Why east Woodlawn needs its ‘L’ back

by Gabriel Piemonte

A petition, Facebook page, and website advocating restoration of the 63rd Street ‘L’ from Cottage to Stony Island launched two days ago, in part with my assistance, although I consider myself a junior partner to the Woodlawn resident and the Hyde Park resident who are spearheading this effort. The petition quickly passed 100 signatures, then 150, and the transit-related blogosphere, which is a huge nerdy network of urban transportation and planning buffs, has begun publishing post after post about the idea. (As of this writing, the petition has 358 supporters).

There are lots of reasons to like restoration of the original Green Line route on 63rd Street, and this will especially look good from an urban planning point of view. No urban planner can resist the “more public transit” mantra, and it is especially compelling to restore service, as opposed to building where there wasn’t anything before. I expect a chorus of support from the transit planning crowd, professional and enthusiasts alike.

There is also a strong argument to be made regarding access to the Obama Center. Without question, that project needs a much more diverse and affordable set of  transportation options. I am not going to focus on that debate, however, as I think it will be covered elsewhere.

My focus is very local. In order to convincingly advocate for restoration of the ‘L,’ we must have support from Woodlawn residents, and from our South Side neighbors more generally. It is certainly the case that a big transit project like this will make it easy for the CTA to say no to other major requests. And this would be the second major project happening on the South Side, with the long-overdue Red Line extension being the first. So we must have strong support from South Side communities. This must feel like a top CTA priority for South Lakefront residents and our neighbors.

Already, we have seen support for the idea from community members (as seen, for example, here). We have also seen some opposition. When this stretch of the ‘L’ was dismantled, there were people behind that decision, too. Looking backward, and understanding the forces that went into destruction of the ‘L’ is an important step in deliberation over whether it should be restored.

By many accounts, neither side of this issue had a clear majority. But Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God had the clout that really counted. He had parlayed an early career of activism into a megachurch and a close relationship with many of Chicago’s power brokers, including Mayor Richard M. Daley. Although there was a rowdy public debate, what the people wanted seemed to be of little concern to the mayor. What mattered from the first was that someone who could deliver votes wanted it. There is no evidence that the mayor was conflicted over whether to demolish a critical piece of transit infrastructure. At the time, he justified the move by declaring that mass transit had “lost its constituency.” The boldness of this lie is shocking in retrospect. But in the heat of the moment, talented politicians know when to lie and how big to make the lie.

The city has always been quick to destroy infrastructure in African American neighborhoods. Woodlawn’s rows upon rows of vacant lots attest to that. Housing, retail, and just about anything else that the city could get its hands on started coming down shortly after the riots in Woodlawn over the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. On the West Side, where most of the rioting at that time took place, the blocks pockmarked with vacant lots bear a striking resemblance to streets in Woodlawn.

Arthur Brazier understood that there is a deep satisfaction that racist white politicians and voters get in taking away resources from African American communities. White Chicago struggles with its relationship to the Black and Brown communities that together overwhelm it demographically. For decades, Chicago politicians – and especially mayors – have been finding ways to close critical public infrastructure in places like Woodlawn in order to feed the lowest impulses of certain white voters, who will in turn devotedly turn out on Election Day. So it was a stroke of political genius for Brazier to deliver to Mayor Daley a reduction in service to Woodlawn that he organized people from the neighborhood to advocate for.

People tell this history wrong; it is an act of self-interest on the part of Brazier, not a difference of opinion about whether public transit is good or bad. He got exactly what he wanted, and he traded the mayor exactly what he wanted in order to get it. Apostolic towers over the decimated east end of 63rd Street. It is no longer a commercial street, and that is true starting exactly where the ‘L’ stops. East of Woodlawn, the church is surrounding by parking lots and vacant lots – that is the legacy of Arthur Brazier, one that his son, Byron, who inherited the church and its largely suburban population, still stubbornly defends. Meanwhile, the mayor delivered to both his white voters who thought African Americans were getting too big a piece of the pie and the folks who backed Brazier in Woodlawn. The ‘L’ was a political football, and people who think otherwise are naive.

Removing the Green Line east of Cottage was not done to make Woodlawn less dangerous or dirty or noisy. All of the language used to justify this teardown is racially loaded code. These are the exact same terms used to describe poor people of color, and removing an affordable transit option to the east side of Woodlawn meant reducing the number of poorer people able to get to the park, to the beach, and to the transit options open to the residents on the east end. Meanwhile, Brazier built townhomes and a strip mall on the neighborhood’s major commercial corridor – suburban construction completely out of place on the street. Alongside those, a megachurch and parking lots completed the vision for the new Woodlawn: a suburb; a bedroom community.

The changing neighborhood has a changing vision. There will always be people who are prejudiced, who are willing to bully people who have less than they do. That is a fact of life. But many of my neighbors want a fair community, one where everyone who lives here has a chance to stay here and has access to the benefits of living in the neighborhood. It seems to me that there are enough of us that we can make the case for this being the true spirit of Woodlawn. The organizers of such up-and-coming institutions as the Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce and the Woodlawn Community Summit do their best to include all of Woodlawn in their efforts. A lot of people in Woodlawn are working for a future in which the intolerance of the past is a thing of the past.

Further, there is a strong sense in the community that we do not have our fair share of amenities and that we must push to get what we deserve. Restoring the ‘L’ makes the lakefront and Jackson Park and the Obama Center and the transit system much more accessible to everybody. If there is a debate about whether Woodlawn should be for everyone or just those who can afford a new, exclusive version of a future Woodlawn, I think the folks pushing for that new version are misguided. Our community has always had a mix of incomes and a mix of institutions and amenities to serve everyone, and that is the Woodlawn I want to live in.

There are other arguments against restoring the ‘L,’ with expense probably being the chief one. I am not convinced by these, but will gladly engage in those debates elsewhere. Here, I am saying that the spirit of Woodlawn is a spirit that embraces inclusivity and growing infrastructure. Restoring the ‘L’ fits that bill.

Mistakes can be corrected. Correcting this one at a time when resources are being organized around development in Jackson Park seems like a timely decision. We as residents of Woodlawn should support this idea and stand firm in favor of a community for all and against classism and elitism.

(Photo: Green Line over Woodlawn in the 1960s. Thanks to Mike Medina for sharing this photo from his amazing collection of Woodlawn history and artifacts.)

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  1. Mitch Marks

    “Removing the Green Line east of Cottage was not done to make Woodlawn less dangerous or dirty or noisy.” Okay, you can say it wasn’t done *because* of that. But setting aside the motives and politics, do you not agree it *was* dirty and noisy? And that without the tracks 63rd Street is now a broad, open, in some parts beautiful, thoroughfare?

  2. John Kaestner

    Metra is in the process of employing a self fulfilling prophecy to close the South Chicago branch of the ME. They are cutting service due to low ridership, which will only reduce ridership further. They refuse to consider low ridership couldn’t have anything to do with the much higher fare and lack of a transfer to CTA, nor do they show any interest in taking action to build ridership, such as modifying the fare structure to be more comparable to CTA. Metra is a suburban agency acting in service of suburban interests.

    The proposed reconstruction of the 63rd Street L to Stoney Island would bring the end of the L within about one mile of the South Chicago branch. When Metra inevitably discontinues service and abandons this branch, the CTA would be able to implement frequent service through the South Side lakefront neighborhoods to 93rd Street with minimal new construction and no disruption to other Metra services.

  3. Jerard Wright

    This account is accurate, however it is much more nuanced then this.

    I would attend services when I was in college at IIT about 15 to 18 years back with a close friend who still attends and is in church leadership there but he would say candidly amongst church members that he believed in his heart of hearts that the L brought a negative element to the neighborhood and it was his mission as a Community Leader to makes his church a true anchor for the Woodlawn neighborhood and have members reinvest back into the community. He would tell of stories of him talking about when he’d work for the Post Office riding the L to get his Theology Doctorate and reflecting on the importance of the ‘L’ and what transportation meant to his congregation but he wasn’t going to settle for a lower class design.

    As the two of us were Architecture majors we were surprised by that and asked him politely and showed him ideas like what they’ve done in Berlin with an elevated structure with ground floor retail underneath what 63rd Street could look like, his eyes beamed and said paraphrasing “If the city had presented an idea like this to him with some thought and not the steel erector set that it is now and rendered, I would have supported it.”

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