The old Jackson Park station, end of the line
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  • The old Jackson Park station, end of the line

One of the shakiest ideas to come along in years is the one Mayor Emanuel just proposed to rename Stony Island Avenue in honor of the late Bishop Arthur Brazier. It’s questionable because Stony Island, running from 56th Street to 130th Street, is about nine miles long, meaning nine miles of businesses and residences that would have to print up new stationery, notify utilities and magazines of address changes, and suffer whatever regret and indignation they choose to indulge in as they surrender a historically resonant Chicago street name to accept another that to an awful lot of them means nothing.

“Obviously, Brazier was a towering figure in the Woodlawn area,” wrote a dubious Mary Mitchell in the Sun-Times, “but his church isn’t even located on Stony Island.” That church, Apostolic Church of God, is at 63rd and Dorchester, where it takes up a city block. Long ago Brazier founded The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), and if you take one look at the massive church with his name on the side of it, you can’t doubt he was a major mover and shaker. But the honor the mayor proposes doesn’t pass Mitchell’s sniff test. “Coming at a time when a lot of black people have soured on the mayor,” she wrote, “what is supposed to be a tribute just looks like cheap political posturing.”

DNAinfo reported that the reaction of Stony Island business owners to the proposed name change ranged “from apathetic to offended.” To judge from the readers’ comments that follow the DNAinfo story, the feelings of the offended range from courteously critical to raving fury.

But let’s hear from one of Brazier’s champions. Hermene Hartman, publisher of N’Digo, thinks renaming Stony Island is a terrific idea:

Stony Island is a major artery on the South Side of Chicago. Brazier was too, as he grew his church from 100 to 20,000. He work was major and often his kind of work goes unnoticed. He touched lives, he changed people, and he even saved a few. His work wasn’t for popularity because he wasn’t always popular. Some of his stances were proven to be right, as years came, but not at the time of his urging. He was supportive, not just vocal but also with money. He faced the challenges of his day face to face. Fighting the gangs was not pretty work. There were no foundation grants and there were usually anti forces. Brazier was basic.

“The question,” Hartman asserted, “is not is Brazier worthy of Stony but is Stony worthy of Brazier.”

Sorry, but that’s the wrong question. The answer to the right question is that Stony Island is the wrong street. The street, if any, that should carry Brazier’s name is the street that is already his monument.

That’s 63rd Street, of course.

And not simply because his church is on it. Built to bring visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair, an el line used to run above 63rd Street from State Street to Stony Island, where it dead-ended. Over time it became dilapidated, and in 1981 the bridge carrying the el tracks over the IC tracks just west of Stony Island was condemned and shut down. As this 1997 Reader article by J.W. Mason recounts, during the following years the portion of the 63rd Street el still in service was gradually whittled away, and eventually Brazier proposed jump-starting redevelopment by tearing the el down. He wrote in N’Digo: “How are you going to rebuild the 63rd Street business district with that monstrosity? If it comes down, we can have shopping knolls and new housing. We’ll have commercial development, but it’s not going to happen with those tracks.”

Brazier had powerful allies, one of them being Valerie Jarrett, now President Obama’s confidante in Washington but then chair of the CTA. He got his way. As I wrote in a 1996 Reader column, there was a public hearing, but the public basically got rolled. The dailies reported that according to city “officials” and “planners,” 56 or 57 percent of the area’s residents supported demolition, but they didn’t look to see where these numbers came from. They were meaningless. They came, in large part, from self-serving polls and surveys that misrepresented the actual choice before the city. TWO, openly hostile to the el, ran a survey that asked, “Do you want the tracks between 63rd and University up to Cottage Grove to come down, or are you in favor of them staying up?” There was no acknowledgement that keeping them up would mean restoring them to service.

A “petition for removal” was circulated that began, “Whereas the Jackson Park section of the 63rd Street elevated structure between Cottage Grove and Dorchester Avenue represents a crime ridden eyesore and a deterrent to the redevelopment of our community . . .”

When the CTA board voted 6-0 to tear down the el all the way west to Cottage Grove, Jackie Grimshaw, who’d been deputy city treasurer in Harold Washington’s administration, said the board had voted in favor of “dishonest information, inaccurate information, and outright lies.” Grimshaw lives a few blocks north of 63rd Street and she’s president of the VISTA Homes Building Corporation at 58th and Stony Island. I called her Monday because I was curious; 16 years have gone by since the 63rd Street el came down, long enough to pass judgment on what that actually accomplished. What did she think now?

To begin with, Grimshaw told me, the area’s no longer directly linked into Chicago’s rapid transit system. From the Metra tracks to Woodlawn—which is to say, around the Apostolic Church of God—some nice single-family housing has gone up, but not enough of it to support the commercial development Brazier promised. Grimshaw said she was disappointed at how little has been built along 63rd—but added that I should drive down and see for myself.

So Monday night that’s what my wife and I did. We found what Grimshaw said we’d find: two blocks of middle-class housing between Kenwood and Woodlawn, almost no commerce, and west of Woodlawn pretty much nothing. The only construction we saw—and it’s significant—is the new Hyde Park Day School going up at 63rd and Ingleside. Otherwise, 63rd Street is just about as undeveloped east of Cottage Grove as it is west of Cottage Grove, where the el still stands.

You might applaud the new housing and the new school, and as for the rest of that stretch of 63rd insist, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’ve got to give it more time.” Fair enough. My point is that 63rd Street is Brazier’s legacy, and to name any other street after him instead is to all but admit his legacy is his folly, about which the less said the better.

How does that honor Brazier?