Annexation: A tool to boost Chicago’s population, yes, but efficiency and integration are more important

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Unless Chicago can stem its population losses, there is likely only one way for the city to beef it up and that is annexation. In a commentary published by the Chicago Tribune, author Edward McClelland (bio) argues it is time the city annex smaller suburbs to raise its population and those suburbs fortunes. Lower taxes and improved services makes this process worthwhile. Nevertheless, this approach to population growth fails to address the more ingrained problems stalling Chicago’s and the surrounding region’s growth. Annexation has its place in the box of tools for bettering the region and maintaining its place in the nation and world, but this has to be done hand-in-hand with a larger program of transformational reform.

The benefit of annexation is surprisingly compelling. Many of the region’s inner-ring suburbs are struggling with the same plight as some of the city neighborhoods–crime, joblessness, de-industrialization, crumbling infrastructure are all issues in Dolton or Burnham as they are in South Chicago or Englewood. The difference though is Chicago neighborhoods benefit directly from wealthier neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Due to their size, small suburbs are on their own to address many ingrained issues. To stay afloat they must exploit whatever revenue sources possible, even beyond economically sustainable levels: Taxes go up more, residents and businesses move, and infrastructure never gets better, thus producing a nearly impossible to reverse cycle.

That is until Chicago comes in and saves the day. With lower property taxes and a larger arsenal of resources, annexation by the city could be a the much-needed booster shot for communities at the city’s edge. According to Curbed Chicago, annexation of just a handful of suburbs would likely push Chicago’s population over the 3 million mark for the first time in decades. Such an increase (a growth of about 300,000 individuals, the size of Anchorage or Cincinnati) would also raise Chicago’s clout in Springfield and Washington by an expanding legislative and congressional contingents from the city. This alone would be a boon for the city, since it could push for more city-friendly legislation.

And, of course, it would also allow new Chicago residents to finally tell off snarky Chicagoans (this blogger included) to shut up about whether they can say they’re from Chicago or not. (Ah ha! One of the great divides between city and suburb is slowly dissolved).

Nevertheless, this is far from a sure-fire solution. Considering the state is mired in unending political gridlock, it seems unlike an annexation program would find itself high on the agenda in the statehouse. Annexation and consolidation could be boons for the communities that embrace it, however. This mostly has to do with how annexation fits in with local and state tax policy.

Government in Illinois is not efficient. Period. And, this is in part to its fractured nature and many layers. (Although the obvious corruption does nothing to help.) There are simply too many layers of government and services provision, often at too small as scale, to be fiscally sustainable. This means lots of layers of administration, which adds up. These costs then gets funneled away from actual services.

Plus, in Chicagoland, there is the problem of the many small suburbs. Here, it is not the replication of services by unnecessary layers of government that is straining the breadth of tax dollars (keep reading for that), rather it is an unnecessary number of governments. Regardless of size or wealth, most Chicago suburbs provide the same services (police, parks, libraries, fire safety). While it might make sense for a town of 5,000 residents to provide all these if it is isolated in a rural Downstate Illinois, one has to ask if it makes sense for Park Ridge (population 37,608), Rosemont (4,305), and Des Plaines (58,390), all adjacent to pay for three sets each of libraries, police and fire?

 

LACityCounty

Fig. 1: This shows the proportion of Los Angeles County residents who live in Los Angeles (city). Although more Los Angeles County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Los Angeles) they are split between fewer municipalities than Cook County.

ChiCookCityCounty

Fig. 2: This shows the proportion of Cook County residents who live in Chicago. Although a smaller proportion of Cook County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Chicago) than in Los Angeles County they are split up in a larger number of municipalities.

Thus, there are two issues at play here, both of which are affecting how far every Illinois and municipal tax dollar can stretch. First, the statewide problem of layered governments mean costs are skyrocketing, because of the replication of administrative services as well. At the local level in Chicagoland, the sheer number of government mean residents are paying for the same services more than 200 times over, because of the number of municipalities in the region. In Cook County specifically, that means the 2.5 million residents who live outside Chicago pay for the same kinds of services provided in the city, just 130 some odd times over for each municipality in the county. Los Angeles County has only 88 municipalities including the City of Los Angeles and a population of close to 10 million. (See Fig. 1 & 2.)

 


 

The prime example of the limitations posed on the Illinois tax dollar is education. A recent report from the Metropolitan Planning Council targeted the state’s incredible number of school districts. Their numbers result in huge administrative costs that funnel funds away from classrooms; per pupil, Illinois spends more than twice the national average on administration to a tune of over $1 billion annually. If this amount were brought down to the national average an incredible amount of funding could be returned to where it’s needed the most: the classroom. The savings produced by lowering the administrative costs would release $4.6 billion over the next decade without at current taxing rates. This is more than the $3.5 billion in funding needs identified by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission.

As MPC explains, there are “more than 850 public school districts in Illinois…not including regional and special education districts…On top of that, nearly 100 high school districts covered the same geographic areas served by more than 370 elementary school districts. In those areas, residents were served by (and paid taxes for) two school districts.” Merging school districts so high schools and the elementary schools that feed them are in the same district is one way to eliminate this administrative largess. It also stands as an example of how consolidation (read: plus annexation) is an economically sustainable option.

Addressing how school districts are determined is practical and necessary. It will only go so far though if the many other layers of government and administrative divisions that restrict the efficiency of Illinois tax dollars stay in place. This includes contending with the ramifications of the hundreds of municipalities in Chicagoland. Thus, the push for annexation, which would lower the number of municipalities, and according to McClelland make service provision more efficient where it occurs.

Take tiny Hometown. Wedged between Chicago, Oak Lawn, and Evergreen Park in the Southwest Suburbs, it has a population of just over 4,400 and median household income just shy of $45,500, which is lower than Chicago’s. Nonetheless, the city provides many of the same services as Chicago. Annexation into Chicago along with two dozen other communities would roll these services into the city’s larger infrastructure. Although this would increase the area covered by each service, it would also mean more residents paying for the services, ideally taking the pressure of each tax dollar coming out of the annexed communities. Additionally, the median household income in Chicago would increase after the annexation, resulting in more wealth to pay for these now shared services.

Suggesting Chicago annex anything more than a handful of suburbs is doubtless a gigantic no-go for most. Indeed, there are other ways the county could make government and service provision more efficient without annexation: consolidating services between municipalities or taking on a greater role as a service provider for larger services (like roads) would achieve many of the same ends as annexation. It still leaves well over a hundred communities though and the many sets of administration it takes to run them. This does not mean annexation is dead on arrival. While a community may be averse to annexation by Chicago it may not be averse to annexation, rather consolidation, with other surrounding communities.

 


 

While it might make the most sense for Hometown to join Chicago, residents in a village like Lincolnwood would probably balk at the idea. I live near and have worked in Lincolnwood (for the village for that matter) and I am confident in this assertion. The reason Lincolnwood attracts families is the proximity to the city without the “problems” of city (schools *cough*). And it is significantly wealthier than many surrounding communities. Residents would likely use that wealth to fight annexation. But, what about consolidation with Skokie, Niles, and Morton Grove?

A new city created out of the consolidation of these four municipalities seems more realistic due to their proximity and similarities. They would benefit from the consolidation of services paid for by a larger, more diverse tax base. Moreover, a city the size of one formed out of this consolidation would also be large enough to fully support a single school district serving that city alone, as is the case in Chicago. Finally, like Chicago, it would have greater political clout.

ChicagoAnnexationAndSuburbs

Fig. 3: Chicago and its suburbs shown after a series of annexations and consolidations to reduce the number of municipalities in Cook County.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 142 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities to around 30 as well, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serve residents better.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 135 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities by the same amount, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serving residents better.

School districts, for example, could be reorganized around municipal divisions and not archaic township boundaries, as they currently are. There is still wiggle room to for making government run more efficiently. Certain services could still be provided exclusively by the county, like public health services. It would also result in a more uniform tax policy, regardless of measures taken by the county or state, simply because more people and businesses would be paying the same municipal taxes.

This is an area where fewer municipal voices would also help the county and region. Tax policy is a big driver behind the region’s sprawl and economically unsustainable competition. It is also making the region an undesirable location for investment, because more taxes go to fewer and worse services. While the smaller number of municipal voices would make it easier to design unifying policies, the increased size of the different municipalities would also each more clout. While Chicago’s population would increase as well post-annexation, Lincolnwood would no longer be a village trying to make its voice heard, rather it would be part of a city of almost 130,000.

 


 

A major fault of McClelland’s (and many others’) argument that Chicago’s dropping population is a sign of the city’s decline is that it focuses just on the city’s population and not that of the region, which has a population greater than 9.4 million. This number puts it ahead of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston (the two largest metros after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) by more than 3 million people. That difference is the equivalent of metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma or the Twin Cities.

It also ignores the city and region’s resources. Chicago is lucky to be flush with major cultural and educational institutions and (by American standards) amazing infrastructure, that put it well ahead of cities like Dallas or Atlanta in terms of global influence. And in any event a metropolitan region’s size has little correlation with the quality of its resources. Metropolitan Vienna and Berlin are both smaller than metropolitan Dallas and Atlanta, but both are known globally for a number of things the latter two cities are unlikely to be known for any time in the near future. Chicago has the same positive things working for it.

While annexation may not have any direct impact on the future of something like the Lyric Opera or Art Institute, it should be approached and implemented in a way that makes the region function better. This is not to say the region should be deprived of its uniqueness, nerve, and talent, rather that the way it works should not deprive its uniqueness, nerve, and talent from reaching its potential. What McClelland misses in his initial argument about annexation is that there are reasons the population is dropping. (Although I would be shocked if he was unaware what these reasons are.) Some of the reasons are the product of externalities out of the city and/or state’s control. Those that are within the control of regional government, however, need to be addressed, so that in spite of the city’s tough winters, people still feel ready, willing, and happy to stay and invest their time, money, and well-being in this city and region.

 


 

The last two metropolitan areas mentioned (Seattle-Tacoma and Minneapolis-St. Paul) have shown greater regional cooperation than experienced in Chicagoland. The lack of this is one of the fundamental ailments afflicting the region. McClelland’s proposal for annexation to be used again should be to address this as a root problem hurting the region and not as vain way to make the city look amazing on paper. Population is ultimately merely a number and it does not really matter if the individuals who make up that number are unable to flourish and create more vibrant and interesting places.

Personally, I say bring on annexation, consolidation, and regional government in Chicagoland. The impracticality of how the region is governed needs to end. (Figures 4 and 5 show this perfectly, but showing the incomprehensible number of administrative, government, and municipal boundaries in the region.) And while I hope that the improvements I think can come from such efforts and policy changes would both encourage people to stay and come to the region, if the end game is just increasing the population than the whole point of improving the city and region gets missed, because if the city and region focused more on quality of services and quality of life and number just numbers then the outcome would be what makes headlines: population increases and not those that come from changing lines on a map.


The chart below outlines which municipalities would be merged through a program of annexations and consolidations in Cook County. It includes theoretical new names (usually based off the largest municipality in the merger process or the township name) as well as the populations after the merger. 

ORIGINAL MUNICIPALITIES NEW MUNICIPALITY POPULATION
Evanston, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Northfield, Wilmette, Winnetka North Shore 130,955
Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Skokie Skokie 128,225
Glenview, Golf, Northbrook Glenbrook 75,735
Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Rosemont Des Plaines 100,720
Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Wheeling Prospect 183,875
Inverness, Palatine, Rolling Meadows Palatine 96,830
Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg Schaumburg 159,610
Bellwood, Berkeley, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, Northlake, Stone Park, Westchester Proviso 126,190
Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest Oak Park 78,850
Lyons, Summit, North Riverside, Riverside Riverside 36,475
Brookfield, La Grange, La Grange Park, Western Springs La Grange 60,480
Countryside, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, McCook, Willow Springs Willow Springs 17,090
Hickory Hills, Justice, Palos Hills, Palos Park Palos Hills Park 48,475
Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Crestwood, Palos Heights, Robbins, Worth Chicago Ridge 74,045
Orland Hills, Orland Park, Tinley Park Orland Hills Park 106,260
Country Club Hills, Hazel Crest, Markham, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Posen Oak Forest 90,700
Homewood, Flossmoor Homewood 28,845
Park Forest, Olympia Fields, Matteson Park Forest 41,125
Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Glenwood, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, Steger Chicago Heights 69,295
Calumet City, Lansing, Lynwood Calumet City 74,780
Dixmoor, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Phoenix, South Holland, Thronton Harvey 62,430
Chicago, Bedford Park, Berwyn, Blue Island, Bridgeview, Burbank, Burnham, Calumet Park, Cicero, Dolton, Elmwood Park, Evergreen Park, Forest View, Franklin Park, Hometown, Merrionette Park, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, River Grove, Schiller Park, Stickney Chicago 3,313,095

 

We Have a Budget, Now, Reform!

The first hurdle has been cleared in Illinois’ arduous effort to write a budget. After two years of stalemate one has passed, albeit without the approval of Governor Bruce Rauner and by overriding vetoes in both the legislative houses (including defections by GOP representatives and Democrats). Threats by credit rating agencies to downgrade the state’s credit to junk status certainly put the fire beneath officials to end this stalemate. The threat to the state’s long-term fiscal health has not passed, however, and frankly much harder work is ahead for lawmakers as they try (or at least claim they are trying) to whip this state into shape.

Reform is needed–desperately! With the stalemates in Springfield, animosity high between the parties, and a increasingly weary public the idea of reform seems unrealistic and far off. Nevertheless, now is the time to talk reform, nay, demand it and make it happen. An obvious detriment to instituting reform is the absence of a clear coalition to lead discussions on government reform and identify policies for implementation in the short-, medium-, and long-term. (Why not add my two cents?) Fundamentally, the state needs to re-evaluate just about every aspect of how it runs, from taxes to education to local governance to voting and elections, to ensure it can actually transform into a livable place. None of this will be easy, but as citizens we must begin crafting ideas that we can present to lawmakers.

Residents should not be pessimistic about the potential of this state although lately the negative headlines reinforces a towering pessimism that has descended on this state. Yet, Illinois, in spite of its many problems, still has huge potential to succeed.

First, let’s remind ourselves that Illinois is actually quite a wealthy state. It’s fiscal problems do not lie in a lack of economy or human capital. Indeed, residents need to understand this state’s wealth and potential to know we can and must demand more of the government, which (reminder) we elect.

As of 2010, Illinois had the fifth largest state economy in the US and the 13th highest state GDP (excluding Washington, DC), and the latter is higher than the national average. To put this in perspective, Illinois’ economy is as large as Turkey, which ranks 17th in
the world according to the IMF. Illinois also produces a surplus in federal revenue from the states. In fact, it ranks fourth in the size of its surplus (the money sent to the federal government in taxes versus the amount of federal money spent in Illinois). This speaks to the state’s revenue potential.

Likewise, if Chicago was a county, its economy would be worth well over a half billion dollars, according the Brookings Institute. This would put it around Argentina or Saudi Arabia in economic size.

None of this speaks to the health of the state’s economy. The ongoing crisis in Springfield and Chicago’s City Hall will have a long-term impact on how well the state and city can perform. That said, Illinois has a really strong footing to build upon. Additionally, the state has shown itself to be open to progressive policies even if it is not a national leader. Then again, it has also kicked the can down the road consistently deepening a crisis that for years was growing more obvious. Reform is going to have to come in waves, but each should lead to and build off the other. It will not happen without the increasingly incessant voices of voters on these issues. Thus, I present a rough framework for reform.

Producing Reform

The fact of the matter is that a number of ideas for reform exist. I am not coming up with anything new or radical. What I am doing is trying to organize a set of ideas presented from multiple fronts in a way that is digestible and coordinates ideas from a number of fronts. Voters need to begin demanding and showing they expect law makers to follow through on changes. This has to be a packaged deal.

The Short Term

There is a short list of ideas that could reasonably pass in the next legislative session, or at least within a year. These should be made as an indication to residents that reform efforts are underway. They include:

  • Legalization of recreational marijuana use and its sale, which creates new business opportunities, produces millions in new revenue, and eliminates incarceration for a victimless crime.
  • Expand the franchise with automatic voter registration (currently underway).
  • Establishing a non-partisan, independent commission to draw voting districts to eliminate partisan districting (may be forced due to a decision by SCOTUS concerning a case out of Wisconsin).
  • Re-write the Illinois Election Code so that the election of all state legislative seats and the governor is done by a run-off system, wherein the two rounds of voting occur; the top two candidates in the first round run head-to-head in the second. This is similar to the French system and would open more space for independent and third party candidates.
  • Explore putting term-limits in place for the Governor and State Representatives leaving.*
  • Beginning in 2018 (and this is important for the later efforts) issue biannual budgets. This allows legislators more time to focus on the details of legislation and reform and spend less time every year bickering about budgets.

Frankly, it’s naïv to think all this could pass, but they’re reasonable first steps. (I lack confidence electoral reform would happen, for example). Now that a budget has passed voters need to turn their attention to discussing such immediate opportunities for reform with their legislators.

The Medium Term

The first round of reforms should achieve a few things: create a more equitable electoral system, produce new revenue through alternative sources, and regain the trust of voters. The second set of reforms, ones that may take longer, should begin addressing some of the structural problems in the state like tax equity.

  • Establish a graduated income tax on residents beginning with the 2018 budget. This should use the new 4.95% rate as the base (pegged to Illinois’ median income). Illinois has one of least progressive income tax rates in of US states.
  • Establish an additional 1% municipal income tax (on top of the state income tax regardless of income bracket, see above) that is split equally between the municipality where individuals have their residence and where they make their income. This ensures all municipalities have a dedicated revenue source beyond property taxes and ensure municipalities with large employment bases receive the revenue to fund services used by people employed there but not living there.
  • Reform of Illinois’ sales tax to ensure it’s also progressive. This includes removing taxes on general necessity goods such as basic clothing items (following Minnesota’s model) and food items. (Luxury clothing should not be exempt.) Additionally, as people consume more services and fewer products the tax code must be rewritten to emphasize taxing services (especially luxury services) which are generally exempt at the moment. A reasonable solution would be to pass legislation mandating increased taxes on services to overlap with current sales tax rates before those changes take effect. (This would, similarly to a plan by the Civic Federation, create a one-time boost in state revenues to help pay of backlogged bills.) Finally, sales tax surcharges should be permitted, indeed actively encouraged, for products that have negative impacts on individuals and/or societal costs or consumption of which is entirely voluntary and unnecessary for a person’s basic well-being (private cars and trucks, candy, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, pop etc.).
  • Increase the gas tax. The low state and federal gas taxes are a scourge on transportation infrastructure maintenance and investment. An increase in the tax has to include a provision that the tax will also rise with inflation to ensure revenue stays adequate. Additionally, an increase must be married to a provision that shows a commitment to economically and environmentally sustainable investments, including a moratorium on new road projects until current infrastructure receives high grade marks again. This should exclude mass transit infrastructure.
The Long Term

This is the hard part: Illinois needs to begin instituting broad structural reforms to make sure that is a well-oiled, high efficient machine. This most palpably means tackling the problems of pensions (which I frankly, have no clue how to address), government waste, and education funding.

  • Reforming education funding and the structure of Illinois’ education system will go a long-way to funnel to money where its needed: the classroom. A good start is the education funding reform bill that passed the state legislature, but it is only a stop-gap measure, as it does not address the bane of Illinois’ school funding problems: too many administrative levels. Per a Metropolitan Planning Council report, decreasing the amount of administration (read: number of school districts) and associated costs would produce the millions the schools need without increased revenue.
  • Decrease the number of other governments. Illinois has over 7,000 units of government, which is almost three times the number of government units in California, a state that has over three times the population and is 2.5 times the size of Illinois. Absurdity is what you would call this. This should include combining and condensing school districts (per the point above), combining government units that perform similar tasks as other units, and encouraging annexation to lower the number of cities, towns, and villages in the state (especially in Chicagoland).

A series of difficult years and legislative sessions are ahead of Illinois as the state pulls itself away from the brink. Success requires due attention by residents and a strong body of voices advocating for a cohesive series of reforms to make the state more politically and economically equitable, sustainable, and efficient. There are many much larger issues than the state budget for the state to begin addressing in earnest (police violence, the wealth gap, global climate change etc.). The longer the state bogs itself down in budgetary challenges, the less time is spent on addressing real issues.


*I do not believe in total restriction on how long all members of government may serve, thus I exclude the Senate as a balance.

 

Which Western? – Perhaps it’s time to rename some ‘L’ stops

One quirk of Chicago’s ‘L’, the city’s rapid transit system, is the presence of multiple stations with the same name. For example, there are not two, nor three, rather five stations called “Western”, one each on the Brown, Pink, and Orange lines and two (yes two) on the Blue Line. This idiosyncrasy isn’t particularly unusual for the Chicago Transit Authority. The New York City subway and Los Angeles Metro each have multiple stations with the same name. It does stand out to foreign visitors however, and it took a German, in their infinite practicality, to make me realize how insane this nomenclature actually is. Which brings me to my main point: how should the CTA rename its ‘L’ stations to prevent confusing repetitiveness?

This seems like a simple enough task, but the ‘L’ can define an entire neighborhood and so can the name of the associated station. Renaming the stations is a task in officially defining space and place and doing so in relative perpetuity. (I’ll address that irony in one moment.) A new naming system at one needs to be systematic, to make the naming of new stations simple, but also create a certain understated cohesion that makes navigating the city easy still. It also needs to take into account the changing nature of neighborhoods and consider that what was once colloquially know as “Clark and Belmont” somehow morphed into East Lakeview between the time I graduated high school in 2010 and moved home in 2016.

The current naming system uses the major street a station stops at for a name. This occurs with few exceptions (e.g. Logan Square) and the occasional intersection (North/Clybourn). Even where a landmark is included the intersecting street is usually tacked onto the name as well (e.g. UIC-Halsted or Cermak-McCormick Place). It’s simple enough, but not when you are overlaying a radial transit system on a city with a continuous street grid that results in multiple stations on different lines in different parts of the city with the exact same name. “Western” is the most garish example, but it is far from the only one. Chicago’s ‘L’ includes:

  • Four ‘Kedzie’ stations; plus one ‘Kedzie-Homan’
  • Three ‘Cicero’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Three ‘Pulaski’ stations
  • Three ‘Chicago’ stations
  • Three ‘Addison’ stations
  • Three’ Damen’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Two each of ‘Irving Park’, ‘Oak Park’, ‘Austin’, ‘Montrose’, ‘Ashland’, ‘Harlem’ (on the same line), and ‘Belmont’

While a simple system has its benefits, transit systems have power in creating a sense of place, and the importance of not causing unnecessary confusion. One solution to this predicament is combining landmarks with street names, which is more common on the South Side with station names like ‘Sox-35th’ or ’35th-Bronzeville-IIT’. This results in long cumbersome names though.

I propose an alternative: 1) name stations first after the street they stop at. It is relatively straight forward and allows people to orient themselves in the city easily. If you get off at Kimball, you know you’re 3200 west. If you get off at Damen you know the connecting bus is the Damen bus. But, in cases where there is more than one station on a street 2) name the station in relation to the designated community area. For example, the stations named ‘Pulaski’ become “West Garfield Park’ on the Green Line, ‘North Lawndale’ on the Pink Line, and ‘Archer Heights’ on the Orange Line.

ctatrainmap

All five Western stations on the CTA ‘L’.

Ah, but a there is a problem even with this example. There are multiple ‘L’ lines and stations in certain Community Areas. The ‘Pulaski’ station on the Blue Line was left out and there are four stations on the Pink Line in North Lawndale. The ‘Pulaski’ station was arbitrarily renamed, because there are more than one stations with the same name. There are two final suggestions to alleviate such conflicts: point 3) is to name stations after identifiable sub neighborhoods, especially ones that are not likely to change and 4) rename stations to align with adjacent Metra stops, where they exist.

The latter solution only results in the renaming of a few stops (e.g. the ‘Montrose’ station on the Blue Line becomes Mayfair); the former solution still is imperfect, because it holds that neighborhoods are permanent. We all know neighborhoods change and can do so gradually or rapidly. Changing the names of transit stations is a costly and time consuming affair (which is why it doesn’t happen all that often and would likely have to happen at the same time changes would be made anyhow, such as with the opening of a new station). Thus, renaming station after relatively ephemeral neighborhood names could be problematic in that over a short period of time those names could becoming meaningless.

Who still calls Andersonville ‘Girlstown’, for example?

Then again, this could be good for neighborhoods. Station names indicating an ethnic or minority community aren’t unprecedented. The Red Line stop in Chinatown indicates the exact ethnic community living there: a Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American community! This at a time when many Chinatowns nationwide are disappearing or moving (but not in Chicago).

There is perhaps then an incentive for minority or ethnic communities to stay in place longer is something as seemingly permanent as the name of an ‘L’ station reflects the local demographic. For example, renaming the ‘Belmont’ station on the Red, Brown, and Purple lines in Lakeview to ‘Boystown’ might act as a catalyst for renewed investment in the area by LGBTQ residents and business owners. It would also solidify the stop as the gateway to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, up the road at the ‘Addison’ stop the name ‘Wrigleville’ seems apt.

It is unlikely the name of every station on the ‘L’ will properly reflect the community surrounding said station. Communities change, developers push new neighborhood identities, the system grows and contracts (hopefully no more), and the grid still prevails. Then again, anything is better than having five stations named ‘Western’ in the same system.

Therefore, here are my proposals:

LINE PREVIOUS NAME NEW NAME NOTES
Red Morse Rogers Park Create more identifiable commercial center
Red Bryn Mawr Edgewater Create more identifiable community center
Red Lawrence Uptown Create more identifiable community center
Red Addison Wrigleyville
Red Chicago Magnificent Mile Create stronger link between station and N. Michigan Avenue
Red Cermak-Chinatown Chinatown Simplify
RBP Belmont Boystown Reinforce character of LGBTQ neighborhood
BP Sedgewick Old Town Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Kedzie Albany Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Western Lincoln Square Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Damen Ravenswood Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Addison Roscoe Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Chicago River North
Blue Harlem Norwood Park
Blue Montrose Mayfair Associated with neighborhood and Metra station
Blue Belmont Avondale Create community identity
Blue Western Bucktown Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue Damen Wicker Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue UIC-Halsted UIC East-Greektown Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Blue Racine UIC West-Little Italy Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Pink 18th Pilsen Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Pink California Douglas Park
Pink Pulaski North Lawndale-Little Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Kedzie East Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Pulaski West Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Oak Park Oak Park-Lake Street Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Harlem/Lake Oak Park-Central Combine with Metra
Orange Halsted Bridgeport Create stronger link between station and neighborhood