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The Jackson 5: Spending five hours at the Jackson ‘L’ stops, a CTA trouble spot

The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield

Along with unreliable CTA service due to COVID-19-related labor shortages, as well as the infuriating ghost train and bus problem, one of the issues that has prevented Chicago transit ridership from fully recovering from the pandemic slump has been concerns about rising violent crime, harassment, smoking, and less sanitary conditions on the system. According to police, reported violent crime in the CTA system was up 24 percent in January and February of 2022 compared to the same time period in 2021.

In an effort to address the latter problem, on March 9 Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a $71 million contract for more than doubling the number of unarmed private security guards deployed on CTA property, as well as increased policing of the system. In late April Block Club's Mack Liederman wrote an illuminating article in which he interviewed CTA riders and guards about personal safety on the system, and most people he talked to said nothing seemed to have changed.

Particularly troubling is that the some of the guards told Liederman they themselves don't feel safe because they've faced harassment and threats. "They call us the 'toy cops,' one said. "The money is good, but I’m going to quit, too. If I have nothing to protect me, I can’t stay on the job."

Security guards on an 'L' car. Photo: CTA
Security guards on an 'L' car. Photo: CTA
Security guards on an 'L' car. Photo: CTA

That's not to say that arming the security guards, which could increase the potential for enforcement of minor escalate to bloodshed, is the solution. But it may be the case that the guards need more training, and better coordination with the police, in order for them to feel safer and be more effective at their jobs of deterring bad behavior and helping riders. The San Francisco Bay area's BART system has seen some success with its unarmed Transit Ambassadors program, run by the system's police department, which may offer some best practices for the CTA to adopt.

The one quote in the Block Club piece that seemed a little off to me was from a guard who said the Jackson Boulevard Red and Blue line stations get extra patrolling from guards and police officers because they're "where the white folks be traveling at the most." It's true many white and/or relatively affluent people use the Jackson stops to ride between downtown and the North and Northwest sides.

But the Jackson stations, which also serve trains to and from the South and West sides, draw a very diverse customer base overall. And Jackson is the location where Red Line trains typically switch from a predominantly white ridership on the North Side to almost all Black passengers as they head south of downtown, and vice versa, reflecting Chicago’s status as one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

Jackson is one of two stops with direct transfers between the Red and Blue lines. Image: CTA
Jackson is one of two stops with direct transfers between the Red and Blue lines. Image: CTA
Jackson is one of two stops with direct transfers between the Red and Blue lines. Image: CTA

Moreover, the Jackson stations need extra patrolling because they're probably the most violence-prone CTA stations in the city. That may be in part because Jackson is one of only two locations where you can directly transfer between the Red and Blue lines, Chicago's only 24-hour 'L' routes. Here are some incidents that have happened at these stops and in the tunnel between them since early 2020, including two murders.

My point is not to argue that people should be avoiding the Jackson stations at all costs. Rather I'm saying that, if we're going to have cops or guards patrol anywhere on CTA, the Jackson stops are the most obvious places to do it, since they've seen so much violent crime.

Police at the Jackson Red Line station. Photo: John Greenfield
Police at the Jackson Red Line station, photographed in 2020. Photo: John Greenfield
Police at the Jackson Red Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

On March 11 of this year, I rode the entirety of the CTA Red and Blue lines on a Friday night from 5 PM to 5 AM to get a better sense of what conditions are like at night. Here's what I saw when I passed through the Jackson stops around midnight during that trip.

At the Jackson station, I’ll transfer to the Red Line and head south. Again, this stop has been a crime hotspot at night, so I expect to see guards and cops.

Surprisingly, there are no security personnel, but there’s no obvious trouble either, although passing through the tunnel where a man was murdered two years ago is eerie. On the Red platform there’s a hawker selling deodorant: “Axes, Axes, two for five.” Another guy asks someone, “Hey man, got a light?” and then smokes a cigarette on the platform. That’s five incidents of smoking tonight.

I chuckle at an ad on the wall for Butcher Boy cooking oil, which sponsored free CTA rides for CPS students on the first day of school last year: “Your heart deserves the best!” Sure, if you’re going to clog your arteries with coconut oil and lard, shown in the ad, you might as well make it Butcher Boy.

I keep hearing “squares,” but fortunately they’re not talking about me. Lots of cigarettes are changing hands. A guy asks if he can buy Swisher Sweets. “No man, I only have squares.” One of the peddlers has a fifteen-pack of Bud and an open tall boy of Natural Ice. Someone is blasting a tasteless rap tune: “I’m like R. Kelly, I might pee on a b----.” It doesn’t seem dangerous here, but it’s seedy.

The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield

On Saturday, April 30, a few days after Mack Liederman's article came out, I sort of did the opposite, hanging out in the Jackson Street Red and Blue stations from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. in an effort to see what the security presence was like there at the time. Yes, I know it's technically against the rules to loiter on CTA property, but this was in the name of journalism and public safety, so I figured I was justified. I brought along a copy of Japanese author Haruki Murakami's new short story collection "First Person Singular" to help pass the time. Here's a quick summary of what happened during my stakeout.

10:05 PM: Getting started at Jackson Red. A couple of people are smoking cigarettes and marijuana on the platform.

The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield

10:15 PM: A young man with a yarmulke runs up the transfer steps from the Blue Line.

10:35 PM: Someone just started playing a cover of Bob Marley’s reggae tune "Natural Mystic" on a sound system. I think I’ll switch platforms every half hour, so I’ll head through the tunnel to the Blue Line platform now. As I'm walking through the tunnel, an older guy is playing Donna Summer's hit disco song "Bad Girls" on a sound system and singing along with the "beep beep" part, as you can hear in the video below.

10:40 PM: On the Blue Platform now. Now the guy's playing playing Rod Stewart’s disco smash "Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?"

10:55 PM: Two very intoxicated guys walk by, one of them carrying a bundle of broken yellow daffodils. "Give me those flowers," the other says. "Those are for my hoes."

11:05 PM: I've just seen the fourth person of the night smoking on platform. That's against the rules and kind of inconsiderate but, hey, it's better than them smoking in the rail cars.

11:30 PM: On the Blue platform another man is playing "Forgive Me Mother" by the rapper Phora on a sound system. This guy pulls up the lyrics on his phone and raps along.

The Jackson Blue Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Blue Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
The Jackson Blue Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield

11:45 PM: Back on the Red platform, I’m on a bench reading. A young woman sits down on the corner of the bench. An old man sits next to me with his back towards her, and I see his hand, palm up, creeping towards her backside to grope it. Before it occurs to me to say something to stop him, she notices the hand, yells "F—-er!" at him contemptuously, and walks away.

12:00 AM: The old man has staggered tipsily over to a young man standing nearby to strike up a conversation. The young woman sits down again in the same place. The old man sits down with his back to her once more. This time I attempt to be an ally to the woman. "Sir, do you need some help?" I say sharply. The young man says to me, "You’re talking to a drunk person. That’s pointless."

"That’s true," I reply, get up, and walk to the other end of the platform.

Security guards at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield
Security guards at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield
Security guards at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

12:30 AM: On the Blue platform I see three female security guards, the first I’ve encountered tonight. A guy holding a bottle asks if they smoke weed. They laugh.

"Ain’t no smoking sir," one of the guards says to a guy walking up the transfer stairs and points to a no smoking sign. He gives her some backtalk. "You’re acting all slow because your n——-s ain’t here [to back you up]," she replies scornfully.

12:35 AM: My partner arrives on a Blue train after visiting a friend in West Town, and we go upstairs to take a break at Miller's Pub, the historic tavern nearby at Adams and Wabash avenues. The place is packed with a wedding party, so it's challenging to order drinks, but there's a festive vibe and our pints are refreshing.

Wedding celebrants at Miller's Pub. Photo: John Greenfield
Wedding celebrants at Miller's Pub. Photo: John Greenfield
Wedding celebrants at Miller's Pub. Photo: John Greenfield

1:15 AM: Back at the Jackson Red Line platform, my partner catches a northbound Red train home to Uptown just as my friend Alex shows up in the station, fresh from his job managing a Kankakee hotel. (I posted a notice on Facebook inviting friends to drop by to do a wellbeing check on me.) I'm glad to have a bodyguard. Lots of people are smoking on platform at this point.

Alex and I have a good conversation about CTA safety issues with an older lady who's commuting home to the Marynook neighborhood on the Southeast Side. However, Alex left his car in a questionable parking spot, so he soon leaves me to return to his apartment in the South Loop.

Smoking on the Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
Smoking on the Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield
Smoking on the Jackson Red Line platform. Photo: John Greenfield

1:45 AM: Based the aroma, I assume a guy near me is smoking a pipe, but his smoke actually turns out to be a slender cigar. I assume it's a Swisher Sweet, but a friend later tells me, "If it smells like pipe tobacco, it's probably a Black and Mild." (Don't smoke kids – it's bad for your health. And certainly don't do it on CTA property, where it's bad for other people's health too.)

2:10 AM: I'm on the Blue platform again. A guy who looks like he might be a CTA supervisor just walked by.

Photo: John Greenfield
A CTA worker on the Jackson Blue platform. Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

2:40 AM: Current soundtrack on the Red platform from someone's sound system: The Stylistics' Philadelphia soul tune "People Make the World Go ‘Round."

3:10 AM: I just tried to help out a middle-aged guy with a suitcase who's trying to find lodging because his flight from O'Hare got canceled by the afternoon's wild storm. All the hotels he calls are full. I find a private room for him at the very nice nearby youth hostel, but he doesn’t seem interested.

3:15 AM: It's time to call it a night. Nothing too eventful happened, but I did get a sense of the security presence at the Jackson stops (not much), and a lot of photos. I catch the Red Line back to my Uptown home, looking forward to a good night's rest.

Read the writeup of my previous all-night 'L' ride here.

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