Chicago’s Future Pride Parade: Where will the glitter cake the streets next?

chicago-pride-parade-balloonsChicago’s gay Pride march was one of the first to occur in June 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots broke out in New York City and sparked the contemporary gay [read: LGBTQ*] rights movement. In the 46 years since, Chicago’s Pride festivities have grown into one of the biggest and most popular in the country (2015 photos). This year’s parade, which took place in Uptown and Lakeview and centered on Boystown, is going to be examined closely by organizers and city officials to see if it should be moved to another location next year. Moving it to another part of the city will represent a radical shift in the community’s spatial relationship with the rest of the city as it breaks out into the heart of Chicago in a very visible manner. And there is good and bad to come with that.

The news broke this spring that various parties were discussing the move from Lakeview to the Loop if the crowds that descend on Boystown for the parade don’t keep themselves in check. Aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and James Cappleman (46th) issued a joint threat statement explaining too much chaos would force a move. This is despite 55% of Lakeview residents supporting the Parade’s continued presence in Lakeview. What happens in 2016 will depend a lot on resident feedback and events that happen this year and in all likelihood the opinions of the politically connected in those two wards. As of today, 52 Pride related arrests occurred on Sunday and early Monday morning, including 2 felonies.

The move would dramatically alter how the LGBTQ* community interacts with Chicago though and the spatial role the Boystown location plays in for the community is worth serious consideration. For decades Boystown has been the focal point of Chicago’s gay community and although not as inclusive as it could be the larger LGBTQ* as a whole it is still synonymous with the larger community in a lot of ways. The numerous bars and shops, LGBTQ* friendly businesses, and organizations in Boystown clearly demarcate this neighborhood as the “gayborhood”. The parade alone does not make Boystown what it is and probably pales in significance when the entire year-long calendar of events in the area is taken into consideration as well as official recognition on the part of the city (those rainbow columns didn’t just appear overnight). But the way the parade and Boystown relate as a community building event is important.

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The rainbow pylons in Boystown were part of a place making effort after the neighborhood was officially recognized ‘gay village’ in the United States.

Keeping the highest profile LGBTQ* event in Chicago in Boystown does a lot to maintain a sense of place for the LGBTQ* community among the city’s many neighborhoods and provides local businesses and organizations a chance to rally together and maintain relations via the organizing efforts needed to carry out such a large-scale event. It also provides people on the fringes of the community an accessible introduction to community events, but also the neighborhood itself. And of course there are the economics of holding such a large event in a neighborhood versus the Loop. People will patronize neighborhood bars, shops, and restaurants pre- and post-parade, rather than establishments in the Loop, which are frequently chains and tourist oriented. But the emotional connections to the neighborhood are worth thinking about too. Part of the joy of holding the parade in Boystown is going to the lakefront or bars post-parade or getting beads thrown on you from apartment parties above the street.

There are benefits though to moving the Pride Parade Downtown. The obvious is many Loop streets and sites (State Street or Grant Park) can handle much bigger crowds much easier than the thinner streets in Boystown. Accessibility is increased due to the proximity of so many transit options, it engages more of the city and increases the visibility of the LGBTQ* community to a larger segment of the population, and could provide an opportunity for organizers to do much more (circuit party in Millennium Park or at Soldier Field or rainbow flags on the Michigan Avenue Bridge anybody?) Ironically, a Downtown Pride Parade could follow some historically significant routes. The original Pride March in June 1970 ended at the Civic Center (now Daley Plaza) and the massive anti-Prop 8 march the took place in November 2008 occurred in the Loop and snarled traffic all day as the impromptu march moved throughout the city, including along North Michigan Avenue. And it’s not like Chicago would be unique in having its parade Downtown: NYC Pride covers a huge swatch of Midtown to Lower Manhattan and San Francisco Pride still follows Market Street from Downtown to the Castro.

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The opportunity to hang a rainbow flag on a site like the Wrigley Building like the American flag is for the 4th of July would provide a huge amount of visibility of the LGBTQ* community if Pride was moved Downtown.

This however shouldn’t be taken as a free pass to move the parade without deeply thinking about the impacts a move will have, especially taken into historical context for the parade’s inflated crowds the last few years. The decision where to locate the next Pride Parade should of course be done in a way that recognizes the pressures of hosting such a large event in the neighborhoods, but not in a way that ignores the significance of creating and supporting an urban space that has relevance and meaning for the LGBTQ* community as well.

While controlling the size of the parade itself and making sure the organizational structures to maintain control and sanitation during and after the parade play big roles in the determination of where to locate the Pride Parade, taking pressure off Boystown stands apart as a major deciding factor. Event organizers and local leaders would be wise to think about the “gay” geography of Chicago though when thinking about where to host the parade. Keeping events in the neighborhoods should remain the primary goal so as not to move all the benefits of such an event to the already burgeoning Loop. Increasingly Andersonville, Uptown, and Rogers Park are rising as secondary gayborhoods on the North Side and figuring out how to bring them into the fold of summer long LGBTQ* events, especially surrounding the Pride Parade, should be part of this future planning.

As should looking back at an increasingly visible LGBTQ* history.

The recent decision by SCOTUS resulting in the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage will fundamentally change the conversation on LGBTQ* rights in America and Pride events nationwide. The last two Chicago Pride Parades were touted as being the largest ever in part, because the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois and nationally brought out extra large crowds. Now that same-sex marriage is no longer a major part of the debate the crowds may decline, because such a major rallying point has been removed. This should be taken as an opportunity to re-ignite conversations about other major issues facing the LGBTQ* community and such conversations should be incorporated into Pride events. This includes becoming more inclusive of women and trans* individuals as well as LGBTQ* people of color. The changing nature of the parade also plays into where to locate one.

In a way moving the event Downtown puts the Pride Parade on neutral ground (which is ironic considering Boystown’s status as a gayborhood), but as the time comes to reinvigorate the LGBTQ* community around other issues it seems appropriate to keep the parade on “home turf”, especially since that “home turf” desperately needs to opened up to more of the LGBTQ* community. It really raises the question of what the ultimate goal of the parade is and who it serves. If the parade is no more than a big party with a very gay theme, then moving it Downtown might be the best choice for security and crowd control, but if maintaining it is a major political event too that seeks to engage the LGBTQ* community in a way that is celebratory, but also promotes important issues, maybe keeping it in Boystown is more important so as to maintain the neighborhood as the cultural and political center of the community and really make it an annual rallying point and coalescing event at the heart of the gayborhood.

Whatever happens, if it does move Downtown, the City better start looking at ways to dye the river rainbow, so as not to be out flanked by St. Patrick’s Day.

Transport to O’Hare: It’s a puzzle, just put the pieces together

In the bowels of Block 37, right along State Street in the center of the Loop, is a tomb for former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of ultra-fast express trains to O’Hare International Airport. It’s an empty tomb. While that particular project may have been a little off-the-mark there is no reason the city should continue its struggle for better airport transit to no avail. All the pieces are there, and while City Hall is working towards making such connections a real thing, other parties aren’t carrying their weight, preventing meaningful progress. If Metra and Amtrak worked better with City agencies the true potential of transit connections can easily be achieved at O’Hare. It is truly ridiculous that there is less movement, and one has to question the role of the latter parties in restraining this.

In recent weeks, mentions of a O’Hare-to-Loop train link have started to crop up. It started with an open letter Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch recently wrote to the new Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) President Dorval Carter, Jr. emphasizing the need to revive plans for such a service during the new president’s tenure. It came up again in the Tribune in a feature about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goals for his second term in office, where the O’Hare-Loop link fell under the umbrella of Emanuel’s potential legacy projects. Conveniently just days later the Mayor’s Office published a press release announcing the ground breaking of a new intermodal facility at O’Hare consolidating major parking and car rental facilities and includes an extension of the automated people mover.

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Theoretical proposals for a new station at O’Hare includes the ability to connect to multiple rail options, something possible at airports like Frankfurt Flughafen in Germany or Schipol in Amsterdam (Source: Chicago Architecture Blog)

While this project is just another step forward in Emanuel’s own perpetuating struggle to make O’Hare a better airport it also reopens the possibility of an express rail link that alludes the city. Although Daley’s proposal was truly a dream train based on Shanghai’s maglev airport link, the underlying concept is very attainable–impressively so. What eludes Emanuel and the City’s renewed efforts is a coordination amongst several agencies. Hilkevitch puts pressure on Carter and the CTA to make a future rail link reality. This is in spite of the fact the CTA is the only transit operator in the region making a concerted effort to maintain and improve connections to O’Hare. The CTA can only do so much and finding a solution shouldn’t burden just them; taking Hilkevitch’s lead its time to revive a realistic plan for better rail service to O’Hare, but don’t make the call just to the City and CTA, but now bring Metra and Amtrak into the fold.

O’hare could have a system of rail links similar to Heathrow International in London or Frankfurt-Main Flughafen in Germany–a layered system, which includes local metro, regional/commuter, intercity, and express airport trains and high-speed rail. To make this happen though planning needs to more aggressively engage all potential parties involved (every transit agency serving Chicago). How much the City can cajole Metra and Amtrak to play a part is up for debate. Certain facts should indicate that involvement of the two agencies should happen with ease. Lots of adjacent rail infrastructure is already under the control of Metra and low freight use in the area means passenger trains are at an advantage. But then again both agencies are cash strapped and Metra has given no indication that it is interested in making major service changes.

What’s a girl to do?

Metra however presents the best opportunity for vastly improved services and the onus of pressure has to be increased. The agency already fails miserably in terms of what it provides to travelers at O’Hare. Metra operates its North Central Service (NCS) along Canadian National tracks that pass just east of O’Hare with a remote stop (O’Hare Transfer) at the airport and adjacent to the intermodal facility. While the City is failing to include an improved the station as part of the current project it wouldn’t matter much, because the current service is so infrequent it would likely get little use anyhow. Metra only runs 11 trains in each direction a day (most during rush-hour) … on weekdays only! To say the least, Metra doesn’t really cut it.

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The Jamaica station, located on Long Island in New York City, provides riders the opportunity to transfer between every Long Island Rail Road line, the NYC subway, and a train link to JFK airport. This is the kind of facility that would be a huge benefit to transit riders in Chicago if it were built on the Near West Side near the current Western stop. (Source: nychinatown.org)

Frankly they don’t even have to think very hard to make improvements. Two primary improvements exist: one is simply increasing service. This could also be a micro scale effort with potentially macro scale benefits making major investments more reasonable as they have broader positive impacts. Increasing service on the North Central Service means travelers have more access to the city and suburbs improving travel options for visitors and locals, something that gets lost with express options to the Loop alone. While this obviously includes getting more trains a day 7 days a week it should include a long-term effort to improve transfers between other Metra lines and the NCS, progressively bringing more people and places closer to O’Hare by train, especially where the NCS intersects with the other Metra lines in the suburbs.

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This is the interior of an Heathrow Express train in London. The interior of the cars are designed specifically to benefit air travelers who need spaces for their luggage as well as comfortable seats. (Source: Wikipedia, Heathrow Express)

The second option would ideally be done in combination with the first: running an express train from the O’Hare Transfer stop/intermodal station. Currently it takes 32 minutes to get from Union Station to O’Hare on Metra, while an express train would take less than 25 minutes. Metra could operate this in partnership with the CTA and Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to lower operating burdens too. Meanwhile, an intermediate stop at Western on the Near West Side facilitating transfers to other Metra lines would make the service an option for residents and visitors alike and facilitate transfers to Metra outside the Loop. This could even be used as an incentive to improve connections all around. For example, a new station just east of the current one at Western would provide riders the opportunity to transfer between four Metra lines (the Milwaukee District lines, Union Pacific West, and the North Central Service) and airport trains. This is more than just Metra going above and beyond, it is designing and planning in a way that reinforces transit use by improving existing problems, while role in new services along the way.

Where Metra can play its cards to improve access within the metropolitan region, Amtrak provides the chance to connect communities further afield by train. The proposed Black Hawk service is a good place to start. The new route will run from Chicago Union Station to Rockford with a future extension to Dubuque, IA. Using the Milwaukee District West tracks between Union Station and Elgin, it passes immediately south of O’Hare. Yet despite its proximity there is no air-to-train connection under development. Granted this requires one of three things: a new station entirely, a line configuration that spurs into the existing O’Hare Metra station and out again to the mainline, or new tracks looping north of O’Hare and back south again onto the mainline.

That said, the Black Hawk service if it stopped at O’Hare would play an even better role improving transportation in the Midwest compared to at the service sans an O’Hare stop. This is especially pertinent considering the possibility for extensions into Iowa to Waterloo/Cedar Falls and north towards Madison, WI. Ideally Amtrak would have figured out the benefit of stopping at O’Hare, and by not doing so it systemically let’s a major improvement slip through the cracks.

O'Hare Rail Access

The number of and extent of rail connections at O’Hare is significant even at its most basic. (Source: Trainorders.com)

This all costs money of course and financing continues to be a major if not the major roadblock to improvements. But it would be worth it and provide huge benefits even if high initial investments were part of this. The argument active parties need to take is that by bringing as many parties into establishing better connections they can share the costs of this system or others already proposed making it that much more attainable. Even at its most expansive a massive new infrastructure network inspired by connections to O’Hare would likely cost more than $2B. Shocking at first, it is similar in price to much less beneficial projects with a much smaller breadth of beneficiaries (such as the Illiana Tollroad) though. When one considers the number of parties involved it is clear the costs would be significantly less for each involved. That $2B suddenly seems much smaller.

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This is the shelter at the O’Hare Transfer stop. It has no direct connection the the airport terminals and requires travelers to transfer to a shuttle to the automated people mover to get to the main airport campus.

Done right O’Hare has every chance of becoming as much an important multimodal transportation center as it is an important airport. And such a center would vastly improve access to the airport and its role as an international gateway to the entire region. The fact few well established plans exist to develop the kinds of intermodal connections brought up here and proposed by others is frustrating for the sheer reason that all the pieces are right there. The city is slowly beginning the process, but needs the full participation of every transit provider in the region, because they clearly all have a stake. And even though the costs may add up, taken into context they’re actually rather manageable. It’s finagling others to take part needs to happen now, because there is no reason it should be all on the City of Chicago.

One of Chicago’s great assets is its airports and rail connections. It has remained a major transportation node in the United States despite decades of change since it first emerged as such. But this can’t be sustained if the utmost connections between the different transportation networks aren’t developed and maintained. The involvement of the City, local transit agencies, and Amtrak will fuel the airport and city’s economic growth in relation to O’Hare and the growth of the agencies themselves through new passengers. It’s a puzzle with a clear end product that just isn’t being pieced together. Getting everybody to play their part is going to be the key to solving this conundrum.