city plows the sidewalks in most places. City workers will shovel for seniors and the disabled anywhere in the city if they ask. In the central core, where roads and walks are narrower than in the suburbs and plowing is impractical, "property owners are required to clear snow from their sidewalks within 12 hours after a storm," according to the city website.
If they do not and someone complains, an inspector leaves a ticket stating that, contrary to the City of Toronto Municipal Code, Chapter 719, snow and ice has not been removed. It warns that the walk must be cleared within 12 hours or the city will lay charges, which carry a $125 fine, and do the clearing at the homeowner's expense. The cost is usually around $200 and it goes straight on the homeowner's property-tax bill.
After the ice storm, the cold weather and the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle, streets are icier than usual this year. Sometimes the ice has formed in the night before people could get out and shovel in the morning. Road salt has been hard to find, too.
As a result, complaints about uncleared walks have nearly quadrupled this winter. Inspectors are having a hard time keeping up. Last year at this time, they had received 340 complaints and issued 279 warning notices; this year, they have taken 1,280 complaints and issued 824 notices.
The good news is that, once homeowners receive their warning, they usually get out and clear the walk. The city has laid just nine charges this year.
But it's a little sad the authorities have to get involved at all. Clearing your ice is one of those basic civic duties, part of the social contract that makes cities work. Living side by side at close quarters, city dwellers need to take special care to do unto others. Making sure that people can pass in front of your home without slipping or falling on the ice is the least you can do.
If you go away during the winter, as I am told the woman up the street often does, it's no excuse. You need to get a tenant, friend or contractor do the job.
In the 1980s, the city ran a TV ad, illustrated and narrated by cartoonist Ben Wicks, that ended with that quintessentially Canadian slogan: Be Nice, Clear Your Ice. That said it all.
The best way to get people to clear their ice is through social pressure, not the force of the law. In some neighbourhoods, there is an unwritten code: cut the grass, bring in your trash cans, clear your ice, or be shunned.
On my street in a dense, mixed, downtown neighbourhood, the code is a little frayed. Some people – often older, house-proud immigrants – are out there first thing, scrupulously scraping the snow and ice from curb to property line. Some, like my immediate neighbours, shovel for each other; first one out does everyone's walk. Others bother to shovel only after a big snowfall. Still others, like the woman up the street, don't bother at all.
No call to civic duty works on them. The rules of urban etiquette are for someone else. Whether they are too cool to shovel or just bone lazy, they are immune to any shaming. For those people, there is but one solution. Do what I did. Call the city and rat 'em out.