Many Englewood homes could be negatively impacted by a proposed freight yard expansion.
Many Englewood homes could be negatively impacted by a proposed freight yard expansion. Credit: Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

A couple weeks ago, as word broke that Detroit was declaring bankruptcy, I took a drive through Englewood.

It seemed appropriate. Back in the go-go days of the mid-aughts, I wrote column after column about how Mayor Richard Daley was taking economic development money that should have gone to poor neighborhoods like Englewood and spending it on wealthy ones like the Loop.

I could always count on some mayoral backers shooting back: If you don’t like it, move to Detroit!

As if a property tax scam was the only thing that kept Chicago from collapsing like Detroit. Funny, they never compared Chicago to Minneapolis or Seattle or even New York City.

Detroit’s implosion didn’t just happen—there were a lot of contributing factors. Like global economics and the decline of the auto industry. Or white flight. Or bad planning.

Which brings me to the reason I was driving to Englewood.

At the moment, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most ambitious economic development plan for Englewood is the expansion of an intermodal freight yard, where metal containers will be loaded from trains to trucks and vice versa. It’s a loud, smelly operation that will have diesel-spewing locomotives and trucks rolling into the area day and night.

The current freight yard runs from 47th to 55th, roughly between Wallace and Eggleston. The expansion will take it south five blocks to 61st Street.

So the northeast corner of Englewood—a swath of land nearly two miles long and a quarter-mile wide—will be dedicated to a freight yard pumping smoke, soot, and other pollutants into the lungs, blood, and hearts of everyone in the surrounding neighborhood.

Norfolk Southern, the Virginia-based rail company that’s developing the project, says the freight yard will be a boon for the city, creating several hundred jobs. Maybe so.

But it’s the sort of large-scale, environmentally dubious endeavor you’d hope the city would sign on to only after careful independent analysis. Then we could determine—or at least discuss—whether the jobs are worth the health costs.

But so far the city’s health department has commissioned no studies.

“This is the kind of contempt they have for people in this area,” says resident John Ellis.

Just imagine if this were being proposed for the north side. I know—not in a million years. Still, think about it in relation to the recently completed brouhaha over Wrigley Field. The back-and-forth between the Rickettses and the locals dragged on for months as they wrestled over such monumental issues as how big the left-field sign should be.

In the end, Mayor Emanuel himself brokered the final deal during days of contentious City Hall negotiations. In that case, you had wealthy property owners battling an even wealthier baseball magnate.

I’ll say this about our mayor: he respects wealth.

In contrast, last month Mayor Emanuel closed five schools in Englewood, one of the poorest, highest-crime neighborhoods in Chicago. And now he’s signed on to a plan that will move out several hundred families—though he still hasn’t met with Englewood residents, much less brokered negotiations with the railroad.

The residents of Englewood have had almost no contact with any city officials on the massive project.

“I learned about it from a legal notice in the Sun-Times that the city was going to convey land to the railroad,” says John Ellis, a longtime Englewood resident who helped form Sustainable Englewood Initiatives, a group that opposes the project. “This is the kind of contempt they have for people in this area. Nobody cares what happens to Englewood.”

For months, Ellis and John Paul Jones, another Englewood resident, have been working with environmentalists to force the city to crack down on pollution from the site.

“Diesel pollution is a very serious concern, especially for people with asthma,” says Faith Bugel, a lawyer for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Noting that 13 schools sit in the blocks around the proposed site, Bugel is calling on the city to impose strict pollution controls.

But the project is moving full speed ahead—the city recently sold the railroad hundreds of vacant lots that it owns in the area. And the railroad has already bought and torn down scores of homes between 55th and 61st.

Yet several hundred homes are still there, and some of the residents don’t want to leave. “A lot of residents there now are hiring lawyers and are not going to go easy,” Ellis says.

That’s where TIFs come in.

The proposed rail yard is between two tax increment financing districts—the Englewood and the 47th Street and Halsted TIFs.

Both districts were created with the idea of redeveloping Englewood’s blighted residential blocks and commercial strips. As former 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman said in 1999: “This is a tool that we will use to put us in the driver’s seat to progress. And so in the words of Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s get it on.'”

But without notifying Englewood residents or their environmental allies, Mayor Emanuel recently proposed expanding the districts. That would mean that TIF dollars intended to spur residential and commercial development could instead be used to buy out the last remaining home owners. The land would then be turned over to the railroad.

Or as Keith Williams, a lifelong resident of Englewood, put it, “They want to turn this into Detroit.”

The Chicago Plan Commission, which generally rubber-stamps the mayor’s plans, scheduled a July 18 vote on the TIF expansion. Jones found out about it by reading another legal notice in the Sun-Times.

Around that time, Michael Hawthorne, a Tribune environment reporter, was calling city officials about the matter. Within a day Andrew Mooney, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, set up a meeting with Bugel and the residents. The city also pulled the TIF amendments from the Plan Commission agenda.

So thank goodness for the Tribune—words I don’t find myself saying every day. And the Sun-Times legal notice section!

At the July 17 meeting, Mooney assured Bugel, Ellis, and Jones that the TIF expansion had nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with the rail-yard expansion. In fact, he said, they were planning to use TIF dollars to develop light industry just east of the freight yard.

I’m having a hard time finding anyone in Englewood who believes the mayor’s people. So they’re fighting every way they know how.

“The noxious soot won’t just stay in Englewood,” says Ellis. “It’ll go north—into Canaryville and Bridgeport. Nobody cares what happens to Englewood. But maybe they’ll care about Bridgeport.”