CHICAGO — Can you imagine Chicago without The Loop? Not the neighborhood — but the 1.79-mile circuit of CTA tracks that form an actual loop around Downtown.
Had the ambitious “Loop Connector” plan gotten off the ground, The Loop would’ve been broken up to make room for east-west subway lines.
In an effort to illustrate the system’s past, present and what might’ve been, New York City-based artist Jake Berman created a series of maps, including one of the discarded “Loop Connector” plan.
Berman, who works as an attorney by day, made the maps as part of a larger series on train systems in major American cities. He’s also made maps depicting the past, present and future of rail systems in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit and Toronto, and is aiming to compile them all (including the Chicago ones) into a book eventually.
“The project is basically to depict the lost subway systems of America,” Berman said. “Ideally, someone looking at these maps would think long and hard about the decisions that go into transportation and why cities end up the way they do.”
The oldest of Berman’s four Chicago maps depicts the city’s train system in 1898. At the time, the Loop circuit was only a year old and trains had recently traded steam power for electricity, he said.
The next oldest map depicts the system in the early 1920s, when the predecessor to Commonwealth Edison had taken over, Berman said. The artist said he chose this time period because it shows a “very different set of circumstances in Chicago.”
“There are five South Side branches going to the old Union stockyards,” he said. “The 63rd Street branch went all the way to Jackson Park.”
Berman added that the Green Line provided much better coverage to the South Side than it does today.
The 1970s map shows what the system would’ve looked like had the “Loop Connector” plan come to fruition.
“You couldn’t think of the Chicago Loop without the Chicago Loop. Every establishing shot of a movie with Chicago in it — of course it’s going to show the ‘L’ creeping around The Loop at five miles per hour. Now it’s become one of those municipal quirks,” Berman said.
“In the 1970s, they were in the tradition of thinking this a big, ugly, noisy thing that takes up valuable real estate. It does good things, but we could make it better and put the trains out of sight.”
Most of Downtown’s rail transit system runs north and south. The idea behind the “Loop Connector” plan was to create east-west subway lines to alleviate the traffic created by that bottleneck.
“By the 1970s, the elevated Loop had been around for 80 years,” Berman said, adding that he was struck by the notion: “Why don’t we just discard this thing that makes Chicago what it is?”
Berman is originally from California and has never lived in Chicago, though he’s visited a few times when his brother was living there.
Through his research, Berman concluded that Chicago has had fewer transit-related missteps than Los Angeles, where he lived for a period of time. Most famously, Los Angeles used to be home to the country’s largest mass transit system, but it was gradually dismantled beginning in the early 1940s. To this day, many blame the city’s severe dependence on freeways on the decision to dismantle the rail system.
“There was never any particular discussion of getting rid of the ‘L’ the way L.A. left its streetcar system to rot,” Berman said.
Still, as Berman points out, Chicago has seen its fair share of poor political planning when it comes infrastructure. Take the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway, for example. The city rammed the expressway through a bunch of densely populated neighborhoods, displacing an estimated 13,000 people and forcing out more than 400 businesses in Chicago alone, according to WBEZ.
“There’s a certain fatalism that’s associated with [public transportation],” Berman said. “It’s easy to fall into that trap when you’re thinking about fixing the ‘L’ — that things are always going to be kinda crummy, there’s always going to be these problems. But things didn’t get that way from nowhere.”
“The infrastructure that exists is a product of political decisions and a product of what people wanted at the time. … There’s nothing wrong with demanding more.”
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