Holding Up the Line

Claire Hungerford

[nggallery id=15]

On October 13, Cecilia Butler spoke before the Chicago Transit Board for the second time in four months. Standing before the seven-member board, the 63-year-old woman repeated what they had already heard her say four times before, with few new changes: that the historic station house across the street from the Garfield Green Line stop could and should be a building operated by and for the community; that the old station house was a historic building and deserved recognition as such; and that she was willing to work with CTA and do whatever it took to make that happen. “Please give us this opportunity,” she said. “That’s all we ask. We’re willing to pay whatever it takes to renovate this location.”

And with that, without comment, the board moved on to the next speaker. Cecilia Butler, having spoken her mind before the board about the station house for the fifth time since 1995, leaned away from the microphone. Wearing a hat and coat to protect from the first cold day in over a week, Butler let the next speaker of the meeting’s public comments period finish before returning to her seat, one of a hundred in CTA’s second-floor boardroom.

The station house Butler is fighting for doesn’t leave much of an impression these days. Dwarfed by the Green Line tracks above it and the active station across from it, the 1892 station house is, for the most part, ignored or unseen. Its bay window has remained intact, crowned with a half-cone roof, though the station’s polychrome brickwork has been painted white, one of its small arched windows has been bricked in, and a pair of steel doors–locked–now marks the entrance.

When it opened on October 12, 1892, the building’s doors served as the gateway to the great parks of the city’s South Side: “The new station at Fifty-fifth street occupies a fine situation,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune, a day after trains began servicing the station. “Everywhere there is a profusion of trees and foliage. One may stand on the platform and look over the rural scene, whose picturesqueness is heightened by the beautiful boulevard which to the east curves gracefully and is lost in a wood of sturdy young oak trees, over the tops of which rise the domes and roofs of the World’s Fair buildings.” The dedication of the Columbian Exposition was nine days away, the grand opening of the fair to the public was six months away, and Washington Park–the 372-acre vision of Central Park architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux–was just two decades old.

By the turn of the century,  Washington Park was becoming a predominately African-American neighborhood. By 1950 it was 99-percent African- American and had grown to over 56,000 people. Right around the time Cecilia Butler was attending elementary school in the neighborhood, however, the people began to disappear. By 2010 the population had dropped below 12,000, and current data from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development show that businesses have disappeared along with the population: the neighborhood has a business vacancy rate of 26 percent–three times that of neighboring Hyde Park.

As the neighborhood deteriorated, so did the Green Line that served it. In 1994, the entire length of the line was shut down for a 28-month renovation. That included talk of building “superstations,” which would have included shops, a bank, and even a daycare center, at both the Garfield and Pulaski stops. A 1995 Sun-Times story, written when construction of the superstation seemed imminent, quotes a younger Cecilia Butler as saying, “A change is coming to Washington Park.”

But the change didn’t happen. In an e-mailed statement, CTA, looking back on the superstation discussions, said that it “was a bit ahead of its time and there were no retail outlets interested in having their business be a part of the station renovations.” Unexpected expenditures in the Green Line renovation as a whole may also have played a role: the renovation project ultimately ran $100 million over budget, and the plans for a renovated superstation never materialized

“The community never envisioned what they built across the street,” said Butler in a phone interview. “We were still working on [the old historic location] and building up around it.” As a representative of the Greater Washington Park Development Corp., Butler came before CTA in 1995 with a unique plan for a “superstation,” to turn the historic station into a site where visitors could get information on the community and nearby museums.

With the superstation idea rejected, a new station on the north side of Garfield was completed in 2001. In December of that year the Commission on Chicago Landmarks designated the historic station a Chicago landmark, granting it legal protection as one of the oldest mass transit stations in the country.

A decade later, and the station house was still on Butler’s mind. Her vision for the building expanded in the mid-2000s, and what had once been envisioned as an information center developed into a community center with a “micro-library” offering coffee and Wi-Fi. Community members who work or used to work at WVON, an African-American talk radio station, have donated over a thousand books to the project in hopes of creating a public library in the neighborhood.

In 2009 Butler and her new vision for the building were given a swift response by the Transit Board: write a one-page business plan, figure out how to make your idea financially viable, and then get back to us. Undeterred, Butler founded the Washington Park Historical Society to consolidate support for the renovation of the station house. A year later and she was back before the board, presenting her idea and going on to meet with the board’s chairman.

Once again, however, no progress was made. On July 15, 2011, Butler made her fourth appearance before the Transit Board. In the following weeks she began discussing her plan and its logistics with CTA officials, going over its details and plan of execution until, on August 25, she received a letter from CTA’s director of infrastructure support services. Unbeknownst to Butler, the historic station house had served as a maintenance facility for Green Line rail staff since the station’s closure. “I thought that was insulting,” said Butler. “I just couldn’t understand.” CTA went on to inform Butler that its maintenance operations could not be relocated, but that it would work with her to find a new location for the historical society and the planned community center.

“The purpose of us being there,” said Butler, repeating a refrain she’s used many times in speaking to various CTA officials, “is because that’s a landmark. Give it to the community. The city named it as a historical location, so why shouldn’t the historical society be located there?” The Hyde Park Historical Society, she notes, has been able to work out a deal with Metra to rent a historic cable car building on Lake Park and 55th–why shouldn’t the Washington Park Historical Society be able to work out a deal with CTA?

Butler has offered to pay CTA for use of the station house, to cover the cost of renovating the building, and–after hearing of the agency’s use of the building as a maintenance storage space–to build a steel storage unit across the street, on the vacant land surrounding the current station or beneath the tracks that run over it. Cost, she says, is not an issue. Even after she was asked how she planned to maintain the facility once it was renovated, Butler maintained that “we have money, as an organization.” She would not specify how much capital the project had behind it, or where the money was coming from. Neither would she estimate how much the project would cost–she was last inside the building 15 years ago, and CTA, she says, will not let her and her organization back inside to evaluate its condition. And even though the station is located within the 47th and State TIF district, Butler says, “We don’t need a TIF to do what we’re trying to do.”

CTA, for its part, has consistently turned down her offer to build them a new maintenance facility. The agency responded to an inquiry about its rejection of Butler’s proposal by saying that the properties it presently owns “are being reviewed for possible transit-oriented development opportunities. Consequently we cannot use those properties for the needs of our maintenance operations.” It could be that CTA opposes her idea to refurbish the old station house on the south side of Garfield because they are planning to more thoroughly develop the north side of the street. Or, Butler’s proposal doesn’t constitute what the agency considers “transit-oriented development,” though their definition of what that means is hazy at best.

CTA noted in a statement that “transit-oriented development opportunities have greatly increased” since the failed superstations of the ‘90s. In 2008, the agency partnered with Chicago-based real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle to develop land around stops throughout its system to help boost ridership and neighborhood economies. Currently, the firm is marketing a number of CTA stations for development–but the Garfield Green Line stop is not one of them. CTA, then, is at once opposing Butler’s proposition because it seeks to develop the land around the Garfield station, and doing nothing to develop that land.

“Transit-oriented development,” the agency wrote in another statement, “will position CTA as an anchor within communities and help attract further capital improvements through commercial and residential development.” The agency neither confirmed nor denied that Butler’s plan conformed to their idea of transit-oriented development as something that would “help and attract further capital improvements.” But it seems as though the conversion of a private maintenance facility into a public space would, at the very least, bring additional foot traffic–additional people–into the area. Five presentations before the board have yet to convince CTA.

Yet in the aftermath of her most recent presentation to the board, Butler remains optimistic. As the meeting transitioned into its official proceedings, Butler rose from her seat and slipped out the back door, followed closely by a CTA official. The two talked quietly for about a minute, he craning his neck down, she looking up and nodding in agreement, until the official returned to the board meeting and Butler started down the stairs with a smile. “He said, ‘Keep on fighting.’ And that’s what I plan to do.”