Wilson Red Line Renovation in Uptown Chicago
By: Alex Thibodeau and Paul Tadalan
The idiom ‘dont judge a book by its cover’ goes a long way toward describing the attitude that many uptown residents have about their neighborhood. The area represents a cultural gem, ripe with opportunity, but the metaphorical ‘book cover’ – the Wilson Redline stop – truly is quite unappealing. The Wilson Broadway Mall, a laughable name for a bodega style convenience stand, has recently been gutted, and the perpetual scaffolding (void of any real construction) make the area surrounding the stop feel derelict, impoverished and abandoned.
This won’t be the case much longer, according to 46th Ward Alderman, James Cappleman. Long-awaited plans to renovate the Uptown neighborhood’s ‘L’ stop are set to begin in 2014 but some changes are going to be seen long before that.
According to Cappleman, government officials have allocated $135 million in funding specifically for the Wilson station, part of the larger Illinois Jobs Now! capital program investment. The final renovation will include “track replacement, platform extension and station redesign” but the more immediate changes will come in the form of demolition. Plans to remove the ‘mall’ and the CTA carpenters workshop will be complete by the end of the year.
For Uptown resident Nick Blumenberg, 22, the ‘L’ stop isn’t a deal breaker but it also isn’t a selling point.
“I love living in this area,” said Blumenberg, “but the ‘L’ and its surroundings definitely don’t help the image.”
According to Blumenberg, he frequently gets solicited to buy drugs during the three-block walk from the station to his apartment.
“The whole area just needs to get cleaned up,” said Blumenberg. “And hopefully the people will get cleaned up as well.”
Crime has been a reoccurring problem for the area but according to Alderman Chief of Staff Tressa Feher, the new plans may change that for the better.
“The Wilson stop renovation is going to do great things for the community regarding employment and lowering the overall crime rate,” said Feher, explaining Mayor Emmanuel’s development strategy for Uptown. “The plan is to turn this into a place for entertainment and tourism and it’s going to be a positive change for the area.”
Terell, a lifelong Uptown resident, expressed his discontent with growing up in the lake-side community. A member of a neighborhood gang, he hopes economic development will not let his violent upbringing be shared by others.
“People are getting in trouble too much and getting killed for no reason,” said Terrell. “There needs to be change around here so my brothers can stop gang banging.”
While high crime rates may deter some from spending time in the neighborhood, Eleanor Hollingsworth says she rarely feels unsafe in her neighborhood and would love to spend more time in Uptown if she could convince her friends.
“A lot of my friends don’t want to come up here to visit me,” said Hollingsworth who lives right next to the Wilson stop but has never had a problem in the 18 months she has lived there. “But I can understand why they would be afraid of it. It’s gross.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen changes to the Wilson stop. The original entrance to the platform can be seen on the northeast side of the station reading “Uptown Station.” Due to population growth in the Uptown neighborhood, the 1920s brought renovation to the Wilson stop to make it similar to its current form. Still, the gerber structure from the former entrance remains nearly a century later and represents abandoned disrepair rather than the roaring twenties nostalgia that it intends.
Local Ethiopian restaurant owner Girmai Lemma, explained how he expects more customers as public transportation becomes more appealing to commuters.
“It’s going to be a lot of help,” Lemma said. “Transportation is the main thing for people to bring them to a business.”
As development brings more people to the area, Uptown residents seem united in the sentiment that it is important to keep the diversity and character that the neighborhood has developed, regardless of its impending facelift.
“One thing I like about uptown is that it’s very diverse,” said Zack Johnson a student at Loyola University. “So I hope bringing in more business wouldn’t change that, but bring more people of those demographics here.”
While gentrification is sure to accompany renovation of the neighborhood, for some of its current residents it is the affordable housing that draws them to the neighborhood.
“If they raised the rent three or four hundred dollars, I wouldn’t be able to stay exactly where I am now,” said Hollingsworth. “I would have to go somewhere else where it’s still not as nice.”
According to the Alderman’s office, Uptown consists of 18-20 percent affordable housing in the area for low-income households, compared to the average 5 percent in other areas around Chicago.
“As we decide how to improve the economy of the area, we also plan on keeping in mind the members of the community,” said Feher.
While the Mayor and Alderman seem to have big plans, they have expressed a commitment to the community and its current members. Rather than displacement, renovations might mean new opportunities for Uptown residents.