By Michael Miner
In journalism’s good old days a lot of interesting stuff that happened on Chicago’s south side never got reported because it wasn’t news. Now there’s a way to put those south-side doings in the paper yet continue to spare folks up north the annoyance of reading about them. It’s called zoning.
Consider transportation, which in the mind of the Tribune doesn’t connect here to there but simply serves a variety of theres. I’ve written already about that paper’s parochial approach to the debate over whether to extend the North-South Tollway through Will County. A second lively debate has been waged for months over whether to level the last three-quarters of a mile of the Jackson Park el along 63rd Street. The subject interests me, but there’s no earthly reason why it should, as it deals with matters more than 13 miles away in a wholly other part of town. So when the CTA board voted 6-0 this month to tear the sucker down, the MetroChicago south edition told the tale, while the MetroChicago north, the paper tossed at my door, didn’t.
I found out about the June 5 CTA vote by reading the Sun-Times, then hearing from the Reader’s special projects coordinator, Kim Grimshaw. She dropped me a note saying the Tribune had edited her mother out of my paper.
A familiar name in Chicago political circles, Jacky Grimshaw coordinates transportation programs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology; she’s also codirector of the Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, a coalition that’s developing its own long-range regional transportation plan. When she spoke at a recent public hearing in New Lenox against the North-South extension, accusing Springfield of neglecting the city in favor of pushing new roads into the corn belt, the Tribune deemed the hearing a local event and slashed its coverage in half for city consumption. Grimshaw’s testimony didn’t make the cut.
Now the CTA board had voted to raze the 63rd Street el, and Grimshaw had accused it of favoring “dishonest information, inaccurate information, and outright lies.” Strong words, these–ones the Tribune found fit only for south-side consumption.
The Sun-Times reported the vote but not Grimshaw’s denunciation of it, and neither daily concerned itself with the “inaccurate information” on which the vote was purportedly based. The city had found a way to claim that the people of Woodlawn had spoken–and now the papers were going along with the joke.
“City officials have told the Federal Transit Administration that 56 percent of area residents favor demolition,” Tribune transportation writer Gary Washburn reported in his account of the June 5 vote — the account my Tribune didn’t carry. Washburn added that “activists” denounced this number as “ginned,” but he didn’t say why. “City planners boasted that 57 percent supported demolition of the L tracks that darken 63rd Street,” said a Sun-Times editorial that declared both sides “must now come together.”
Sorry. The el’s champions aren’t giving in gracefully, and a researcher in Grimshaw’s camp faxed me a letter of protest. The 56 percent figure “can not possibly be correct,” wrote Gregory Munson of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis. “Nonetheless, the dailies–which were given a press release detailing my preliminary analysis at the 5 June CTA board meeting…have compounded the City’s flagrant abuse of the democratic process by uncritically repeating the faulty figure.”
Munson’s being generous calling the 56 percent figure faulty. It’s a hobo stew of a number, concocted by tossing into one pot testimony heard at a public hearing March 12, written and telephoned opinions that came in over the next two weeks, a phone survey conducted by the Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.), and petitions distributed by pro- and anti-demolition forces.
This methodology opened the door for massive duplication, something the Department of Transportation acknowledged without adjusting for it. And it smooshed together flagrantly partisan, contradictory findings.
The oral testimony at the hearing was 43 to 23 in favor of restoring service on the el east of Cottage Grove, with 7 speakers neutral.
The written and telephoned comment favored tearing the el down by a count of 582 to 179. But Munson observed that 407 of the written statements were turned over to the city by the Woodlawn Organization, on record as wanting the el to go. Munson noted that several of these statements betrayed ignorance of the actual choice, which is between razing the el and restoring it to service: “Take the el down the el does not stop anymore anyway after cottage”; “I feel the El should come down seeings how it will not be used east of Cottage Grove”; “Why do we need the tracks if there no El. Tear them down.” One respondent, Munson reported, wrote, “I was asked to write you in regard to the ‘L’ on 63rd Street.”
Petitions fetched 1,802 signatures in favor of renovating and using the el and 1,637 in favor of razing it. And T.W.O. reported that its telephone survey turned up 534 respondents who wanted to tear the el down, 123 who wanted to keep it up, and 11 who were neutral.
Munson’s particularly scornful of the T.W.O. survey, given T.W.O.’s open hostility to the el. Here’s the question T.W.O. asked: “Do you want the tracks between 63rd and University up to Cottage Grove to come down, or are you in favor of them staying up?” There was no mention of restoring service on those tracks as an alternative. The choices were these: “Yes, El should come down,” “Yes, (PERSUADED),” “No, El should stay up,” and “Don’t care / Undecided.” Two of the four choices favored demolition.
One of T.W.O.’s telephone pollsters was staffer Annie Jackson, presumably the same Annie Jackson who passed around a “petition for removal” that began, “Whereas the Jackson Park section of the 63rd Street elevated structure between Cottage Grove and Dorchester Avenue represents a crime ridden eyesore and a deterrent to the redevelopment of our community.”
Munson questions Jackson’s impartiality.
But the dailies have paid Munson no attention. If “56 percent” is good enough for the city it’s good enough for them, too. And it’s definitely good enough for the city. It arms City Hall with the illusion of a popular majority, which allows it to cut the Gordian knot and make a decision on the el. “We realize this isn’t rocket science,” said Matt Smith, spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development, “but it is a fairly accurate representation of what we’ve seen in the community. What we’ve seen is a pretty divided community, and that division has stalled development along the el.”
But the city isn’t blaming division alone. It’s accepted the argument that the 63rd Street el itself — which Smith reminded me was built more than a century ago for the long-obsolete purpose of bringing visitors to the Columbian Exposition–has slowly smothered the street it stands on. Now that prominent local interests are promising a wave of new construction once it’s gone, the city wants to get moving.
“The Habitat [Company], in conjunction with the Woodlawn Organization, is now in the process of developing plans to rehabilitate and build 120 houses in this area,” said the Reverend Arthur Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God at 63rd and Dorchester, as he offered an overview of Woodlawn development at the March public hearing. “And here the Woodlawn Organization and the Fund for Community Development is going to build 42 new homes for Chicago right here on Kenwood, and 17 of them are sold already.”
Brazier is chairman of the board of the Fund for Community Development, which was established four years ago to build mixed-income housing.
His overview moved closer to 63rd Street. “Nothing is happening,” he said, “because the closer you get to the el the less people want to invest….We are saying that with the el down you can build new housing, you can have shopping nodes along 63rd Street.”
Leon Finney Jr., chairman of T.W.O., wrote the administrator of the Federal Transportation Administration a year ago declaring T.W.O.’s support of “all efforts directed towards the removal” of the 63rd Street el. “You’ve got to build houses in Woodlawn,” he said at the public hearing. “You’ve got to build homes in Woodlawn.”
Grimshaw and Munson don’t buy this. They believe that development can come with the el as well as without it and is, in fact, already on the way. “Much of this new development is occurring within three to four blocks of the long-promised Dorchester station,” Munson argued last month in a letter published by the Tribune. But once rapid transit’s lost, it’s gone forever. “An over-reliance on cars will choke off development, not encourage it,” he wrote.
Says Grimshaw, “What T.W.O. is doing, I suspect, is carrying out the long-range plan of the University of Chicago to suburbanize Woodlawn and create a buffer zone between those poor black folks and the university. Because the arguments they make to take the train down have no legitimate basis.”
A CTA official who spoke at the public hearing said the CTA would let the city decide what to do about the el. A city planning official said the city would be guided by public sentiment. Public sentiment was then construed to support the demolition the city favored all along. Valerie Jarrett, who chaired the public hearing, used to be Chicago’s commissioner of planning. Today she’s chairman of the CTA. She’s also executive vice president of Habitat, which is building homes in the Woodlawn area. Besides chairing T.W.O., a development partner of Habitat, Leon Finney chairs the CTA’s Green Line Task Force, allowing him to present himself at the public hearing as the people’s champion. There are reasons why save-the-el forces feel they’re spitting into a hurricane.
But I’ve digressed. I didn’t mean to write a story about transportation or development. That’s the dailies’ job. This is a media column, and I merely meant to make the point that I sometimes get to read not nearly enough about interesting doings in nearby parts because I’m presumed to be uninterested in them.
“They’ve done it yet again,” Jacky Grimshaw told me. Yet again would mean for the third time.
She explained. “On June 13 we went with a hundred folks from metropolitan-area congregations out to the Chicago Area Transportation Study meeting in Schaumburg. They are the regional policy-making authority. One, people don’t know they exist, and two, they hide their meetings by having them weekday mornings at an inaccessible place. We got them to agree to come downtown.”
The Tribune coverage of the CATS meeting focused on this delegation’s complaint about a “disparity” in state transportation funding, with new development favored and the inner city stiffed. The article ran in the Tribune’s MetroNorthwest edition but not in Chicago.
A Sun-Times editor asked me the other day how I liked the improvements in the Sunday paper. Well, the paper’s looking good. Sunday’s a day when a reader can kick back and dig in, and the Sun-Times appreciates that. Last weekend it even ran a long excerpt from a new book on the presidency. But I’m not sure that “Affairs of the Kennedys: How JFK and Jackie cheated on each other” should have been touted quite so conspicuously on the front page. When a newspaper repeats tales of 40-year-old infidelities that it can’t say independently ever happened, it’s breaking more wind than news.
The Sun-Times has a Sam Smith problem. When the breaking news was Phil Jackson’s new one-year contract Smith reported circles around the Sun-Times’s sports staff analyzing it. As long as Smith is at the Tribune and the Bulls are the biggest sports story in Chicago, Chicago’s self-proclaimed number-one sports section isn’t.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Gregory Munson and Jacky Grimshaw by Lloyd DeGrane.