Can Transportation Options Energize Englewood?

Demond Drummer by the 63rd/Halsted Green Line station in Englewood. Photo by John Greenfield.

[This article also appears in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield’s weekly column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Most Chicagoans associate Englewood with poverty and crime, but local advocates and activists see it as a neighborhood with untapped potential, with excellent access to public transportation being one of the keys to its future success. “From the beginning, Englewood was designed to be a transportation and retail hub, and that does not come up often enough in the conversation,” says Demond Drummer, a resident who works for the Teamwork Englewood community development organization.

Greater Englewood is a predominantly African-American area, roughly bounded by Garfield, Western, 79th and State. It includes two Green Line stations, three Red Line Stops, Metra’s Rock Island Main Line (although trains no longer stop here), and multiple bus routes. The New Era Trail proposal would turn a nearly two-mile, dormant rail corridor into an elevated greenway along 59th between Hoyne and Lowe. The city is also considering building bus rapid transit on Ashland, which would create yet another travel option.

“The proximity to transportation is one of Englewood’s huge assets,” says Asiaha Butler, who works in the real estate industry and president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE). “It can help revive the neighborhood by providing individuals with access to jobs in other parts of the city, and it can encourage new retail here. But we need businesses to be smart and strategic by locating near hubs like 63rd and Ashland, and the 63rd Street Red Line Stop.”

Greater Englewood. Image taken from Chicago Bike Map - orange lines are recommended bike routes.

Drummer agreed to meet me in the neighborhood to discuss the role sustainable transportation can play in bringing Englewood back to its former glory. “In its prime, it was the number-one, non-central-city retail location in the entire country,” he says as we stand under the Green Line tracks by the Halsted/63rd station, another one of the community’s crucial transit nodes. Just north is Kennedy-King College, which relocated here in the mid-2000s; on the northwest corner is a twelve-acre vacant lot where the Englewood Shopping Center once stood before it was demolished in 2001.

Transit hubs like 63rd and Halsted should be a no-brainer for new business investment, but why did local enterprises like the shopping mall close in the first place? “It was an inward-facing shopping center where a parking lot was all you saw walking up to it, so that didn’t help,” Drummer responds. “But you also had retail consolidation, historic racism, redlining and divestment from the neighborhood, and the shutting down of the Green Line. [The line was closed from January 1994 to May 1996 for rehab work, and six South Side stations, several in Englewood, never reopened.] These things kind of created a vicious cycle of exodus.”

Still, Drummer is optimistic that Englewood can leverage its current and future transportation options, and even use its many vacant lots to its advantage, to make an economic comeback. Teamwork Englewood recently finished an eighteen-month land-use planning process with the city and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “It asked the question, what do we do in the neighborhood with all these vacant lots,” Drummer says. “With the city’s new Green and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative they want to centralize retail around our transportation hubs.”

A resident reviews the proposal for the New Era Trail at a community meeting. Photo by Andrew Roddewig of Clarion New Media.

Of course, the Red Line track rehab means that three of these nodes will be shut down from May to September this year. “That’s going to be painful, but in the long-term faster riding times will benefit everybody,” Drummer says. “We can ask, ‘How could they let the Red Line get so bad that we have to shut down the line for five months?’ But the fact is, the Red Line needs to be rebuilt, as well as extended further south.”

Drummer adds that there’s strong support for building bus rapid transit on Ashland as an additional high-speed, north-south public transportation artery. “That could have an amazing effect, because Ashland is one of our stronger retail corridors,” he says. “Residents in the neighborhood want BRT, and we’re reaching out to the business community.” Are people open to removing car lanes on Ashland to make room for dedicated bus lanes? “There are always going to be tradeoffs, but there are a lot of transit riders in this neighborhood,” he responds. “The densest northbound ridership on the Ashland bus line is from 95th to the 63rd and Ashland Green Line stop.”

The New Era Trail is another proposal Drummer, who also serves on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, says could give Englewood a shot in the arm. “Having a ‘linear park’ where you could walk or run or bike would be great. It will attract more folks to retail and help be a backbone for some of the urban agriculture projects we’ve been talking about.”

Longtime community activist Jermont Montgomery echoes Drummer’s sentiment. “It would be very easy to turn that rail line into a ‘sky park,’” he says. “That would be a wonderful thing for the neighborhood. Right now there’s not as much interest in athleticism in this community as there is in gentrified parts of town. But I think that if you build it, they will come.”

  • Joseph Musco

    Here’s a picture of what Halsted & 63rd used to look like via Curbed Chicago.

  • guest

    Englewood is toast. The neighborhood needs a total reboot, unfortunately there are many more attractive areas with equal, if not better transit service…it’s going to be decades upon decades until things turn around.

  • Anonymous

    total nitpick, but only Racine closed on the Green Line during the ’94-’96 shutdown. Wentworth, and Harvard closed as part of service cuts in ’92.

  • Thanks for the clarification.

  • Don’t be so sure. Judging from the people I talked with there is a lot of momentum to change things for the better. And this article was written before the BRT on Ashland announcement. Combine that with the relocation of Kennedy King, a faster Red Line, the New Era Trail, plus the redevelopment of the 12-acre parcel at the northwest corner of 63rd/Ashland, and there are some major positive changes taking place.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Asiaha, but when you suggest that “[high quality transit] can help revive the neighborhood by providing individuals with access to jobs in other parts of the city, and it can encourage new retail here”, you should know that the Illinois Department of Transportation has already determined that patterns of sprawl and urban disinvestment disproportionately impacting low to moderate income neighborhoods and communities of color will continue unabated well into the future – no matter what transportation investments are made. Jobs are going to continue to move farther out into collar counties. People – at least those with cars, anyway – are going to be commuting farther, faster, IDOT claims.

    We can’t afford to make counter-productive and wasteful investments in transit, they represent. Greater Englewood? Garfield Park? Austin? They’re pass-through places. Places with voices that aren’t heard . . . a silent film with awful consequences.

    We’re told we must pour billions into highway reconstruction and expansion while ignoring opportunity costs associated with failing to make other forms of investments that might actually serve to reconnect people to jobs, to refocus development in ways that decrease our long-term maintenance obligations while at the same time reducing the number or length of trips people make, to actually make peoples’ lives better. Better isn’t driving farther, faster. Better isn’t providing a new lane for those able and willing to pay for the privilege of traveling a highway segment faster . . . maybe.

    Cars must travel farther faster, even if only at the margin. People? Neighborhoods? Communities? Little more than stakeholders that IDOT accepts comments from.

    Forget about fairy tales where public policy and the investments we make create opportunities for both people and businesses that would otherwise not occur in the context of a road-oriented investment plan. There’s only one reality, our state DOT claims: Our roads are old and need to be replaced. The highway is not safe and cars can not go fast enough due to congestion. The highway must be reconstructed and expanded.

    Never mind that any potential marginal gain in capacity or slight improvement in travel time (if at all real) is ultimately imperceptible to the highway driver, while gaps in transit service and the absence of safe paths of non-auto travel remain bona fide barriers to employment and opportunity. People in cars are already employed and have opportunity, and that is the segment of the traveling public our transportation investments cater to over and over again.

    An investment strategy focused on automobiles moving farther and faster is an investment strategy that endeavors to reinforce and expand gaps in opportunity arising, in part, from decades of urban disinvestment and growth at the urban fringe.

    We can get anywhere by car, yet we can’t travel an inner-ring 7 mile transit trip in less than two or three hours. Where, then, are we likely to see the greatest benefit associated with $1B+ major investments? In that next incremental increase to highway capacity, or in establishing an affordable, reliable, and efficient transit network – one that is competitive with driving? That’s a difficult question. Which creates the greatest return on investment? Creating new connections and opportunity, or marginally improving those that have existed for fifty years? IDOT argues the latter. Environmental justice communities and others suffer as a result.

    How is it that a major study examining transportation problems and solutions for an urban interstate project traversing many environmental justice communities can get away with failing to examine benefits and impacts from the unique perspectives of concentrations of the low-to-moderate income families that the highway slices across. That is what is going on in the I-290 study.

    Is increased and improved transit access to employment an existing problem worthy of federal investment in the context of a project exceeding $1B to construct? Are highway needs the only needs that our state DOT should concern itself with? Why, given federal statutory obligation to effectively engage environmental justice communities in discussion of project purpose and need does the foundational element of the study — the “Purpose and Need” — not go so far as to even mention the term “environmental justice”? (see the April 2013 version here:

    Given that low-to-moderate income persons living adjacent to highway corridors have higher incidence of respiratory impairment and disease, does an incremental increase in traffic have a disproportionate impact on the health and well-being of such members of society? Why isn’t that considered, though federal statute says it must be? Why is it that the “Purpose and Need” for major federal investment is defined strictly in terms of highway design and capacity constraints while deficiencies associated with the CTA Blue Line – an integral component of the corridor – are left unaddressed? Should we “fix” the highway around the Blue Line and then come back a few years later and reconstruct the Blue Line? Federal law indicates that transit and highway needs in multimodal corridors must be handled concurrently, not in follow-on studies as the IDOT suggests. The law recognizes the value and importance of coordinated planning and investment. The IDOT recognizes only the limitations of what it deems its money and mission. Never mind that the IDOT doesn’t have any money – it belongs to the taxpayers of Illinois. Never mind that the IDOT’s mission is to support broadly defined transportation needs in the state of Illinois – not just to make cars go farther, faster. To the contrary, the IDOT mission is “to provide safe, cost-effective
    transportation for Illinois in ways that enhance quality of
    life, promote economic prosperity, and demonstrate respect for
    our environment.”

    How does one highway expansion after another produce “cost-effective transportation for Illinois in ways that enhance quality of life, promote economic prosperity, and demonstrate respect for our environment”? The measures of project success don’t even include the metrics necessary to assess their investments along such lines. Those metrics with limited applicability are often introduced *after* the list of alternatives has been reduced to only those with the most significant adverse impacts remaining. Of course, it all begins with how the problem is defined. No matter how much of a dog a particular project is, no matter how inconsistent it is with IDOT’s stated mission, only those alternatives that address the Purpose and Need are able to survive to the final cut. Thus, for example, only after alternatives have been narrowed to a list comprised of only highway expansion options do environmental considerations get examined – a choice between the lesser of three evils *after* the projects that would yield improvement are removed from consideration. If the “problem” is highway capacity and design, there is only one possible solution. Every IDOT study defines the problem the same way, and the recommended action is thus inevitable: Highway reconstruction and expansion.

    Highway expansions do not benefit the concentrations of low-to-moderate income populations through which they slice, yet that is what we build. These communities, environmental justice communities in statutory lingo, have long suffered the consequences of our decisions without sharing equally in the benefits. Shaving two minutes off a highway trip is not more important than supporting alternative modes of transportation, including walking, biking, and transit.

    The absence of any discussion of “environmental justice” communities in the IDOT’s I-290 Statement of Purpose and Need is very telling. Unfortunately, what it is telling is that advocacy voices are missing from the conversation and our state DOT believes they can move forward with impunity.

    Can transportation options energize Englewood? The IDOT models say no; fortunately it isn’t IDOT’s call. The same can’t be said for EJ communities in the I-290 corridor.

  • Cheer up Coolebra, demographic and statistical trends are working in favor of sustainable transportation. If you read some of today’s earlier network posts, you’ll see people are driving less and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that building new highways is a bad investment. More and more, people want to live, work and shop in places that are accessible by transit and other forms of active transportation.

    “We can get anywhere by car, yet we can’t travel an inner-ring 7 mile transit trip in less than two or three hours.” Really? Give me a relaxing ‘L’ train or Metra ride over a stress-inducing car commute any day. With the announcement of BRT on Ashland last week, plus great Red and Green access, Englewood is better positioned than ever for a transit-fueled renaissance.

  • Anonymous

    “We can get anywhere by car, yet we can’t travel an inner-ring 7 mile transit trip in less than two or three hours.” Really?


    Use Goroo to go from Columbus Park (located in an EJ community) to Brookfield Zoo, where there are entry level jobs. The result is two to three service providers and some combination of up to 4 buses or three buses and one train. Sure, Goroo might indicate trip time is 45 to 75 minutes depending on the combination and/or time of day, but the reality is at least one of those buses runs only once per hour. Miss one transfer, which easily happens, and add a full hour – on just one link.

    One can drive on I-290 at any time of day and make that trip in less than 30 minutes – more likely 18 to 25 minutes. I agree that transit is superior to driving, but not when it takes a full three to five hours out of one’s day.

    We need transit alternatives that are reasonably competitive with driving, not more lanes to drive on.

  • Anonymous

    Also, see here: http://www.eisenhowerexpresswa

    Note Exhibit 22 on PDF page 21. It depicts differences between
    population forecasts under the regional comprehensive plan, the “Policy Based Projection”, and those the state DOT put together for their study aiming to expand I-290, “The Market Based Projection.” As you’ll note, the Illinois Department of Transportation represents that population will grow more rapidly at the urban fringe, and less rapidly toward the city center – through 2040, with no abatement in sight.

    Their proposed investments are based on the understanding that sprawl is inevitable and we must expand roads to support and encourage it.

    What is wrong with that picture?

    How can Illinois continue to base major capital investments on flawed assumptions and biased analysis of our needs?

  • OK, that is a pretty circuitous transit trip, but it seems like a worst-case scenario, and saying it would be more than 2 hours seems pretty pessimistic. Of course, you could always bike it in 34 minutes!

  • Anonymous

    My 84 year old mom used to take the Rock Island from Blue Island to Hamilton Park all the time when she was growing up. You can still see where the station used to be when you take the Rock. It’s just south of 72nd St–about on a par with the swimming pool in the Park–but on the East side of the tracks. She insists that there was another “Park stop” at around 69th, and yet another stop around 59th Street. If I had to guess, I’d say that racial discrimination was a big factor as to why these stations were closed. Since Metra has very successfully reopened a station at 35th St/IIT, why couldn’t they reopen stations in Englewood or other locations in the area?

  • That does seem like a great strategy to help Englewood residents get to jobs, and make Englewood more of a retail destination.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, three hours is a worst case scenario, but not outside of the realm of needing to plan for it in one’s trip. Two hours, well that is a reality — not a worst-case scenario, but one that occurs all-too-frequently.

    I’ve made a similar trip many times over the years, so I’m not simply using Goroo’s less-than-adequate estimates. Goroo should include one additional trip time estimate: An estimate taking into account what happens if one misses a critical link, i.e., one that involves service that either ends at a certain hour or one where service is hourly, or longer. Missing that connection? That’s the difference between Goroo’s estimate and doubling it…and it happens too frequently.

    Our region has places where people in need of work can work, but can’t reasonably commute back and forth due to low or no vehicle ownership. To illustrate the issue, even IDOT changed their I-290 study meetings location from Hillside to a place better served by transit because of lack of transit access — no efficient, affordable, and reliable transit pathway to Hillside. That is worth restating. They moved because there is not adequate transit service between the Austin community and Hillside — not some distant DuPage, Kane, or McHenry location, but Hillside, which nearby west cook county.

    IDOT found that their Hillside location right off a highway ramp just west of Mannheim required special shuttle service just so transit-dependent people could get there. Despite changing their meeting location based on transit service availability and reliability, IDOT still claims in their assessment of transit availability that corridor transit is abundant. If that were the case, and given a reasonable definition of “abundant”, their meetings would still be in Hillside. If transit service is abundant in the study area, what is the existing road network? Well, there’s not enough capacity and we need to add more.

    Maybe that is the solution:

    Make bikes available for members of EJ communities so they can pedal out to Brookfield, Oak Brook, or Lombard where the jobs are. Sure, weather might be a little bit of a problem for many, and many aren’t fit enough to ride, but those poor people in the ghetto need some exercise, anyway . . . and they can provide entertainment for people driving on their new HOT.

    With a nod to Marie Antoinette, Let “them” ride bikes.

    Biting sarcasm aside, I truly agree that biking is a great form of urban transportation requiring much greater support. The foregoing was not a biking criticism, nor one meant to be critical of your observation that I (not they) could have a quick trip by biking, but rather a pointed observation on the manner in which EJ community needs are often glossed over, misunderstood, or completely ignored in IDOT’s case.

    As for the actual subject of this article, great piece. Hopefully Englewood can be a model for the transformative nature of transit investments.

  • Thanks Coolebra. While it wouldn’t work for a trip from Columbus Park to Brookfield, Chicago’s upcoming bike share program will be part of the solution for creating more transportation options in low-income communities. Here’s an old Grid Chicago post on that topic:

  • guest

    I am sure John. Its depressing, but its the reality Engelwood faces. Engelwood lost 62,500 residents between 1950 and 2010. Its commercial corridors were gutted, it has lost three Green line stations, murder rates are perennially among the top three highest in Chicago, half the community is vacant housing or vacant lots, city services are diminished, healthy food options are non existent, schools are dangerous, an entire section is being bulldozed to expand a intermodal freight yard… Engelwood is dead.

    BRT will not help, a mediocre commuter college has not helped, a bike trail will not help and certainly developing a mere 12 acres will not help. Like I said, it needs a reboot. Burn it to the ground and start over. Turn the entire community into a farm and hope that maybe some day in the future (after areas like Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Washington Park, Woodlawn, South Shore, Little Village, McKinley Park, Avondale, etc. fill in) it becomes a viable option for people to live in.


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