It was with much fanfare that the Chicago Transit Authority unveiled its plans to rebuild the train yard just north of the Howard Street station. The construction plan--complete with a new "state of the art" repair shop--was part of the CTA's multimillion-dollar effort to link the Dan Ryan and Howard Street subway lines. At first most local officials cheered the plan.
Well, no one's cheering anymore. The project has fallen behind schedule, which means crews are now working around the clock. Residents in the small section of Chicago north of Howard and south of Evanston must contend with the sound of jackhammers, pile drivers, bulldozers, and trucks at all hours of the night.
"Forget sleep--it's impossible," says James Arthur. "You have to wonder why in the world the CTA feels compelled to pound and hammer all night? Why in the world can't they wait until the morning?"
Just about everyone in the community, politicians included, has called the CTA to complain. And just about everyone has received the same response: Have patience. The racket will probably continue for another three or four months.
"We don't want to come across as uncaring public officials, but we are operating under tremendous time constraints," says Bill Utter, a spokesman for the CTA. "We want to get as much work done before the winter sets in. And there are other projects which can't go forward until this one is completed. I know it can't be pleasant if you live around the Howard yard. But please, this will make the system better."
Local residents, however, are convinced that the CTA would never permit such noise all night in an upscale neighborhood. All in all, they say, it's another example of the dirt, noise, and overall misery public officials expect low-income Chicagoans to take.
"When you call the CTA, they'll tell you that this project is good for the city and that we should be happy about it," says Emmett Brown, a community organizer for Peoples Housing, a not-for-profit community-development group in the area. "Well, it's hard to be happy when you can't get any sleep."
Ironically the community north of Howard--made up mostly of poor blacks and Hispanics--has been on the rebound in recent years, in part because of development projects such as the train-yard expansion. The neighborhood had been neglected for years; many of its old courtyard apartments were in disrepair, and other buildings were burned out and vacant. But in the early 1980s the community got a break when several downtown companies and banks helped finance the renovation of a few apartment buildings. A few years later Peoples Housing began putting together deals of its own.
Peoples Housing now owns and manages 244 apartments in 11 buildings. It bought the old Howard Theater, which it hopes to develop as a small shopping mall. It even built a small park on a triangular slice of land just north of where the new CTA repair yard is being built.
"Triangle Park, Chicago's first community park," reads the sign at the park's edge. The sign also asks that users "keep the noise down in the evening hours."
Politicians and local business leaders welcomed the transit project, hoping it would encourage other development in the area.
"The CTA is involved in an $83 million expansion and improvement of the Howard yard, which is one of the busiest points in the whole rail system," says Utter. "One of the main reasons for the expansion is that next year, in probably the late summer or early fall, there will be a reconfiguration of the rail lines and the Howard and Dan Ryan lines will be linked. That means more traffic. And in order to accommodate a higher volume of cars, there has been an expansion of the western portion of the yard, with new spurs being built."
In addition, the CTA also planned to build a new repair shop in the Howard yard, which, according to a press release, would "include an eight-car wash bay for year-round exterior washing with equipment to recycle wastewater. There will also be three built-in floor hoists, each capable of raising two cars about five feet high to change and service undercarriage equipment."
When construction began last summer, few residents gave it much thought. Then the late-night work began.
"We started getting this noise at all hours of the night--two o'clock, three o'clock, it didn't matter," says Arthur, who lives in an apartment managed by Peoples Housing that's less than 20 feet from the project. "You would get trucks coming through here that were so big they made the buildings shake. The plaster was falling.
"There were all sorts of noises--drilling, pounding, beeping. We've got a lot of older people here. Some people are sick. They need their sleep. Hell, anyone needs his sleep. But you can't sleep through this racket. No one can."
After a few days residents began complaining. They wondered how the financially strapped CTA--which is considering closing several train stations and bus routes--could afford overtime wages. And why city officials did not prosecute the construction workers for violating the law against loud noises at night.
When Arthur called the CTA to complain, he found himself talking to some bureaucrat in the engineering department. "He said that he would look into the matter to see that they wouldn't start working until after at least 5:30 in the morning."
But the late-night work continued, so Arthur called the CTA again. "I talked to the same guy, and he told me that the CTA was exempt from the noise ordinance," says Arthur. "So I called my state representative [Jan Schakowsky]. She called the CTA, and they told her the same thing. Up until then I thought, 'They don't give a damn about us because most people around here are poor blacks and Hispanics.' After they told Schakowsky to screw off, I realized that the CTA doesn't give a damn about anyone. What I'd like to know is who made them fascist dictators exempt from all the laws?"
It wasn't only the noise that bothered residents. Construction workers were also littering the park and blocking streets with their trucks. Many residents couldn't get their cars in and out of the alleys.
"I called them again, and they told me that they had special permission to make their noise from the local alderman, Joe Moore," says Arthur. "This neighborhood was ready to lynch Moore when they said that."
Moore immediately denied that he had ever granted the CTA any such permission. In fact, the newly elected 49th Ward alderman says he too protested the all-night noise. "I find this intolerable. It's endemic to the CTA--they are just very unresponsive to the public. We see this with the current budget cuts. We had a hearing at Loyola University on the proposed cuts--700 residents showed up, but there was only one CTA board member. On the same day they announced that they planned to close the Jarvis el stop, they had a crew out there rehabbing it. I'm all for making our el stops look better, but why rehab one that you plan to close? Sometimes you wonder, 'What's going on over there?'"
CTA officials contend that the all-night work was necessary because the project had fallen behind schedule. "A couple of things have complicated matters," says Utter. "We have had problems implementing a new switching system. That's put construction behind. We have also had to close down operation of the Skokie Swift because of this construction, and we would like to get construction done as soon as possible so we can bring the Swift back to service. Plus we want to get as much work done as we can before the winter."
Utter denies that the CTA is showing less respect for the area because many of its residents are poor. "We didn't choose to put the Howard yard where it is. It happens to be one of our busiest terminals. And you can't have a project of this magnitude without a lot of work going on. Some of that work can be noisy. But we're talking about improving a rail system that moves half a million people a day. This construction project will only make us better." Nevertheless Utter promises that work should soon stop by midnight.
The CTA hopes to have the project completed by summer. After that residents will only have to contend with the sounds of subway cars being repaired.
"I asked one fellow at the CTA, 'If this was your neighborhood, would you put up with this noise?'" says Brown. "He said no. So I said, 'Well, why should we?' He didn't have an answer for that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Sundlof.