If there was one factor that shaped Uptown's rich history as Chicago's hub for film, theater, jazz, and mob activity, it was the construction of the modern-day Wilson Red Line stop. The Wilson terminal was built in 1900 and for years was the northernmost stop from downtown. It spawned a cultural and economic boom that led to the construction of numerous famous venues, such as The Aragon Ballroom, Riviera Theater, Uptown Theatre, and Green Mill Jazz Club.
Once a symbol of prosperity, the Wilson Red Line stop is no longer a gateway to Chicago's entertainment district. It's a station that many go out of their way to avoid at nights; a recent survey by the Graceland Wilson Neighbors Association found that 88.5% of those surveyed do not feel safe walking to/from the station. It's been voted CTA's crustiest station three times by readers of RedEye. The Broadway-facing entrance takes passengers down a once-grandiose, now-delapidated staircase past numerous empty storefronts. Putting it nicely, the Wilson red line is a reflection of an under-developed neighborhood that has lost most of its luster as a Chicago destination.
Uptown is a neighborhood divided between those that embrace its economic diversity and those that decry it. Uptown has, by far, the largest number of social service organizations per capita in Illinois. Some see this unlikely phenomenon - how did a northside lakefront neighborhood earn this distinction? - as a threat to their property rates and the cause of an over-concentration of panhandlers. Pockets of gang violence has also been a perpetual concern. An equally vocal faction of Uptown residents praise Uptown's civic leaders - both past and present - for supporting local social services and public housing projects in the face of fierce opposition. New Alderman James Cappleman takes a more diplomatic approach than his staunchly liberal predecessor, Helen Schiller. A licensed social worker, Cappleman believes Uptown can be a bit of everything: a highly diverse social service hub; a "a rock ’n’ roll tourist mecca," as coined by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel; and a commercial and residential hotspot.
But first, what to do with the train station? The Wilson Red Line was at the top of Cappleman's long list of priorities. In a remarkable stroke of good fortune for Cappleman and his constituents, the Wilson red line was one of the recipients of CTA’s Red Ahead program — a $1 billion plan to modernize and expand the Red Line. The investment is part of the Illinois Now Jobs! capital program. Last week, at Truman College, Cappleman unveiled the $203 million plan to rebuild the Wilson stop with elevators, new platforms, modern glass, steel canopies, and a glass entrance along Broadway. The CTA also plans to make Wilson a transfer station for the Purple Line. A major component of the plan is stimulating foot traffic and business around the station. One of the entrances will connect riders to large stores like Target and Aldi. Plans to remove that creepy ‘mall’ under the tracks will be complete by the end of the year. Also, Cappleman plans to open a full-time fruit and vegetable market in the station lobby, much like Pike Place in Seattle and the West Side Market in Cleveland. These are just a few of the proposed ideas; many incorporate "green" elements. With $203 million at its disposal, the CTA has the opportunity to make the Wilson stop its most environmentally friendly station, "combining renewable energy with historic site renovation to create a 'green and golden' transportation model," the CTA Station Watch blog said.
Chicago Now's CTA Tattler blog calls this project "neighborhood-changing." However, at the town hall meeting, Cappleman was quick to temper the project's potential impact on the many deep-rooted problems that exist in Uptown. He specifically mentioned that the arrest rate for drug abuse is over 10 times the city average, and that over 50% of households are considered to be below the poverty line. He emphasized the importance of protecting the affordable housing stock, and working with neighbors, police, schools, and social services to reduce crime and poverty. “When that study’s released, we’ll start discussing how to deal with that [the relationship of the station to crime and perception of crime]," he said.
With CTA renovations slated for completion in 2015 and Uptown Theatre renovations slated to start in 2013, the next 10 years in Uptown will be a fascinating case study on how large-scale capital projects impact crime and poverty. Uptown may or may not become an entertainment/commercial/residential hub; but one aspect of Uptown will likely never change: its high concentration of social services. If they can survive the economic recession, and continue to weather the ongoing state budget crisis, then they will likely remain sustainable for years to come. And regardless of whether you think social services are a cause or consequence of Uptown's ills, the poverty and crime that exists in that neighborhood is far too deep-rooted to simply move away if community programs are no longer available.
Cappleman's vision of a diverse, economically thriving, and socially responsible Uptown would certainly be unprecedented, especially for a hyper-segregated city like Chicago.