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Colors: sprucing up the CTA

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"Make sure you mention the sheet-metal workers--the backbone of the CTA!" hollers a man in the stairwell. The man, by no coincidence, is in fact a sheet-metal worker, and the stairwell he occupies provides access to the southbound platform of the Belmont station of the Howard el. In the small area beneath the platform, between the ticket booth and the stairs, a group of four CTA workers stir paint and unload supplies from several oversized storage boxes. The men are bundled up for a cold day, and as they work they laugh and twit Bill Foster, who's in charge of the repainting and rehabbing of the station. What do the sheet-metal workers do? Foster is asked. "Ahh," he grins, "they go in and try to fix things and then we paint it over to make it look good."

Foster is youngish and bespectacled; he's been with the CTA seven years. He heads a team of about a dozen men who are part of the authority's extensive sprucing-up program. "They wanted something that would really make the stations look nice," Foster says, "so that people will say, 'Hey, we really like our station.'" The official name for Foster's part of the project is Operation CLASS, which stands for "Clean, Lighted and Safe Stations." For a dozen stations on the north-south line, Operation CLASS includes painting, replacing some platforms and canopies, installing new lighting and windbreaks, and generally increasing maintenance all the way around. (The only thing missing from the plans are more benches.) The 12 stations, however, are just a part of a "21-point improvement program" called "Going Your Way," meant to provide high-profile and noticeable improvements in the day-to-day use of Chicago's 650-million-dollar-a-year transit system. Other parts of the program range from repainting the entire bus fleet to building 37 new bus shelters to cleaning and disinfecting the State and Dearborn subway tunnels. (A lot of this has been under way for the past six months.)

The interesting thing about Operation CLASS, however--and that part of it that has occasioned the most comment--is an issue that is rather peripheral. It has to do with the colors the stations are being painted--though "color" seems almost too mundane a word to describe the hues of burgundy, hot pink, and ripe peach that the King Drive and Fullerton Avenue stations already proudly sport. "The point of the colors was to brighten up the station, make it stand out," offers Foster.

This, indeed, the colors do well. The canopies of the Fullerton station, for example, radiate something that can only be described as a "pinkness"; it is plainly visible from nearly a mile away. Once you arrive at the station, you get off the train to be enveloped in the underside of the canopy, which is bathed in a luminous peach. You can casually lean against a post of electric burgundy, or sit on a hot pink bench.

At the end of the platform sits a short safety fence: it has been splashed with bright yellow. The stairwells get the pink treatment, the steps the burgundy; the station's "lookout hut" is a vision in peach, with pink windows. The whole affair looks as if it was designed by Willy Wonka the day he tried peyote for the first time.

Back at the Belmont station, the overhead walkway up between the platforms, already hit by the painters, looms with a wine-dark presence. Foster points to the rails between the north- and southbound platforms, noting a pile of lumber lying on the walkway. Parts of the platforms themselves will be replaced, a major effort that is planned for some weekend with as many carpenters as possible, which will supposedly lessen passenger disruption. The one thing the platforms won't be, however, is painted. The wood is specially treated with creosote for preservation, and, "We'd be in trouble if we painted it," Foster says. "People would be slipping."

Also to remain unpainted are the station's hanging lights. They will soon be replaced by fluorescent bulbs. Foster displays a new metal light pole that will replace the old wooden ones. The new fluorescent lighting is supposed to be at once brighter and more resistant to kids playing pop the lightbulb. Those old-fashioned lamps, it turns out, sport nothing more than 56-watt bulbs. CTA has been powering the lights for nearly one hundred years off the same electrical current that runs the trains: 600 watts' worth of direct current. The new fluorescent ensembles will bring CTA into the age of alternating current.

Foster and company work out of storage bins at the station and a bizarre-looking disemboweled bus, which is towed from station to station as a portable workroom and toolshed. (With its barricaded doors and all its windows including the front covered in steel, it looks like the contraption Clint Eastwood rumbled through downtown Phoenix in in The Gauntlet. Foster calls it fondly "our bus.") His team consists of painters, carpenters, and sheet-metal workers. (The electrical work is being contracted out.) The carpenters repair the windbreaks; the backbones of the CTA look for weaknesses in the metalwork and weld holes in the thick metal screens.

But the painters seem to attract the most attention from passersby. Most bureaucrats faced with a quasi-artistic decision end up making a statement in gray or beige--and indeed, though CTA stations were color-coded (by line) for years, the north-south line got browned out in 1981, and never was painted over. "Everything was painted this brown," Foster says, pointing at a post. "Probably it was intended as a coverall." The new color scheme--daring and bright, as unbureaucratic as a daisy--was the work of maintenance and engineering chief John Haley. "We went to an artist and asked for a station scheme with a little life in it," Haley said. "If we'd had the traditional committee of 70 make a decision that wouldn't have happened."

Ironically enough, the glowing peach wasn't even in the original conception. "The inside of these canopies were supposed to be white," Foster says, "but the original supplier didn't deliver. We were running around like crazy trying to find some white paint. And of course, the way CTA is, you gotta send out for bids on something like that. We've been without white paint for two and a half months."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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