For years, Altgeld Gardens-area resident Deloris Lucas has pushed for a sidewalk on 130th Street, an interstate-like truck route that serves as the northern boundary of this far south-side public housing project.
“[Altgeld is] a poor area that’s a food desert, where people don’t even realize we lack facilities like sidewalks and bus shelters,” says Lucas, 59. Since 1967, Lucas has lived in Golden Gate, a quaint enclave of single-family homes just west of the housing project.
Due to lack of interest from decision makers, her crusade hasn’t gained much traction since she first told me about it in July 2014. But a new multimodal transportation plan from the Chicago Department of Transportation may lead to Lucas finally getting her sidewalk.
For context, the Altgeld area is hemmed in by the Little Calumet River to the south and west, a water reclamation plant to the north, and the Bishop Ford to the east. CTA service is limited, and bike infrastructure is nonexistent. Median household income is less than a third of the city’s median of $47,250. Only about half of households own cars, compared with 72 percent citywide.
Access to nearby Rosebud Farm Stand, 525 E. 130th, is a particular sore spot. It’s the area’s sole grocery store, but it’s difficult to access by foot. The only way to walk there from the west is via a narrow trail pedestrians have worn on the south side of the five-lane highway. Walking north to Rosebud from Altgeld means taking a rutted dirt lane.
Lucas began her advocacy after she was laid off from her job as a CPS teaching assistant in 2013. She launched the grassroots Safety and Transit Action Council, currently made up of a dozen or so neighbors. The group soon partnered with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children to assess her neighborhood’s walkability. In addition to sidewalks, the groups determined the community needs more crosswalks, STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS signs, pedestrian islands, speed humps, and streetlights.
The Chicago Housing Authority has earmarked money to pave the lane between Altgeld Gardens and Rosebud, and the project is currently out to bid, according to an Active Trans rep.
But the sidewalk on 130th has been a tougher nut to crack. It’s a state route, which would normally give the Illinois Department of Transportation control over upgrades. However, agency spokesman Guy Tridgell said 130th is actually maintained by CDOT, which is also responsible for sidewalk construction in the city.
“This is a poor area that’s a food desert, where people don’t even realize we lack facilities like sidewalks and bus shelters.”
But CDOT frequently looks to the city’s aldermen to pay for improvement projects using the $1.32 million in “menu money” allocated annually to each ward.
Lucas has pitched the 130th sidewalk to Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale more than once, but says most of the ward’s menu money is used for fixing potholes. Indeed, a CDOT report shows last year Beale spent $1,243,957 on street resurfacing, and a mere $54,491 on sidewalks.
“The alderman has really dropped the ball on this,” Lucas says.
“Ms. Lucas has contacted everybody from President Obama on down,” Beale says, adding that the land west of Rosebud is empty. “I’m not going to waste taxpayer dollars installing a sidewalk next to a vacant lot,” he says.
When asked why his agency has never built the 130th Street sidewalk, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey declined to comment.
But here comes the good news: Claffey also indicated that the sidewalk may finally become a reality as a result of CDOT’s upcoming plan for Riverdale, the community area that includes Altgeld Gardens.
In October, CDOT received a Local Technical Assistance grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to conduct the Riverdale study. Claffey says the report may identify funding for the Rosebud sidewalk, plus other infrastructure prescribed by the Altgeld walkability assessment.
“There’s a need to improve access to adjacent neighborhoods, recreational opportunities, transit, and employment centers,” Claffey stated in an October interview with Streetsblog’s Steven Vance.
Lucas’s group applied for a separate LTA grant for a 130th Street corridor study, which wasn’t awarded. But the grassroots organization will be one of several community organizations providing key input for CDOT’s plan, Claffey says.
Those efforts will compliment other improvements the neighborhood has seen of late, including the CHA-funded reconstruction of 133rd, which was so dilapidated the CTA was forced to shorten the #34 Michigan Avenue bus route there. (The route also serves the 95th Street el station, so it’s a lifeline for residents. The planned extension of the Red Line to Altgeld will greatly improve access, but that initiative is moving slowly.)
Another positive development is “We Keep You Rollin’,” a bike group Lucas started last February with help from Active Trans. They’ve held repair sessions, distributed helmets, and hosted workshops with CDOT’s Bicycling Ambassadors.
Lucas was disappointed her proposal wasn’t picked, but she’s excited to brainstorm with CDOT on ways to lessen Altgeld’s isolation. “It’s a great fit because STAC is still developing, and we don’t have a war chest,” she says. “This puts us in the driver’s seat.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.