Petitioners Take On Challenge to Restore Jackson Park Green Line

An edited version of this story was published by Streetsblog Chicago on Tuesday, July 26. This is the original, extended text.

Twenty years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported Woodlawn residents waking to “the thunder of falling steel;” the noise was the controversial demolition of the Jackson Park branch of the Green Line east of Cottage Grove. The demolition has regained attention after Hyde Park resident, Reuben Lillie, launched a petition and website calling for its restoration. In addition to its call for expanded rapid transit service, the petition also reflects broader issues on the South Side: local anxiety over development in Jackson Park, questions of gentrification, and indignation towards the patronizing treatment of South Siders by City Hall.

The Jackson Park branch was part of the original ‘L’. Planned in 1880s with its initial terminus at 39th Street, the ‘L’ was immediately extended to Jackson Park when Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair. For a century after trains used this structure until deferred maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure paved the way for demolition crews to move in during the fall 1997.

Still, the demolition of the ‘L’ branch is a curiosity. It destroyed one of the city’s most historically significant pieces of infrastructure and it provided the only direct rapid transit link between to the lakefront parks. Furthermore, the demolition came at time that would not suggest interest in shrinking the system: the Blue Line had been recently extended, the Orange Line was brand new, and a renovation of the entire Green Line was underway.

According to a contemporary report from the Chicago Reader, a number of parties are behind the elevated’s demolition. Inaction at City Hall and sort-sighted leadership at the CTA allowed the structure to fall into disrepair. Subsequently, the priorities of local organizations and influential individuals such as Bishop Arthur M. Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God and Rev. Leon Finney, Jr., chairman of the Woodlawn Organization, and proponents of demolition, helped bring down the ‘L’.

A native of Pennsylvania, Lillie moved to the South Side three years ago and has thrown himself into becoming a proud Chicagoan. A musician and theologian, he recognized the logic in having the “L” run all the way to Jackson Park following the announcement that the Obama Presidential Center would be built in the park. “I was kind of waiting in the wings hoping the sensible thing would be done,” Lillie says.

He became more “aggressive” in his activism (laughing at his own word choice) when it became clear no plans for the ‘L’ were in the works. This is when Mike Medina, a 12-year Woodlawn resident, noticed Lillie’s comments about the ‘L’ online and reached out about his interest in the Green Line extension. Medina was “struck by the optimism” and salience of his ideas. He then showed Lillie’s comments to Gabriel Piemonte, a seven-year Woodlawn resident who would also help.

The petition states there is no “viable infrastructure for welcoming people to the Jackson Park vicinity” and that ‘L’ service “encourages visitors to Jackson Park…but also enables our South Side neighbors to move more freely to, from, and within Woodlawn.“ Arguing there is no better time to address this, the petition calls for the restoration of service to Jackson Park.

Proposing the construction of a new piece of infrastructure is valiant albeit difficult. In particular, transit expansion is notoriously expensive and mired in politics. Kyle Whitehead, Government Relations Director at the Active Transportation Alliance, lays out some of the challenges to expand rapid transit. The first hurdle is creating a proposal for the extension and pursuing a public engagement process, all necessary steps. Money is the biggest challenge for moving forward, however.

“Funding is typically the biggest barrier to…building new [transit lines],” says Whitehead, adding that local funding is especially difficult. While federal grants can help municipalities fund transit projects they all require significant local matches. Currently, there is no dedicated source of revenue for transit to meet local match requirements. At the city and county level “we struggle to come up with those funds,” explains Whitehead.

Indeed, Chicago is full of examples of projects stuck at the drawing board although they have well developed plans. Nonetheless, implementation remains elusive. Moreover, the Green Line restoration to Jackson Park only entered the lexicon of official planning projects with its inclusion in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s list of regionally significant projects last year.

The men behind the petition show no naïveté and they are aware of the associated challenges. Nonetheless, they remain steadfast in the belief that this is an essential first step for Woodlawn. Indeed, when discussing the restoration of the Green Line they reveal an understanding of the dynamics of transit expansion in general, the potential impact on Woodlawn specifically, and the relationship to projects in Jackson Park.

More broadly, the petition is about bringing back local control to the planning process. “The nerve that [this idea] struck with us…was the idea of South Siders being a part of the conversation,” Piemonte says with Medina adding that it is in contrast to residents being “spoon feed [ideas] by private investors.” While such comments expose frustration with how City Hall conducts planning processes on the South Side it is being channeled into an effort to positively restore local participation and allow South Siders to be leaders in these processes.

“One of the questions that is coming from this is people now asking, ‘well, how should Woodlawn be developed,’ and that is very exciting,” Piemonte says. The focus remains on the ‘L’, and while some have rebuked the idea as a silver bullet solution to Woodlawn’s problems Lillie maintains the idea is an essential element to the neighborhood’s revival and health. “It’s not panacean,” Lillied says, “it’s just key.”

Medina and Piemonte, who are both involved in other community engagement efforts, see this is as a critical strain in conversations for how the south lakefront and Woodlawn will develop. The restoration of the ‘L’ has to include projects such as the Obama Presidential Center and vice versa. “How do you not notice the ‘L’ has been torn down,” Piemonte asks, stressing the hole its absence creates in Woodlawn.

The initial goal of 500 signatures was achieved so quickly that a discussion of next steps was forced. This includes getting the attention or support of three particular groups. First, it is measuring community support, which the petitioners feel exists. Second is the Obama Foundation, which also seems receptive to the idea; according to Lillie the director of planning and construction for the Obama Presidential Center, Roark Frankel, showed enthusiasm for the idea after speaking with Lillie at a ward meeting. The Obama Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The third target is Mayor Emanuel and the CTA. A report on DNAinfo included a statement from CTA Spokesperson Irene Ferradaz, who said that while the extension is not being considered the CTA “always looks for opportunities to improve the system to meet ridership demand.” The important message for Lillie is that “they didn’t say ‘no’.” Remaining optimistic, he interprets this as an opening to begin pushing for the establishment of a committee to plan the project.

Now, the petition is being kept active longer with a new goal of 1,000 signatures. The date by which the petitioners want a response from the Mayor’s office, the CTA, and other parities is September 27, the 20th anniversary of the Jackson Park branch’s demolition. It also falls before the planning for the Obama center gets under way in earnest allowing them to include the ‘L’ in their plans.

The proposal for the ‘L’ is part of a visionary idea for the South Side that fits well with the vision the Obama’s have set out for the Presidential Center, according to the petitioners. Indeed, for them, it is a visionary idea for the whole city to acknowledge. “One of our [city’s] foundational concepts is forever open and free,” Piemonte says referencing the idea that the public should have complete access to the lakefront, “that these spaces are for everybody…and if people can’t get to it, it’s not fair.”

At this Lillie adds forthrightly, “anything that happens here without the ‘L’ in some manner is a Pyrrhic victory.” Access is synonymous with fairness and essential to the equity of plans for Jackson Park.

South Side residents share a sense that they have to be self-reliant, and it is up to them to arrange the resources and services they need and desire on their own, the petitioners maintain. And now they think it will be impossible for the city to ignore local demand to restore the ‘L’ with the new activity in Jackson Park. “They kind of started the poker game,” Piemonte says. “They say they’re doing this, because they care about the community”, Lillie remarks, and “we’re calling their bluff.”

For Lillie, the extension of the Green Line to its former terminus is a prodigious project. Not only does it correct years of neglect and false promises to the South Side, it fits into a more epic image of Chicago that speaks to its better qualities. The Obama Presidential Center’s location in Jackson Park references history with its link to the World’s Fair, which was Chicago’s coming out to the world. For some residents, the Obama center is viewed similarly. The ‘L’ is presented now as important as it was during the fair.

Bringing [the ‘L’] back is recapturing Daniel Burnham’s vision,” Lillie said “it was there to welcome the world to Chicago.”