Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes

Daniel Hertz is back with another one of his great Chicago map posts and piece of data analysis. This time he looks at the decline of Chicago’s middle class in favor of the rich and poor in a post called “Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes.” I will let you read it on his site but will include the animated graphic. Pay particular attention to the gray, which is middle class neighborhoods.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Chicago in the 1940s – In Color

A 30 minute short film about Chicago that was shot c1947 has been making the rounds bigtime in the last week or so. Someone found a print of it at an estate sale and it wasn’t previously known before. It was produced by the Chicago Board of Education (who today doesn’t seem to know anything about it) for some purpose unknown, but appears to be a promotional type film designed to sell the city. It’s very interesting to see Chicago during that era. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Welcome to Chicagoland

Trailer for CNN series “Chicagoland” – click here if the video does not display.

As part of his plan to boost sagging ratings at the network, CNN chief Jeff Zucker commissioned an eight part reality series about Chicago and its mayor called Chicagoland that premiers tonight at 10pm ET. The show is produced by the same people who did the Brick City series about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support from mega-star executive producer Robert Redford.

Rahm and the Media

Given that Brick City seems to have only helped Booker’s reputation, cynics in Chicago have already noted the fact that show’s producers are represented by the William Morris Endeavor Agency, which just so happens to be the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari. This is as much because of as in spite of a well-publicized move by directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin to ask the agency to recuse themselves from representing them when it comes to the show.

One need not believe in such a conspiracy to see this show as yet another example of Rahm’s media power – and his fearlessness in pursuing high profile opportunities to get his message out even in venues where he’s not in complete control. Rahm has had significant success in getting high profile national and global attention – for example, a glowing profile from NYT columnist Thomas Friedman – since taking office. He didn’t shy away from getting out there even when a spike in murders made global headlines Chicago of the type Chicago didn’t want – a time when many mayors would have crawled into their bunkers. And although he’s been in office a while now, Rahm fatigue seems not to have set in. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has a lengthy piece on him in the March issue of Esquire with the colorful title of “And Now For the Further Adventures of Rahm the Imapler.” The Financial Times recently ran a mostly positive piece called “Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America.” It even includes a high production quality six and a half minute video that will give you a flavor of it (if the video doesn’t display, click here):

With his ambition for Chicago as a global city, Rahm clearly sees global media as the ones that really count. Chicago’s status as a media center afterthought means few out of town reporters actually know that much about the city, hence Rahm has a huge opportunity to shape the message. This must infuriate the local media, which to a great extent Rahm is free to ignore because of his ability to go direct at the national and global level. Chicagoland should thus be seen as part of Rahm’s global media push, both for Chicago and for himself.

Reality TV vs. Journalism

The series is probably as good for Rahm and the city as it could possible get. Certainly the problems – high crime, poor schools, and labor troubles – are not glossed over. But given that they’ve been well publicized globally, it’s hard to imagine how they could be without sacrificing all credibility. Within the context of realism, this is a big win for the city.

Whether it’s a big win for journalism is another story. Like most modern documentaries or reality TV shows, Chicagoland is non-fiction in a sense, but also heavily scripted and edited to provide a compelling narrative. This makes for great TV drama and characterizations, but whether it represents truth as a reporter would tell it is much more doubtful.

Just as one example, the producers clearly had extensive access to Rahm and he’s frequently shown as concerned about crime, battling with unions, boosting the local economy, talking to school kids and even mentoring an inner city kid he brought on as an intern. But is that a fair representation of how Rahm Emanuel spends his time? The Chicago Reader did a two part series analyzing Rahm Emanuel’s schedule and published a two part series about it called “The Mayor’s Millionaire Club” (see part one and part two). They show that access to Rahm is heavily dependent on your wealth, influence, and donations. Yet that doesn’t come through in Chicagoland at all. Instead when the occasional powerful people are shown, they are always doing a good turn for the city, such as a group of tech executives donating products to schools.

I’m not suggesting this series should have been a bulldog investigative piece. However, I strongly suspect that CNN’s actual journalists will be seething at seeing their network and its relatively strong reputation being used for what is clearly not the type of work they themselves would undertake. Right or wrong, the CNN brand carries an expectation of a certain type of journalistic standard that the Sundance Channel (where Brick City originally ran) doesn’t. Right now on CNN’s Chicagoland page there’s an ad for Anderson Cooper 360. Something tells me that were Anderson Cooper in charge of Chicagoland, it would look quite different.

Compelling Drama and Characters

However, taken on the terms of a Sundance series, Chicagoland succeeds, and my guess is that Rahm will be overall pleased. The show sets up the drama by structuring the series as battles between opposing forces. In the first couple episodes, this is the battle between Rahm and Chicago Public Schools leadership on the one hand, and the teachers union and some affected parent groups on the other over plans by CPS to shutter 50 schools. Frankly, I thought it overly portrayed Chicago as if it were Newark. The segments were introduced by short positive vignettes of some aspect of Chicago (like the Stanley Cup playoffs), followed by more extensive coverage of the school closing dispute, and educational and crime problems in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It would be like doing a flyby of Times Square before doing a deep dive on some of the worst blocks in Newark. While I myself have written on the two Chicagos theme, I was feeling that Chicago was being unfairly stigmatized.

I need not have worried. After the initial focus on the school closing dispute, the focus shifts. The drama is now between the good guys (basically every single person featured in the show) and the bad guys (gangsters and such who exist almost entirely offscreen, or so we’re led to believe). Almost without exception, the good guy characters are shown as 100% white knight types. Instead of positive vignettes followed by something Newarkesque, there’s a more balanced take in time allocation and the threads start merging across the two Chicagos. The show also starts laying the Chicago sales job on with a trowel. In Chicagoland’s coverage of things like the food scene, the music scene, the comedy clubs, or even footage of Rahm protesting a neo-Nazi march back in the 70s as a teenager, it’s hard to see how this could have been any more positive in its portrayal of the city if it had been produced directly by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. This is a huge win for the city.

The show also manages to create several compelling characters. One of them is the surgeon who leads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, a job I certainly would not want. How that guy manages to balance family life in Roscoe Village (my old neighborhood) with the reality of what he deals with every night at his job is beyond me.

But the star of the show is clearly Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Fenger High School in the South Side neighborhood at Roseland. She’s shown fighting not only to only educate her students, but keep them safe over the summer, and even invest in their lives after graduation when they get in trouble. (Dozier trying to help a former student who’s in jail for robbery realistically shows the need for “retail” 1:1 or N:1 investment in the lives of specific troubled people, not just programs, to make a real difference in a troubled person’s life – and even so the difficulty in seeing life change happen). Her obvious passion and dedication in the face of tough odds clearly come through. Yet even here there’s a sense of manufacture. Dozier is a young, attractive, stylish black professional who not only runs a South Side High School, but also gets personal face time with Rahm, knows Grant Achutz of Alinea, and hangs out with Billy Dec on his boat. How much of this A-list hob-nobbing was happening prior to Chicagoland coming to town I wonder? Regardless, it makes for compelling TV.

While I have my quibbles, I think on the whole Chicagoland is an enjoyable watch that will end up being good for the city and the mayor. Just don’t go in expecting journalism. This is first and foremost reality TV style drama. With that caveat in mind, I recommend watching it.

Takeaways From the Chicagoland

Watching Chicagoland made me think again two bigger picture issues.

First, in watching gangs take revenge on each other in an endless cycle of retaliation that literally stretches on for years and in which no one can actually recall the original offense, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt writing on the role of forgiveness:

Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

Forgiveness is not the only way to put a stop to a cycle of revenge. Arendt posits official punishment as another. But forgiveness is clearly the fastest and surest route. Until either the police are able to impose order and mete out genuine justice, or the grieving family and aggrieved gang compatriots of these murder victims are able to forgive and forswear vengeance, the cycle is unlikely to ever end.

I don’t want to judge too harshly teenagers in a ghetto living out the only life script they’ve ever known. But what’s our excuse? We too often live out in miniature the same process ourselves. How often do most of us forgive genuine wrong done against us, even of a much less consequential nature? Tune into the internet any day of the week and see untold amounts of shrieking over some offense or another, real or imagined. I suspect the vast majority of us would be behave no differently from those gangbangers in similar circumstances. We are blessed not to be there, however. But will we use that privileged position to end or perpetuate cycles of wrong in our own lives?

Secondly, Chicagoland made me think about the bigger picture of leadership in our cities and the major problems they face. I voted for Rahm as mayor, for three reasons. 1) I saw him as like his mentor Bill Clinton, namely someone to whom getting elected and staying in power is more important than pushing any ideological agenda. In short, I saw him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue with a policy ax to grind like Bill de Blasio. 2) Rahm spent a lot of time outside of Chicago. He’s got a global perspective and a global network that’s critical in this era. He’s also got the gravitas to interact at the highest levels of power in America, which is something few mayors can say. 3) Rahm has no natural constituency in Chicago. So if he wants to be re-elected, he needs to perform. He clearly has future political ambitions, and flaming out as mayor wouldn’t be helpful in pursuing them.

Looking back, while I’ve criticized Rahm for an excessive focus on the elite, I believe my judgment then was correct and on the whole I think he’s done a decent job in a very difficult situation. Apropos of point #3, if Chicago thinks differently, the popular and competent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is waiting in the wings. Whatever you think of his neoliberal policies, it’s clear Rahm is an actual leader, one with a ton of intelligence, drive, power, and the will to get things done.

Yet watching Chicagoland, it’s evident that even leadership ability of Rahm’s caliber struggles mightily with the city’s huge challenges. Chicago has a massive fiscal hole, and a very serious problem with a two tier society that has left vast tracts of the city behind. It’s by no means certain that Rahm will be able to make Chicago soar in the way that Daley did in the 90s, or even get re-elected if a there’s any stumble and a credible candidate like Preckwinkle gets into the race.

When I think about the difficulties in solving the problems in Chicago, which has not only Rahm’s leadership but a massively successful global city economy in the Loop and hundreds of thousands of well-heeled residents, it makes me pause. If Chicago struggles with its problems, how much more so other cities facing similar or worse problems but with much weaker leadership and no global city money and firepower? It really makes me wonder if a lot of places are simply going to die a slow death barring some lucky break from a change in the marketplace.

This ultimately is what I’d challenge the residents of other cities to think about when watching this show. Look at Chicago and what it is dealing with. Think about your own problems and your resources for combating them vis-a-vis Chicago. If that doesn’t make you sober up, I’m not sure what will.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Chicago Zoning: It’s Just Insane by Daniel Hertz

[ Daniel Hertz is back with another zinger originally posted over at his personal urbanist blog, which is a must read if you live in Chicago. If you're not familiar with his work, check out his posts on public safety inequality and school gentrification.

Today he takes a critical look at another topic: the prevalence of single-family zoning in the city. I myself am working on a piece with a somewhat divergent view from Daniel's, but I thought this was really great and wanted you all to see it.

As a companion piece to this, you might want to check out a post over at Better Institutions that makes a similar point re:Seattle. Here's their zoning map. Everything that is in solid gray without hash shading is zoned exclusively for single family homes.

But enough prologue, on to Daniel's piece - Aaron. ]

So one thing that happens when I bring up the fact that Chicago, like pretty much all American cities, criminalizes dense development to the detriment of all sorts of people (I’m great at parties!) is that whoever I’m talking to expresses their incredulity by referencing the incredible numbers of high-rises built in and around downtown over the last decade or so. Then I try to explain that, while impressive, the development downtown is really pretty exceptional, and that 96% of the city or so doesn’t allow that stuff, or anything over 4 floors or so, even in neighborhoods where people are lining up to live, waving their money and bidding up housing prices.

Then they make some non-committal grunt and change the subject.

But I’m not BSing here. Not only does the city make it illegal in the vast, vast majority of the city to build super-dense towers or medium-dense midrises in very high-demand neighborhoods like Lincoln Park or Wicker Park, but it even criminalizes your standard two- or three-flat apartment building in the majority of neighborhoods, meaning that a developer who wants to build some moderate-price housing in a moderate-demand neighborhood (like, say, Portage Park) has to deal with local segregationists.

Let me say that again: In most Chicago neighborhoods, it is illegal to build anything other than single family homes.

You don’t believe me. That would be really weird, you say. Well, here’s the map:


There you go. Everywhere that’s red, it’s single family homes or nothing. And that makes it look better than it really is. If we highlight all the places where you can’t build anything residential at all – because the land’s been zoned for manufacturing, or parks, or whatever – the places where you can even legally build a two-flat get squeezed even more:


Red = single family homes only. Yellow = non-residential use.

What kind of public interest could this possibly be serving?

PS – It is of course the case that developers sometimes get concessions from aldermen to rezone a plot of land they would like to build on. But when that happens, they’re susceptible to massive pushback from locals who would like to use the power of the government to segregate themselves from lower-income people, or to establish local housing supply ceilings for their benefit at great expense to everyone else.

In any case, the proof is in the pudding: walk around any of the city’s desirable non-downtown neighborhoods and see how many developments that added net housing units have been built in the last 10 years. The answer is precious few.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on January 27, 2014.

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #4: Put the Public In Public Transit by Natasha Julius

[ This is the last part in Natasha Julius' four-part series on Chicago transit that originally ran in the Beachwood Reporter. If you missed them you can go back and read part one, part two, and part three - Aaron. ]

The demise of the Jackson Park Green Line has been in the news recently due to Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to rename Stony Island Avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur Brazier. Most of these stories have focused on the 1997 demolition of the elevated structure east of Cottage Grove. However, the struggle over the last leg of track began much earlier.

In a sense, the Jackson Park line was always disposable. Built to serve the World’s Fair in 1893, the tracks originally extended into the park itself. The line was awkwardly and unceremoniously hacked off at Stony Island shortly after the Fair ended, and Stony remained the terminal for nearly 90 years.

View Former Jackson Park Line in a larger map

In March 1982, the line was closed south of 59th Street after a routine inspection discovered that the bridge over the Illinois Central (now the Metra Electric District) tracks at Dorchester and 63rd was no longer safe. It was around this time that calls for the demolition of the line beyond Cottage Grove began to grow louder. Ultimately, Mayor Jane Byrne decided the line was worth saving. It reopened as far east as University in December of that year, with plans to extend the line to Dorchester and build an intermodal transfer hub.

It is important to note that the rehabilitation of the Jackson Park line continued until 1994. In fact, part of the demolition order passed in 1996 involved forgoing some $9 million in federal grants and asking the feds to forgive $9 million that had already been spent. There is a lot to be said about the influence of clout in the CTA’s decision, but at its heart this is a story about the failure of the city to treat its transit assets as a public service.

This failure, which continues to color transportation policy to this day, leaves the entire system vulnerable to the whims of politics and profit. Chicago under Jane Byrne saw value in the Jackson Park line; Chicago under Richard M. Daley did not. And so, no matter the commitments the earlier administration made, the prospect of demolition remained an easy and available option, a political chip to be played when the new administration saw fit. The Jackson Park line offered potential connectivity between the CTA and Metra, and between the lakefront and the neighborhoods on the interior. We could be talking today about the dedication of the Bishop Arthur Brazier intermodal transit hub, and about the very real unification of dozens of south shore communities. We are not, and in all likelihood we never will be.

This pattern repeats itself in ways large and small throughout the Chicagoland transit world. Think of the bus lines that were removed or truncated earlier this year; the buses are gone, but plenty of decorative bus shelters remain at key intersections so JCDecaux can rake in more advertising dollars. In this atmosphere, it’s difficult to view initiatives like the Ashland Avenue BRT corridor as serious attempts to address transit issues. Who’s to say the city won’t abandon that idea after a year or so, under the guise of disappointing ridership – leaving in place, of course, a new series of mini-billboards on the median of a major arterial street.

It would be so much snappier to call this piece “Put the Public BACK in Public Transit,” but that would assume that those responsible for planning our mass transportation systems at one time had the public’s best interest at heart. If the powers that be – including Governor Quinn’s blue-ribbon committee – are so inclined, they can begin to earn the trust of a cynical ridership by abiding by a few simple rules:

1. Stop putting train lines in inaccessible areas.Truly strong public transit systems support the communities through which they pass and offer maximum flexibility.” It’s worth reading this statement again, because at its best mass transit does more than shuffle people from point A to point B. It allows for the idea that point A, and point C and all the other points in between might be worthwhile places to explore and enjoy. Have you ever been to a Red Line station in the middle of the Dan Ryan? They are non-descript boxes sitting over miserable spits of concrete in the middle of a 10-lane highway. There is nothing about the experience that inspires the imagination; nothing that might tempt the individual to stay. And because the station entrances are mired in the midst of busy entrance and exits ramps, there is a heavy incentive not to engage with the local neighborhood.

The Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch and the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch are lingering symbols of just how disengaged Chicago had become from the idea of a functional public transit system. They were built with the idea that private cars should take pride of place, and that the convenience of individual drivers is more important than the needs of the larger community.

Many of the routes under discussion for future system expansions – and many of the routes discussed in this series – are former industrial lines that could end up divorcing themselves from their surroundings in similar ways. But if these rights-of-way are treated as true public spaces, they can be developed in a way that returns space to the people of this region.

2. Stop building stations where stations already exist. There is a long stretch on the Green Line without a station. It runs from Roosevelt on the north all the way down to Bronzeville. There is a natural inclination to add a station somewhere along that route.

When, however, that station is placed one block away from an existing Red Line station, and when it just happens to be right down the street from one of the mayor’s pet projects, you start to wonder if the placement truly reflects the needs of the traveling public.

View New Green Line station in a larger map

Wouldn’t a station further north, in an unserved neighborhood, make more sense? How about 18th Street, allowing easy access to Ping Tom Park and the southern entrance to Soldier Field? Or how about 16th Street where, just for the record, an abandoned rail right-of-way snakes directly into McCormick Place itself? The construction of new stations should always serve the public first, not the whims of private entities and especially not the egos of public officials.

3. Start putting stations where stations don’t already exist. If you’ve ever been to the United Center, visited the statue of Michael Jordan, and stared out across the parking lot toward Chicago’s majestic skyline, you’ve looked right at the Pink Line. And if the timing was right and you happened to spot a train approaching, you probably noticed it not stopping. Because there is no station there.

View Pink Line tracks in relation to United Center in a larger map

Every other major sporting venue in the city has train station within easy walking distance. In the case of Soldier Field, it’s a Metra line but once we kill Metra that won’t be a problem anymore. In the case of US Cellular Field, there’s three train stations within easy walking distance. Wrigley Field, of course, has the Addison station. Why would the CTA not put a station at the doorstep of a major cultural institution in a rapidly developing neighborhood (and, incidentally, within walking distance of one of the city’s premier selective enrollment high schools)? Once again, it’s difficult to explain in terms of public benefit.

4. Don’t stop looking at your map until public transit is relevant to every person living in the Chicagoland area. The continued failure of transit decision-makers to place the needs of this region’s commuters first has very real consequences. It has allowed agencies like the CTA to adopt a strategy of periodic retrenchment, gradually thinning services in some areas until they are no longer viable for many of the people who need them. And so those people find other ways to travel, and their abandonment of inadequate services is used as an excuse for further reductions.

Starting today, Chicago’s transit officials should adopt a new approach. Pull out a map, consider the neighborhoods that are underrepresented and the institutions that aren’t served, and start a program of strategic engagement. Focus on the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact on real people, the simple shifts that could make mass transit viable to entirely new populations. And don’t stop until everyone is served.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 18, 2013.

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #3: Invest In What’s Already Here by Natasha Julius

[ Here's the third installment in Natasha Julius' series on Chicago transit. You can also check out part one and part two - Aaron. ]

There is a set of train tracks running in front of the Cook County Court building along 26th. Remnants of an elevated embankment cut across the city’s midsection south of Pershing. In Chicago and the near suburbs, abandoned rail lines form an elaborate web of disintegrating infrastructure all around us. The potential of these resources to galvanize our transportation system is enormous; wherever possible, they should be given over for public use.

The reclamation of rail rights-of-way is not a new idea. The CTA’s Orange Line and Metra’s North Central were built using existing freight tracks. Planned extensions of the Orange, Red and Yellow lines would use similar strategies. Existing corridors within the city could alleviate the paucity of decentralized connections. They could add tremendous capacity to our mass transit systems without diminishing capacity on surface roads.

Determining which existing lines are eligible for redevelopment is a daunting task. Often abandoned tracks are mixed in with others that are still in use. Trying to sort out which tracks are owned by whom quickly leads you into a black hole of railroad consolidation history. The suggestions given below involve only rights-of-way that have been acknowledged as abandoned in the public record, or those that show visible signs of advanced deterioration. There may be many more; all should be pursued.

The Mid-City Transitway
Running north-south along Kenton Avenue for much of the length of the city, this abandoned branch of the Chicago Belt Railway was for many years associated with one of the more infamous transportation plans in recent memory: the Crosstown Expressway. In the 1960s, the Crosstown was proposed as a bypass route, an alternative to the Dan Ryan that avoided downtown traffic. The only trouble was the eight-lane expressway would’ve required the destruction of some 30,000 homes in countless neighborhoods. (Click here for a map of the proposed Crosstown route.) With the wounds of the Dan Ryan construction still bleeding, the people of Chicago rose up and handed Richard the First a rare defeat.

Since the Crosstown was cancelled in 1979, the available embankment has not been redeveloped. It popped up in the City’s plans as recently as 2007, when Richard the Second commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of several alternatives including a new L line and a truck bypass. To date, nothing has been done to move this corridor closer to public use.

The Mid-City is unique among available rights of way for its sheer length. Few other rail lines extend as far north, and none are as poker-straight. The location of the line, just east of Cicero Avenue, makes connecting with existing CTA and Metra lines much easier – many of these lines have Cicero stations that could be linked. The Mid-City would also offer access to both Midway and O’Hare.

While the proposed layout of the Mid-City extends as far north as the Blue Line at Montrose, an adjacent abandoned right-of-way could carry the Mid-City all the way up to the Yellow Line, giving north suburban residents a new mass transit route to Chicago’s airports.

View Mid-city Transitway Northern Extension in a larger map

The limiting factor of the Mid-City is the width of the available embankment, thought to be somewhere between 50 and 70 feet. Even if it is as narrow as 50 feet, it would allow ample room for a true Bus Rapid Transit line. If the embankment permits, this could be combined with a recreational path that could serve as a bookend with the Lakefront Path. This type of redevelopment could make the Mid-City a welcome addition to the surrounding communities.

Please note, the original Crosstown Expressway plan called for the road to make a sharp left turn at 75th Street and connect with the Dan Ryan. The existing rail corridor along 75th is still in use (including, in portions, by Metra). As such, it may not be possible to extend a BRT line along that portion.

The Campbell Corridor
The tracks that run along 26th Street in Little Village are leftover from a complex distribution system that once operated along the Chicago River. Many of these shorter spurs fed into a north-south rail artery located half a block west of Western Avenue. At its northern end, the line merges with freight and Metra tracks close to Fulton. To the south, it joins a massive freight route that runs all the way to Blue Island. Part of this right-of-way is used by the Orange Line, from Pershing to roughly 49th Street.

View Abandoned right of way along Campbell in a larger map

A new CTA line using this corridor would link Metra’s Milwaukee District Line with the CTA’s Green (Lake Street Branch) Blue, Pink and Orange Lines. Moving the current California Green Line Station a couple of blocks east could spur the creation of a new mini-hub. The line would serve the aforementioned Cook County Court building, as well as Douglas Park and the new wall-to-wall IB high school in Back of the Yards. It would link communities that are currently divided by the river and the Eisenhower and Stevenson expressways.

At around 55th it becomes unclear whether any of the existing tracks have been abandoned. If, however, an available right-of-way extends as far south as 63rd it would make the dream of a Circle Line feasible. The freight lines along Western pass tantalizingly close to the current terminus of the Green Line at 63rd and Ashland.

The Stockyards and Kenwood Lines
As previously noted, Chicago’s bike path system has grown considerably in recent years. Some parts of the city, however, remain stubbornly unfriendly to cyclists. One such fallow patch stretches from 33rd Street to 47th and from Halsted to King Drive. It encompasses parts of Bronzeville and Bridgeport, as well as US Cellular Field. In the middle of this expanse runs an embankment that used to hold the Kenwood and Stock Yards branches of the South Side Elevated.

View Kenwood and Stock Yards Embankment in a larger map

Both of these branches were abandoned in the 1950s. The surviving infrastructure is riddled with problems. Most of the bridges east of the Dan Ryan were removed, so the lines are not contiguous. West of Stewart, the right-of-way broadens and it’s unclear which tracks (if any) are in use. The area is heavily industrial, so it’s entirely possible this track system is still in use from freight.

All of this said, the two abandoned spurs offer the potential for a recreational path and park system that could put the 606 to shame. The Kenwood embankment is now lushly forested, creating a unique natural environment. It offers easy access to the Lakefront Path via Oakwood and crosses a major north-south bike lane route at King Drive. A trail-to-rail hub at Indiana would give easy access to IIT and the Loop. The line traverses Stateway Park, where a spur turns north toward Bronzeville. The suggested western terminus at Halsted is close to the historic Union Stock Yard gate at Exchange and Peoria. There is a line of track that runs right by the gate, although it’s again unclear whether this is in use.

This project would be massive. It would also be unprecedented in its capacity to link disparate communities. This is an area that was torn apart by the construction of the Dan Ryan; a recreational path like this would be a refreshing and innovative way to reconnect former neighbors.

Right now, Chicago is an elaborate tomb for the once-dominant railroad industry. Unused tracks and abandoned embankments litter neighborhoods throughout the region. It’s time to resurrect these features in service of the people who live here.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 16, 2013..

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #2: Look At a Map by Natasha Julius

[ Last week Natasha Julius suggested killing Metra (the agency) as her first recommendation for Chicago transit. This week we continue with the second installment of her Beachwood Reporter series – Aaron.

Maps may be humanity’s defining achievement. Other species use tools, communicate with complex language and mourn their dead. But who else draws abstract pictures that represent their relationship to their surroundings?

Maps show more than just where things are. They show where things were and where things might be; how the disparate parts of a whole are linked; and how new parts will be added. If you look very closely, sometimes you can also see the missed connections, the regions that the shapers of that reality neglected. The unfulfilled potential of a place.

Looking at a map of Chicago’s mass transit system is both exhilarating and infuriating. Few other places boast the wealth of infrastructure we have here. And yet, outside the Loop, none of these resources connect with each other in any meaningful way. Great varicose tangles of rail twist their way past one another, never interacting, never offering their passengers the benefit of the other’s riches.

Truly strong public transit systems support the communities through which they pass and offer maximum flexibility. They don’t just dump everyone in the middle of town and forget about them. The Loop is a natural hub in Chicago due to its central location. But if you look at a map, if you spend a few minutes applying your imagination, a second tier of local mini-hubs begins to emerge. With fairly modest changes, these areas could offer innovative new ways to travel throughout the Chicagoland area. Every single decision-maker at CTA and Metra should be forced to stare unblinking at a map of Chicago every day until these Magic Eye patterns pop out at them.

Below are three suggestions for mini-hubs in three different parts of the city. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are plenty of other potential sites in the city and near suburbs. Please note, these recommendations assume that CTA and Metra have worked out their respective fare collection and double billing issues. Without technical integration, physical integration would be pointless.

63rd Street: The Obvious Hub
Have you ever heard of the Englewood Flyover? The long-planned bridge will elevate Metra’s Rock Island tracks, eliminating a grade-level diamond crossing with tracks that carry freight and Amtrak trains. It will immediately improve the on-time performance of the Rock Island, long plagued by delays at this interchange. Doubtless it will benefit the planned expansion of the Northfolk Southern freight yard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pet project currently scheduled to flatten a different part of Englewood.

The Flyover is a $93 million project that brings jobs to a neighborhood that badly needs them. Those jobs will end when the bridge opens, currently scheduled for June 23, 2014. Half a block to the west is the Dan Ryan expressway and, in its median, the 63rd Street Red Line stop. If you look west from the Red Line platform, you’ll see the elevated tracks of the Green Line. This branch passes over the highway near 59th, running alongside for four blocks before heading west toward Kennedy-King College and the site of the mythical Englewood Whole Foods. The Rock Island, Red and Green lines have existed in this manner, sharing space but never interacting, since the Ryan was built in the 1960s.

View 63rd Street Hub in a larger map

Englewood Flyover. The name itself conjures a depressing image. Come and work on this short-term project; help us build the means for greater economic opportunity to more efficiently pass you by. Instead of temporary projects and a trio of trains that don’t interact, why not create a transit hub? Add stations on the Rock Island and the Green Line and connect them to the existing Red Line station. The distance is probably too great between the Red Line and Metra’s tracks to create a single building, but why not a pedway? Whatever the logistic difficulties, they have to be less frustrating than the current arrangement.

A transit hub at 63rd would immediately link half a dozen urban communities in an entirely new way. It could potentially breathe life into a branch of the Green Line that has struggled. It offers the possibility of permanent jobs and long-term economic growth. It gives people a reason to stop in Englewood and engage with the community.

It’s too much to claim that a project like this would fix all of Englewood’s problems. But if the map were redrawn, if there were an official depiction of Englewood as a worthwhile place, it could spark the imaginations of people who’ve never considered the area before. With most of the infrastructure already in place, surely it’s worth a shot.

Humboldt Park: The Innovative Hub
The 606 (nee the Bloomingdale Trail) is a new urban park project centered on an abandoned elevated freight line. When it opens next fall, it will provide the public a 2.7 mile recreational path. Cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers and walkers will have a new venue to enjoy. The path runs west from Ashland to Ridgeway, just north of North Avenue.

Per the 606 website, the trail end at Ridgeway offers “easy access to Metra.” That’s not exactly true. What the trail end offers is easy access to Metra tracks, specifically the Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West and North Central lines. The nearest Metra station is about 3/4 miles away. This neighborhood, just west of Humboldt Park, lies in a transit blind spot. The nearest CTA train, the Blue Line, is up in Logan Square. Adding a station to the Metra lines would give residents direct, reliable access to downtown and O’Hare.

View 606 Trail Head in a larger map

A station at North and Ridgeway would do more than offer service to a neglected area. It would foster a new kind of connectivity. Chicago’s bike trail system has expanded dramatically in recent years; imagine if it were linked to the mass transit system in a meaningful way. Humboldt Park could serve as the template for a uniquely Chicago brand of park and ride – the trail-to-rail model.

This could also provide the city’s newest semi-public transit service, Divvy, with a perfect excuse to expand westward. If a Divvy station were added near the Ridgeway trail end, the 606 – with its interconnected system of parks, visitor-friendly adjoining neighborhoods and beautiful views of the Chicago skyline – could draw day-trippers from the west and northwest suburbs. This could boost Metra’s ridership at non-peak times and help an ambitious public project live up to its full potential.

Ravenswood Avenue: The Logical Hub
Metra’s Union Pacific North tracks march along Ravenswood from Diversey almost to Touhy. For a mile-and-a-half stretch of this run, they are practically spitting distance from the CTA’s Brown Line. This section of the Brown Line includes stations at Addison, Irving Park and Montrose. This section of the Union Pacific includes no stations. Perversely, almost spitefully, the UP-North’s Ravenswood station is at Lawrence, just past the point where the CTA tracks turn west.

View Ravenswood Corridor in a larger map

This exercise in miscommunication is more than just obnoxious; it’s inconvenient to anyone trying to reach destinations downtown north of the river. The UP-N terminates at Union Station, notoriously cut off from the Loop tracks and State and Dearborn subways. A North Side transfer point would allow for easier access to River North and Michigan Avenue; even arguably to places like the Museum Campus and Millennium Park. Chicago residents outside the Ravenswood neighborhood would likewise gain easy access to North Shore attractions like the Northwestern campus, the Baha’i temple and Ravinia.

This problem could be addressed two ways. The existing Ravenswood station could move south to Montrose. This would create a hub in bustling Lincoln Square, close to attractions like the Old Town School of Folk Music. Alternatively, a station could be added to the Metra line between the existing Ravenswood and Clybourn stations. The obvious candidate is Addison, which would give North Shore Cubs fans a new route to Wrigley Field. At either the Addison or Montrose locations, the two train lines could be connected by something as simple as a pedestrian bridge. Remember, we’re living in the time of the single-fare system so transferring between CTA and Metra won’t require significant infrastructure.

This radical idea of fixing one’s eyes on a map has been used before. Several years ago someone looked at a f—ing map and realized the Roosevelt elevated station could be linked with the Red Line tunnel. The result is a vibrant hub that feeds travelers to the Museum Campus. There’s no reason not to look for similar opportunities throughout Chicago’s transit network.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 15, 2013.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #1: Kill Metra by Natasha Julius

[ I stumbled across a four part series on improving public transit in Chicago by Natasha Julius over at the Beachwood Reporter. Today and the next few weeks I'll be reposting here. Enjoy! - Aaron. ]

There are two Metras: the commuter rail system that serves millions of people in the Chicagoland area, and the obtuse, intensely political, hopelessly anachronistic corporate behemoth that serves the interests of a few well-connected individuals. In order for the former to thrive, the latter must be destroyed.

The scandal that consumed much of the Metra board this summer was nothing new. It was the latest sleight of hand in nearly 40 years of Regional Transportation Authority hustles. Long before Metra leapt fully formed from the RTA’s head, that agency had figured out how to misdirect its mark. Distract them with partisan wrangling, mollify them with cosmetic upgrades, confuse them with layers of unnecessary complexity, and threaten them with dire consequences if they don’t fork over more cash. If you browse coverage of the RTA in the early years, you’ll find depressingly familiar headlines: doomsday scenarios; threats of Draconian service cuts; revelations of mismanagement; even suggestions of a looming pension crisis. Meanwhile, the actual service provided to commuters changed surprisingly little.

When the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad collapsed in 1980, the RTA faced the real prospect of substantive action. Instead, it spun off two new operational agencies, thereby divesting itself from the very services it was conceived to coordinate. Pace, the suburban bus service, has fostered a cooperative relationship with the CTA and, by extension, the city of Chicago. Metra hasn’t. Instead, Metra views Chicagoland politics as a zero-sum game, in which anything benefiting the Democratic city necessarily screws over the Republican suburbs. Metra is a white knight, the last line of defense between collar-county dollars and the rapacious maw of an insatiable city.

This view contrasts with a reality in which Metra’s corporate board has mushroomed from seven to 11 members, each representing a smaller and more stridently delineated set of special interests. Its directors are chosen by the county boards, possibly the most crony-riddled entities in a crony-riddled region. In constructing its crusading mythos, Metra has transformed itself from a functional service provider into a potent and perennial symbol of public corruption. And still the iconic double-decker trains wait at the same grade crossings that delayed their steam-powered ancestors. Still jauntily-clad conductors attack paper tickets with novelty hole-punches.

This matters because, as much as Metra would like you to ignore this fact, it is a vital part of Chicago’s transit mix. Large swaths of the city, particularly on the Far South Side, were ceded in the 19th century to the long haul railroads that eventually became Metra. Why? Because the small-time robber barons who built Chicago’s elevated rail system hadn’t speculated on land in those areas. That the public rail service provided to certain communities in 2013 – not to mention the price paid for that service – is still determined largely by the decisions a handful of opportunists made shortly after the Civil War illustrates perfectly how little tangible good Metra and the RTA have managed to achieve.

There is one key difference between the rail lines operated by Metra and those run by the CTA. The CTA owns and controls its infrastructure; Metra, by and large, does not. This single fact justifies the existence of a separate agency; everything else is a lie. To refocus Metra’s leadership on the long-term goal of supporting a vibrant, truly intermodal public transit system, the following changes must be made:

1. Modernize the fare collection system. Whatever you can say about the disastrous rollout of Ventra, at least it doesn’t involve scrapbooking tools. Metra’s Depression-era ticketing system isn’t just asinine; it impedes the ability to assess performance. Metra can’t offer anything close to the detail and accuracy of ridership information CTA and Pace can. Without a detailed understanding of who is boarding where and what happens when they leave, Metra is ill-suited to respond to changes in ridership patterns.

2. Determine a reasonable transfer fee. Once Metra has been dragged into the 21st century, we might be able to stop charging people two full fares to travel by Metra and CTA/Pace. Metra currently offers its monthly riders the ability to purchase a magnetic stripe card for $55 that is usable for ” . . . unlimited connecting travel on CTA and Pace buses. CTA usage is restricted to weekday peak travel hours.” So, in other words, limited unlimited transfers.

Based on the assumption that a monthly traveler transfers twice a day, five days a week, that means Metra thinks a fair transfer fee is around $1.40. Pace allows transfers to local, non-premium routes for $0.25. CTA allows two transfers in two hours for the same. If Metra is smart, it’ll follow suit.

3. Overhaul Metra’s in-city fare structure. Metra’s zoned fare system supposedly is based on the distance traveled. CTA riders pay a flat fee. This means that potential Metra riders in outlying parts of the city pay a premium to travel to downtown. The amount of that premium depends on where you live and which branch you ride. If you take the Metra Electric South Chicago branch from 87th Street (Zone B) to Millennium Station, it’ll set you back $3. If you take the Metra Electric main branch from 87th Street (Zone C) to Millennium Station, it’ll cost you $4.25. Now consider the CTA’s Red Line has a station at 87th (under re-construction at the time of this writing, but scheduled to re-open later this month) offers an almost identical service for $2.25.

In the above comparison, the additional fees can be overcome with moderate inconvenience by a short bus ride. That’s not the case for people living south of 95th. Those commuters face a significant inconvenience to transfer to a less costly CTA line, and the surcharge to use Metra only increases as you move further from the city center. Even as you read this, the CTA is planning a costly extension of the Red Line to 130th, running agonizingly close to the Metra Electric line. Before investing a lot of money in a new service, it’s worth asking if the needs of those commuters can be met through a more rational and fair fee structure on the existing line.

View Proposed Red Line Extension in a larger map

Incidentally, the revision of Metra’s in-city fare structure could benefit CTA riders as well. In the above comparison, the fares given were for single one-way tickets. If you buy a monthly pass on Metra’s Zone B, you actually make out slightly better than the CTA’s monthly pass (assuming no transfers). Maybe this would give CTA leaders a reason to scale back the punitive multi-day pass price increases instituted at the start of this year.

4. Decide on an operational strategy. As noted above, Metra controls relatively little of the traction over which it operates. The three lines that Metra owns (the Rock Island, the Metra Electric, and the Milwaukee District North and West) were acquired out of necessity rather than as part of a coordinated strategy. The remaining lines are leased from larger rail conglomerates in complicated purchase-of-service agreements. Per Metra, not even the Milwaukee District lines are completely free and clear. The dispatching duties for those lines are still handled by Canadian Pacific. This lack of control limits the kind of service Metra can provide. Service adjustments like additional runs and longer trains are much more cumbersome when they have to be negotiated with other parties.

It’s not likely Metra will be able to acquire all of its lines. Routes like the Union Pacific North are profitable endeavors for their parent corporations. However, wherever possible Metra should work to create more freedom to address service needs quickly. At the very least, Metra should work with traction owners to reduce the number of grade crossings that pit commuter trains against freight. Metra’s timeliness is a constant issue simply because trains have to queue on a semi-regular basis.

5. Consider a limited number of new stations. It’s impractical to think that Metra will ever function as a local service. This would impose an undue burden on suburban passengers. However, Chicago represents the largest customer block in Metra’s operating region. Some of the areas currently traversed by Metra lines are completely cut off from CTA rail operations. The strategic addition of a few stations could bring reliable rapid transit access to neglected communities, creating new populations of Metra riders in the process. With careful planning, these stations also could boost intermodal transfers, strengthening the alternative transportation system overall.

The operational work of Metra has tremendous potential to serve the Chicagoland area. Sadly, Metra is administrated by a carefully curated collection of political animals trained to avoid the agency’s most basic needs. Any solution that fails to destroy the status quo will never truly benefit the public. It will be another artful con, another misdirection, and we’ll be reading the same pathetic headlines in another 10 years.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 14, 2013.

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Chicago: Gentrification Comes to the Neighborhood School by Daniel Hertz

[ You may remember Daniel Hertz from his mind-blowing analysis of growing public safety inequality in Chicago. He's back with another one, this time a look at how gentrification is affecting the performance of Chicago's neighborhood schools. It's probably relevant to any city that's experiencing gentrification. This one comes from a newish web site called Chicago Bureau, which focuses on youth issues - Aaron. ]

To be on track for college, an elementary student needs to “exceed standards” on the ISAT, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. In 2001, there were only three neighborhood elementary schools in the entire city with a quarter or more students doing that well.

As a result, for a certain kind of parent, there were only two options for educating a child: getting him into one of the city’s flagship magnets, or moving to the suburbs. That put a lot of pressure on magnets and other test-in schools: like the Daley Sr.-era condo towers that still line North Lake Shore Drive, they had to rise above the rest of the city and offer the people who could afford to move to Evanston or DuPage County some reason not to.

But just like there’s only so much lakefront, there were only so many seats in those magnet schools. And over the last 10 years, as downtown and North Side neighborhoods gentrified, the number of parents trying to seat their children in one of those schools has turned what was always a competitive process into a frenzy. Last year, about half the freshmen admitted to Whitney Young, Northside College Prep and Walter Payton had near-perfect test scores and straight-A report cards. And the crunch is too big to be solved by expansions like the one Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced for Payton and Coonley Elementary.

Just as the magnet system began to overcrowd, though, neighborhood elementary schools suddenly began making a turnaround. Some of them, anyway. By 2013, those three “high-achieving” schools had become 15. That’s a 400 percent increase over 12 years — and lots of other neighborhood elementary schools were on track to get there soon.

Gentrification ISAT 2001 2013

Unsurprisingly, though, CPS’s new high-scoring schools weren’t distributed all over the city. Instead, progress was contained to the same neighborhoods that had seen the greatest gentrification over the previous 10 or 20 years, or which were already solidly middle-class. As a result, the average high-performing school’s student body in 2013 was only 20 percent low-income, compared to 85 percent for CPS as a whole.

In some cases, the new high-achieving schools had had large middle-class populations from the start and their scores just gradually ticked up. But about half of them saw dramatic demographic transformations. Lakeview’s Blaine Elementary, for example, saw its low-income population fall by 29 percent since 2010. At the same time, the proportion of its students exceeding ISAT standards has jumped by 25 percent. At Audubon Elementary, less than a mile to the west, the number of low-income students dropped 28 percent while ISAT exceed scores have jumped 53 percent over the same four years.

Another eight schools that don’t yet meet the “high-achieving” threshold are also rapidly gentrifying, losing an average of 20 percent of their low-income population over the last four years and doubling their exceed scores.

At the elementary level, then, professional-class families in some parts of Chicago have solved the magnet problem. They don’t have to decamp to the suburbs: they can bring suburban demographics to the city just by sending their kids to their neighborhood CPS school.

Gentrification ISAT grades change

And despite all the fuss over teacher accountability, charter schools and innovative curricula, the fact remains that in America, economic background is the single best predictor of a child’s academic success.

Which leaves the city…where? After decades of losing thousands upon thousands of middle-class families thanks to a struggling educational system, it must be good news for that process to be finally reversing itself. A city without a middle class isn’t going anywhere good; the tax receipts alone are cause for celebration, given the state of Chicago’s budget.

A school system without a middle class is also in big trouble, of course. So it’s heartening to see the beginnings, perhaps, of a decline in the kind of economic segregation that led to 87% of CPS students being low-income in the first place.

But if the number of low-income kids in our newly high-achieving schools keeps plummeting, not many of them will be in a position to benefit from the very transformation that’s pushing them out. After all, how many low-income families can afford a decent place to live within the attendance boundaries of neighborhood schools in Lincoln Park or Lakeview?

For a long time, the egalitarian promise of public education was frustrated by families with wealth fleeing the city for suburban school districts, leaving CPS with a heavy burden of poverty in all but a few elite test-in schools.

Gentrification ISAT - low-income

That dynamic seems to be changing, so that now a greater and greater number of middle-class families are choosing to send their kids to local elementary schools. But if we’re just moving the lines that divide the children who receive a good education from those who don’t—from district boundaries to CPS attendance boundaries—it would be hard to call that significant progress.

There is, though, a difference. The city of Chicago, and the leadership at CPS, have absolutely no power over any of the wealthier districts that surround them. But they can try to shape what happens entirely within their borders. The question of how to mitigate economic segregation in the city’s schools, so that all children have a chance at a decent education—without scaring the middle class back to the suburbs and starting again at square one—will be, I think, one of the greatest challenges our school system will face for the next generation.

Gentrification ISAT - High-Achieving Schools

Gentrification ISAT - Gentrifying Schools Pull Away

This post originally appeared at Chicago Bureau on November 5, 2013.

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