By Ben Joravsky
On May 12 an assortment of big shots from the CTA and City Hall will gather at an elevated station to celebrate the reopening of the Green Line.
As they pose for photos, snip ribbons, and congratulate each other for restoring train service to much of the south and west sides, it will be easy to forget that only a few years ago some of them wanted to eliminate much of the line. As activists see it, the fight to save the Green Line–a fight that’s far from finished–is another reminder of how poor and isolated neighborhoods have to fight hard for funding.
You got to drag them kicking and screaming to do the right thing, and when they finally do it they want the credit,” says Reverend Lewis Flowers, a member of the West Side Ministers Coalition, which fought to restore the service. “The moral of this story for other communities is that old saying ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.'”
The organizing effort to save the Green Line was made more complicated by the fact that it cuts through several west- and south-side neighborhoods that are far apart and whose residents have little contact with each other. The line was formed by cobbling together a few old elevated routes: Lake Street (Oak Park to the Loop); the Howard/State Street south branch (the Loop to just past 59th), which then split into the Jackson Park route (east along 63rd to Dorchester) and the Englewood (west along 63rd to Ashland).
In 1993, as a part of a larger reorganization of train routes, the CTA fused these lines together and called it the Green Line. “We went to a color-coded system to make it easier to understand and more recognizable,” says Jeff Stern, a spokesperson for the CTA. “Imagine trying to explain to a visitor you’re taking the Congress/Douglas/O’Hare line. Why not just call it the Blue Line?”
By then “the trains were tiptoeing over dilapidated tracks,” says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a not-for-profit research organization. “You couldn’t call it rapid service because the tracks were too rickety for the trains to run fast. The CTA had established many slow zones.”
For years many community activists speculated that the CTA was letting the tracks fall apart to justify closing them and spending money on services in wealthier neighborhoods. The CTA denied this, but in February 1992 CTA president Robert Belcaster announced there was no money to rebuild the Lake Street line and that it might have to be replaced with bus service.
Belcaster’s remarks precipitated an outcry from the west side and Oak Park. Residents formed the Lake Street El Coalition and demanded reassurances that the line would remain open.
But Belcaster insisted the CTA couldn’t afford to repair it. “This is not crying wolf,” Belcaster told reporters in late 1992. “The money we need to keep this system viable must be found and spent by 1995.”
Of course, most observers figured it was a high-stakes game of political poker. Repair money most likely could be found if Mayor Daley and other city leaders considered it a priority. In general Daley has been reluctant to fund train transportation in low-income neighborhoods, arguing that it costs too much money and doesn’t draw enough riders.
Daley has little to gain politically for such efforts. The Lake Street line, for example, services mostly black working-class and poor communities like Austin and Garfield Park, where over the years he’s received relatively few votes.
“It’s easy to overlook our communities,” says Flowers, who lives and works in Austin. “But without the Lake Street line Austin would die. This is a lifeline. It’s a way for citizens to get to work. Plus you have businesses that feed off the el. As it is, there aren’t too many businesses out here anyway, except for liquor stores.”
Throughout 1992 and 1993 the coalition organized protests and press conferences. They brought in local politicians to ride the train and see firsthand how important it was to the west side and Oak Park. “We won the support of [congressmen William] Lipinski, Bobby Rush, and Cardiss Collins, but I still say it was Oak Park that helped us the most,” says Flowers. “You can’t overlook a suburb like that.”
Flowers and others argued that although Lake Street’s ridership had fallen in recent years, it would rise if the line were repaired. “You have to ask yourself how many more people would ride the trains if they were going over smoother, faster tracks,” says Leavy. “I think people would rather take the train than drive downtown.”
They said it was time the CTA saw itself as an agent for growth in communities outside the north side, the Loop, or the airports. “We had to convince them that the elevated line could spark economic growth in working-class neighborhoods,” says Leavy. “The efficiency the CTA would have gained by shutting down neighborhood stations is minuscule compared to the benefits of having more riders, which means more foot traffic for neighborhood stores. We’d told the CTA you can refurbish a train station and use it to attract development. You can say, ‘Hey, White Hen Pantry, why don’t you open a store here? There are going to be 1,000 people a day streaming through this station.'”
The Lake Street El Coalition joined forces with activists in Englewood and Jackson Park who also wanted stations rebuilt and tracks repaired. “We hadn’t worked with the west side before, though our interests are the same,” says Janie Thomas, an Englewood resident and activist. “We were both being neglected.”
Within 18 months the CTA reversed itself; at an August 1993 board meeting Belcaster announced it had discovered enough federal and state money to rebuild the Green Line. On January 9, 1994, the line shut down and construction began. “This was a major undertaking,” says Stern. “We had to redo 1,700 column bases, the very pillars that hold up the el structure.”
Throughout the project a fierce struggle was waged over which stations would be reopened. “The CTA complained that the stations were too close together; they wanted to put them a mile apart, like they are on the Dan Ryan line,” says Leavy. “We said, ‘No, this is a different type of el line. This is a neighborhood el. It’s not hauling people across the city down an expressway.'”
In May 1994 the CTA announced it would open 26 stations along the Green Line, practically restoring full service. But last month the Sun-Times ran an article in which CTA officials said the new Green Line would have only 22 stops, and that they didn’t have the money to reopen the stations at Laramie, Homan, Harvard, and Dorchester.
The article set off another round of protests. “The Homan stop on the Lake line is a gateway to Garfield Park, which the Park District is spending millions on to restore,” says Leavy. “So why close it? The station itself is a beautiful Victorian structure; it feeds Saint Mel’s, Westinghouse, and Lucy Flower high schools. It makes no sense not to reopen it.”
As for the Harvard stop, Englewood residents say it’s a crucial feed to Saint Bernard Hospital, one of the area’s largest employers. “They always say how close the stop is to the Dan Ryan line,” says Thomas. “They’re always overlooking Englewood. It’s like we’re a stepchild.”
The Dorchester controversy is entangled in a larger and more publicized debate among Woodlawn residents over the future of the 63rd Street tracks. One faction wants the tracks torn down east of Cottage Grove. Another faction wants the tracks to remain and Dorchester to reopen.
At one point a few weeks ago residents from the west and south sides were ushered into City Hall for a private meeting with a key aide to Daley. “He said, ‘Just let us tear down the Jackson line and we’ll divvy up all the rest of the money with the rest of you,'” says Leavy. “We were astounded. He was trying to play people against each other and get us involved in that Woodlawn fight.”
Last week the CTA relented and announced plans to reopen Laramie but not Homan or Harvard; they are waiting for direction from Woodlawn residents as to the Dorchester dispute.
“This is a major project and we’re looking forward to the opening,” says Stern. “We think it’s going to be a significant factor in revitalizing the west and south sides.”
In the meantime residents in Englewood and on the west side say they will continue pressing for their stations. “You can’t just write off these neighborhoods,” says Flowers. “You got to put some resources there so they can survive.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.