A CTA bus driver. | Daniel Schwen/Creative Commons

As the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s Transportation Committee celebrated the permanent restoration of bus service along the section of Ogden Avenue, between California Avenue and Pulaski Road, they were also reminded of the disparities that continue to affect the community.

During the committee’s Feb. 11 meeting, which was held virtually over Zoom, social scientist Dr. Gwendolyn Purifoye, who currently teaches at Chicago’s North Park University, laid out how the city prioritized majority-white neighborhoods over majority-Black ones. She said that the once majority-Black Near West Side community area only got significant investments after it became wealthier and whiter.

While the report wasn’t a surprise to anyone in attendance, she brought on several slides worth of data, showing that, even though the West Side saw more transit use before the pandemic, the North Side received more investment. Committee Chair Rochelle Jackson and other attendees described Purifoye’s presentation as “powerful.”

While much of the presentation dealt with the South Side, Purifoye also touched on West Side issues, using the Near West Side community area as a major example of how the level of investment seems to correlate with race.

In the 1990s, the area was largely known for food processing businesses and cheap motels, industry and the Henry Horner Homes public housing development. At the time, the community area was 19% white, 67% Black, 9% Hispanic and 5% Asian. Purifoye said that Henry Horner residents wanted the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to rebuild the Damen/Lake Green Line station, which was demolished in 1948. The effort, however, didn’t gain much traction, even as the Green Line underwent extensive renovations in 1994 and 1995.

“They had transit issues, which they voiced, yet no new transit stations were built to meet their needs,” Purifoye said.

By the time the CTA agreed to rebuild the Damen/Lake station in 2018, the community demographics had changed dramatically, with the Henry Horner Homes demolished and only partially replaced by mixed-income developments. By that point, meatpacking companies had given way to upscale restaurants and condos. The community area’s overall white population reached 42% while the Black population dropped to 32%, the Hispanic population remained steady at 9% and the Asian population grew to 15%.

Purifoye cited Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) in the 2018 press release about the Damen/Lake station restoration. The alderman said that “giving residents more transportation options can open up more employment opportunities, make it easier for them to get to schools and improve their overall quality of life.”

“Did Black folks not want it 20 years ago?” she said sarcastically. “Did the Black folks not need it?”

Purifoye also questioned why there wasn’t more investment in transit services in North Lawndale while the Near West Side was gentrifying. According to the census data she compiled, from 2015 to 2019, 35 percent of Near West Side residents didn’t have a personal vehicle, and 25% used transit to get to work. Meanwhile, 42% of North Lawndale residents didn’t have a personal vehicle and 35% used transit to get to work.

“Where is North Lawndale’s new station, where is North Lawndale’s new investment?” Purifoye said.

From 2001 to 2005, the CTA rehabbed the Blue Line’s Douglas branch, which has since become part of the Pink Line. But while the stations that served North Lawndale were rebuilt to be more accessible to people with mobility issues, the line didn’t see any stations restored. The section of the Blue Line that serves North Lawndale and Austin has three stations that have closed since 1973, but the CTA doesn’t have any plans to reopen any of them.

“If you’re on the bus for two hours, that means you’re not at home, that means you’re not at community events,” Purifoye said.

Her research found that, before the pandemic, routes that primarily served the West Side carried around 5 million weekday riders while North Side routes carried around 4 million riders. The gap got even wider during the spring of 2020, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker imposed a stay-at-home order, with West Side route ridership reaching nearly double the North Side ridership in April and May.

Ultimately, Purifoye said that the city needs to make meaningful changes to how it plans public transit.

“Even though the goal [of public transportation] is to move from one place to the next, it often serves to keep us immobile and supports racial residential segregation,” she said. “It actually serves as a barrier to keep some people trapped in the area while providing greater mobility [to others], so others can grow faster.”

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