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Losing Track

Many people think tearing down a neglected stretch of the el is good for Woodlawn. Many people with cars, that is.



On September 28, after years of threats and disputes, the CTA tore down most of a mile-long, 100-year-old section of the el along East 63rd Street--half of the Jackson Park leg of the Green Line, which now ends at Cottage Grove. Beyond that stop is an amputated stump and a series of gashes in the sidewalk where the supporting posts were torn out. They'll be filled in soon, and then, the city promises, it will do right by the neighborhood: the street, now lined mostly with vacant lots, will get new planters and ornamental lampposts.

On the eastern end of the old leg, between Blackstone and Dorchester, is a section that hasn't come down yet. It was rebuilt with $9 million from the Federal Transit Administration, and to avoid paying the money back, the city had to promise to use the materials elsewhere in the system. Two desolate blocks are now cordoned off while workers remove the gleaming white trestles and lay sections of them on a flatbed that will transport them to the north side, where they'll be used in the renovation of the O'Hare line or perhaps the new Howard superstation.

The only building on the south side of the street where the el is still standing is Arthur Brazier's Apostolic Church of God, whose spires and soaring concave roof are shielded from the noise and dust of the demolition by an immense parking lot. On the north side a vacant lot bears a sign advertising the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation's Kenwood Crossing development: "Classic New Single-Family Homes, From $199,000. Secured Site Access With Two-Car Garage."

It's a sign of the times in Woodlawn, the south-side neighborhood through which East 63rd Street runs. Long one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, it now seems to be heading for revival--though not everyone likes the direction it's taking. A multimillion-dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation and financial support from the University of Chicago, a few blocks to the north, have jump-started redevelopment, including the first construction of new market-rate housing in more than 40 years. Tearing down the neighborhood's public transportation is seen by many as an essential part of this process. As Bishop Brazier put it in the pages of N'Digo, "How are you going to rebuild the 63rd Street business district with that monstrosity? If it comes down, we can have shopping knolls and new housing. We'll have commercial development, but it's not going to happen with those tracks."

Has mass transit "lost its constituency," in the words of Mayor Daley, or "become less relevant to the American way of life," in the words of new CTA head Frank Kruesi? At first glance, the Green Line certainly seems to have. The Lake Street segment of the Green Line has less than 40 percent of the riders it had a decade ago. The south-side segments--including the Jackson Park leg--have less than 20 percent. The CTA is supposed to be run like a public utility, not a profit-making business, but even the agency's staunchest critics would concede that at some point a decision must be made to discontinue a service for which there's no demand.

The CTA attributes the falloff in ridership on the Green Line to declining population in the areas the line serves. There's some truth to this theory--the Green Line does serve areas that have lost jobs and population. But the sharpest decline in ridership came in the 80s, by which time the population of many of these neighborhoods had stabilized. And even where ridership and population declines coincided, as they did in Woodlawn, the ridership losses were out of all proportion to the population losses.

The el along 63rd Street was among the city's oldest sections of track, having been built in 1893 to bring visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. Immediately after the exposition ended, the line was cut back a short distance to Stony Island Avenue, which it reached via a bridge over the IC rail tracks, a block east of Dorchester--and it retained this basic structure through the 1970s. As late as 1979 the Green Line's Stony Island terminus was among the busiest stations in the CTA system, with commuters from all over the southeast side riding trains to and from the Loop.

But in 1981 the bridge over the IC tracks was found to be structurally unsound, and the next year it was torn down. A public hearing was held on what should be done with the couple blocks of abandoned el tracks east of the old bridge. None of the 40 or so people who showed up, according to people who were present, suggested tearing down the remainder of the spur, and almost all were in favor of rebuilding the bridge. For budgetary reasons the CTA declined to rebuild the bridge, but it did agree to reopen the station at Dorchester, just west of the IC tracks and shuttered since 1973, as the line's terminus and to reroute Stony Island buses two blocks west so that southeast-side commuters could continue using the line as they had in the past.

But the CTA reneged on its promise and never reopened the Dorchester station. From 1981 on, the last station on the Jackson Park leg was University, a half mile west. Many commuters were then forced to make two transfers or walk the half mile--and within three years a third of the line's riders disappeared. A breakdown of lost ridership by station shows that the loss was entirely the consequence of the declining number of people boarding the line at its terminus, presumably commuters. The number of people boarding at other stations along the route held steady.

Within a few years the CTA began shutting down other stations on the Jackson Park leg. One year it was Cottage Grove, for part of the next it was Martin Luther King. Neighborhood residents were forced to make other arrangements, and repeated threats that the whole line would be shut down only reinforced this trend. Over the course of the 80s Woodlawn lost about 20 percent of its population, but between 1980 and 1993, the last full year of operation, the Jackson Park leg of the el lost 75 percent of its riders.

But low ridership was only the second excuse offered by the CTA for the 63rd Street demolition. Asked about the line, CTA spokesmen would quote Bishop Brazier and Leon Finney, head of the Woodlawn Organization, who believed--as do many of those involved in the redevelopment of Woodlawn--that tearing down the el was for the good.

In a letter in support of demolition to CTA president Robert Belcaster, 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman wrote, "Through the efforts of my office and the efforts of others, Woodlawn is undergoing a renaissance. Housing for all income groups is completed and occupied or in the planning stage. Equally as important is bringing 63rd Street back to life. For this to happen, the CTA elevated structure needs to terminate at 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue. [Demolishing the remainder of the line] will open up many opportunities along 63rd Street. Currently there is more than 10 acres of vacant land along this corridor and a number of vacant buildings."

Elsewhere in the city, community organizations and political representatives have fought to retain local mass transit, seeing it as a vital public service for their constituents. But in Woodlawn both the Woodlawn Organization--an Alinskyite neighborhood group with a long and distinguished history--and Alderman Troutman vocally supported tearing down the el. They argued that it caused noise pollution, that it encouraged crime, that it discouraged new construction along 63rd Street, and that it depressed property values.

Unfortunately neither the city nor the CTA made much of an effort to assess the validity of these claims. Instead they quickly accepted the wishes of the community, expressed at a single public hearing, on June 5, 1996--a hearing packed, critics like the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council's Susan Johnson say, with Brazier's parishioners, who were bused in from the suburbs. "The vote was in effect orchestrated," says Johnson. "The community process seemed to be organized after the fact to support a decision that had already been made by a number of key players." Actually, a slight majority at the hearing supported restoring operation of the el.

The city also paid attention to a telephone poll that purported to show a majority of Woodlawn residents in favor of demolition. But that poll was conducted by the Woodlawn Organization, and it offered respondents only two choices: a nonoperational line or demolition.

The Center for Economic Policy Analysis, a local think tank, did a detailed analysis of the claims made by the el's opponents. It found that with proper noise-abatement measures the clatter of a train could be kept at 74 decibels or less--quieter than an accelerating bus and well within standard limits for residential areas. CEPA also looked at police statistics from District Three, which showed no concentration of crime under the el tracks. Thefts and robberies were distributed more or less evenly over the neighborhood, and just as many crimes occurred on 61st Street and on Martin Luther King Drive as on 63rd Street; drug offenses were concentrated between 60th and 61st streets. A CEPA report noted, "Analysis of recent crime patterns in Woodlawn reveals no correlations between the 63rd Street El and the most frequently cited offenses--prostitution and narcotics."

What about the larger argument that the el impeded development? The University of Chicago had also made the case for demolition on these grounds. Before the community meeting U. of C. trustee Stanford Goldblatt had been trying to persuade the Federal Transit Administration not to demand repayment if the line were torn down. "The elevated structure," Goldblatt wrote a U.S. Depart-ment of Transportation official in 1995, "is decrepit and could not be put into use without substantial capital investment. A number of abandoned buildings, the site of active drug dealing and prostitution, as well as a few struggling businesses, are located under the El tracks. In short, 63rd Street is an ugly and dangerous place and represents a serious impediment to community development in the south: it is a barrier between Hyde Park and the development which all of us would like to see fostered in Woodlawn."

The suggestion that only "a few struggling businesses" are located under the el tracks is positively bizarre. Anyone who's spent time there knows that the two or three blocks on each side of Cottage Grove where the el is still operational include a restaurant, a grocery store, a bank, a public library, a furniture store, a dry cleaner's, and a men's clothing shop, as well as several pharmacies, liquor stores, currency exchanges, and shoe stores. Some of these are no doubt struggling, but others have opened within the last few years and appear to be thriving. In fact, this section of 63rd Street has by far the largest concentration of businesses in the neighborhood--no surprise, since successful commercial districts are found along or near el lines throughout the city. "If you look at the most disinvested neighborhoods in the city," says CEPA director Arthur Lyons, "the only place where you'll find any commercial activity is right around an el stop." It's almost as if the el opponents saw any characteristically urban form of development--mass transit or dense settlement patterns--as a source of blight and decay and any suburban-style development that catered to drivers, not mass-transit users, as the key to prosperity, however impractical.

The demolition advocates stated that tearing down the el would spark commercial development, but the redevelopment so far in Woodlawn has been overwhelmingly residential--mostly low-density, upper-income town homes and single-family houses. Among the projects planned, under construction, or already complete are the houses of Kenwood Crossing; the 40-odd "Frank Lloyd Wright-style" ranch houses of gated Plaisance Place, priced around $150,000; the dozen town houses of Woodlawn Commons, from $162,000 to $179,000; four single-family homes priced from $199,000 to $230,000 in Midway Commons; and the comparably priced condos of Midway Plaisance Condos and detached houses of Kenwood Pointe. (The average household income of current Woodlawn residents is less than $14,000.) Meanwhile virtually no commercial or mixed-use development is even on the drawing boards. Except for a couple of new businesses in the area around the Cottage Grove el stop, the only other new retailer in Woodlawn is a gas station. The Woodlawn emerging from redevelopment looks more like a suburban bedroom community than a city neighborhood.

Now that the area is being redeveloped and people are moving in, ridership on the el almost certainly would have gone up. But the people who are spearheading redevelopment in Woodlawn seem to envision a community where everyone has a garage and drives to work and to the store. "In a dense community with lots of public transit people tend to take public transit," says Jackie Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which has done a lot of analysis of the CTA over the years. "What the people pushing for the removal of the 63rd Street el did not understand is that Woodlawn should be an urban community with the density to support public transit."

A major public transportation resource has now been permanently scrapped. "This would have been a completely different debate if the line stopped at Cottage Grove and some group was saying, 'Let's extend it to Stony Island.' But the line was already there," says CEPA researcher Gregory Munson, who cowrote the reports on the 63rd Street el. "In the end the demolition seems to have come down to currying favor with two Woodlawn ministers [Brazier and Finney] and the University of Chicago, by transforming Woodlawn into a safe, suburbanlike setting. Of course in an era when city-sponsored retail development means a TIF-funded shopping strip with a big parking lot and no access to public transportation, it comes as no surprise that the city would support the demolition of the el. But what happens when city planners finally come to their senses?" By then, of course, it will be too late for Woodlawn and the Jackson Park el. But as redevelopment and CTA retrenchment gather speed, it's a safe bet this won't be the last such debate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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