Ever been to Altgeld Gardens? It's a public housing community on Chicago's far South Side. I'm there every Saturday volunteering with a group of kids. When people ask me where it is, these are my approximate directions: Drive down 94 until you're absolutely sure you couldn't be in the city anymore. Then get off the highway when you see the strip club.
If you wanted to take the train to Altgeld, good luck. The CTA red line stops at 95th street, not anywhere close to 130th where Altgeld begins. One lone bus - the #34 South Michigan bus - travels there. But if CTA has its way, that's about to change. There's a new plan for four additional red line stations extending south, the last of which would reach Altgeld Gardens.
When I talked to a few Altgeld moms about the idea last Saturday, they couldn't stop smiling.
Transit means residents can get to jobs and stores elsewhere in the city more easily. It also means that more people could reach the community, potentially bringing business with them.
Altgeld is extremely isolated community with a lot of crime and few economic opportunities. The neighborhood has a liquor store, but currently no library. There's the strip club I mentioned, but no decently sized grocery store. This new red line extension would be a huge improvement, not only to Altgeld, but also to Roseland and West Pullman, where the other stops will be located. .
If the project moves forward, it will be paid for by federal grant money given to the CTA. "The Red Line extension represents precisely the kind of project Congress prefers to fund. It fits the bill as a true 'new star'" project, not simply a rebuilding of an existing line," says Jon Hilkevitch at the Chicago Tribune. "It provides much-needed transportation options to low-income, minority communities that historically have been bypassed when it comes to investment in infrastructure."
Bypassed is right. Ever noticed how much farther apart train stops are when you get south of Roosevelt? I always found it confusing how I could reach the former Harold Ickes Homes by train at Cermak/Chinatown, but I couldn't get to Dearborn Homes, just down the road. It always seemed like there was a wide transit berth around the concentration of public housing that used to exist along State Street.
The project could be completed as soon as 2016. Meetings have been underway at Altgeld and in other communities that would be served, gathering residents together to get their input on what should happen. The most recent meeting at Altgeld drew 150 residents - a sign that the proposed changes are much needed.
Metropolitan Planning Council has called the area a "transit desert." Add to that the designation of "food desert," and maybe even "jobs desert." As the Chicago Housing Authority spends millions to rehab Altgeld, hopefully officials can make sure that this time around, the community isn't so deserted.
Photo credits: Top - Manquaze Allen, Bottom - Karin Sommer, Metropolitan Planning Commission