Unwelcome expansion into Englewood
At the Englewood intersection of Normal and Garfield, the southern end of the Norfolk Southern rail yard has no entrance sign. Instead, Normal opens up to a rocky expense of dirt, gravel, and freight containers, boxes carried in and out by truck to be serviced by the yard’s rail lines. The only thing marking the site is a handwritten notice tacked to the Garfield Boulevard traffic light: “WE BUY HOUSES,” with a 1-800 number attached below.
Sometime in 2009—the company hasn’t made clear exactly when—Norfolk Southern decided it needed to expand its Englewood rail yard. The yard is an “intermodal facility,” an exchange point between truck and rail, and services about half of the company’s Chicago traffic across its 140 acres, between 47th and Garfield just west of the Dan Ryan. Still, the rail yard felt small, incapable of comfortably handling the volume of freight traffic coming into the city. Searching for a place to expand, the company didn’t have to look far: the plot of land directly south of their current location seemed the perfect fit, filled with vacant, city-owned lots.
Alongside vacant lots, however, were over 400 families, a tight-knit community of small houses with large porches that sprawled across the parcel’s eighty-four acres. When Norfolk Southern’s plans finally became public to the community in September of 2011, the neighborhood went up in arms, leading 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran—whose ward contains all of the yard’s expansion, between Garfield and 61st Street—to join 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell in holding a meeting between residents and a Norfolk Southern representative. As community organizer Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), remembers, the meeting was not very helpful.
“The mere disrespect of how they said in the first meeting, ‘You guys probably want to leave this area anyway,’ not even considering the fact that people have been there for generations,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s ridiculous, what they’ve done. Have you been over there? It looks like a bomb has hit the area.”
Englewood has long been contracting. The neighborhood’s population—just over 30,000 in 2010—is a third of what it was in 1960. A steadily declining population, high unemployment rate, and concomitant empty lots have attracted projects aimed at economic revival.
After Mayor Daley announced a $256 million revitalization plan for Englewood in 1999, many residents believed the neighborhood was coming back. The cornerstone of that plan—the relocation of Kennedy-King College to the commercial heart of the neighborhood, at 63rd and Halsted—was finished in 2007, but since then change has been relatively scant. As of 2010, over forty percent of households are below the poverty level, and unemployment rate is 21.3 percent.
All this made it relatively easy for Norfolk Southern to expand its rail yard south on the argument that economic benefits far outweigh the costs of pushing residents out. The company will be a primary beneficiary of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), a $3.2 billion project born out of a public–private partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, Metra, and Amtrak. Anticipating a dramatic increase in Chicago rail traffic, the project is working to push through rail improvements across the city.
“[The expansion] will allow for more efficient operations, [and] enable businesses in the area to expand,” says Robin Chapman, a representative for Norfolk Southern. With the ability to move larger amounts of goods in and out on a more economical scale, Norfolk Southern argues, expansion is good for business and good for Chicago.
In a February 13 press release, Mayor Emanuel advocated for the expansion on the same grounds, writing that “this project will help local manufacturers, distributors, and other companies that depend on cost-effective and convenient options to ship and receive goods.” Additionally, he expressed his readiness to sell city-owned vacant lots to Norfolk Southern, many of which have long lain empty. The office of Alderman Cochran anticipates that this expansion, by 2030, will directly create 396 new jobs and will offer an additional $101.3 million to Chicago in cumulative tax revenue, in addition to the existing facility’s contribution of $104.9 million. This talk of business, though, often omits the residents and people who bear the full brunt of the changes that are wrought in the pursuit of economic growth and more jobs.
Cognizant of that charge, Norfolk Southern is willing to give back to the community in return. To lessen the burden placed upon the neighborhood by this expansion, the company promised to “contribute $3 million to an infrastructure fund that would support local economic development initiatives”, and to also “work with elected officials and residents to support local hiring goals”, according to the same Mayoral press release. When asked whether the donation was for Englewood specifically, Chapman said that the donation would be “for the area served by [the new] terminal.”
Beyond this, Norfolk Southern is explicit in its support for public schools in the city, with plans to make a $75,000 donation to CPS grammar schools and a $50,000 donation to Olive-Harvey College.
There’s a great deal of cynicism about how much these efforts are likely to alleviate the wrenching displacement process of the construction of the rail yard. According to Butler, many residents of Englewood believe that the funds will go elsewhere in the city, and that none of the 300 jobs will actually be offered to them. Furthermore, Robin Chapman could not provide more details on how exactly Norfolk Southern would ensure that these jobs went to locals.
This suspicion runs much deeper than a worry about how funds are going to be doled out. Asiaha Butler worries that the entire process through which Norfolk Southern was able to contemplate its southward expansion was a deeply flawed one. When asked how Norfolk Southern approached the neighborhood in discussions, Butler laughs. “Approached Englewood? They didn’t. They approached [Willie Cochran,] the alderman of Englewood, talked about this project with the city and the alderman, and purchased city-owned lots from the area first.”
Conspicuously missing was any sense of a dialogue with residents. “What they’ve done,” says Butler, “is privately go through the alderman,” even before they started going to individual houses.
Alderman Willie Cochran has played a controversial role in the expansion stage, with Butler and other residents voicing concerns over his dealings with Norfolk Southern. In 2010, Cochran touted the “public/private partnership” he facilitated between the rail company and John Foster Dulles Elementary, a 20th Ward school that neighbors Norfolk Southern tracks just east of the Dan Ryan. The company presented the school with a $15,000 donation, and is working to provide rail-related educational opportunities for its students.
Cochran’s role in establishing the partnership suggests a close relationship between him and the company, one that locals like Asiaha Butler believe is a betrayal of those 20th Ward constituents who are being forced out of the neighborhood.
According to Robin Chapman, the company asked a real estate agent to acquire land on the company’s behalf by calling up non-resident landowners and visiting individual houses. Norfolk Southern never publicly announced their intention to take over those eighty-four acres of Englewood until they were about thirty percent done acquiring the property—at which point Alderman Cochran set up the September 2011 meeting between residents and the company.
Chapman mounts an articulate defense of the way Norfolk Southern went about acquiring the land, lot by lot, explaining that this was simply designed to avoid the sort of real estate speculation which would otherwise plague the entire enterprise. If the expansion were public, someone would start buying the property to sell it back to Norfolk Southern at a higher price. It makes good business sense, but Butler alleges that the neighborhood’s dramatic decline in the recent past is also due to a perfectly sound business strategy for the company: Norfolk Southern’s practice of demolishing homes soon after purchase inevitably decreases the market value of the surrounding, extant properties, allowing them to acquire the remainder of these homes at a reduced price.
“Well,” says Chapman, “that may be the effect.” But it’s for liability reasons, “strictly an economic move” to protect property from vandals and make sure that people did not get hurt on the often-decrepit property that now belongs to Norfolk Southern.
Whatever the competing justifications, because of the way Norfolk Southern has expanded southward, lived-in houses in the expansion area are now few and far between. Empty lots are filled with weeds and trash, creating an unsightly and uncomfortable atmosphere for any pedestrian, and a hostile environment for homeowners. While real price offerings vary, many homeowners are offered market value for their homes while the surrounding neighborhood makes them almost unlivable. It’s a sad story of perseverance for those homeowners holding out.
According to the nonprofit Merck Childhood Asthma Network, Englewood has an asthma-related hospitalization rate of sixty percent, double the city average. The air problem is, some insist, the result of pollution from trains like those running on the Norfolk Southern line.
“This expansion posed an opportunity to have a new conversation with Norfolk Southern Railroad,” says John Paul Jones, president of the environmental group Sustainable Englewood Initiatives. “It’s a leveraging piece.”
Jones and SEI are focused on reducing environmental carcinogens and diesel emissions in the area, and have long been concerned with the impact of the nearby freight company. Before the city’s recent sale of a large parcel of vacant lots to Norfolk Southern—105 lots, approved in March—SEI wanted the city to ensure Norfolk Southern wouldn’t cause Englewood to suffer any more environmental hazards. They requested a buffer zone between freight facilities and the neighborhood, and monitoring and mitigation of diesel and noise pollution through filters on locomotives and in high-occupancy buildings.
Some of those demands, say Chapman, were not practical, and “in part reflected an unclear understanding” of what would be built in Englewood. The new space would consist of trucks (not owned by Norfolk Southern) coming in and dropping off cargo, so “there’s no locomotive constantly running” to emit diesel fumes.
This should perhaps offer some consolation to the persistent environmentalists worried about the impact of diesel fumes on already long-suffering Englewood lungs, but John Paul Jones is resolute in his belief that his group should continue to act as a check on Norfolk Southern’s continued operations in the area. Chapman may believe this expansion to have been a relatively easy one, but Jones maintains that the residents are right to demand a seat at the negotiating table long-term. “We’ll be monitoring them, giving feedback to the city. We expect to be good neighbors.”
And Norfolk Southern will be a close neighbor. The tip of the rail yard on 61st Street will be just a few blocks from the economic heart of Englewood on 63rd and Halsted. Although the precise nature of how the air that hangs above the neighborhood will change remains ambiguous, the overall health of the community will likely suffer from the expansion.
While most people have been able to stay relatively close by, in Englewood or West Englewood, some residents of the area slated for expansion have moved as far off as Alabama or Iowa to start a new life. Only forty residents remain, unwilling to speak to the media. According to Butler, they don’t conceive of a future relationship with Norfolk Southern; they only look forward to a “just and fair” conversation so they can go and “live in peace.” It is unclear what they hope to achieve with this conversation, and what sort of closure they can attain at this point.
The reality is that trains play a huge role in transporting goods throughout the country, and Chicago already handles about forty-six percent of all intermodal units in the United States. The freight moving through the rail yard does not serve the Englewood community; it serves Chicago, reducing the need for polluting diesel trucks on America’s congested highway system. Unfortunately, such long-term thinking is not a consolation for these residents. They realize Englewood is being sacrificed for the sake of Chicago.
Asiaha Butler said in a clear, flat voice, “I get it, it was a business decision. On the backs of residents.”