Lee Bey remembers his daily treks on the Green Line with the sad nostalgia for a forgotten movie star or an old college haunt.
When Bey describes the Racine “L” station, you might as well be standing next to him admiring the columns and intricate patterns gracing the shelter’s edge, unchanged for more than a century, disturbed only by the elements.
“It really belongs to that first generation of ‘L’ stations,” said Bey, an architecture critic and photographer. “‘L’ stations, particularly South Side ones, were kind of handsome little things. It’s one of those stations nestled right underneath the tracks, a relatively small building. The turnstiles are right there when you walk in, you go through and head up.”
The station was hailed as an architectural marvel when it opened near 63rd Street and Racine Avenue in 1907. Originally part of the South Side Elevated Railroad, its Greek revival design was the vision of architect Earl Nielson.
Now closed for 27 years, the station symbolizes decades of betrayal from trusted local leadership and disinvestment from a neighborhood with an undeserved reputation.
It also represents redemption and possibility — and community leaders say it’s time for the city to step up.
It was a cold January day in 1994 when the Green Line took what was supposed to be a two-year hiatus that would permanently disrupt the lives of Englewood’s residents. The temporary closure was pushed as a necessary move to rehabilitate a rail system that had been in service for 87 years, though the plan was hotly opposed by residents who depended on the line for school and work.
But then the city permanently closed several stations, including Racine, that served Englewood and nearby neighborhoods. Businesses along the storied line became unforeseen casualties. A neighborhood already struggling to regain its former glory plummeted further into disrepair.
In recent years, a team of organizers have developed Go Green on Racine, a multimillion-dollar initiative to revitalize the 63rd Street corridor. A fresh market offering local produce and prepared meals from Chicago chefs is under construction. Community leaders are planning a mixed-used development and business incubator, and they want to acquire the former Woods Academy building off 62nd to create a job training facility.
In keeping with its name, Go Green has one vital component: reopening the Racine station.
There’s a chance that effort could gain traction with the city.
In September, city leaders unveiled an ambitious preliminary plan to spur equitable development near public transit on the South and West sides.
In doing so, city officials acknowledged a systemic problem many have known for generations: Transit-oriented development was concentrated in North Side neighborhoods. After the city enacted its transit-oriented development ordinance in 2013, residential development along the Blue Line boomed, spiking ridership along the line’s O’Hare branch.
Better-resourced areas reaped more benefits from growing communities that attracted local businesses and reduced reliance on cars, though the ordinance also ushered in rapid gentrification.
With the new plan, city leaders say they want to accelerate that same type of development throughout the South and West sides without pushing out longtime and lower-income residents. That, in turn, could uplift long-neglected neighborhoods and reverse the city’s deeply embedded racial and socioeconomic segregation.
“Every Chicagoan, no matter what side of the city they reside on, should have access to both our world-class transportation system and the recreational, housing and environmental benefits that come with it,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement announcing the plan.
“The new eTOD Policy Plan will expand this access and give our most disinvested neighborhoods the long-overdue opportunity to enjoy these benefits while not being forced out of the community they call home.”
If Lightfoot and her team are serious, some Englewood leaders say, they need look no further for a place to invest than the Ashland branch of the Green Line.
‘It Still Came Down To Englewood Losing’
The Green Line’s Englewood branch was created in November 1905, with its first station at State and 59th streets. A shuttle bus would take riders to 58th for trains heading to Jackson Park or the Loop, according to Chicago-l.org.
Over the next 18 months, the line extended south and west with stops at Wentworth, Princeton, Harvard, Parnell, Halsted, Racine and Loomis.
Most of the original Green Line stations were eventually eliminated. A service overhaul in 1949 closed the Princeton and Parnell stops. A 1969 project extended the line to Ashland, which took the Loomis station out of service. State closed in 1973, then Wentworth and Harvard closed in 1992, all for budgetary reasons.
By the start of the rehab project two years later, Englewood had three stations left: Halsted, Racine and Ashland.
The stations were temporarily closed during the project. But as the work went on, it became clear Chicago Transit Authority officials would not reopen some of them.
“At one point, before the city shuts down the Green Line and fixes it, the idea was to just tear it all down because the ridership was lessening,” Bey said. “That’s kind of the context in which the Racine station exists. What became the Green Line had lost stations along the way. Things began to disappear because ridership was down.”
Englewood native John Paul Jones was one of several community activists on the front lines back then. When the CTA moved to close the stations, he and other organizers sprung into action, staging protests and collecting signatures for a petition in hopes of stopping the inevitable.
“There was a campaign to fight back, but it still came down to Englewood losing,” Jones said.
Englewood wasn’t alone. When the Green Line reopened in May 1996 after a $350 million overhaul, six stations in three West and South side neighborhoods were left dormant.
The Woodlawn section of the line, or the Jackson Park branch, lost three stations. The stops at 58th and 61st streets were eliminated because they were too close to the Garfield Boulevard and recently rebuilt King Drive stations. University also shut down, making 63rd and Cottage Grove the end of the line.
“It’s not just that money was diverted elsewhere; it’s that stations like that are left empty, vacant and abandoned,” said Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
“The fact that you can simply walk away from those types of infrastructure commitments and move onto other things across the city is a symptom of everything this moment in America is crying out for right now, particularly when it comes to justice and socioeconomic and racial equity.”
While Englewood community organizers tried to stop the agency from closing stations in their neighborhood, a powerful faction on the other side of the Dan Ryan was pushing to tear them down.
The CTA shut down the Jackson Park branch east of Cottage Grove, but there had been plans to restore a portion of it and build a station at Dorchester. Much of the track work had already been done during the Green Line renovation.
But Bishop Arthur Brazier, head of Apostolic Church of God, and Leon Finney, of The Woodlawn Organization, wanted all of it gone.
They said an active train line there would stymie commercial development. Brazier said the “L” attracted crime and argued leaving it in place would turn that stretch of 63rd into “a glorified alley.”
The Englewood group clashed with the Woodlawn crew over the plan to tear down the University Avenue station on the Jackson Park leg. The clergymen wanted to focus on building an economic corridor without the rail line, an idea Jones and other Englewood residents didn’t quite understand.
“We were saying that you designate that station as a [transit-oriented development] and you build out from there,” said Jones, who was working with the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, then a new group.
Both groups wanted the best for their communities, but one viewed the stations as blighted eyesores and the other saw them as keys to economic survival. And the Woodlawn organizers had better connections.
“The political leadership that was in place, which was really strong in Woodlawn, wasn’t happening in Englewood. You had an alderman who really wasn’t interested in transit stuff, and wasn’t connected at all with the community campaigns,” Jones said, referring to disgraced former 20th Ward Ald. Arenda Troutman. “Englewood had a different political organizational structure at the time.”
Troutman, whose ward included Woodlawn and Englewood, backed the two pastors and supported demolishing the 63rd Street line east of Cottage Grove in a letter to then-CTA president Robert Belcaster.
The transit board sided with the Woodlawn ministers after a year-long battle, culminating in a large, emotionally charged meeting in Hyde Park between the two groups in 1996. Activists accused Finney and Brazier of stacking the vote, busing in supporters to vote in favor of demolishing the line.
The Woodlawn push to get rid of the University Avenue station sealed the fate of the Englewood stations, too, Jones said. University and the tracks east of Cottage Grove were demolished in 1997.
The Racine station was saved — in a way. Its distinctive look landed it on Landmarks Illinois’ “endangered” list in 1996, making it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
But while an agreement between the CTA and Landmarks Illinois means it won’t be torn down, upkeep of the station has been abandoned.
The shuttered station meant longer commutes and less foot traffic for local merchants. Over the years, the closing accelerated the decline of a neighborhood already grappling with disinvestment.
Fighting ‘Deterioration Of Our Neighborhoods’
A project like Go Green on Racine, Nashashibi says, offers a chance for turnaround.
Nashashibi, whose grandfather moved to Englewood in the ’50s, began his organizing work around the time of the Green Line shutdown in the mid-’90s. His activism enabled him to see the consequences of decades of community disinvestment.
In five to 10 years, Nashashibi wants to see the Racine Station — and by extension, the southwest arm of the Green Line — complement 1,000 new units of housing, a combination of apartments and single-family homes. The Go Green team is working with Black developers to turn neighboring vacant lots and empty buildings into economic opportunities.
Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is among those backing this kind of work. He has pushed legislation to direct more federal funding toward Chicago public transit and to support equitable transit-oriented development plans like Go Green.
“Communities have constantly fought back against deterioration of our neighborhoods, and this is an example of that,” Nashashibi said. “There’s a proud legacy of connections to Englewood in the Black community and beyond.”
With city leaders signaling interest in using public transit to revive neglected neighborhoods, perhaps now plans like Go Green can get critical political support that historically has been lacking, organizers say.
The city’s equitable development plan helps fulfill a requirement to examine the disparities of the city’s 2013 ordinance, amended twice in the past six years. Dozens of transit-focused projects have received some city approval since the ordinance; none are near the Green Line in Englewood.
Some policy ideas include facilitating housing near train lines, increasing access to shared bikes and scooters and upgrading pedestrian infrastructure in development zones.
More than 70 stakeholders collaborated for 18 months to develop the plan, which starts a three-year process. A public comment period on the draft plan wrapped in late October. The city will post a summary of the comments and their own outreach, incorporating both in the final iteration while addressing disinvestment along racial lines, according to a statement from the Mayor’s Office.
Later this year, the city will confer with aldermen, community leaders and developers on a pilot project, collaborating with the plan’s working group to develop “short, medium and long-term policy” and create a system tracking their progress.
It’s also possible the city will update the transit-oriented development ordinance by creating zones that “strengthen requirements for density, parking, and other equitable, climate resilient development” near transit that fits in with the neighborhood, a mayoral spokesperson said.
That gives some organizers reason for cautious optimism.
“What excites me most is a vision that takes not only the 63rd Street east-west corridor, but it takes a north-south corridor in a part of the city where these corridors are still kind of marred by the history of racism,” Nashashibi said. “Chicago being a city of neighborhoods is sometimes a way of glossing over the very violent borders that were crossed.”
The plan is long overdue, said Jones, who moved his family from Englewood to Texas several years ago.
“I’m confident that it’s going to happen, but I’m not too sure about the public interest,” Jones said. “Public transit means better employment numbers, better jobs. We need people to get that public transit is the way to that.”
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