The southwestbound Ogden Avenue bus route stops at California. Credit: April Alonso

In the second half of the 20th century, the North Lawndale community area on Chicago’s west side was devastated by redlining and other racist lending practices that led to civil unrest among the neighborhood’s by then booming black population. Fifty years ago this summer, Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family to an apartment in the neighborhood to highlight the need for fair housing and other improvements in black areas of northern cities.

North Lawndale never recovered economically from the disinvestment and social upheavals of the last 50 years. The area’s population plummeted from a high of 124,937 in 1960 to 35,623 in 2014. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income is currently $25,797, far below the city average of $47,408.

In April the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and others launched the neighborhood’s first comprehensive plan since 1958, covering infrastructure, housing, economic development, transit, and more. Last week, the council hosted a panel discussion that featured a pair of speakers from the Active Transportation Alliance and the Red Line Extension Coalition, to discuss possible transit improvements in North Lawndale and share best practices from transit advocacy elsewhere in the city.

The area—bounded roughly by Taylor Street, Kenton Avenue, Metra’s BNSF Line, and Campbell Avenue—has four CTA Pink Line stations. The Blue and Green Lines aren’t far away. But community leaders say further improving public transportation access is key in creating more opportunities for residents. Specifically, NLCCC members argue that restoring bus service on Ogden Avenue and other corridors would be a shot in the arm for the struggling neighborhood.

Ogden, a major arterial street that runs southwest from downtown and through North Lawndale, is a priority for residents because CTA buses used to travel down the avenue all the way to Pulaski Road, well into the heart of the neighborhood. But in 2008 the Ogden bus line was truncated due to low ridership on its western leg.

The route now extends only as far southwest as California Avenue, a mile and a half east of Pulaski, by Mount Sinai Hospital. (The line was eventually merged with the #157 Streeterville/Taylor route, which provides northeastbound service from Mount Sinai to the area near Northwestern Memorial Hospital on weekdays only, from the early morning to the early evening.)

“You have long stretches where people don’t have a bus route, so they have to walk at least a mile to get where they’re going.”

—NCCC member Rochelle Jackson

“We’re not professional transportation people, but we do have a love and passion for our community,” said Valerie Leonard, a community development consultant present at last week’s forum. “We want to make sure that transit is accessible and affordable. People have said, ‘Some jobs I can’t take because of the way the buses run.'”

Meeting attendee Gussie Dye, a retired nurse who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1959, said she used to ride the Ogden bus to classes at Malcolm X College and UIC, and to her job at the VA Medical Center. Now, instead of having a direct bus route to appointments at Northwestern, she walks to the Kedzie bus and rides north to Chicago Avenue, then catches another bus east to Streeterville—a much longer trip.

“I would like to know what action needs to be taken to get [Ogden service] restored,” she said.

“We know a lot of people who want to see service restored on Ogden,” said panelist Cynthia Hudson, an Active Transportation Alliance community liaison who also lives in North Lawndale. “We can start right away with a petition.”

But, Hudson explained, “[the CTA needs] to see the need for it. They look at the ridership amounts and the number of people calling 311 and the alderman’s office. So my question for you is: What’s new on Ogden or in a two-block radius?” Offering that information to the CTA, she explained, could help build the case for extending the bus line.

Attendees noted that since 2008, the neighborhood has seen the opening of a new charter school and the North Lawndale Christian Fitness Center, a large complex at 3950 W. Ogden that includes a cafe and meeting rooms. New events in Douglas Park like Riot Fest, the West Side Music Fest, and NLCCC’s first arts festival, which debuts in a few weeks, would also spur more Ogden bus ridership, they said.

Neighborhood residents want the CTA to extend the Ogden Avenue bus back to Pulaski Road.
Neighborhood residents want the CTA to extend the Ogden Avenue bus back to Pulaski Road.Credit: Paul John Higgins

Active Trans’s in-house urban planners could also help develop projections on ridership, Hudson volunteered.

There is precedent for these kinds of efforts: there have been successful grassroots campaigns involving the #34 South Michigan route in Altgeld Gardens, as well as bus lines on 31st Street and Lincoln Avenue.

NLCCC member Rochelle Jackson, who works at the Juvenile Protective Association, explained that the council also wants to add service on existing transit lines in the neighborhood, and restore bus service to other North Lawndale corridors that currently lack it.

“You have long stretches where people don’t have a bus route, so they have to walk at least a mile to get where they’re going,” she said.

Jackson added that she’d like to see the Roosevelt bus route extended a few blocks west to Mayfield Avenue, and get the #18 bus that runs primarily along 16th and 18th Streets restored to its old route, which connected North Lawndale with Little Village.

In addition to helping win back bus service, Hudson said she’s available to assist residents with lobbying for better walking, biking, and transit infrastructure. Potential “complete streets” improvements could include new sidewalks and crosswalks, pedestrian countdown timers and refuge islands, bus shelters, and bike lanes.

“We want people to have options,” Hudson said. “When it comes to transportation, it’s not just about getting in your car and getting where you want need to go in the fastest manner. We want people to be active. Especially in North Lawndale, there’s a high rate of obesity and chronic disease . . . hence the emphasis on the built environment.”

Still, Dye said, she hopes restoring North Lawndale bus service will be a priority, so that fewer residents have long treks to transit. “I heard what you said about the obesity issue, and walking is good, I grant you,” she told Hudson. “But I often see young people pushing two or three kids [long distances] to the clinic or what have you. We deserve better.” v