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Englewood, Chatham, Auburn Gresham

Englewood Residents Demand Jobs, Community Improvements As Norfolk Southern Railway Expands Into Neighborhood

Norfolk Southern Railway Company has only hired 50 employees from Englewood and surrounding ZIP codes since 2014, neighbors learned Tuesday.

A freight train runs through Englewood along Stewart Avenue as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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ENGLEWOOD — For years, city leaders have promised jobs and economic opportunities as Norfolk Southern Railway Company grows a South Side rail yard into Englewood.

But beyond the massive displacement of residents, some neighbors and community leaders said jobs with the company are hard to come by and the expansion has created crumbling streets and environmental hazards.

About a dozen neighbors joined Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) Tuesday at Kennedy King College for updates from officials at the railway company. 

Norfolk Southern Railway has been working in “phases” since 2013 to build and expand its 47th Street rail yard, the company’s biggest in Chicago. The company is moving forward on its third phase to construct a truck trailer parking lot between Garfield Boulevard and 59th Street, said Herbert Smith, director of government relations.

A pending City Council ordinance would transfer the streets and alleys between Garfield Boulevard and 59th Street and between Stewart Avenue and Wallace Street to the freight company. Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced the legislation in June. 

Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago
Norfolk Southern Railway Company shared a timeline for their work across the South Side at a Tuesday meeting.

But as Smith cited achievements in recent years across the city and highlighted workforce opportunities, Englewood neighbors questioned how the company’s latest achievements directly benefit the community. 

Norfolk Southern Railway has hired 50 residents since 2014 from seven South Side ZIP codes, which include Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Hyde Park, Smith said. 

A timeline shared by the company shows only five employees from five South Side ZIP codes “were hired in recent years, and remain actively employed, as of November 2022,” Smith said.

Keith Harris, an Englewood resident, said neighbors asked at a similar meeting in September how contractors and community members could partner with the company for employment opportunities. They haven’t received a clear answer from the company, he said. 

Instead, Smith told community members to attend the Dawson Technical Institute of Kennedy King College’s Highway Construction Careers Training Program to gain certification before applying for a job with the railway company, Harris said.

But the people who go there “leave with a sheet of paper, not a job,” Harris said. 

As part of the 2013 Redevelopment Agreement, the railway company must “hire a minimum of 24 percent minority-owned and 4 percent women-owned businesses” to move forward with its work, according to a timeline shared by the company. The railway company has “exceeded” the minimum percentage set in the agreement years prior, according to the company. 

Those statistics don’t reflect what’s happening in Englewood, Harris said. 

“I don’t understand it,” Harris said. “They displaced the Black community, but they only hire 50 people in a decade? They don’t care about the community. It’s about the bottom line for them. They should have addressed the problems they created.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Normal Boulevard north of 59th Street is seen as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.

Dilapidated streets caused by the “amount of traffic and the weight of the trucks” are another issue, said Cecile DeMello, executive director at Teamwork Englewood. 

Norfolk Southern Railway’s trucks cause potholes and damage to 59th Street, which neighbors and the city are expected to repair, DeMello said. The railway company should have a “portion of the responsibility” to fix the roads, and they should fix them “regularly,” DeMello said.

“It should not be up to the city or the taxpayers to front the bill on repairs on 59th Street or any infrastructure around the intermodal yard,” DeMello said.

There are steps the railway company could have taken over the years to prove it cares about the improving the community, but it’s clear it doesn’t, Taylor said. 

For people like Taylor with asthma, the environmental impact of boosting freight activity could be life-threatening, she said. A study by the Environmental Law and Policy Center showed the expansion of the 47th Street rail yard would increase “lung-damaging pollution” in Englewood, according to the Tribune.  

Norfolk Southern could partner with the Environmental Law and Policy Center to produce yearly studies proving its environmental impact, Taylor said. The railway company could also meet with the Black contractors in the community who’ve asked for employment opportunities, Taylor said. The company has failed to do that, too, she said.

Norfolk Southern’s effort to acquire South Side land started in 2008 when the company began quietly buying up private homes and tearing them down to make way for the 84-acre project.

The area once housed hundreds of residents whom the rail company bought out or forced out using eminent domain to clear the land. “The Area,” a 2018 documentary created by sociologist David Schalliol, followed Englewood residents who tried to stop the company’s efforts for six years.

Company officials have said the expansion is needed because Chicago is a critical juncture for freight transportation.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Trucks carry containers at 47th Street near the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in New City on Jan. 9, 2023.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration sold 105 vacant, city-owned lots for $1.1 million to the railway company from Garfield Boulevard to 61st Street and Wallace Street to Stewart Avenue.

A redevelopment deal signed that same year gave the railway company oversight to shut down streets and alleys between the land the company owns. The company can permanently shut the streets to traffic as long it follows city guidelines. 

The latest ordinance granting Norfolk Southern oversight of the streets and alleys stalled for months as Taylor tried to push railway leaders to study the lifelong health repercussions of inhaling soot and to employ more Black employees from the community.

Taylor dropped her efforts recently, saying she plans to “hold the railway company accountable” with community meetings. If the ordinance comes up for a vote at City Council later this month, she plans on voting “no,” she said. 

“Norfolk Southern needs to listen to my community and do what they have asked,” Taylor said. “I’m not working against the betterment of my community.” 

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