By Neal Pollack
One late winter evening in 1994, LaSheril Surratt felt an asthma attack coming on. She needed medicine at once, so she made an emergency appointment at Cook County Hospital and headed out.
Surratt walked to State Street, a half block from her apartment at Wabash and Garfield Boulevard, and caught the number 29 bus. She traveled nearly 50 blocks downtown to Harrison, where she transferred to the number 7, which went west. She got to the hospital within an hour.
But in the waiting room, Surratt's asthma grew worse. She nearly passed out in the bathroom--"Three people had to catch me as I was coming out the door"--and she was rushed to the emergency room. By the time the hospital let her go, it was 12:30 AM. She'd been there for more than four hours.
Back on the street, Surratt waited for the Harrison bus. And waited. And waited. It was 1 AM, then 1:15. She began to panic, and when she panicked, she knew, her asthma could act up again. A "homeless man" approached, she says, and told her the Harrison bus didn't run overnight. She needed to walk back up the street to Jackson and wait for the 126 bus, which would take her to State.
Surratt was pleased to run into someone helpful at 1:30 AM. She was even more pleased to have a way home. Even if the Harrison bus wasn't running, she thought, at least another bus was.
One day this summer, as Surratt was returning from classes at Harold Washington College on the King Drive number 3, she spotted a poster that took her by surprise. It said the Chicago Transit Authority was holding a public hearing to discuss cutting service on a number of bus lines, especially those that operate late at night. The CTA was planning to cut some evening hours on the Cottage Grove number 4 bus, which took south-siders to three major hospitals--Wyler's Children's, Mercy, and Michael Reese. The 126 Jackson, running to Rush-Presbyterian and Cook County, was facing cuts as well.
This didn't seem fair to Surratt. She remembered that asthma attack she'd had in 1994. If she had another late-night attack, how would she get home without the 126 Jackson? "I can't afford a cab," she said. "My friends can't always drive me. This is ridiculous. What does the CTA expect me to do? Hitchhike?"
David Mosena was untouched by controversy when the CTA named him its new president in June 1996. He had served as the city's aviation commissioner and planning commissioner and as the mayor's chief of staff. Mosena had been handpicked by Mayor Daley to succeed Robert Belcaster, who resigned after it was disclosed that he'd bought stock in a company doing business with the CTA. Mosena joined CTA chairman Valerie Jarrett at the top of the agency. Jarrett was also a former Daley cabinet member; she and Mosena were counted among the mayor's most competent people and were quickly touted by the press as the CTA's new "dream team." Putting them at the head of the CTA was compared to the mayor's putting Paul Vallas and Gery Chico in charge of the Chicago Board of Education.
Like Vallas and Chico, they inherited a mess. Belcaster had kept the agency from falling apart, but not by much. The CTA faced a $20 million deficit for fiscal 1996 and it looked as though deficits would continue to rise in the following years. Ridership had fallen more than 25 percent since the mid-1980s and the quality of service had continually declined. Fares were rising, infrastructure was crumbling, and federal subsidies were drying up. The new Midway line was doing well, and the renovated Green Line--which linked the old Lake, Englewood, and Jackson Park routes to serve the south and west sides--had been successfully reopened. But for the most part Chicago's public transportation system was sliding toward disaster. The CTA, Mosena said in a press conference two months after taking the job, needed to be "reinvented...starting from a blank page."
Mosena quickly began tinkering. There would probably be a hiring freeze, he said, and a sale of surplus equipment and property. He promised that the CTA would not raise fares, but he also said that the agency would have to make some tough decisions. There would be no more financial tricks, like taking money from the capital improvement budget to pay for day-to-day operations. "We have been pulling rabbits out of hats," Mosena said, "but we have run out of rabbits."
Nothing was definite yet, he said, except that the CTA had paid $500,000 to the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton for recommendations to improve operations. Booz-Allen's preliminary report, called a "Proposed Scope of Work," was full of language about cost-cutting and "increased efficiency." But it also talked about finding ways to attract new riders and about changing bus routes to better fit the needs of particular neighborhoods. Transit activists had hopes that, for once, the CTA would listen to them.
And in the beginning it appeared that Mosena really was listening. He attended a meeting of Metro Seniors in Action, the city's most radical senior citizens' advocacy organization. No other group had given Belcaster a harder time. In 1995 Belcaster proposed raising senior fares during rush hour, and Metro Seniors immediately called its own public meeting, inviting Belcaster to sit down with hundreds of people furious at the fare hike. Belcaster attended and backed down. The CTA board never voted on the proposal.
Mosena knew that he had to cater to Metro Seniors in Action. He promised to seek more money from the state. He pledged to form a task force on improving CTA service and to provide more accessible service for people with disabilities. He also said he and the mayor would hold a citywide transit summit. "The last thing I want to do is cut service and raise fares," he told the seniors, "and I'll do everything I can to not go down that road."
For the first time, transit advocates started hearing what they called the "R word"--ridership--coming from CTA headquarters. While service didn't improve much after Mosena took over, the subway stations got cleaned more often, and a crackdown on panhandlers made some riders happy. Getting rid of beggars was hardly the first need of the CTA, but almost no one protested. In November the agency announced it would post train schedules at every el stop. At a press conference announcing the timetables, Jarrett said, "Our lifeblood and the success of our system depends on our ridership." And in March, after introducing a new toll-free hot line for disgruntled riders, Mosena sounded the same happy theme.
"As part of our changing philosophy, we are making our riders our number one priority," he said. "It's another example of our commitment."
The Chicago Tribune reported in February that the CTA had hired ten new executive staff members--costing $1 million in salaries and benefits--to help "reinvent" the agency. Mosena claimed he had selected the best team possible and defended his hiring decisions by saying that the CTA's payroll had dropped by more than 100 people since he had taken over. "If everything was working at the CTA," Jarrett said at the time, "neither David or I would be there....The proof for our riders will be in our actions. Our focus is 100 percent on the customer. That is the new culture."
On Saturday, March 1, Mayor Daley held his promised transit summit. It was attended by Jarrett and Mosena, various aldermen, the mayors of Evanston and Skokie, and the village president of Oak Park. "In other cities, you'll find transportation systems that don't go to all parts of the city, that don't run past ten at night, and that become less clean and attractive each year," Daley said in a speech. "Chicagoans understand that mass transit improves the quality of life for everyone from schoolchildren to seniors. Mass transit creates jobs. People use trains, buses, and subways every day to get to work and to go shopping. Even people who never use CTA benefit from it every day. They benefit because CTA cuts down on road congestion and pollution--improving the quality of life in the city and all throughout the region."
Daley said he had introduced a bill in Springfield that would, if passed, raise the state subsidy for student and senior fares. He said he wanted to create a tax credit for employers who encourage their employees to take public transit. He proposed a state gas tax to help fund the CTA. He also said he would lobby the federal government for assistance. At the beginning of the 1990s, Daley pointed out, the CTA's federal operating subsidy was around $41 million. This year it was $17 million. Next year it would be cut to zero. "The climate in Washington and Springfield has changed in recent years," Daley said. "We have to make a strong case for getting a fair share of funding for CTA.
"Many people rely on CTA," Daley added. "Service cuts affect how people go to work, visit their families, or travel to places of worship. We need to keep this in mind when we consider the future of the system. But we have to be realistic."
It was as if the mayor knew what was coming.
Booz-Allen & Hamilton's "Service Restructuring Proposal" was released to the public on May 8. It advocated the largest single reduction of service in the history of the CTA. Under Booz-Allen's recommendations, three out of four bus lines would have reduced hours or shortened routes. A dozen routes would be totally eliminated. Late night--or "Owl"--bus service would be zapped on all but a few routes. And perhaps most significantly, Owl service on the Green Line, the Evanston Purple Line, and the Douglas Blue Line would be gone and the Douglas would not run on weekends at all. According to the report, 10 percent of all CTA service would be eliminated, the vast majority of it on the south and west sides, though the southeast, southwest, and northwest sides would also be deeply affected. The study estimated that each weekday 20,000 current riders would no longer be able to use public transportation.
Booz-Allen tried to justify the proposed cuts by saying that the city's population and job base have both been shrinking since 1980 and that certain neighborhoods have shrunk more than others. It simply doesn't make sense, the consultants said, to run transit service to all places all the time. "While the level of the CTA's service and its geographic coverage has remained relatively constant, the face of Chicago, in terms of development patterns, has not." The CTA, Booz-Allen concluded, was way behind the curve, which had swerved far away from the city's poorest neighborhoods. The best move for the CTA would be to concentrate on improving service in its rail system and in its "key bus network" of 46 routes that provide two-thirds of all bus rides. The proposed savings from these service cuts added up to about $25 million a year, a small fraction of the CTA's annual budget.
Booz-Allen didn't suggest any constructive remedies for the CTA's problems, with the exception of offering five rather vague "demonstration projects" in areas especially hard hit by service reductions. The plan recommended "flexible service" for five different neighborhoods; this appeared to involve a mix of occasional buses and dial-a-ride vans, though it wasn't clear in what combination. Financial and ridership figures for these "flexible" programs were left unclear, and the report said only that they would serve areas of the city such as the "Far Northwest," "Far Southeast," and "Midway Airport Community." The CTA was left to determine the content of these plans; Booz-Allen gave no guidelines to follow.
The proposal--with more than 100 pages of charts, graphs, and readouts--was a tricked-up version of the CTA's usual excuses. The threat of service cuts has long been part of its strategy to escape criticism. Nearly every year the CTA loses money for many reasons, among them deteriorating infrastructure and reduced funding from the state and federal governments. But most importantly, the CTA loses money because it loses riders, and every year the CTA's ridership loss is used to justify some kind of fare hike or decrease in service. The cycle never ends. More riders are lost. The CTA loses more money. Service deteriorates even further.
But even with the rock-bottom expectations of CTA riders, Booz-Allen's proposal was too much. Not since the CTA threatened to close the Green Line several years ago had the agency shown such disdain for its passengers. It seemed to be asking for trouble.
William Dorsey has been driving buses for nearly 20 years, and he's only seen the system get worse. He says he's had enough.
In 1986 Dorsey was out sick from August until October. "I still don't know what the problem was," he says. The situation made him feel depressed. When he went back to work, he decided to give his riders Christmas cards with his name and badge number inside. "I wasn't expecting anything," he says, but the next week a passenger returned the card with $65 inside. Another passenger gave him a dollar. "If I'd known that, I would have bought some more. A lot of passengers were surprised. They said, 'A card from a driver?' They were touched by it. I made a $3 profit off the deal."
The next year, Dorsey says, he was suspended for a "maintenance problem" on one of his buses. He claims the problem was not his fault. He had a few days off to think about the situation. When he returned to work, a rider remembered him and said good morning or good afternoon--Dorsey can't remember which. Once again his riders raised his spirits. "I began to see that if you reach out to the riders, they respond," he says.
In the winter of 1992 the CTA hiked fares from $1.25 to $1.50. Dorsey was still doing his Christmas card thing, and had recruited a few other drivers for the program. This year, they included a political message. It said, "No service cuts, no fare hikes. Driver-Rider Unity." Dorsey believed the threat of service cuts was in sync with the agency's efforts to replace retiring union employees with part-timers. He thought CTA riders should join forces with rank-and-file employees to protect their common interests, so he founded an organization called, naturally enough, Driver-Rider Unity. Several other drivers joined him.
In May, when this year's cuts were announced, Driver-Rider Unity was solidly in place, and Dorsey thought it was positioned to do some good. On every bus route he drove--whether it was along South Halsted at six o'clock Sunday morning or on 87th Street at three o'clock Tuesday afternoon--Dorsey made speeches imploring his riders to fight the cuts by petitioning the CTA and writing letters to its board members and the mayor.
The CTA scheduled three informational meetings in mid-May to "educate" the public about the service cuts. And the CTA board was required by law to hold at least one hearing where the public could speak out, though more could be scheduled if needed. The one and, as it turned out, only public board meeting would take place on Monday, June 30, in the basement of the Thompson Center.
Dorsey was ready. "We've been getting the word out," he said. "A lot of my passengers didn't know about the cuts. It was up to us and different other groups to help mobilize. So that's what Driver-Rider Unity's all about. Stop fighting each other over nitpicky things like 'the bus is late' or 'you didn't say hello to me the right way.' Start to work with people. We have the same problems. It's like a circle. We all have to come around and help one another."
Dorsey wrote letters to government officials and business leaders. He wrote one to Gerald Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, whom he had met at Mayor Daley's transit meeting on March 1. The letter said, in part, "For many people, the CTA is their only means of transportation. There are others who know someone with a car, but must wait until they're available to take them somewhere. Many people may lose their jobs because of these cuts. To put it in human terms, it's about the 27-year-old woman who rides my route and carries a luggage-size case to her scheduled house calls so that she can present her product line. It's about the senior citizen whose route is being cut on 31st Street and can't walk blocks away to another bus line. It's about that young mother who has to carry her children to nursery school or to the babysitter early in the morning whose route will start later, or the downtown office cleaner whose route will stop running earlier. These are people who are doing the right thing; many of them are industrious and just trying to make it, only to get kicked around."
Bill Olsen read about the service cuts in the Tribune. "It just blew my mind. I couldn't believe they were going to cut the Blue Line on the weekend," he said. He had just started teaching an ESL class at the Spanish Coalition for Jobs on 18th Street, and this fall he would also become an English teacher at a new charter public high school run by the community group ACORN. He lived in Little Village and depended on the Blue Line for transportation. So did his students. He brought the Tribune article into class and read it with them. His students were concerned. They decided to go, as a class, to a CTA information session at Malcolm X College on May 20.
Olsen and his girlfriend, a teacher named Lizabeth Fernandez, attended the May 18 session at Loyola University in Rogers Park just to check things out. Fernandez let CTA board members know they should bring along an interpreter when they came to Malcolm X--at least half the audience would consist of Spanish speakers. When Fernandez and Olsen showed up on May 20 with a busload of 50 people, the CTA board told them that only one person from their group would be allowed to speak, because this was an information session, not a public meeting. The board also said the interpreter was sick and a replacement couldn't be found. Fernandez translated the meeting for the group as best she could. Olsen decided the CTA would never listen to its riders unless they forced the issue.
Olsen and Fernandez began riding the Douglas in their spare time. They were joined by two other teachers, Sebastian Robins and Seth Patner. To spread the word, they passed out homemade flyers--English on one side, Spanish on the other. "No one would know about the cuts when we told them," Olsen says.
No area of the city stood to suffer more service cuts than Pilsen. Along with the adjoining neighborhoods of Little Village and Lawndale, Pilsen would be virtually shut off from the rest of the city on evenings and weekends. The lively 18th Street shopping district would have almost no bus service except during weekday rush hours, shutting the neighborhood off from easy access to health centers, the police station, a post office, and a major branch library. "DO YOU KNOW--" Olsen's flyer read, "THE CTA WANTS TO LEAVE YOU STRANDED? The CTA has decided to cut service on the Douglas/Blue Line Train on weekends and at night. They also plan to make service cuts on the 18th, Cermak, 26th, 31st, 35th, Pershing, 47th, Halsted, Ashland, Damen, California, Kedzie, Pulaski, Archer and Cicero buses. This will cripple our community.
"Did they ask us what we thought? Do they care about how this will affect us? This is the last chance to speak up and fight for your right to get around!!! Unless we speak up they will drastically cut our public transportation!!! Attend the public hearing and voice your opinion!!!"
Olsen thought that the cuts couldn't happen if he brought enough people to the public hearing. The CTA would simply have to reconsider Booz-Allen's proposals. "We were going to bring people down, and the cuts weren't going to take place," he says. "We were getting people together saying 'Come on this bus, you've gotta go down there.' As crazy as it sounds now, I thought that was the culminating thing."
Dolores Harrison already knew not to expect much from the CTA. She'd seen this process many times before. She started showing up at CTA meetings in 1992, when the agency was threatening to shut down the Green Line. She spoke at every meeting she could, and when the meetings adjourned she stuck around to lobby board members personally. If she didn't get answers from the CTA, she went to board meetings of the Regional Transportation Authority and lobbied its members. When the Green Line was finally shut down for repairs, Harrison feared that the neighborhoods directly around el stations would become even more dangerous. She guessed that businesses would close and that there would be less street traffic and more crime. She demanded that the CTA light those areas at night. Nothing was done. She went to the RTA, which eventually acted on her suggestions.
Harrison recalls the night the Green Line closed. The CTA boarded up the stations and trapped employees inside, having forgotten to tell them the exact date the line was closing. The story made the front pages of all the papers and was widely played as a joke. But Harrison didn't find it funny. She lives right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, around the corner from the end of the line, and she didn't like what the CTA was doing to her neighborhood. "This was enraging me," she says. "This was horrendous. I said, 'We can't be treated like this time after time after time.' It was just terrible that day."
Three years ago the CTA announced it was eliminating monthly passes. It said people didn't buy enough passes, and it accused regular riders of sharing them. In three years the cost of the pass had risen from $60 to $78, and people weren't buying them because they were too expensive. If anyone complained, the CTA said what it always did: there were only two choices--either we raise fares or we cut service. So Harrison started raising hell. A tiny, doe-eyed retired administrative secretary and grandmother of nine from the south side almost proved to be too much for the CTA.
"I'd been upset about what was going on with CTA for years," she says. "I cannot drive, and I could see the things that were going on. I just kind of got fed up. Then they eliminated the bus passes. I said, 'This is it--I've got to get something going.'"
In 1994 the CTA held three public hearings about eliminating the bus passes: one at Malcolm X College on the west side, one at Kennedy-King on the south side, and one at Truman College on the north side. Harrison wrote up protest statements for friends to read at Malcolm X and Kennedy-King, while she attended the meeting at Truman herself.
Carol O'Neil, a dietitian at Cook County Hospital, would also speak at Truman that night. O'Neil had been brought to the meeting by Bernadette Cornejo, a social worker who was furious about the plan to eliminate passes. O'Neil recalls saying to the CTA board, "I hope you're going to do the right thing. But if you don't, and if anybody wants to fight this, come up and see me after the meeting."
Harrison and a dozen other people approached O'Neil, and within days they had formed a new organization to protest the elimination of bus passes. They called their group Citizens Taking Action, "the new CTA."
Citizens Taking Action soon became a huge pain to the old CTA. There weren't many of them, but they had various skills. Harrison recalls going to libraries, to community colleges, to high schools, and to the DePaul University cafeteria, all to spread the word of what was going on at the CTA. Citizens Taking Action had representatives on all sides of the city and in Evanston, just enough of them to give the organization legs. William Dorsey signed up early on, and added Rider-Driver Unity to the phone list.
The group also had Adam Kerman, a north-sider who admits that he's "clueless about community organizing." For 15 years Kerman has been obsessed with transit policy. He's supported his habit by doing research for political campaigns, nonprofits, and small businesses, and in his free time he's crunched numbers. Kerman gladly signed on with Citizens Taking Action. He analyzed ridership statistics, filed Freedom of Information Act requests, and helped secure a $2,500 grant from the Crossroads Fund, which provides money to grassroots groups across the city.
Then there was the Reverend Ronald Schupp, a cofounder and the first president of Citizens Taking Action. Though he lives in Edgewater, Schupp is associate minister of a small Missionary Baptist church on the south side; he prefers to refer to himself as a civil rights leader rather than a minister. Schupp, according to his self-authored biography in Who's Who in the World (which he carries with him everywhere), has been involved in the movements to free South Africa, Tibet, and various political prisoners around the world. He has advocated for the rights of the homeless and Native Americans. He has been a diplomat to the World Jewish Congress. He proudly points out that he has received letters from Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, and the Dalai Lama, and has been named by Mayor Daley in five different proclamations. He is a lay minister, put on this earth to stir things up at political events and get his picture in the papers. Schupp is given to waving elaborate signs and dressing in outrageous costumes. He never misses a protest and is always willing to get arrested. He reached his zenith of fame when police arrested him last summer as one of the "Chicago Five" during the Democratic National Convention.
"He's got his eccentricities, but he's basically a good guy," says Carol O'Neil. "Good at coming up with a phrase. He doesn't sit still for very long. He loves the bullhorn. You say rally, he's there. He's talked to me that he hasn't always felt welcome in the activist community because it's cliquish. Our group isn't like that. We're very from the bottom up."
Suddenly Citizens Taking Action was everywhere. They were constantly at City Hall, showing up for many of Mayor Daley's press appearances. They were in touch with other transportation advocates, such as Metro Seniors in Action, the disability-rights group ADAPT, and the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, asking them to send representatives to the protests. They persuaded ACORN to form a transportation committee. They demanded to meet with Mayor Daley about the bus passes.
Harrison recalls one day in early 1995 when about a dozen activists came to City Hall and demanded a meeting with the mayor. They knew Daley would be there, since the City Council was meeting. They made a lot of noise. Of course there was no way that Daley was going to attend an unscheduled meeting with a dozen rather strange, very agitated people who obviously hated his guts. But they refused to go away. So they were squeezed into a small room and assigned to one of Daley's administrative assistants, who, Harrison says, "tried to pull a nutball act on us. He didn't know what in the world we were talking about. He said pass elimination only affected 3 percent of the people, so why was it a big deal?"
"People need their passes," Harrison said.
The next day Daley was quoted as saying that bus passes were not an issue. Only 15 disgruntled individuals cared about them.
"We were not individuals, we were representatives of large organizations," Harrison says. "The city just doesn't care at all about CTA passengers." Though the passes were later reinstated, the CTA raised their price to $88. The Green Line that Harrison had fought so hard to keep was reopened in 1996, but minus all stations east of Cottage Grove. By now, Harrison says, she knew she couldn't trust the CTA.
So the day she heard about the new round of service cuts she started pumping out flyers on her IBM computer at home. Then she hit the streets.
Every day found Harrison on another line, passing out flyers and making speeches. She rode the 47th Street, the 51st Street, the number 1 Indiana-Hyde Park, and the number 6 Jeffery, both express and local. She rode buses to the end of the line, then rode them back the opposite way. She rode east, west, north, and south. "I'd see a bus coming in another direction," she says, "I'd get off and take the next one."
At one time Harrison felt shy about speaking in public. She asked her friend Carol Chalmers, a longtime political activist, "How do you get up and talk like that?" Chalmers told her, "Once you get started, it's not hard."
One sweltering June afternoon, armed with a tall plastic bottle of Mountain Dew and a lot of flyers, Harrison boarded the number 4 bus at 61st Street and Cottage Grove. She had at least half an hour before the bus would reach its north terminus at State and Wacker. She stood in the aisle and steadied herself by holding on to the back of a seat. She needed the support. She had a stroke during the winter and had been released from the hospital in March.
"Good afternoon everyone. I'm Mrs. Harrison. Citizens Taking Action. I'm here to tell you about the bus cuts that are going in. This bus that you're on now will cut its service. This bus will not run Night Owl service. When that happens, there will be no Owl service on the south side from Stony Island to Western, 2400 west, 1600 east."
Immediately, a woman with a baby riding on each hip interrupted Harrison. She asked, "Our bus will stop running at what time and will come back at what time?"
Harrison showed her a flyer. "OK. On the back of this sheet you'll see number 4 from one to four in the morning. There will be no Owl service. People that ride this bus--"
"How can I go to the hospital at three or four in the morning?" asked the woman. "My baby might need to go to the hospital. How am I supposed to get there?"
A young man sitting across the aisle asked, "Why are they doing this?"
"There is one word for what is going on," Harrison said, "and that word is racism. They think you don't have any money. The best thing you can do is, everyone that's on this bus, all these children, come to this meeting June the 30th, State of Illinois, LaSalle and Randolph. Let the children speak. Let them say, 'I'm Suzy Q or John Doe. I'm against these cuts.' Let them be aware that the buses that you take, that there's a center, a hospital, a library, a community hall in your neighborhood where people want to go. You must come out."
"When is this?" asked the woman.
"In the evening. Monday, June the 30th. All these people must be encouraged to speak."
"Please come out."
As the woman stood to get off the bus, she told Harrison that she and her kids would try to make it. Harrison continued, "If these massive cuts occur, our children will not be able to go to city college. Out of the seven city colleges, four will not have any service. That telling you something?"
People answered Harrison with "Yeah" and "OK."
"There will be no service to Kennedy-King. None! Come on out and tell them something, OK? Give the kids a chance. The CTA is eliminating bus service, is cutting down the service. Bus routes will be severely curtailed. This bus that you're on right now will not run until four o'clock in the morning. That means that you will not be able to have any more north-south transportation from Western to Stony Island. Everybody must come out and speak their mind. You must tell the CTA that this is wrong."
All over the city, activists both green and savvy were rallying the people to come to the June 30 public hearing.
Rosa Vasquez found out about the service cuts, she says, "the day after Mother's Day." Vasquez is a financial analyst for a Loop bank. She lives near Archer and Narragansett on the southwest side and takes the bus to work every day. The only public transportation anywhere near her house is the 164 Narragansett Express. Though the 164 only runs at rush hours, it was one of the buses targeted for elimination. The bus route second closest to Vasquez's house is the 99 Stevenson Express. It also runs only at rush hours and was also slated for the guillotine.
This was too much for Vasquez. A fellow rider on the 164 typed up a flyer and started passing it around the bus. Vasquez made copies and started passing them around. Soon riders were passing flyers back and forth. Everyone was passing out flyers. Vasquez knew a police officer whose daughter played on her daughter's softball team. She gave the officer some flyers and she distributed them around her station.
Vasquez assigned riders to take certain buses at certain times to tabulate exactly how many people rode the buses. She wanted to compare her figures to the Booz-Allen figures. She wasn't surprised to find out that, by her numbers, the buses carried nearly twice as many passengers as Booz-Allen said. She posted her results on every 99 and 164 bus. Vasquez wrote letters to Daley, Mosena, and Jarrett, and to Walter Jacobson of Channel 32. She had never done anything political before. She and her fellow riders had long demanded more buses in better repair, and more frequent service. Instead, they were getting the opposite.
"It was very frustrating," she says. "The whole thing was so unfair."
Vasquez circulated petitions and sent them to CTA headquarters in the Merchandise Mart. "This is our best transportation to our jobs in the Chicago Loop," the petitions read. "The Orange Line is NOT faster nor is it convenient. We have continued to ride the 99/164 bus despite CTA's cutting service, cutting the number of buses, cutting the hours of service, putting the most ramshackle buses on the line, and despite pitifully long gaps in irregular scheduling."
Along with the petitions, Vasquez began passing around more flyers. "If the #99 and #164 routes are not 'profitable,' as the CTA and its highly-paid consultants claim, then why not find a way to boost ridership?" she wrote. "City government spends millions of tax dollars to get people interested in the Blue Bag recycling program and the CAPS community policing program. Why can't the CTA do the same? Why doesn't the CTA spend a little money in the short term to market its service and reap the long-term rewards of increased ridership?
"And since when do CTA routes have to be 'profitable'? Do other city and county government agencies turn a profit? Police stations? Firehouses? Libraries? Sanitation services? If not, why aren't they closed?"
Maria Rudish got a copy of the Booz-Allen study early on. She saw that the 27 South Deering bus and the 30 South Chicago bus were both slated for the ax. She knew this meant the end of public transportation in her neighborhood of South Chicago. Rudish spoke out at the CTA's information session at Kennedy-King College in May, then went to Washington, D.C., for a conference. She returned to find that no one in South Chicago was organizing people to oppose the cuts. So she got busy.
Few residents of South Chicago are more visible than Rudish. She's a large, stern Austrian immigrant in her late 60s who's seen most often wearing a yellow headband and a red peasant-style blouse and matching skirt with decorative white brocade. She has never owned a car. Around the neighborhood she's known as the woman who rides a bicycle. "There's not a block that somebody doesn't call out to me," she says. Among her many involvements, Rudish runs two community gardens, tutors children at the public library, sits on a community-policing board, serves as vice president of the parish council at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, gives out communion at Trinity Hospital, delivers groceries to needy senior citizens, and is secretary of a community housing organization. Before moving to South Chicago in 1987, Rudish lived in South Shore, where she published a community newspaper. Before that she lived in Hyde Park. She received her PhD in comparative education and sociology from the University of Chicago. Her last paid job was in 1994, when she was laid off by a company that translated computer software from English into German.
Rudish's neighborhood has been in decline for decades, ever since the steel mills started closing. Over the last few years she's seen some gradual improvements, but the neighborhood has a long way to go, and losing its two major bus lines won't help. Most residents have to take buses to whatever jobs they can find. They can't afford cars. The Jewel at 92nd and South Chicago closed a few years ago, so senior citizens have no grocery within walking distance. The closest is the Dominick's at 118th. You can currently get there on the South Chicago bus. There's also a store on 71st, but you have to take two buses to get there.
Most importantly to Rudish, the service cuts will mess up her church's schedule. For years Our Lady of Guadalupe has coordinated its masses with the CTA. Whenever the pastor considered changing the time for mass, he would first consult with his parishioners, who often said no if it meant there would be no bus available. The pastor would then ask the CTA to change the bus schedule, and several times it complied.
Our Lady of Guadalupe became Rudish's base of operations. She wrote several letters and petitions and passed them around to every community organization she could reach.
One Sunday, Rudish went to the church, set up two milk crates with a board between them, taped five petitions to the board, and gathered 750 signatures. She stayed from the 7:15 AM mass to the 8 PM novena. Meanwhile, some nuns took her petitions to a home for battered women and to other organizations they worked with. Altogether Rudish came up with more than 2,000 signatures. She dropped them at Mosena's office personally, along with a letter pleading the case of the church's parishioners. As the CTA's June 30 public hearing approached, Rudish arranged to bring two busloads of people from Our Lady of Guadalupe. They were planning to make some noise.
Rudish saw the CTA's proposed actions as another example of how the Daley administration ignores the city's poorest neighborhoods. With the city's definition of a core area stretching as far north as Wrigleyville and as far south as Bronzeville, South Chicago is still a long way from being included in the development equation. Rudish says the CTA cuts are a particularly nasty salvo in an ongoing, if unspoken, class war between downtown development interests and the ordinary people of Chicago. "The powers that be in the city want to push and confine the communities outside so that the downtown and the lakefront is only for the rich people and for the tourists and the people who can afford the $200,000 town homes," she says. "If I ever win the lottery, a big prize, I would give it to CTA. If it's really true that they're just short of money, then they wouldn't be able to make the cuts. Because 25 million isn't much. Instead of building those superstations downtown with all the tiles, which is nice but unnecessary, they should run some more trains. You have to make capital improvements, but it doesn't have to be superfancy. It has to be for the people, not for the tourists."
To LaSheril Surratt, it looked as if all of the buses that went anywhere near her house were having their hours cut. She began to worry about her family, which, she says, has "three asthmatics, two diabetics, two hypertension, one chronic heart failure, and my mother is all of the above. You mean to tell me we all have to put our illnesses on the CTA's timetable? If we are to have an asthma attack or a diabetic coma, we have to schedule them after 6 AM to 9 AM so we can get to the hospital? That's ludicrous. Not everyone will have a family member to drive them to the hospital. We cannot say that everyone will be able to get an ambulance to take us to these 24-hour institutions."
Surratt started getting ready for June 30. She increasingly had a lot to say. "Every time I think about this issue something else comes up," she says. "You holler there's a shortage of workers, but if the workers depend on CTA how are they going to get there? The people who work in those hospitals are nurses and attendants. A lot of them come from the south and the west sides. They need to get to work. Housekeepers. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs. Nice businesses that stay open late. How are those people going to get to work? A lot of CTA workers themselves take the CTA back and forth to work.
"I'm still a student. A lot of classes run late at night, so how am I supposed to get back and forth to school? You're also looking at people losing their potential for nightlife. Everything happens at night as far as clubs are concerned. You're telling musicians, partygoers, nightclub workers that they're not allowed to work or play at their own convenient time as far as transportation. I like to party. I like to go out. Who doesn't? They're telling you on the weekend, you go home. And on the weekday, you go home until a certain time and you stay there until they tell you when you can come back out again. You're told when you can go out, when you can come home, and that you have to stay home on the weekend. It's a dictatorship!
"It affects everyone. It's hitting all the minority areas. Little Village, Chinatown, the south side, the disabled, the elderly, anyone who fits the realm of a minority. But we're the major people who's keeping their businesses afloat. A lot of the churches will shut down if people don't have a way to get to and from. We cannot depend on someone else to carpool us to and from work. Everyone has emergencies. Who's to say anyone is 100 percent reliable to take you to and from work? Some people might say that I'm making more out of this than it really is, or I'm making a mountain out of a molehill or making up tremendous exaggerated stories. But I look at all the people I've met over my years on this earth, and all the incidents that have occurred. I've ran into many situations which make me realize what life would be like with the CTA's cuts. And I'm here to tell you, it would not be the same."
The people began trickling into the auditorium of the Thompson Center at about 4 PM on June 30. The ones who got there early had been to these things before, so they knew that if they wanted to speak they'd better beat the others to the sign-up sheet. They knew there would be a lot of competition.
Around 5:15 the buses started pulling up. From Pilsen, from Lawndale, from Austin. From South Chicago, from the northwest side, from the southwest side. And the buses kept pulling up. Busload after busload of people streamed down the escalators of the Thompson Center, past the food court and toward the auditorium. By 5:30 a line of hundreds wove through the food court. Dozens of Metro Seniors in Action waited patiently. An old woman stood alone, holding a tiny hand-drawn sign that read "Save the 31st Street bus."
Always looking for an issue to latch onto, members of the International Socialist Organization moved among the crowd, hawking newspapers and seeking converts to the revolution. But most people had other things on their minds that day.
"The CTA don't care about the people, the CTA don't care about the people," one group of women murmured over and over as the auditorium quickly filled. Anyone who got there at 6 PM, when the meeting was supposed to start, was too late for a seat. The auditorium sat 700--and people were standing in the aisles. They came from all parts of the city, even a few suburbs. They were black, white, and Hispanic. Employees and employers. Some rich and some poor, with most somewhere in the middle. These people had nothing in common save one fact: They all rode the CTA.
Still they came streaming down the escalator. Every time it looked as though the flow would abate, another bus pulled up. Then the CTA shut the doors, leaving at least 400 people, maybe more, on the outside.
The CTA board sat at the front of the room on a raised stage. Jarrett and Mosena were in the center. Security guards stood by the exits. CTA riders crammed every inch. In the front row sat Reverend Ronald Schupp. He was wearing surgical scrubs, gloves, and a mask. He held an enormous sign, embossed with a transit map, that urged the CTA not to perform a "transitectomy" on the city. The media flocked to Schupp like bugs to a bright light.
The meeting began.
"I'm Valerie Jarrett. I'm the chairman of the board of the CTA, and I'd like to thank you all for coming out here this evening."
Immediately the boos started to swell. Jarrett was drowned out by jeers.
"I know you don't want me to take that personally," she said, "so I won't."
The boos swelled again. Jarrett tried to take control of the meeting but she couldn't. The boos continued. A woman leaped onto the stage, waved papers from the Progressive Labor Party, and screamed, "This meeting is a sham! They're going to make these cuts anyway! Don't listen to them! Don't listen!"
The boos grew even louder as the crowd demanded that the woman get off the stage.
Then Jarrett introduced an African-American preacher who was to deliver the opening invocation. He was pure hellfire. The invocation went on and on. The crowd began to boo again. This is a public meeting, people shouted, not a religious revival.
"I love the Lord because he heard my voice...and my suffocation," said the preacher. "What shall I render unto the Lord? I will drink from the cup of salvation and honor the name of the Lord. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me on the day when I am in trouble, on the day when I call. Answer me speedily. Hear my voice, O God. Hear my prayer. Reserve my life from fear of the enemy. Hide me from the secret counsels of the wicked....Truly, my soul awaiteth upon God. From him cometh our salvation. Amen."
Outside, hundreds of people, whole busloads of people, were banging on doors, shouting to be let in. But the evening would go on for a long time. Eventually, everyone would get in.
The Tribune account the next morning called the meeting a "raucous shouting fest," "pandemonium" with a "circus-like atmosphere." The article reported that the "crowd booed every word out of CTA Board President Valerie Jarrett's mouth, including those she delivered when inviting people standing in the back to sit in vacated seats."
It's true that some of the people who spoke were unreasonable and silly. Their declarations ranged from the oft-repeated demand that the CTA board take a cut in pay to one woman's testimony that she didn't like the color of the new seat covers on the Skokie Swift. Another woman complained that gangs of "angry lesbians" had been beating her up whenever she got off her bus. But the CTA board had brought the bedlam on itself by calling only one meeting, ignoring repeated requests for further hearings and sitting passively at the front of the room while person after person hurled invective.
Yet the meeting was, for the most part, an authentic outpouring of public dissatisfaction. For almost everyone it was the one and only chance to be heard. Several aldermen--John Buchanan, Robert Shaw, Michael Chandler, and Danny Solis--spoke first. Then it was the people's turn.
"I've lived here for 59 years and I've ridden public transportation all my life. I cannot drive a car, cannot drive or ride a bike. I want to know why you are cutting the number 201 bus. I hope you're paying attention. I'm not going to walk. I'll send you the cab bill when I take a cab."
"I've seen people on the bus, and they've asked me, What will make a difference with the CTA? What would bring people back? I tried to tell them: Make the bus dependable. You fix the windows. You fix the air. You make it better. That's what would bring the people back!"
"Friday, I had to wait for 40 minutes when I usually can get the bus in 5 minutes. Now the buses are supposed to be eliminated. You're gonna make it worse! Are you trying to make it worse for us? The trains don't work! You people sitting up there, what are you going to do?"
"The Addison Street station was rehabilitated for Cub fans only. There is an express bus that runs directly to the Museum of Science and Industry. The number 6 Jeffery express bus runs the same route. The CTA does not want our tourists to ride the same bus as the people who go further south. Anyone that has a half brain can look at this list and see what's going on. So I'd like to make a suggestion. We don't have to stop the bus at every block downtown. If I gotta walk, they gotta walk."
"I think it's very unfair and ludicrous and crazy. We're all people who work in this city, live in this city. We have been loyal to the CTA. I get off work at 11:30. If you take the number 4 away, how am I going to get home? If you put through these cuts, how are we gonna get home? It seems like every five years we have to go through the same thing."
"I might have to take another route to go home. It's scary. My life is on the line every time I leave home. Not only my life, but all of my neighbors too. All of our lives. So how are you going to live if something happens to us? All I'm asking is that you take us into consideration. Give us a chance to live."
"I'm here to tell you if you take off the Blue Line, or the number 18 and the Archer, we're going to be stuck at home. I don't want to stay at home."
"These cuts try to pit neighborhoods against each other. Red Line versus Blue Line versus Brown Line versus Green Line. But I'm here to tell you: We will not be divided on these cuts!"
"We in the neighborhood where I live at cannot walk from 79th Street to our homes. We get attacked, our purses get snatched, and it's terrible. The bus that you're going to eliminate gives me half a block to walk to my home. There are others that take that bus all the time. People who work. Some of them work at night. You are talking about eliminating the whole line. Cutting off the south side of Chicago. I hear comments that I am nobody. But I am someone."
"How can we rebuild our city if people in the city cannot freely be mobile to function? When you cut a bus line, you block off a city. You isolate it. It becomes stagnated. And what they're trying to do is make the inner city more crime ridden than it already is."
"A lot of people depend on buses to get to school, to get to work, to take their kids to school. They can't afford a car. This is how we do our shopping. If these buses get canceled, a lot of people will be stranded. This means that people will have to buy a car no matter what. This isn't fair. We don't see public transportation as a privilege. We see it as a right."
"I've looked at the proposed Night Owl schedule. The best word I can use for the south and west sides if these proposed cuts go into effect is 'wasteland.'"
"It's gonna be on your heads what's gonna transpire afterwards. Because our neighborhoods will suffer. And if our neighborhoods have to suffer, our children will suffer. And if our children have to suffer, that means you'll have to suffer."
"You need more riders, not less. They tell us in the papers, take CTA to the Taste of Chicago, take CTA to Wrigley Field. But they want to cut out all weekend service on the Blue Line. They are cutting the lifeline to working-class people! How long will we let them do this to us? I ask you. How long?"
The meeting finally ended at 1 AM, after the board heard from about 100 people.
William Dorsey left three hours earlier. He had to drive the South Halsted bus at dawn the next day. He was number 325 on the list and obviously wasn't going to get a chance to speak. But he liked what he'd seen. He especially enjoyed the moment when the crowd gave him a standing ovation for having the courage to come to the meeting in his bus driver's uniform.
"The CTA is talking about reinventing itself, but people are going to reinvent the spirit of revolution," he said. "Fighting back. Outside tonight, I saw it coming. The thing is, all these people from all these different neighborhoods. They say Chicago's the most segregated city in the world, but you got all types of people here tonight coming together. That's the positive thing."
As number 339 on the list, Dolores Harrison also gave up hope of speaking that night, even though she was ready. She hoped the CTA board would listen to the people this time. She needed a rest. She'd been going out to Altgeld Gardens on the bus nearly every day, passing out flyers.
Bill Olsen was full of energy, running around the cavernous meeting hall.
"This was the first thing I've really seen Chicagoans from all over get really excited about and really upset about," he said later. "Certainly not the unruly crowd depicted in the Tribune article, but concerned and upset. I said, 'Hey, these are people that understand they're in the boat together.' We're not hooked into any of the aldermen. We're not politically connected people. We're just people who are concerned about this stuff."
Yet, as Olsen and his friends watched the crowd slowly trickle out of the Thompson Center, they realized that a lot of this energy was going to remain untapped. Most of these people would leave the meeting and never see one another again.
"We needed to have a next step ready to go, and nobody did," he says. "Who should have done it? Who knows? But it seems like every single human being at that meeting, their name should have been on a list. Because that kind of unity existed. It was inspiring. It was a really powerful moment. We should have had some people there. Instead of getting up and speaking to the CTA board, people should have been getting up and speaking to the crowd and saying, 'How are we going to stop these cuts? What are we going to do next?'"
On July 1, the morning after the meeting, it seemed that the public had finally broken through. A CTA board member was on WBEZ saying, "It looks like we're going back to square one."
But the good news lasted only three hours. Later that same day, Mayor Daley backed the cuts, claiming they were the sole alternative to a fare increase.
"Let's be realistic," Daley said. "It was like the Chicago Board of Education. They're running out of money. There's no money. There's no federal money coming down. There's no state money. They have to live within their budget. If they don't have the cuts they have to raise the fares, and if they raise the fares there's less and less people riding."
Now with the mayor officially behind the cuts, there was no more talk from the CTA about going back to square one.
Attentions shifted to July 9, when the CTA's board was scheduled to vote on the Booz-Allen proposals. That was only eight days away--any opposition to the cuts would have to rise up quickly.
On July 3, more than 30 people from various neighborhood organizations and activist groups got together to decide what to do next. Dolores Harrison was there, along with William Dorsey, Bill Olsen, and LaSheril Surratt. Reverend Schupp showed up. So did Carol O'Neil and most of the members of Citizens Taking Action. The meeting was run by Amanda Solon, the new director of Metro Seniors in Action. It was held in the offices of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which was formed nine years ago to track how the city spent money on capital improvements and to push for more spending on neighborhood projects.
Metro Seniors and the NCBG were soon at the center of the opposition, just as they had been on protests against the now-defunct circulator project and the closing of the Lake Street el. From the beginning of David Mosena's term as CTA president, the NCBG had been advocating some sort of "ridership initiative" on the part of the agency. The head of the NCBG, Jacqueline Leavy, lobbied the CTA to allow her organization to canvass various neighborhood groups to formulate suggestions--from the bottom up--as to how the CTA could attract riders. Leavy started hearing the "R word" from Mosena and Jarrett, and, after his March 1 transit summit, from Mayor Daley himself.
After months of planning, the NCBG signed a contract with the CTA. From mid-June until the end of September, NCBG staff members would bring together CTA officials and community representatives to discuss ways to bring better transit service to the neighborhoods. Soon after Leavy signed this contract, Booz-Allen released its report, which caused her to question the CTA's commitment to finding more riders.
People were angry at the July 3 meeting. Mayor Daley's comments had disheartened everyone because he had appointed Jarrett and Mosena. There was little doubt about how the board would vote on the cuts.
The obvious solution was to disrupt the upcoming board meeting. No one was more ready and willing to create a disruption than Carol Cleigh, the most active and visible member of the Chicago chapter of the disability-rights group ADAPT. Cleigh had gone to the wall numerous times to try to get the CTA to make buses and trains wheelchair accessible, even chaining herself to el turnstiles several times. She has forged, if not a career, then a life out of fighting for transit rights for the disabled. Often her conversation admits nothing else. Cleigh was actually the only speaker at the June 30 meeting to be booed off the stage by the crowd. They didn't disagree with her content. It had more to do with her reading an eight-page, single-spaced statement, refusing to stop until she had finished.
But no one doubted that Cleigh was an effective protester. She knew that if people in wheelchairs created a disruption, they would be more or less safe from arrest. The police have long been ordered not to arrest disabled people in front of television cameras. "They can't lift us, because that's illegal," she says. "Besides, who'd want to arrest us? We're a pain in the ass in jail."
The coalition quickly decided to try to shut down the CTA board meeting. It would get as many people there and make as much noise as possible. Cleigh graciously volunteered the use of her bullhorn.
Someone from state senator Jesus Garcia's office suggested that the coalition should hold a press conference in City Hall the day before the board meeting in order to "spin" reporters to its side of the story. The idea was brought up too quickly to get shot down. Before anyone knew it, the coalition--which as yet didn't even have a name and had no set leadership--was committed to the press conference.
As soon as the meeting ended, people from Metro Seniors and the NCBG recognized that the press conference was a bad idea. At best it would have no impact at all. At worst it would make the coalition look unorganized. The fact that Garcia's people were putting things together created the risk that the CTA issue would then belong to Garcia, rather than to the people who were protesting.
So they agreed to make phone calls over the weekend to tell everyone that the press conference was off. But before they could do that, Cleigh sent out a press alert on the Fourth of July. Now the media knew about it, so it had to happen. Then Garcia's people pulled out, and the NCBG was left to organize an event it never wanted in the first place.
Meanwhile, David Mosena was doing some spinning on his own. Appearing on a Sunday night talk show on WBBM AM, he said the CTA board was still going over public comments from the June 30 meeting. But he was also getting people ready for the inevitable. He called the Booz-Allen plan "fundamentally sound." He said the service cuts would affect a small percentage of CTA riders and told the same old story of a cash-strapped public agency.
"We have to face the facts," he said. "No one likes doing this. We're not interested in inconveniencing a single rider. But the fact of the matter is we're out of money. And we have to face that fact. Ridership has gone down by 30 percent in the last decade, but we've only reduced service by 4 percent. Now obviously that math doesn't add up, especially if your subsidies are drying up. To those riders who are inconvenienced, we hope they can adjust to the changes. We apologize for the changes. We don't like doing this. But the CTA simply has to survive. That hearing was an important opportunity for us to listen. Contrary to what some of the press clips said, our board sat there until 1 AM and listened to every single testimony. All of it was recorded. We're going back over every line of it now to see if there are any further adjustments to be made in this plan. We'll just have to see. It is a deliberate process, it is a fair process, and it is a compassionate process. We're concerned about these people."
But Mosena wasn't telling the whole truth, according to Jackie Leavy. She claims the money is there if Mayor Daley says it's there. Since 1976, Chicago has provided the CTA with a $3 million operating subsidy--the state-mandated minimum--and this subsidy has not been raised one cent in 21 years. Cook County provides an additional $2 million, which also hasn't gone up since 1976. By comparison, New York City gives its public-transit system an operating subsidy of more than $300 million a year. In Chicago, last year's city budget, which Leavy knows intimately, showed an $80 million surplus. Some of that money, she says, could go to the CTA. Instead, city officials explain that giving surplus money to the CTA would hurt Chicago's bond rating.
"That's nonsense," Leavy says. "We know there's money out there. It's not a question of public financing. It's a question of political will."
On July 8, representatives from the NCBG held their press conference in City Hall, along with a smattering of activists. The group included Cleigh, Schupp, Harrison, Surratt, and Rudish. Senator Garcia decided to show up after all. The gathering wasn't much to make the mayor quiver, but it was a beginning. It was ad hoc, strung together. These were the crabgrass roots.
The activists read prepared statements to the few reporters who showed up. Garcia, as had been feared, got most of the attention. Some of the activists started to make a big deal about a letter they had to present to Mayor Daley. They told a security guard that they demanded to speak with him immediately.
The security guard said he'd go see if Daley was available. The activists politely moved up against the nylon ropes that separated them from Daley's office.
A few minutes later Andre Garner appeared.
"I'm from the mayor's office," Garner said. "I understand you have something to present to us today."
"Good morning. My name is Ted Thomas. I'm president of Chicago ACORN. I'm here with Bessie Cannon, president of SEIU Local 880, and a coalition of concerned citizens. We're here this morning to present the mayor with an open letter about our concerns with the CTA cuts. So..."
Thomas handed the letter over to Garner.
"OK," Garner said. "The mayor's not in right now. I hope you'll allow me to accept the letter on your behalf. I'll make sure that he sees it and is made aware that you're here this morning."
Everyone looked confused. Thomas paused. "Very good," he said.
"All right?" said Garner.
"Yes. Thank you very much."
Reporters pulled Garner aside. He said the mayor was standing firm in support of the cuts.
The CTA held their July 9 board meeting in a conference room on the second floor of the Merchandise Mart. The room seats about 400, as opposed to the CTA's usual meeting room, which seats about 50. The board apparently knew they'd need the extra seats.
The room filled up quickly. The South Austin Community Coalition brought several dozen people. They were wearing signs on their chests that depicted black helicopters. The signs said "Hey Neighbors!!! Got One of These ?!?!? If the CTA has their way, you'll need one!!!" The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation brought several dozen people. They wore buttons that said "No Way, CTA." About 20 people from ADAPT wheeled in. Metro Seniors in Action took up several back rows. Anyone who had been seriously protesting the cuts showed up, and many brought along friends.
A flyer was circulating, urging people to join the R.I.D.E.R.S. coalition. R.I.D.E.R.S. stood for Raising Issues to Demand Everyone's Right to Service. The acronym had been hatched the evening before by the NCBG. It listed Dolores Harrison as a contact person.
"I don't know what it is, but it's got my name on it," Harrison said. "I'm just passing it out."
Carol Cleigh wheeled up. Harrison gave her a hug.
"How are you, girlfriend?" said Cleigh.
"Can't complain," Harrison said. She handed Cleigh a flyer. "You seen this?"
"No, but my name's on there," Cleigh said. "I don't know anything about it. But it's OK. They can use my name in vain as long as it's for a good cause. Things happen so fast on this issue anyway."
Maria Rudish was carrying signs about South Chicago. She wore a button that said "I ¤ South Chicago." There were more signs scattered about the crowd: "Buses for the Needy, Not for the Greedy"; "First Public Housing, Then Public Transportation. What's Next--Public Education?"; "On Strike Against Chicago Transit Authority."
Cleigh passed out signs to other ADAPT members. "We've got 'It's About Rights Not Bucks,'" she said. "'Access for Peace.' You like 'Access for Peace'?"
A young white guy in a denim shirt approached a young black guy who was with the South Austin group. The white guy was holding a stack of newspapers.
"It's an injustice," South Austin said. "The CTA could easily find the money."
"Sure, they come up with all kinds of money for corporate welfare."
"Yeah, corporate welfare."
"They gave Sears Roebuck $600 million, and then they moved out to Hoffman Estates."
"Yeah. Have you heard of the International Socialists Organization?"
The CTA board walked into the room and sat down at a long table behind velvet ropes. A press table was directly on the other side of the ropes. The rest of the room was occupied by protesters, about 300 in total. They began making noises.
"Excuse me," Valerie Jarrett said. "Excuse me! If I could have your attention please."
The CTA began the meeting by presenting commendations to several employees who had helped save a potential suicide from jumping off the Green Line tracks in June. The protesters sat respectfully through the presentation, but a low buzz moved through the air.
Once the presentation ended, the chant began.
"No cuts, no cuts, no cuts, no cuts..."
It grew louder. Some people stood up.
"No cuts! No cuts! No cuts! No cuts!"
The crowd stood in unison. They started stomping their feet. LaSheril Surratt jumped out of her chair and began conducting the crowd.
"NO CUTS! NO CUTS! NO CUTS!"
"Say it again!" shouted Surratt.
"Louder! Louder! Say it again! LOUDER STILL!"
Reverend Schupp stood on his chair. The CTA board sat stone-faced behind the velvet ropes, staring blankly at the crowd. The chant continued as the leaders of the coalition--the representatives from Metro Seniors and the NCBG who had put this protest together--stared in disbelief. It looked like they might shut the meeting down.
The chants faded a bit.
"This is not a public meeting," Jarrett said.
"It is now!" shouted a woman from the crowd.
An old man named Otto McMath, who was with the group from South Austin, stood up in the front row.
"Madam chairman," he said, "I'm addressing this to the board. Is you going to vote on this matter today?"
Jarrett didn't answer. The crowd responded.
"No cuts, no cuts, no cuts, no cuts!"
Over the din, McMath shouted, "To the board. Will you vote today?"
"You are out of order," said Jarrett.
"This meeting is out of order! Will you vote?"
"Please sit down."
"We just want an answer," yelled Cleigh. "Are you going to vote today or not?"
Jarrett finally looked angry. "Excuse me. I'm going to run this meeting."
"You're not going to get to vote!" shouted someone in the crowd.
"NO CUTS! NO CUTS! NO CUTS!"
Jarrett tried to speak again but was drowned out by the crowd. She looked at Mosena and then at the other board members. She leaned into the microphone and started talking. The crowd couldn't hear a word she said.
Mosena then asked the board members if they had any "questions" or "concerns" about the cuts. They did. But their questions were obviously prepared beforehand, because the CTA had a visual presentation ready to answer each one. The crowd screamed in their faces, yet the meeting continued as though it were happening in a different universe.
Off to the side, a gaunt man in a gray suit held a pointer, which he ran over an ever-changing series of maps propped up on a tripod. The man was a mid-level CTA official named Gross. Given the circumstances, he looked like the grim reaper. When Mosena talked about specific cuts in response to the board's questions, the grim reaper laconically moved his pointer across a map. He frowned throughout the whole sour business.
Meanwhile, off in protest land, the screaming and wailing continued. A Metro Senior stood up and shouted, "This board should resign--NOW!!!!"
"No deals! No cuts!"
"All those opposed say NO!"
"The nos have it. The meeting's over!"
Cleigh began fumbling with her bag. A microphone poked out. A bullhorn followed. She put the bullhorn to her lips. "CTA may own the bus, but the rights belong to us!"
The crowd joined in the chant. All the television cameras swung toward Cleigh. She was surrounded by a swarm of reporters and a bunch of people in wheelchairs. A beefy security guard got up in her face and began whispering in her ear. He told her to put down the bullhorn. She placed it in her lap, and picked up the microphone instead.
"What are you, a dumbshit?" he said. "I told you to stop talking into that thing!"
"No you didn't. You told me to put the megaphone down."
"You're gonna get arrested."
Cleigh looked around and saw that she was surrounded by 15 other screaming people in wheelchairs. She began laughing merrily.
"You must be stupid," said the guard.
"Yeah, I'm stupid--that's why Northwest-ern is going to give me a PhD," Cleigh said.
"Stop talking into that thing."
Cleigh followed orders. She put down the microphone and hit the siren button on the bullhorn. The security guard threw up his hands and backed away.
Cleigh picked up her microphone again. "The whole world is watching!" she chanted. "The whole world is watching!" Everyone joined in.
Maria Rudish wasn't happy. She grabbed the microphone from Cleigh and demanded that everyone quiet down and listen to what the board was saying. The crowd ignored her and continued chanting "The whole world is watching!"
The board proceeded with its business. Noise ebbed and flowed. The grim reaper put down his pointer.
"Speak up!" someone shouted. "We can't hear your double-talk!"
The meeting moved forward. Some protesters had to leave because their lunch hour was over. The remaining voices grew hoarse. Those who stayed behind, still more than 100, got up out of their seats and began to move in on the velvet ropes, pressing closer and closer to the board. Off in a corner, Cleigh sang "We Shall Overcome," off-key, into her megaphone. This time, no one responded.
"They're gonna vote, they're gonna vote." A murmur began to move through the crowd. No one wanted to break through the ropes and get arrested. The chants grew more desperate.
"Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!"
Jarrett leaned over, and Mosena whispered in her ear. Then the board could be heard, faintly, saying one after another "yes," "yes," "yes."
The crowd was momentarily confused. "Did they vote? Did they vote? They voted. They voted."
No one heard the board vote unanimously for the cuts. In less than two hours, the CTA did what it had been planning to do all along. The board got up to leave to the chants of "Shame, shame, shame, shame!"
Bill Olsen tried to get through a side door, where the board members were walking past. A police officer threw him, hard, back into the crowd. Even Olsen knew it was over.
"We've gotta meet soon," said Amanda Solon. "How can they live with themselves? How? That was bold, bold, bold. We have to get radical. No more of this bullshit. We have got to get radical."
Rudish limped away on her sore legs. She had seen nothing good come from this day. She would continue to work against the cuts, but what had happened today wasn't her style at all.
"It was just senseless shouting," she said. "I don't have time for that. It has to be something productive. From both sides, it was like a foregone conclusion. If nobody listens to each other, then how can you work out something positive?"
Only LaSheril Surratt kept her energy level up. She was still screaming long after the board had left the room.
"I cannot believe they actually did this. It hurts everyone. Everyone. Look how many people showed up today who will not be able to have access to and from wherever they need to go. It cuts into everyone's lifestyle. I don't care whether you're working or whether you're lying on your back. The fact is you cannot get back and forth whenever you feel like it. You shouldn't have to just say, 'Well, I'm only going to go outside on these structured hours.' What happens if there's an emergency and those services are no longer there? You can't get a cab. You can't get family members. You're lost. You're fucked. And it hurts everybody. And those who have cars...I'm glad they have them, but what happens if they break down? What are you supposed to do then? Even cars break down and you have to be able to get around some kind of way. What does everybody do? They go to CTA. And that's why we're depending on CTA. We need our service. We can't afford any more cuts. We've been here too many times, and this is the hardest I've ever seen in my life. And this hurts. It really hurts."
At a press conference immediately following the board meeting, Jarrett and Mosena tried to explain what had actually happened to a confused group of reporters. The cuts had been voted in, they said, with some minor adjustments. In response to community pressure, a few Night Owl routes had been restored. Certain bus routes would be rerouted to replace others that would be eliminated. Still, almost all the cuts, including the weekend elimination of the Douglas, had been voted in as suggested. The cuts would begin October 1, with the elimination of ten bus routes. The rest, it was later revealed, would go into effect March 1. The Douglas would keep operating full-time until then.
"This is very difficult," Jarrett said. "I'm sure you were watching as we went through the meeting. This is a very difficult choice for an agency that's devoted to providing public transit. The last thing we want to do is to not provide public transit at the level that we've been providing it. But there was really no other option. We had a very open and fair process. We'd been receiving feedback long before the Booz-Allen plan was revealed to the public on May 8. Throughout the last eight or nine months, we've been meeting with community groups, we've been reaching out to try to understand what kind of service is necessary throughout the communities of our city. But the fact of the matter is that our alternatives are these: We could either raise fares or we could cut service."
The protesters at the meeting had upset the CTA, Jarrett said, but she also said that she felt their pain. "Many of the people you saw today were at the hearings we had, they were at the information sessions, and, more importantly, they've been in our offices in meetings where we've gone through the financial condition that we're in. And we will continue to work with them. Just because they continue to protest publicly doesn't mean they aren't willing to sit down with us privately and see what we can do. Many people came up to us after the hearing Monday night and said, 'You need to feel my outrage, but this is what I want to do, and this is how I need you to help me do it.' We're more than willing, as we always are, to sit down and work with them. So we will continue in that course."
Mosena, for his part, said there wasn't any more money the city could give the CTA. He said they were still hoping for some federal or state money. He added that he hoped the people who protested at the board meeting would be by his side when he went down to Springfield this fall to demand more money for the CTA.
The next day, Mosena announced he was resigning his position at the CTA to become the head of the Museum of Science and Industry.
"Running a transit institution that carries 1.5 million people every day is a thrilling opportunity," he said. "This switch gets me into education and learning, a business that is fun." Mosena added that he lived in Hyde Park, five blocks from the museum--the new job would allow him to walk to work.
"I find it hard to believe that a prestigious institution like the Museum of Science and Industry would hire somebody at the drop of a hat," said Jackie Leavy. "This is an internationally famous cultural institution. They could have had their pick of the field across the world in the museum community. There are a lot of people out there that they could have shopped around for. The cynical scenario is that all along his role was to come in and be the hatchet man, in exchange for which he was promised a comfortable position out of the line of fire. I suppose another scenario was that he was brought in, pretty much told what changes he had to make, was a good soldier but really didn't have the stomach for what he was doing, and said, 'I'm outta here.' Neither scenario speaks very well for him."
Mosena's last day at the CTA will be September 30, the day before the first service cuts take effect.
The NCBG still has its contract with the CTA to look for ways to increase ridership. Booz-Allen did exactly the opposite of what the NCBG had planned; they didn't consult the affected communities at all, which, Leavy says, puts her organization in a terrible position. "We see our contractual relationship with them as an opportunity to get the word out to the bus garage general managers, to the CTA rank and file, and to community groups that there are viable ways to increase revenue and attract riders, that service cuts are not the answer. If she wants to fire us, Valerie Jarrett is welcome to fire us. But until that time we're going to continue talking to community groups about the need for ridership attraction policies. If Valerie wants to fire us, make my day. She can go right ahead."
Leavy says some good may have come from the cuts. A nonprofit watchdog group concerned with public transit may finally be forming in Chicago. The long, hard work of Citizens Taking Action, she says, is inching that group toward a position where it could possibly hire a staff to organize full-time.
On July 25, Leavy and leaders of several other nonprofits and labor unions met with members of the Amalgamated Transit Workers' Union, which represents the CTA's rank-and-file employees. The meeting, Leavy says, was "unprecedented." Ever since Tom McCracken, the head of the Regional Transportation Authority, held hearings in the spring of 1996 about privatizing the CTA, union members have been concerned about their jobs. As of September 1, the CTA would no longer employ train conductors. Ticket-booth agents are currently being replaced by part-time "customer-service assistants" whose sole job is to help customers figure out how to use the new automated fare-card system. A new union contract that permits the CTA to employ 32 percent of its workers part-time--many of them without benefits--has only added to worries that the employees are in as much trouble as the passengers.
William Dorsey's activism, it appears, has caused union members to do some soul-searching, perhaps persuading them to form an alliance with riders. The union plans to hold a meeting on this topic in mid-September; it's thinking about joining the coalition to oppose the service cuts. This is a logical alliance, Leavy says, since the transit cuts affect all working people. The Daley administration just doesn't quite understand how.
"The virtual reality that's outside my office window--with beautiful State Street and the new Van Buren and State transit plaza--is just lovely," says Leavy. "I look at it every day. But that's virtual reality. That's good for who? For visitors, for tourists, shoppers on State Street. It's quite lovely to look at, but that's not Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans are going in and out of decrepit el stations. If there had been any aesthetic character to the station, it's been destroyed, neglected, or covered over. And an increasing number of Chicagoans, once these service cuts go through, are going to have even less access. It's a sick joke. So it's very difficult not to believe that this kind of callousness isn't being driven by some larger agenda."
Leavy wonders what Daley intends to do with the city's $80 million budget surplus. The city is flush, and it already has enough big development projects to last into the next decade. For once, why not put some of that money into the CTA? "When you can say you don't care that these folks will have no way to get to their jobs and that you're unwilling to do anything about it, that's the bottom line," Leavy says. "That pretty much tells you where the mayor's priorities are."
The coalition now settled on Daley as its primary target. It needed to start hounding him, and that would be hard work. Groups that were unafraid to challenge the CTA would be less willing to take on the mayor. Even the most independent of organizations in Chicago depend on Daley's patronage in one way or another; very few could afford to confront him directly.
After the July 9 CTA board meeting, the coalition melted to a small core. "We have lost that momentum," said Bill Olsen. He was right. But the group needed to keep pushing forward in the hope that something might happen as the actual date of the service cuts approached.
The next protest was scheduled for Thursday, July 24. Mayor Daley would be cutting the ribbon to inaugurate "Access Chicago," a city-sponsored trade show at Navy Pier to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The protest was to be kept a secret from the mayor and the media. ADAPT would be leading the charge. The CTA was planning to make cuts on 51 of the city's 76 wheelchair-accessible bus lines, as well as on 3 accessible train lines. It was an easy metaphor to spin. "Access Chicago Celebration at Navy Pier Disabled by Protests Against CTA Cuts," read the coalition's press release after the event.
Metro Seniors, the NCBG, and ADAPT sent several representatives. Bill Olsen and his friend Seth Patner showed up. So did Dolores Harrison and a few other people. The International Socialist Organization found out about the event and sent several representatives, all of whom carried signs prominently displaying the name of the International Socialist Organization. LaSheril Surratt didn't come because her asthma was bothering her that week. Carol Cleigh was exhausted and was taking the week off. Reverend Schupp sheepishly bowed out, saying that the police knew his face too well and that his presence could ruin the surprise.
William Dorsey couldn't make it, but John Votava, a CTA train mechanic who works at the Des Plaines shop, showed up as the unofficial union representative. "There is a natural connection between us," Votava said. "They're always trying to pit us against the other. We have a self-defense thing to try and get support in the community. But the connection is natural. If there's more transit, there's more jobs. If they cut back the transit system, there's fewer jobs. It's shortsighted to deal with this alone."
This was the strategy for the day: Metro Seniors Lucy Marshall and Addie D. Watts would inch close to the mayor while he was getting ready to cut the ribbon. They would be flanking Diane Coleman, a member of the national ADAPT board who was taking Cleigh's place. The rest of the protesters would disperse throughout the crowd, providing moral and vocal support.
Coleman pointed out that ADAPT was originally called Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. The group set out to make all public buses wheelchair accessible. After a federal law was passed in 1990, it shifted its focus elsewhere. "We haven't forgotten the need for accessible public transportation," she says. "We can take out our old T-shirts if we need to." Coleman was wearing her old T-shirt.
At the entrance to Navy Pier, dozens of kids in bathing suits were playing near a spurting fountain, running around the coalition. Amanda Solon rallied everyone together.
"Our goal today is to get them as close to the mayor as possible, and when he's about to cut the ribbon or when that ceremony's about to take place, they're going to disrupt things and ask the mayor to meet with the R.I.D.E.R.S. coalition and do what he can as the mayor of Chicago and stop these cuts. We know that the city has a surplus in its budget of $80 million. The money is there, and it can be done if the mayor wants it to be done. And we've gotta make sure that he knows that we know it can be done, and we're not gonna let him get away with this, and we're not going away. Is everybody clear on that?"
"We know that the ribbon-cutting ceremony's supposed to take place at five o'clock. So in the next five or ten minutes, we're gonna all go over to the grand ballroom together, and we're gonna all be figuring out the logistics together. But we need to get Lucy and Diane and Addie as close to the mayor as possible and be ready to back them up. So when they start disrupting things...folks, this is our chance. And we cannot blow it. I can't emphasize that enough. It is critical that we get some media attention around this today. And that's why we're here. It's uncomfortable. There's another event going on. But we have got to get the mayor's attention. He's been ignoring us. We were ignored at that CTA board meeting and, you know, we're going to have to take matters into our own hands and elevate the pressure here."
"We need a chant," someone said.
Fred Stark from ADAPT offered, "How about 'Mayor mayor, you support transit cuts. Mayor mayor, you support transit cuts. Shame on you! Mayor, you support transit cuts!'"
"That's kind of long."
"I think I'm just going to go with 'No Cuts.'"
"Yeah! 'No more cuts!'"
"Just 'No cuts' would be good, I think. He's cut enough already."
"Yeah! 'No more cuts!'"
The group began its long march toward the end of the pier, where the ceremony would be held.
"We're not tall," Bill Olsen said, "but we're slow."
They wheeled and walked past the McDonald's of the future, the Imax theater, the lemonade stands, the enormous fancy boats lined up for tours, the souvenir shops, the Ferris wheel, the vast generic carnival that is Navy Pier. They passed limp rock bands doing Bob Seger covers on a seemingly endless series of stages, and an a cappella group dressed as, among other things, a cheerleader, a sailor, a Boy Scout, and a Valkyrie. They saw a billboard advertising a new 700-space parking garage and two plastic spaceship rides full of screaming children. They passed unnoticed.
After 20 minutes, they arrived at the back of Navy Pier and stopped in a hot, sunny plaza. They mixed among the crowd, helped themselves to cocktails and the dessert bar. There were maybe 500 people milling around. The protesters blended in. A group of blind singers and musicians sang a series of doo-wop tunes from the 50s and 60s.
The presentation began. Marshall, Watts, and Coleman tried to arrange themselves in the proper place. Larry Gorski, head of the Mayor's Office of People With Disabilities, talked for a while and introduced various politicians who were in the crowd. He introduced Archbishop Francis George and read a letter from President Clinton. Then he asked Daley to come up and say a few words. Maggie Daley.
"Shit," Solon said. "He sent his wife."
Solon frantically whispered to Coleman and Marshall, who had strategically placed themselves in front of the ribbon. She later said she was one second away from calling off the whole protest; it was obvious, she thought, that the mayor had got wind of the demonstration and had skipped out. Though Daley was supposed to have been on vacation in Michigan that week, he'd come into the city that day for a number of events. Regardless of why, Daley didn't show. Because he didn't, neither did the media. Still, Solon decided, something needed to happen.
Gorski, George, and Maggie Daley moved over from the stage to cut the ribbon. Gorski held an enormous pair of papier-mache scissors. Coleman fumbled with a duffel bag. The bullhorn was in there somewhere. Finally she pulled the horn out, but it just squawked. Maggie Daley took the scissors from Gorski.
"Mrs. Daley! Mrs. Daley!" Coleman shouted into the bullhorn. "Stop cutting the ribbon!"
Daley looked up. She was puzzled.
"Stop cutting CTA! Mrs. Daley! We want to have a chat with your husband!"
Gorski, George, and Daley melted away into the grand ballroom. The chants began afresh.
"No cuts! No more cuts! No cuts! No more cuts!"
A bunch of security guards and police officers cruised into the crowd of protesters and stood their ground quietly.
The chants continued for about 20 minutes. The ceremony had dispersed. There were no media anywhere. The protesters were chanting into the air, but at least they seemed to be having fun. Solon asked Marshall to say something impromptu.
"I am from Metro Seniors in Action, and we are affiliated with the Riders Coalition! Since our mayor is not here, I wish to leave a message for him. Now I have learned that there is $80 million in surplus, and we could use it for the CTA! All of these cuts that they are coming up with, getting rid of services at night and laying off conductors, having motormen drive their trains all by themselves, something needs to be done about that! I hope that what I am saying will reach our mayor's ears! Last week we wrote a letter--we handed it to him! And we have not heard from him. But we wish for him to meet with us so he might oppose some of these cuts that are being made. Listen to our people, and that is the riders of Chicago!"
An official from Navy Pier informed the protesters that it's illegal to have a demonstration on the pier. He said he'd be glad to provide a free trolley for the coalition so they could protest out in front. The chanting started up again.
"We're not taking issue with your issue," he shouted over the noise. "We just want you to voice your concerns in an appropriate place....We'd be glad for you to voice your opinion appropriately."
"We need to speak to our mayor," said Dolores Harrison.
"You can't do it here. It's against the law."
"Are you going to bring our message back?" asked Carol O'Neil.
"We've got it," said the Navy Pier guy. "It's been delivered. It's been delivered."
O'Neil decided it was time for her to speak. Her voice was thin and high-pitched, but full of spirit. "We're from Citizens Taking Action and the R.I.D.E.R.S. Coalition. We are not giving up! We will fight until we get public accessible transportation in Chicago! We are going to fight, and we are going to keep fighting until Mayor Daley hears what we have to say! Fight back! Fight back!"
With that, the protest began to disperse. The free trolleys arrived.
Solon and some others gathered at a railing along the lake to catch their breath. Lucy Marshall wandered over to the drink table, where she procured a plastic cup of white wine.
"I needed this," she said.
Everyone laughed. Marshall held up her cup for a toast.
"Here's to Mayor Daley," she said, "who was not here." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner/ photos by Randy Tunnell.