A view from the inside of a Chicago Transit Authority red line subway car, looking out the window at the Addison stop
Credit: Engin Yapici/Unsplash

When my boyfriend and I moved to Edgewater in June 2020, I had quiet weird feelings about becoming yet another white, north side Chicagoan, but the move brought me to the Red Line—and the Red Line brought me back to the world.

Ten months later, I put on my mask, walked to the Thorndale stop, and boarded a southbound train. Inside the car, I watched one man roll and smoke a spliff while another played an AM faith show from a radio he held in his hands. A woman in scrubs ignored us all to carefully apply her mascara, using the selfie view of her phone as a mirror. People boarded the train; people exited. Maybe it was the hotboxing, but it was the happiest and most connected to others I’d felt in a year. 

Is the Red Line beautiful? It’s a question I’ve had ample time to consider, riding the train back and forth as I searched for the pigeon lady. Like pigeons, the Red Line has a reputation for being dirty, but I think that’s unfair. Depending on whose mouth it comes out of, I even think that take can be classist and racist. Yes, the Red Line can be dirty, like any other aspect of a city home to three million sweating, breathing people. Yes, it has the highest rate of reported crime of any CTA train line. The Red Line goes through some of the most racially and economically segregated neighborhoods in our profoundly segregated city, from high concentrations of wealth and resources to areas chronically and deliberately overpoliced, disinvested, and some even historically red-lined (not where the name of the train line originates, but you’d be forgiven for noting that connection). Of course there’s going to be higher rates of crime when people aren’t getting what they need to survive. 

According to the CTA’s website, the Red Line also has the highest ridership of any line in the city; only the Red Line and the Blue Line run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The train goes, the people get on, and suddenly Chicagoans who usually only share space with people just like them are sharing a public good with everyone else, close together. Briefly, we all head in the same direction.

Around the Loop, the train cars are briefly, I think, the most integrated parts of the city.It’s no wonder there’s friction and, at times, violence; it’s no wonder, also, that I love the Red Line for the possibility it holds. The Red Line is the People’s Line. The pigeons that live together as they nest under the tracks are the People’s Bird. I think the next mayoral debate should take place on the Red Line, and I think pigeons should moderate. Both the Red Line and pigeons possess the possibility of liberation via collaboration.

Best of Chicago 2021 is
presented by

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sponsored in part by

Goethe Institut
Chicago History Museum

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