Courtesy Marcelo Ferrer

For much of its history, Chicago was a public transit-friendly town. The first horse-drawn streetcars appeared on State Street in 1859, and by the turn of the century the city had developed complex networks of trains and cable cars. But things changed with the rapid suburban expansion and the popularization of privately owned vehicles in the mid-20th century, and more resources became allocated toward creating infrastructure for cars. 

According to Elevated Chicago executive director Roberto Requejo, transit is ultimately a question of equity. Widespread dependency on cars and lack of accessible public transit have broad implications for communities in terms of access to jobs, education, and other resources; environmental concerns (more cars and surface parking lead to more flooding, higher temperatures, and lower air quality); and overall quality of life. “Study after study shows that people with easy access to multiple transportation choices—people who are able to walk or roll, bike, and take trains and buses—have better health indicators, not only physically but mentally,” he says. 

Those inequities are especially apparent among communities of color. “When you look at the statistics, you see that the ownership levels of cars, for instance, are three times lower in Black households than they are in white households. And as a result, you’ll see that more than 60 percent of the users of public transportation across the United States are people of color,” Requejo says. “So you’d think that incentivizing development near transit would improve the quality of life for people of color, but that’s not necessarily true.”

In 2013 Chicago passed an ordinance that gave incentives to developers who built around transit stops. But 90 percent of the funds were steered toward downtown and gentrifying hot spots, especially along the Blue and Red lines. “In those communities we were observing a ton of displacement of people of color, low income families, immigrants, and many others,” Requejo says. “Then we have an almost opposite problem, with stations on the south and west sides surrounded by vacant land—in other parts of the city those sites would be considered prime locations.”

Elevated Chicago aims to change all that, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Formed in 2017 with support from the national network SPARCC (which stands for Strong Prosperous And Resilient Communities Challenge) and housed at the Chicago Community Trust, Elevated Chicago is a coalition of residents, community organizations, artists, developers, city officials, policymakers, and others. Together, they focus on the half-mile radius around transit stations throughout the city, taking a holistic approach to four key issues: racial equity, health, climate change, and art and culture. 

“We knew that when we came together, we could leverage the amazing assets that we have, and grow the city differently, and build it around transit and walkability—not just around the convenience of cars, or around the privilege of those who own cars,” Requejo says. “But we had to center equity and community to overcome the shortcomings of prior ordinances and policies.” 

In the past five years, Elevated has invested $10 million in grants and other investments in Chicago communities, and has been able to leverage an additional $10 million in public funds to advance ETOD (Equitable Transit-Oriented Development) around transit stations across the city, in communities like Woodlawn, Washington Park, Bronzeville, Little Village, Homan Square, Garfield Park, and Logan Square, to name a few.

Their strategies include creating transit-oriented community spaces, accessible green spaces, and environmentally friendly affordable housing. But just as every Chicago neighborhood has a distinct personality, each one has different visions and needs when it comes to transit. So every Elevated project starts with authentic engagement from members of the community.

“There’re tons of plans in Chicago at the neighborhood level and beyond,” Requejo says. “So our approach was not to plan or replan, but to identify within the half-mile radius of CTA stations, what we call the eHub (or equitable hub), what are some of the capital projects people would like to see? What are some walkability and arts programs? etc. And the community residents came up with a ton of ideas to move from plans to implementation.”

Some of those ideas are now realities, and many more are on their way. Elevated’s accomplishments to date include supporting the Overton Center of Excellence business incubator in Washington Park; funding the Garfield Park Community Council to advocate for an Eco-Orchard (which requires funding and collaboration of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and will divert storm- and floodwater from streets and alleys into green infrastructure on city-owned land); and supporting Palenque LSNA to advocate for the construction of the Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Apartments, which features 100 one- to three-bedroom units of affordable housing near the Logan Square Blue Line Station. Requejo says there are currently an additional 18 affordable housing projects near transit stops funded by the Department of Housing at different stages of development—in part because of Elevated’s advocacy.

“It’s a testament to the power of collaboration,” Requejo says. “The main value of Elevated was to multiply everybody’s action by bringing organizations together under one common table with common values and goals. We now have communities that didn’t know much about each other feeling like other communities are also their community. We’ll have residents from Logan Square sitting with Washington Park and Homan Square neighbors, and all of them feeling that we’re all in this together and we support each other.”

Read the previous story in our series here: https://chicagoreader.com/city-life/chicago-family-biking-makes-biking-fun-and-safer-for-all-ages/.

Coverage funded by The Darrell R. Windle Charitable Fund and Polo Inn.